On fatphobia, thin privilege, ‘skinny shaming’, and people’s right to subjective experience whatever their body size

I wrote this for the F-word, but it was too long and I didn’t want to cut it because it all seemed important. I might try write a shorter version at some point, but not THIS point. 

Before I start, I’d like to point out that Bethany from Arched Eyebrow is undoubtedly 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 at its heart the post seems to be denying 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.

Our culture perversely overvalues thinness, and devalues fatness.

This is a very difficult post to illustrate without replicating the problem, but I liked this.

This is a very difficult post to illustrate without replicating the problem, but I liked this.

Accordingly, structural thin privilege also exists, and it consists of all the things Bethany cites – access to medical care, ability to buy clothes (mostly), seeing women of roughly your size portrayed as aspirational in the media, a body type seen as desirable on dating sites. (Although, somewhat aside, I would imagine there are also people specifically attracted to larger bodies who would disregard smaller ones. Human sexual preferences are various, no? But this is a whole separate issue.) In writing this article, I don’t mean to deny or detract from anything Bethany says about the relative cultural loading of thin and fat in the Western world. She is completely right about our cultural context and she writes powerfully and movingly about the experience of being fat within it.

But.

‘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:

  • Insults like ‘scrawny bitch’ ‘ET’ ‘skeleton’, ‘dead person’ ‘stick insect’ ‘coat hanger’ ‘pipe cleaner’ ‘emaciated slut’.
  • The proliferation of internet memes like ‘Real men like curves, only dogs like bones’/’Women with tattoos and curves are awesome; who wants a stick with no creativity?’/’When did this [row of thin actresses] become hotter than this [row of curvaceous 50s movie stars]?’
  • 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. ‘Real women have curves’, for example, implies that people without curves aren’t real women. 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 still had experienced being made to feel ashamed of their bodies.

We all, thin or fat, experience our bodies from the inside, and we all 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.

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 unacceptability, and to deny her the right to those feelings because she isn’t fat enough to have them is…kinda a dick move.

And being thin – winning the cultural jackpot, as Bethany puts it – isn’t much help when you DO have an eating disorder, or a medical condition. These things don’t magically get better when you can look at yourself and go ‘oh, I’m a size 8’. (I remember once thinking I was thin enough, maybe. I weighed 4 stone, and lost another before I finally collapsed and was hospitalised. Again: experience is subjective, and we all experience our bodies from the inside.)

This owl is unimpressed with contemporary fatphobic body-shaming culture.

This owl is unimpressed with contemporary fatphobic body-shaming culture.

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.

Sure, some people are dicks. Some people do intentionally whine about being unable to gain weight in order to highlight their ‘winning of the cultural jackpot’, or to make larger people feel bad. Lots of people genuinely do spout bullshit like ‘you look so good, have you lost weight?’ and consider it a compliment. (I am not trying to ignore or deny the prevalence of fatphobia or its all-pervasive effects.) Some people also proclaim loudly ‘real women have curves’ and tell thin people they’re too scrawny to be sexy or they look like an alien instead of a human being. Some people are dicks, but that is a universal truth, and whilst fat people are undoubtedly disproportionately subject to cultural derision, that doesn’t constitute the right to erase the experience or existence of those at the other end of the spectrum who also experience body shame.

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.)

Certainly none of the women, fat, thin and everywhere in between, to whom I spoke when preparing this article sought to deny that our cultural context is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the thin. But ultimately, body shaming and body fascism are the problem. By all means decentre the conversation from the experiences of thin people, punch up the privilege axis, but don’t deny their right to their experiences. We need to stop judging others and valuing others on the basis of their bodies, and whilst there is greater social and structural prejudice against people of size, denying the experience of thin people because they are thin is simply perpetuating that cycle.

I’m going to finish by quoting an excellent friend of mine, @Inbetween_Girl, who neatly summed up the thousand-odd words I’ve just written in a single Facebook comment:

‘I wish we could stop separating fat-shame and skinny-shame and just call it body-shame. I do feel, from my own experience as a fat woman, that there is greater and more widespread societal prejudice against people of size, but this does not diminish the individual experience of skinny shame. Body fascism is unacceptable in any form, and categorising it creates unnecessary division.’

Word.

So, about that revolution…?

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In which intent and outcome are so rarely coincident: Neil Gaiman and Trigger Warning

This F-word post talks about how much I love Neil Gaiman and how troubled I was by his use of ‘Trigger Warning’ as a title, given its function and cultural history and his place on various privilege axes. Somewhat to my surprise and greatly to my impressed-ness, he retweeted it and discussion ensued on Twitter, which you can read if you follow both of us (he’s @neilhimself, I’m @sashagoblin). I’d storify it, but I’m a bit icky about doing so publicly, and you don’t seem to be able to filter or keep private. But anyway, yes, absolutely sterling example of reasoned rational mutually respectful discussion of thorny issues, and ALL THE POINTS to Neil for dealing so well.

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Pretty on the Inside; in which language is a bastard

This is another F-word post, inspired by discussion with a genderqueer friend of mine who hates being referred to as ‘pretty’ and seguing seamlessly into my attempts at reclaiming ‘pretty’ as a site of sociocultural resistance. Or something.

