Why We Seek Thin Privilege, with Aubrey Gordon

And how to explain it to kids.

  
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Hello and welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

This is a newsletter where we explore questions, and sometimes answers, on fatphobia, diet culture, parenting and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture and the author of The Eating Instinct, and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

I am so thrilled today to be chatting with Aubrey Gordon. Aubrey is the author of What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat. She is @yrfatfriend everywhere on social media, and the co-host of the very beloved Maintenance Phase podcast. Aubrey, welcome.

Aubrey

Thanks so much for having me, it’s a delight to talk to you. As always.

Virginia

I’m delighted, and I know my readers are going to be so delighted. So I’m bringing you on to talk about the concept of thin privilege, because I think, this is a concept that’s very hard for folks to wrap their brains around. Whenever I talk about it on social media, it inspires a lot of angry comments, a lot of defensiveness, and just a lot of feelings that come up around this concept. I’m hoping we can unpack that, and discuss how parents can explain thin privilege to our kids. Because part of the problem is that people haven’t heard of thin privilege, and now they’re grown up. So let’s start with the basics. What is thin privilege?

Aubrey

I would say thin privilege is how folks benefit from a proximity to thinness. So whether or not you feel like you yourself qualify as “being really thin,” the closer you are to looking thin, the more thin privilege you get. Congratulations! And that includes many fat people, right? I have more thin privilege at about 350 pounds than someone who’s fatter than me does. The idea is that the closer that you get to thinness, the more you actually don’t have to think about your body or your size in terms of how other people relate to it and treat it. You may think about it quite a bit internally, but most of your struggles with your body relate to internal challenges and not to institutions rejecting you, or individuals treating you differently.

So, someone with more thin privilege than me might not have to worry about strangers on the street shouting “hey, fatso” at them. Or they might not have to worry about whether or not a doctor will agree to treat them. Or they might not have to worry if they get on a plane, will they be allowed to stay on that plane, or will they be escorted off the plane without a refund and without recourse.

It doesn’t mean that folks in smaller bodies don’t have challenges to work through with relationship to body image. I think it’s really important to note that thin privilege is about how other people treat you, not how you feel about your own body. So you can still have profound body image struggles, but that doesn’t change how other people treat you, even with body dysmorphia, even with eating disorders, even with whatever you’re working with. Other people still perceive you as a thinner person and treat you as a thinner person, regardless of how you perceive yourself.

Virginia

I think that distinction between your own emotions about your body versus how the world perceives your body is crucial. And that’s what makes it hard for folks who feel like, “I’m miserable in my body, so how can I have thin privilege?” But it’s all the things you just said, it’s that you can move through the world freely, even though you might be tormented in some way by your body.

Aubrey

It can be upsetting and call up defensiveness in the same way that talking about any kind of privilege can. As someone who has grown up white and middle class and remains white and middle class, I have been told consistently throughout my life that my accomplishments are my own. I haven’t really had to look at the ways in which the wind is at my back, right? And the ways in which structures are built to support me specifically as a white person and a middle class person. And I think this is a similar thing. It doesn’t mean that you’re less accomplished. It doesn’t mean that you don’t struggle with your body image, it doesn’t mean that anything inherent about you has changed. It just means becoming more aware of the ways in which the world receives your body.

Virginia

So I was reading some of your writing about this (and I’ll link in the transcript to all the many fantastic articles you’ve written on thin privilege [like this one and this one], and one statistic that really jumped out at me was that just under 50 percent of American adults tried to lose weight between 2013 and 2016, according to the CDC. And you noted that white people and people with higher incomes were the most likely to be engaged in weight loss efforts, meaning that those of us with particularly pronounced privileges are the ones most likely to be engaged in activities to try to reduce our size. Is thin privilege something that already privileged people are actively seeking out?

Aubrey

Absolutely. Part of that, to my mind—there’s less research on this, this is all just me spitballing—but, to my mind, that is tied to the very explicit history of racism broadly, and anti-Blackness in particular. It’s tied to how we think and talk about fatness and fat people. It’s also tied to our relationship between class and fatness. Overwhelmingly, we are met with these media caricatures of fat people as being poorer than thin people, we are met with caricatures of fat Black folks, particularly as being the most abrasive of fat people, right? And most domineering or least intelligent or whatever—it sort of supercharges any of our existing associations with a community. So, yes, thin privilege is something that we seek, and it’s something that we seek in order to escape the ways that we actually do see fat people being treated: frankly, significantly worse than thin people. So folks will feel defensive of and disconnected from a sense of their own privilege, while at the same time on some level, kind of consciously cashing in on it or trying to figure out how to gain more of that privilege.

