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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About Goblin

Academic, critic, endlessly fascinated; reads, thinks, listens and talks far more than is good for her. Ex-anorexic, ex-ME, excitable, queer, kinky, nosy, mouthy. Purveyor of uncomfortable truths. Talks filth in public. Likes rabbits, old houses with big windows and John Wilmot Earl of Rochester. Needs more sleep.
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6 Responses to On fatphobia, thin privilege, ‘skinny shaming’, and people’s right to subjective experience whatever their body size

  1. Stacy says:

    Totally agree with @Inbetween_girl. No one can ever be ___ enough for whatever standards; we must accept what we are and what humans are and stop judging.

    Like

  2. Elle Kacee says:

    I’m of the opinion that “skinny shaming” is a combination treating women’s bodies as community property and treating individual women as very literal objects. I didn’t see it mentioned in your bullet point list, but small women are often picked up and moved about without permission, much as one might do with a cat or a vase. I do not wish to speak for fat women’s experiences, (not using “fat” as a pejorative) but I wonder if not being able to objectify them to that degree has something to do with the outright vitriol that so many fat women have spewed at them. They fail at being knickknacks on a shelf. (That’s a compliment.)

    Like

    • Goblin says:

      Heh, that’s familiar. I’m only just over 5′, and whilst I love it when people I know/love/trust pick me up, the same does NOT go for ransoms. If ‘appropriate’ femininity involves being small enough to be physically manipulated, we need to set fire to it pronto.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. J. Anne says:

    I can’t believe people are actually dumb enough to say “skinny shaming doesn’t exist/isn’t a real thing”. How stupid and blind can you be?! It’s everywhere! For some reason, it’s perfectly OK to call a naturally thin girl a “skinny b*tch” or say she’s not a real woman because she doesn’t have curves, but it’s considered a horrible hate crime if you call an overweight girl “fat”.

    Also, f*** all those morons saying skinny girls are never discriminated against and have no insecurities. In celebrity magazines, thin models are judged for being “too skinny” (“Has *insert name of naturally skinny model here* gone TOO FAR?”), but I see nothing but praise aimed at plus-sized models. Now, I’m all for respecting plus-sized women, and even though I’ve always been underweight (because of genetics), fat shaming disgusts me. But why do people feel the need to treat skinny girls like absolute garbage in order to respect plus-sized girls?

    Also, as Louis C.K. said, “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t”. If you’re not skinny and you insult skinny girls, you don’t get to decide that your insults aren’t hurtful to them. As I said, I’ve always been underweight, and people have said some things to me about my weight that really, really hurt:
    “You look anorexic.” (Yeah, way to trivialize a real eating disorder.)
    “You’re so weird looking! You look like an alien!”
    “You’re so gangly!”
    “You look gross.”
    “You’re so weak.” (Being thin is not the same as being “weak”, people.)
    And the sad thing is… I feel lucky for only being called ugly and weak; other women my size are called “sl*ts” and “shallow b*tches” and other disgusting names.

    And before someone jumps down my throat, I’m not saying skinny shaming is worse than fat shaming. Honestly, they’re equally sh*tty. It’s all body shaming, and it all sucks. All I’m saying is, you’re not body positive if you discriminate against one body type while praising the other. I’m sick of all the stupid SJW’s on social media sites claiming to be all about equality when they make hateful posts about thin people while praising plus-sized people. (Just today, I saw a post by some stupid girl on Tumblr in which she was going on about “body positivity” after telling size 0 girls to f*** off. I am no longer a size 0, but that still really irritated me. You are not body positive, you hypocritical sack of garbage! You and all the other skinny shaming a**holes like you are a big reason why women never feel comfortable in their own skin! God, I really hate Tumblr sometimes.)

    I’m trying to move past it, but it’s really hard not to get upset when people insult you and discriminate against you for something you can’t change. It’s even harder when they tell you that the problem (of skinny shaming) doesn’t exist and your feelings are invalid/don’t matter (just so they can continue to discriminate against you and never get called out for it. Hmm… sounds a lot like my emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend: “The truth hurts.”/”I’m just kidding!”/”I’m only saying this because I love you.”).

    Why can’t we just respect all body types? This isn’t a competition.

    Like

  4. emanixx says:

    Reminded me of this awesome piece by Hanne Blank that I keep coming back to again and again when folks talk about bodies. http://www.hanneblank.com/blog/2011/06/23/real-women/

    “There is no wrong way to have a body.

    I’m going to say it again because it’s important: There is no wrong way to have a body.”

    I wish this stuff was taught at schools.

    Like

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