If you have been considered “normal” your whole life, then chances are you have not thought of the advantages of being thin. You probably have never had anyone comment on your food selection in your cart in the name of “trying to be helpful” or be charged extra by airlines to fly. When you go to the doctor, they don’t immediately suspect diabetes or high blood pressure, or cholesterol as the first diagnosis and you can eat what you want without having others make assumptions regarding your eating habits (Ridgway, 2012). These are all examples of experiencing thin privilege.
Thin privilege is the privileges and social advantages received when one fits into the category deemed as normal in Western culture of being thin. Thin has health status attached to one’s body size, furthermore, if someone is thin, then they are automatically assumed to be beautiful and healthy (Scott, 2017). Fat bodies are treated as the opposite, where they are unfairly and inaccurately pathologized and seen as a problem, especially within the medical field (Bruce, 2018). Obesity now affects over one-third of the adult population in the United States whereas obese people are rated among the least favored social group according to Scott (2017). Those who experience obesity are constantly exploited with the diet industry and marginalized as being perceived as unintelligent, lonely, lazy, and immoral.
A few arguments against thin privilege state that being fat is a “choice” where people argue their point by expressing the fact that they “kept the weight off” (Bruce, 2018). However, when individuals were interviewed regarding this argument many reported it was a choice to keep the weight off for fear of losing the advantages of being thin. Further, research shows due to bone density, genetic makeup, and biology some bodies are not meant to be thin. Another argument against thin privilege exist in the realm of the medical field in viewing obesity through a preventable risk framework that has assumptions that health is predicted by weight and excess body weight increased chances of disease and early death (Nutter, Russell-Mayhew, Alberga, Arthur, Kassan, Lund, Sesma-Vazquez, & Williams, 2016).
However, according to Bergland (2017), this viewpoint can lead to more stress within patients and avoid interacting with health care providers and delay in seeking medical care. In addition, an argument against thin privilege is reported by others who are thin stating they experience teasing and report similar experiences to those who are obese (Bruce, 2018). However, as a systemic experience, it can be seen that much more privilege is given to thinner persons within Western culture.
Thin privilege is one of the resulting factors of sizeism within our society. Sizeism is discriminating against someone based on his or her size of their body (Bergland, 2017). Research has shown that sizeism is the fourth most frequently reported form of discrimination illustrating that it is much more prevalent in Western culture and one of the most accepted –isms in society (Scott, 2017). Social structures within Western society are set up in a way that give different people more privilege and advantages and in Western culture part of that equals being thin.
As discussed with other –isms in class, sizeism and the privilege granted to thin bodies has been socially constructed meaning that it is a byproduct of human definition and interpretations that has been shaped by cultural and historical contexts (Kang, Lessard, Heston, Nordmaken, & Miliann, 2017). If examined through a sociological viewpoint, it can be seen that the normalization of the size of bodies has changed throughout various historical contexts. The history of fatness in America begins with plumpness as seen as being an asset as it displayed having wealth and prosperity (Scott, 2017). Those who were seen as beautiful had plump arms and because of their size were seen as healthier in being able to fight off infectious diseases.
However, during the late 20’s, a shift occurred where a number of immigrants entered the country and industrialization began allowing for greater access to food and production was less labor intensive. As immigrants entered into the country, in order to separate themselves racially and physically from them, Europeans decided that being thin was virtuous and Godly. This viewpoint was later adopted by the American culture (Scott, 2017). Sizeism cannot be separated from the other –isms and intersects specially with class and gender. This shift from “plump” to thinness was focused heavily on women. Less is more became a dieting standard where poet Lord Byron wrote, “A women should never be seen eating or drinking unless it be lobster salad and champagne, the only truly feminine and becoming viands” (Scott, 2017, p.1).
This also alludes to a shift due to classism where fat became easer to attain whereas thinness became a sign of exclusivity held by the wealthy. Capitalism and the virtue of money play a significant role in maintaining sizeism within the health industry. The diet industry maintains its wages on invoking anxiety among dieters in order to trade false hope in the form of new diets (Scott, 2017). With this anxiety, consumers make these organizations rich by buying into these false hopes and promises where dieting generates over a billion dollars a year in order to exploit fat bodies (Scott, 2017). The food industry also buys into the exploitation of fat bodies by reinforcing less nutrient dense foods at lower prices again making fat easier to attain whereas eating healthy foods is a luxury for the wealthy.