Virginia

I was talking to Deb Burgard about this a few years ago, and she said, a lot of the body positivity movement is small fat women trying to get their white privilege back, trying to move themselves back up the ladder, in a way. The intersection of all of this is fascinating, and uncomfortable. It’s hard to look at how we’ve benefited from these systems.

Aubrey

I also think the hard thing about bodies is that we do live and operate in a culture that makes absolutely all of us feel like garbage in our bodies. Like 100 percent of people. It’s set up so that all of us feel bad. And part of the challenge is that we conflate how we feel about our bodies and how we’ve been made to feel about our bodies, with how much privilege comes with being in that body. And we’ve got to do a better job of disentangling those things, which will allow us to actually honor both of them more.

Virginia

Let’s talk about thin privilege with kids. I see this coming up in a couple different ways. One example that I talked about recently on social was a friend shopping for softball pants for her 8-year-old daughter, and finding that her daughter can’t wear the same uniform that her peers are wearing.

Aubrey

That’s so—listeners cannot see my face. But it’s a sad, bummed face.

Virginia

I was a thin kid. I never had to think about whether the uniform would fit me. Or how that becomes a barrier to participation. If you’re the kid wearing sweatpants when everyone else is wearing the uniform, you don’t feel like you can play the sport in the same way. What other ways do you see thin privilege show up for kids?

Aubrey

I think a big one is the built environment. For me in middle school and high school, those desks with a chair attached were like a real special kind of hell. I couldn’t flip the desk down, I would just have to sort of like, sit in the chair with the desk flapped up, which was like a little flag waving like, “Hi, everybody. I’m the fat kid. Hello! Look over here.”

So I would try and write on my knee. And my notes were kind of garbage. It just made things—not insurmountable, but it was more difficult than it should have been.

It is rare that schools or teachers are outfitting schools—and the same can be true of parents at friend’s houses—with furniture, knowing the weight capacity and that sort of thing. I ended up opting out of a lot of playdates with friends and physical games. I remember going to laser tag, and there was a point at which I stopped going, because I thought the laser tag vest thing wasn’t going to fit me anymore. So I stopped going to friend’s birthday parties. There is sort of a social isolation element that comes with all of this stuff. And I think, you know, it never would have occurred to me at the time. But boy, oh, boy, like just a thimble full of awareness from anybody’s parents could have gone just miles and miles and miles.

Virginia

What should that look like? A lot of my readers are parents. Some of them are parents of fat kids, a lot of them are parents of thinner kids or kids with degrees of thin privilege. How do we talk to our kids about this concept? How can we be more mindful of exactly what you’re saying: thinking through the logistics of the birthday party, thinking through the logistics of the sports team, or whatever it is to make environments more inclusive for kids?

Aubrey

So I come to this conversation, not as a parent, but as a very proud and engaged aunt. So a grain of salt from a guy who’s not taking care of kids around the clock. But I do think that talking to your kids about, “Do you think everybody can do this? Do you think everybody would be comfortable doing this? Who do you want to have there? Oh, I’m not sure if this kid could do that.” I think this works around size, I think it works around disability, I think it works on a lot of stuff.

I have, as you can imagine, been very open with my niece and nephew both about what I do and what I write about, and why it matters. And I felt nervous about it, because it feels sort of “controversial” or high stakes or something to talk to kids about body stuff. But as with talking to kids about trans issues, or race, or disability, or any sort of social issue, they are totally down. And it has opened up this vein of conversation that I don’t think I would have had with them. My niece, who’s now 14 will come to me and be like, “My friend is constantly telling me how fat she feels, and I’m actually fatter than her, so it feels really bad to me. But I don’t want to take away how she’s feeling, but also she calls her little brother ‘fat’ as an insult.” So we have these pretty rich conversations to unpack all of those competing things.

Because when you just sit down with a kid and you’re like, “Listen, man, sometimes people are fatter than other people. And sometimes people are mean to people who are fatter than other people or think that they don’t deserve the same things. And so we’re going to do a little looking out for fat people. What do you say?” That’s pretty much it and I don’t actually know a kid who isn’t moved to be a helper. So just tapping into that goes a long, long way.

