On fatphobia, thin privilege, ‘skinny shaming’, and people’s right to subjective experience whatever their body size
Bethany from Arched Eyebrow is a force for good in the world. She’s creative, interesting, direct and unashamed in a lot of good ways. I like her blog and I like her. But I found her recent post entitled Thin Shaming Isn’t Real problematic, because it essentially denies people the right to their subjective experience based on their body size. That seems to run counter to a whole bunch of things I hold dear, like Health At Every Size and granting everybody the right to be the authority on their own experience.
This is not to say that most of what Bethany’s post said isn’t true. Fat-shaming and its ideological cousin fatphobia exist, and are a mainstay of contemporary Western culture. All she says about being fat and its cultural consequences, professionally, personally, medically, in the media – I wouldn’t argue with any of that for a second. Fat people are subject to structural oppression in ways thin people are not – the obesity register, employment discrimination – and as this article makes clear, Bethany is right that thin shaming and fat shaming are not structurally, socially or culturally equivalent. Thin privilege is a huge, massive deal, because our culture perversely overvalues thinness, and devalues fatness.
‘Shame’ is a psychological construction, a subjective experience. About halfway through, Bethany asks: “If you’re a thin woman reading this, and you really believe that you’ve been the victim of ‘thin-shaming’, how many of these have you experienced? How has this ‘shaming’ manifested itself? Was it just someone pointing out that you’ve hit the body type jackpot? If so, boo fucking hoo.” I asked for input from people who felt they’d experienced thin shaming, and they cited a variety of things, including:
Being told you were too thin/breakable/gaunt/flat-chested to fuck
Difficulty with finding appropriately proportioned clothes and underwear, often having to wear things that don’t fit properly
Being insulted on dating sites or on the street for not having enough cleavage or flesh to be attractive
People – including doctors – insisting you must have an eating disorder/a drug addiction/a serious medical condition because your body couldn’t possibly be healthy.
(As a side note, sometimes people have valid medical reasons for weight loss, and constructing thinness as inevitably ‘winning’ introduces both self-loathing and cognitive dissonance. If we could stop constructing weight loss = positive, or in fact making assumptions about others’ bodies and their experience of them at all, that’d be nice.)
None of that list feels like being told you’ve ‘won the body type jackpot’. It feels like being told that your body is wrong and inadequate and you are therefore worthless. That doesn’t erase the much greater rhetorical punishment meted out to fat people – every thin person I spoke to underlined the fact that undoubtedly fat people have it much worse than thin people in contemporary culture – but nevertheless they had experienced body shame. It is entirely possible for a thin woman to be made to feel that her body is wrong and unacceptable because it doesn’t have curves, because it doesn’t look feminine enough, because it doesn’t look smooth and sleek but knobbly and awkward. That doesn’t erase her thin privilege, but it is a genuine and subjective feeling of shame, and to deny her the right to those feelings because she isn’t fat enough to have them is…kinda a dick move.
We all, thin or fat, experience our bodies from the inside, and we live in a culture where we are judged on our external appearance and our physicality and encouraged to find them wanting. We all live in a culture where people are bullied about their bodies. If a statement is made with hate or contempt about one’s body, it is hard not to internalise that as shame, particularly when it happens a lot, and in repetitive terms.
Certainly none of the women, whatever their size, to whom I spoke when preparing this article sought to deny that our cultural context is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the thin. Fat-shaming and thin-shaming are in no way equally loaded, because both of them take place in an ideological matrix of fatphobia and thin privilege (thinphilia?). Nobody of any size or any sense would, I think, deny that. (And if the exasperation in Bethany’s tone comes from people trying to construct thin shaming and fat shaming as directly equivalent, then fair enough. She has a right to rage and exasperation directed at the oppressive structures that work against fat people, and a right to decentre the conversation from thin people’s experience.)
But the whole point of Health At Every Size, and trying to build a culture without body shaming, where everyone’s body is appreciated and accepted – which is the revolution we’re all after, right? – is that *all human beings* are respected as individuals and allowed to tell their own stories. Moving away from a model of health or aspiration or wellbeing as represented by a narrow range of body types and characteristics, and towards a plurality of bodies, each seen and accepted on their own terms. Denying the validity of some people’s experience because of their body type is not going to help create that world.