In the Hebrew Bible, body parts are used to signify physical characteristics or qualities of an individual. This can be seen in the way Moses is portrayed compared to that of his brother Aaron. Based on body type, a person’s legs specifically signified power of domination. Aaron was depicted as a short and squatty man, showing that Moses had the preferred body for leadership. In the Hebrew Bible, “the normative body is alive, whole, male, and not characterized by any abnormalities or illnesses” (Gravett et. al., 2008, p.182).
If one experiences illness, they were oppressed as those who experience obesity as it is labeled an illness. The Hebrew Bible favors certain body attributes where the status of one’s body affected a person’s social status. Those who has visible illness were often times cast out or marginalized from society in order to protect the status and health of the whole society. This can be depicted with Miriam, Moses’ sister who is afflicted with leprosy and cast out for seven days for being unclean. Illness as obesity especially within the medical health field has labeled that there is an ideal body type for optimal health just as depicted within the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, the art of thinness can be seen as a religion within itself, especially the saying “the body is a temple.”
As the Hebrew society prayed to God within a temple, today, individuals must treat their body as a place where God dwells. Religion serves a purpose that gives meaning to people’s lives, which can be seen within the quest for thinness (Lelwica, 2010). The quest for becoming thin allows one to have purpose and meaning especially once that goal has been obtained. In addition, the religion of thinness has features that resemble that of a traditional religion including beliefs, myths, rituals, moral codes, and scared images. These rituals can resemble exercise and counting calorie, whereas, the scared images are the bodies individuals examine on Instagram and within the media. With thinness being equated to religion within Western culture, thin bodies are idolized making it harder to recognize this –ism.
Thin privilege results from sizeism that has been social constructed within our society. It has thrived on the capitalism lead by the diet industry and food companies that thrive on marginalizing and exploiting fat bodies. Examining the use of the religion, thinness has become its own in perfecting the ideal, thin body that society has constructed as healthy and beautiful. Bodies without illness in ancient times served a purpose of safety and maintaining livability, whereas, society today has to reconstruct itself in order to realize that weight does not equal health. Many groups have formed in order to fight for transformation against the current social structure. These groups such as The National Association of Advance Fat Acceptance, the Body Positive movement, and The Association for Size Diversity and Health have worked to reject standard beauty myths as well as creating a shift from weight focused to health focused interventions in order to reclaim one’s own body size.
- Bergland, C. (2017, August 03). Sizeism is harming too many of us: Fat shaming must stop. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201708/sizeism-is-harming-too-many-us-fat-shaming-must-stop.
- Bruce, K. (2018, June 15). What exactly is “thin privilege?” Retrieved from https://www.kristinabruce.com/blog/what-exactly-is-thin-privilege.
- Gravett, S. L., Bohmbach, K. G., Greifenhagen, F. V., & Polaski, D. C. (2008). An introduction to the Hebrew bible: A thematic approach. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
- Kang, M., Lessard, D., Heston, L., & Nordmaken, S. (2017). Introduction to women, gender, sexuality studies. Amherst, MA: University of Massachesetts Amherst Libraries.
- Lelwica, M. M. (2010). The religion of thinness. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, LLC.
- Nutter, S., Russell-Mayhew, S., Alberga, A., Arthur, N., Kassan, A., Lund, D., Sesma-Vazquez, M., & Williams, E. (2016). Position of weight bias: Moving toward social justice. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, pp. 1-10.
- Ridgeway, S. (2012, November 30). 22 examples of thin privilege. Retrieved from https://everydayfeminism.com/2012/11/20-examples-of-thin-privilege/.
- Scott, M. V. (2017, June 09). Sizeism: Rage against an acceptable form of oppression. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@michellevscott/sizeism-rage-against-an-acceptable-form-of-oppression-cb4abd4cbdd1.