Overusing the word “privilege” implicates everyone who has some kind of advantage, even if that advantage was earned, says Laurel Hermanson.
A friend recently joked that heterosexual couples freak her out with their huge weddings and baby showers and over-the-top celebrations of partnering and procreation. She said she and her wife had a small wedding, but it was fabulous because most of their friends were gay. We have a similar sense of humor, so she laughed when I said, “You people and your gay privilege.”
Add the word “privilege” to almost any group of people and you can turn the notion on its head and create an unlikely, tongue-in-cheek dynamic between the oppressed and their oppressors. My friends and I sometimes joke about this, not because real privilege is funny, but because the word has become overused, without any sense of humor or irony.
When most people contemplate social privilege, they likely focus on race and gender. Other forms of privilege are less talked about, but recognized by social justice activists as legitimate additions to Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay on privilege. These include class, sexual orientation, religion, education, gender identity, age, and physical ability.
Physical ability is defined as being “able-bodied and without mental disability,” and is cataloged in this list, also extrapolated from McIntosh’s essay about privilege. (This list is oft-cited but, as far as I know, unattributed.) Weight is noticeably absent, because being thin is not synonymous with physical ability, just as being overweight is not synonymous with physical disability.
Physical ability is a form of privilege. Being thin is not.
People who are overweight but otherwise healthy are able-bodied. This precept is at the very core of the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement. Yet the same people who encourage us to love our bodies regardless of size or weight are the first to argue that privilege is something enjoyed by thin or average-size women (and men).
The contradictions and cracks in the thin privilege argument are numerous and fundamental. I’ll start with the most obvious.
McIntosh describes social privilege as “unearned advantage.” For example, one may be born a white male, and avoid discrimination based on sex or skin color. One may be heteronormative and never experience oppression based on sexual preference. These are circumstances bestowed upon individuals at birth; they do not change.
In contrast, adult weight is seldom determined at birth. While recent studies have discovered a rare genetic mutation that predisposes some people to obesity, of more than 2,000 patients with severe, early onset obesity, just 2% were found to have that genetic mutation. And earlier studies show a hereditary predisposition to common obesity but indicate that genetics are not destiny, that “the contribution of genes to obesity risk is small, while the contribution of our toxic food and activity environment is huge.”
A black person will never become white, but a fat person may very well lose weight, just as a thin person may gain weight.
Another fissure within the thin privilege crusade is the targeting of thin people by insulting taglines such as “Real Women Have Curves.” Are thin women somehow less real than curvy women? If one believes in Health At Every Size, what’s wrong with thin as healthy? Both fat shaming and thin shaming are body shaming. Intentionally or not, they pit us against each other in our quest for health and acceptance.
Just as not all fat people are healthy, neither are all thin people. Talk to an emaciated woman battling cancer and ask her if she feels privileged. Ask an eating disordered teenager if she knows how lucky she is to be thin. And the suggestion that anyone should separate their health struggles from their body size is absurd. For these people, staying alive is arguably more important than worrying about the marginalization of overweight people, and that’s OK. It is not OK to demand that thin people fighting disease “check their privilege.”
Some people are thin because they are athletic. They are physically active because they love swimming or running marathons or playing tennis. Others use exercise to combat depression or anxiety. And some people have jobs that require them to move their bodies around all day long to make a living. They do not exercise to be thin (not that there is anything wrong with that). Proclaiming these people thin-privileged ignores the fact that they earned that advantage, which is the opposite of real privilege.
Thin privilege is not on most of the world’s radar. Only in developed nations, where cities and towns are peppered with restaurants selling cheap, high-calorie food with little nutritional value, could thinness be considered a privilege. Even in the United States, people go hungry. Should we demand that malnourished children and adults “check their privilege?” When families don’t have enough to eat, should HAES proponents’ agenda take priority over starvation because starvations doesn’t negate thin privilege? I would like to know how hunger-level poverty translates into privilege when poor people can’t enjoy the fact that they can buy stylish clothes in their size, or fit comfortably in an airplane seat.
I am not thin but I am short—5’1”. (I won’t share my weight or measurements because I don’t know them, but also because it’s none of your business. I will disclose that I wear a size 6 shoe.) I have no problem fitting into airplane seats, but when I fly I usually sit next to my husband. Because he busts his butt working out five or six days a week, he has big, muscular shoulders and arms that overflow into my space. I find this uncomfortable, but probably less so than tall, burly men who squeeze into airplane seats without enough room for their legs or arms. One needn’t be fat to be uncomfortable on a plane.
The notion of thin privilege is also female-centric. Aside from fashion models, very thin men don’t meet sociocultural standards any more than fat women do. “Advertisements, entertainment, and even toys depict tall, lean, extremely muscular men, creating (intentionally or not) the image of an ‘ideal’ male.” So what kind of privilege should I ask my husband to check? Height privilege? Muscle privilege?
The policing of thin privilege seems arbitrary. I have been underweight, overweight, and everyweight in between. I have friends who are thinner than I am and some who are heavier. But where is the line between thin and fat? How overweight must one be to shed their thin privilege? Fifty pounds? One hundred pounds? Three hundred pounds?
I used to have trouble finding clothes small enough for me. I didn’t worry much about it because I liked the way I looked. What’s more, I’d like to look that way again. I want to lose weight not just to improve my health (which is suffering), but because I’m more comfortable in my skin when I don’t feel as if I’m wearing a weight belt or heavy prosthetic boobs. (I’m an apple, not a pear.) And that’s where I part ways with HAES, because they adamantly believe that losing weight should not be an end in itself.
Wanting to be physically fit is OK if it’s rooted in healthy personal objectives. What I choose to do with my body is deeply personal. Just as overweight people should be free to love their bodies without public scrutiny, so should thin people. And those of us who want to change our bodies should not be judged based on random criteria set forth by one group who may be fighting for much-needed social change, but who are waging that battle at the expense of others.
We should be working together to end all forms of oppression, but we’re not. Instead, we’ve misguidedly appropriated a model that effectively reframed discrimination. We’ve diluted the power of McIntosh’s pivotal analysis, which laid the groundwork for how we might acknowledge and remediate inequalities in our society.
Overusing the word “privilege” implicates everyone who has some kind of advantage, even if that advantage was earned. If everyone enjoys some form of privilege, does privilege exist at all?
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. Her essays have appeared in online magazines including Daily Life, Everyday Feminism, Jaded Ibis Press, and Ravenous Butterflies. She blogs occasionally at disgrace under pressure. Follow her on Twitter.