Virginia

I’ve found that in talking to my own kids about body size, they can use the word fat in this very unaffected, natural way that is so beautiful to me, as someone who had to go through the process of reclaiming it. It’s like, this won’t be something you have to reclaim. This will just be a word for you. Oh!

Aubrey

I feel like the conversations that I have with folks who are parents is with parents who are not fat, raising kids who are not fat, right? And they’re really nervous that they’re going to have the thin kid who’s calling everybody fat.

The way that I’ve handled that is to just be like, “Hey, this is a totally neutral word. Some people get their feelings hurt by it. So check in with people about what words they’re okay with. And then if they're okay with it, you can use it, it’s fine.” Creating even a sliver of daylight between what the word itself means and how people experience that word, can help kids navigate that. We do this all the time with words related to your private parts. There are lots and lots of times that we’re sort of teaching kids about when and whether words are appropriate. And this is another one of those.

Virginia

I also think you can talk about bodies in a really positive, normal way, and also teach your kids that we don’t talk about the bodies of other people, just like we don't touch the bodies of other people without their consent. If your 5 year old yells it out in a grocery store, that’s a great opportunity to say, “Hey, you know, we don’t actually yell out people’s physical characteristics in public, because you just don’t know how that’s gonna land. But it doesn’t mean that their bodies are bad. It just means that we respect that people’s bodies belong to them.”

Aubrey

I think a totally neutral parallel is: You don’t show up at a party unless you get an invitation to that party. It doesn’t have to be like loaded and heavy. You don’t take a book from the library, if you haven’t checked it out and made sure it’s available. There are lots and lots and lots of ways that we check on something first before we go ahead and do it.

Virginia

Those are great examples. So steering away from kids for a little bit: You talk a lot about fat people having these different levels of thin privilege, and why it’s so important to articulate the difference between what I as a size 16 experiences versus what you experience. And that’s something that the body positive space, the Health At Every Size space, we haven’t always been great at doing that. The small fat ladies like myself have done a lot of damage, and we have some karma to work off. So I have a question from a reader that’s actually a little more about health privilege than thin privilege, but I think they’re very related and I would love to get your take on this.

She writes:

“I’d like there to be more conversation about fat people who do have chronic health issues that medical professionals insist are brought on by how we eat or how we move, particularly diabetes, which is the dirty word of our culture right now. So many people dealing with this health issue are given poorer care because of the fatphobia of their doctors. Having this disease is like an open invitation to be judged and demeaned. The discourse stressing that it’s possible and even likely to be perfectly healthy and fat, while true, leaves out those of us who aren’t ‘perfect’ or ‘healthy in this paradigm. This is more of a screed than a question.”

Aubrey

There’s so much to unpack and I’m so deeply glad that this person wrote in about this, because this is a thing that I feel extremely passionately about. When we’re trying to defend ourselves against anti-fat bias and anti-fat attitudes and behaviors, the thing that is most tempting and the easiest to do is to grab on to the closest other privilege that we have, and go: I might be fat, but I eat really healthy and I shop at the farmers market; or I might be fat, but I workout all the time, and I have a gym membership; or I might be fat, but I’m perfectly healthy, and my blood work is probably better than yours. All of which makes sense as a desire to defend ourselves.

When we do that, what we’re saying is that fat people who are disabled and chronically ill are not deserving of the same things that we’re deserving of. That’s not necessarily our intention when we say those things, but that is the function. It sends a really clear exclusionary message, in the same way that when thin women tell me that body positivity is only for people who are happy and healthy, which is sort of code for, like, not fat, right? So, not you, everyone else can feel okay about their bodies, but not you, is sort of what we’re doing when we say that we’re perfectly healthy. And we’re reinforcing the idea that our perception of someone else’s health is acceptable data to use in deciding how to treat that person. And it is, I would argue, categorically not.