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On Terry Pratchett, without whom the world is poorer.

NB: I originally wrote this for the F-word, and put it up here as a placeholder because I was overwrought and felt I needed to say it. If you wouldn’t mind following this link and reading their version also, that’d be grand. 

pterry 1Terry Pratchett died today. I’ve spent most of the afternoon in tears, overwhelmed in a way I hadn’t quite expected by the fact that one of the pillars of my fictional life had gone. (I can only imagine how his friends and family – y’know, the people who actually knew him – must be feeling. My heart goes out to them.) There are going to be any number of obituaries and personal reflections and so on, because he was so important in the lives and minds and hearts of so many people, and I’m sure they’re mostly going to say everything I’m struggling to articulate much better than I can.

(Neil Gaiman, for a start, on his anger and sense of justice and immense capacity for love. Laurie Penny, about the stark human truths of Discworld).

But still, I’m going to struggle, because a substantial chunk of my ideals and a lot of what I know and think and feel about being a person come from Terry Pratchett. He’s fundamental. His concepts of sin and responsibility and kindness seeped into my bones at so early an age they’re inextricable now from who I know myself to be. And I’m far from being the only one – that remains an instant shorthand of kinship and connection among most of my close friends. We apportion witches and watchmen according to whim and wishes, we share crushes on Vimes, we’ve known most of the books off by heart for years and prescribe them like medicine for illness or injury or injustice, and still, for all of us, the worlds he built and the people within them are as real to us as each other. Sometimes more so, because for us and many, many others Pratchett’s books were the safe space where we went to live when the real world was unbearable.

Not because they were devoid of cruelty and malice and injustice and human error and stupidity and selfishness and people (or apes, werewolves, elves, trolls, goblins, dwarves etc) getting things horribly, woundingly wrong, but because alongside those things there was bravery and conscience and honesty and hope. He told us the truth and he made us laugh and there was always some glimmer of redemption attainable for those willing to do the difficult, honest, right thing and fire the crossbow bolt through the keyhole and look who you really are firmly in the face.

Granny Weatherwax, a towering moral figure if ever there was one, taught me more about consequence than any religious ideology I’ve ever come across. In Maskerade, amidst operatic crescendo, she catches a naked sword in the palm of her hand, much to the dismay of Agnes Nitt, to whom she’d previously insisted on the impossibility of such a feat. ‘Not my fault,’ she snaps. ‘I didn’t have time.’ At the end of the book, she returns to her cottage and sits at the table, with some salve and a square of linen. ‘Well,’ she says. ‘I reckon I’ve got time now.’ In Lords and Ladies, she ‘had to learn. All my life. The hard way. And the hard way’s pretty hard, but not so hard as the easy way.’ In Carpe Jugulum, she gives us what’s probably one of Pratchett’s most famous moral touchstones, his definition of sin as objectification:

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”

“Nope.”

“Pardon?”

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.

“It’s a lot more complicated than that –”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes –”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things …”

It’s delicious and it’s so unutterably true. Empathy at all costs is the best rallying cry for human interaction I can think of.

Granny’s cast-iron commitment to doing what’s Right – where Right is defined as protecting the weak, allowing people autonomy even when they’re stupid or sullen or sad, being brutally honest with yourself even when it’s inconvenient, honouring communities and social rituals because they give human life shape and meaning, fighting for people’s right to be people even when it doesn’t make sense as long as they accord one another the same respect – has had so profound an effect on my personal morality that I cannot conceive of myself without it. I could say the same of Sam Vimes, Old Stoneface, who works his way up from alcoholic member of a dying Night Watch to the reluctant Commander of a full-scale citywide cross-species police operation (and wife of Ankh-Morpork’s premier Duchess) by dint of sheer force of conscience; or Susan D’eath, kickass schoolteacher, saviour of the Hogfather and granddaughter of Death, lovely Death, fond of kittens, who’s all the more poignant for his awareness that ‘THERE’S NO JUSTICE. THERE’S JUST ME.’ They built me. I love them like they’re my family and in some sense they are, because they made me into who I am as an adult.

And they still exist – that is the joy and the miracle of it. Pratchett has given us these people and these books and these stories and they will never die. To quote the man himself, ‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world fade away,’ and I’m pretty sure his ripples will keep rippling for a long time yet.

But so much wisdom and kindness and rage and righteousness has left the world, and it’s just so fucking sad.

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We need to talk about rape

Post 3 for the F-word, a response to that massively troubling Guardian piece about ‘sort-of rape’. Contains ranting and references to the amazing Rock Star Dinosaur Pirate Princess’s internet-famous tea analogy.

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On being queer and passing as straight

See also: who am I, in a context that doesn’t recognise my answer? Post 2 for the F-word is up here.

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Hospital food and eating disorders

So, I have a month-long blog residency at the F-word, and will be writing over there instead of here for March (and probably at some stage copying the articles over, but not for a while.) First post is about hospital food and eating disorders and my experiences thereof, and it’s here.

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