I mean, what we know about diabetes is that it is—well, I should start out by saying, what we don’t know about diabetes is almost everything. Just to be real clear: Everybody everywhere is walking around out in the world, like, “Oh, you just have to not eat sugar and not get fat and you won't be diabetic.” Currently, the research is reckoning with, do you get fat because you’re diabetic, or are you diabetic because you’re fat. And there’s some data showing that your body might actually hang on to fat, as it becomes insulin resistant, pre-diabetic and diabetic, right? So we might actually be thinking of it in a completely backwards way. We also know that it’s linked to the stress of experiencing discrimination. So all of that judgment about being diabetic, or maybe becoming diabetic, is rooted in ableism. It’s rooted in these kinds of misconceptions. I’m starting to dive into that research now, and I’m realizing the degree to which that is all categorically false. We are all walking around with this weird false sense of superiority like we’ve all outsmarted diabetes. And anyone who has been forced to take that deep dive knows that that is not the case. We think of it as an earned fate, and we talk about it as something that fat folks should have thought about before they got fat and stayed fat.

Virginia

It all ties back to this belief that we have to dismantle that fat is a behavior. That this is all a choice, that it’s all an option that you checked off on a list of like, yes, I will take fat and I will take diabetes.But attaching moral virtue to things that have to do with your genetic and socioeconomic and other lotteries of life really just doesn’t make sense.

Aubrey

There’s a sociologist named Robert Crawford, who coined this term in the 1980s called healthism, which is about the ways in which we seek out these signifiers that we are people who are seeking health, so we can perform that for people. I would say we are in a real boom time of healthism. Like people are Instagramming their celery juice, they’re wearing athleisure clothes everywhere. People are opting for things like Peloton and Equinox, right? And all of these see-and-be-seen things are very class coded. They are not just a way of saying I’m healthy, but a way of saying I’m healthy and I have disposable income. So it’s worth thinking about creating a sliver of daylight between what is your actual current health status, and what are the things that you are either judging other people on or seeking to be judged on in a particular way, positive or negative? That feels really important for all of us, regardless of size, and regardless of ability.

Virginia

That leads me to my last question. Another reader wrote in and asks: What do I do as a thin person to be an ally in all of this? I think when we’re talking about thin privilege, that’s an important piece of it. But she also says, when I talk to my friends in bigger bodies, do I acknowledge my privilege? Or is that unnecessary? This question also comes up from people who want to post about, like some workout achievement, but the performative aspect of that makes it really icky. So I’m curious to hear your thoughts on some of that.

Aubrey

I’m also curious to hear yours. I would say, in talking to friends, and folks that you have close social relationships with, ask them how they want to talk about it. And then do those things. Ask them what kind of support that they want and need and do those things. If they say, God, I’m getting ready for a doctor’s appointment, and I feel really nervous about it, you can say, what makes you feel nervous? Do you want me to go with you? Do you want moral support? Should we check in afterwards, and like get cocktails so you can decompress? What would be helpful?

I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to already know what the right thing is, and to know how to read somebody else’s mind. And there’s enough difference in experience and desire here to be able to say, what’s helpful here? What are the words that you use to describe your body? What are the words you’d like me to use? Do you want to talk about this stuff? Do you never want to talk about stuff? You tell me. I think just opening up that conversation is a really great starting point.

The other thing I would say—I’m in my office right now, Virginia can see it, there is a guest bed behind me. We just replaced the bed frame. I made weight capacity a priority for it. It’s our guest bed and I found a really inexpensive bed frame that is rated for up to 1000 pounds. So now I know, whoever comes to see us, they can stay in our guest bed. So thinking about stuff like that, like when you’re in the market for chairs, or for a bed or whatever, being mindful of like, does this chair have arms? How close together are they? Could somebody fit into these? What’s the weight capacity? Do I know who it’s built to fit? It will make it harder, but it’ll make it harder in a way that it’s already hard for fat people.

Virginia

Clothing is my other one on this. Something great that thin folks can do is support brands that are somewhat inclusive. I mean, it’s impossible to support brands that are fully inclusive, because they don’t exist, but to whatever extent that’s possible. I had an unpleasant interaction yesterday with a small fat woman who was asking for, oh, where should I look for summer dresses, and I suggested some plus size brands, and she was offended. She was like, “I mean, I’m not that big. I don’t need that.” And I thought, oh, I can’t talk to you about this anymore. I’m putting up a boundary, we’re done. Because, it’s okay, you can be at the smaller end of a clothing line just as much as you were otherwise at the upper end of the clothing line. Why is that somehow a problem for you?

Aubrey

I think this actually gets us right back to thin privilege. That is someone who, in that moment, was like, “You are aligning me with fat people, I know how people think about and treat fat people, I will be over here with the thin people, thank you. How dare you.”

Virginia

Even though I’m barely fitting into these clothes, and I’m complaining because I don’t have good options. But I’m going to be over here, you know, cramming into that size 14 or whatever.

When it comes to talking about personal experiences, I do think there’s an argument for people not performing workouts on social media. And certainly not performing weight loss on social media, because you just don’t know who that’s going to be triggering for. And if you’re talking about your struggles, maybe don’t talk about it in the “I feel fat” way. Because that’s saying, I don’t want your body, and that’s really harmful to people.

Aubrey

I also think asking for consent about that stuff is important, too. Like, “I’m having a bad body image day, are you up for talking about it?” Getting consent both for fat folks, for people with eating disorders, for all manner of folks, is a helpful thing. And doing that in a way that checks yourself in the process, not just for the person that you’re talking to, but also for your own perception. Like “I’m having a really hard time finding clothes that fit,” and “I know people who wear larger sizes than I do, and I can’t imagine what it’s like for them. This is so frustrating, right?” So at least you are in the process acknowledging the experience of either the person that you’re talking to or fat people more broadly. It broadens the conversation, even if you’re talking to another thin person, to reintroduce the awareness that you ideally have, but maybe don’t carry with you into those conversations.

I will say there are, on a personal level, few things more frustrating to me than when a thin person sees me—a thin person who feels badly about their own body—and will go, “Look how fat she is, she must feel terrible, I gotta tell her all of my insecurities, and all of my bad feelings about my body.” Which then translates to me as, okay, this person hates their body and they must be absolutely repulsed by mine. So then it’s like, oh, great. Now everyone feels terrible. What have we accomplished here? Everyone feels worse? Cool.

The other thing that I would say on the body image front is that there’s actually quite a bit of research into negative body talk. When we talk about our own bodies in a negative way, when we talk about other people’s bodies in a negative way, we think of that as being a thing that like, expels and gets rid of, and vents a lot of that.

Virginia

...and bonds us to other people...

Aubrey

Yeah, and bonds us to other people. The research actually shows the exact opposite, that it worsens our own mental state, it weakens our relationships, it leads to less sexual satisfaction, it leads to weaker friendships, it leads to all of these things, just when we talk about it, not how we feel to begin with. But when we give it more air time, it expands to fit the space that we give it. And it doesn’t only impact us when we talk about it, anyone within earshot experiences those negative outcomes.

So I think it’s also worth thinking about body shaming as a pollutant. What’s the pollutant that you’re putting into the environment? Is it in a well ventilated area? Does everybody know that it’s being polluted? Like, how do you want to go about this? I also just think this is another one, sort of like the diabetes stuff, where we are pretty sure we know how this works. And the research shows us that it is in fact, you know, maybe the opposite.

Virginia

That thing you thought was so helpful is making everything worse.

Aubrey

For you and for people that you care about.

Virginia

To bring it back to parenting, that’s why the number one advice I give parents is please do not narrate your own body stuff to your kids, you are directly passing that baggage on to them at that point.

Aubrey

Absolutely. And I think it’s important for parents to note, there’s been a teeny tiny bit of research on this, you probably know it better than I do at this point, that it is actually just as powerful a negative force for kids to hear their parents talk negatively about their own bodies as it is to hear their parents talk negatively about their bodies. Your kid is not distinguishing between when you say that they are too fat versus when you say that you are too fat, or when you say that their thighs are hideous, or when you say that your thighs are hideous. Whatever the things are, right? Those have the same impact. That’s really tough to hear. It was really tough for me to learn. It feels so hard to be like people are honestly struggling, and the impacts are still tough.

Virginia

On the flip side, there is also a nice study (that I wrote about here), which showed that when parents who are struggling stopped talking, the kids did better. It’s nice to know there’s something you can do and that you can find a therapist or somebody else with whom you can have that conversation and your child is not that person in your life.

Aubrey

Or a friend who consents, or whatever the framework needs to be, just like a consensual relationship that is about that thing. Totally take it there. It doesn’t mean you have to never talk about it. It just means being more mindful about when and whether and with whom?

Virginia

Well, I could talk to you all day about this, but I know you have an appointment. Thanks so much for joining us!

Aubrey

Thank you for having me! This was a treat.