On thin privilege and not being a dick (again)

Nb. Uploads aren’t working, so this is illustrated solely with pictures of cute orang utans. Sorry about that. 

So a kind (if potentially mischevious) friend left this peculiar monstrosity of unchecked privilege , an article entitled ‘Don’t hate me for being thin’ by someone called Rosie Mortimer, on my Facebook wall a couple of days ago. I cannot sum up my overall response better than my initial sweary reply did, and will therefore reproduce it here for your reading pleasure before moving on to discuss in detail my problems with the article and the points arising from my friends’ discussion of it:

OH FUCKING HELL FUCK OFF. If you’re seeing thin-shaming everywhere, you’re wilfully blind to the vast majority of popular culture. I am exactly the same bmi (and a roughly similar size, although smaller) as she is, so I get to call her out on this: if you’re happy with your body, great. People trying to force you to eat or judging you for your size is shitty and horrible; body shaming is always shitty and horrible and should stop, period. But to pretend we live in a world where thin-shaming is equivalent to fat-shaming and to deny the many privileges you (we) accrue through being naturally thin? FUCK OFF.

Hopefully that makes the core of my counter-argument clear. If not, please allow me to rephrase it in response to the headline: people don’t ‘hate you for being thin’, they hate you because you’re a dick about it.

For instance.

This baby orang wisely doesn’t give a shit what size you are.

I don’t think anyone of any sense would deny that ‘thin shaming’ Rosie recounts a) exists and b) can be upsetting. But that’s because body shaming exists and is upsetting, regardless of size, and as one friend who’s gone from being almost as thin as the author to considerably larger points out, ‘while the mean things people said to me when I was thin were hurtful, the mean things people say now that I am fatter are hurtful *and are backed up by whole swathes of our culture and medical establishment*.’ Yes, it is legitimate for Rosie to be upset by regular suggestions that she has an eating disorder (although I’d be willing to bet the questions would have been considerably more traumatising had she been suffering from one), or people describing her as ‘disgusting’. Body shaming sucks, whatever your size. But to write an entire article on ‘thin shaming’ without addressing either body shaming as a cultural phenomenon, or its disproportionate and structural impact on larger people, is wilfully egotistical and culturally ignorant. Refusing to acknowledge that although you may’ve had a bad time, a lot of people have it worse is both whiny and a real dick move.

To use Rosie’s own statistics, ‘a recent survey found that 36 per cent of young people have been bullied because of their body shape, size or weight. Adults comment so disparagingly on the figures of others that it’s not surprising bad messages are passed to children.’ Well, exactly. But what proportion of that 36% were thin and what proportion fat, do you think? How many of them saw bodies roughly the same size and shape as themselves on posters and in the media as something other than a punchline? How many of them saw their body types reflected in the ‘before’ instead of ‘after’ photos’ on the side of buses? How many had their bodies criticised by their doctors even before questions about health and lifestyle were asked? How many have been on diets? (We have statistics here, apologies for Fail link. Probably quite a few.)

These baby orangs have more important things to worry about than their relative body sizes.

But Rosie never seems to consider how her experience may reflect or relate to that of  others, let alone have the humility to consider that at least her body type is the one considered aspirational and therefore her experience is qualitatively (as well as quantatively) likely to be different from that of people perceived as fat. And that although her experiences may be legitimately awful, had they been reinforced by a culture repeatedly broadcasting the unacceptability of her body type in structural and microaggressive ways, they might have been a lot worse.

Therapists and theorists are on this, you see. Michael Guilfoyle, in Helen Malson and Maree Burns’ excellent Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Disorders, among many others, has discussed fatness as a ‘spoiled identity’ in contemporary culture. He explains:

Discourses of personhood are currently arranged in such a way that the thin woman is given more room than her larger counterpart to inhabit culturally favourable identity options. For example, enculturated persons are predisposed towards seeing this person as self-disciplined, hardworking, dedicated, healthy and attractive, and as having used her mind – her character, her willpower – to take charge of, or even to deny, the more animalistic, primal, base appetites of the body. These attributes are highly valued in the western world, and such constructions make it more reasonable [Ed. Note: I would prefer ‘easier’ here] for a thin woman than a fat woman to think of herself as strong, as having achieved, as successful, as socially valuable. […] It becomes harder – although not impossible – for the larger woman to assume this kind of identity and to have such a sense of self legitimised by the world around her.

But Rosie, with her unironic talk of ‘thinnist’ and ‘thin-shaming’ and her complete failure to address cultural or experiential context, is far from contributing anything useful to the complexity of the debate. She (legitimately) complains about ‘being made to feel insecure about her body’ in unpleasant incidents, without mentioning that this happens in a context where millions of others are ‘made to feel insecure about their bodies’ by the vast majority of media images, TV programmes, advertising, magazines, their doctors, newspapers, films, fashion, etc etc etc. That doesn’t make what happened to her okay, but it does mean she could do with expressing a bit more recognition that she’s not necessarily in the worst cultural position here.

This baby orang is unimpressed. QUAIL BEFORE THE HAIR, NON-PRIVILEGE CHECKERS!

Hell, recounting her (undoubtedly troubling) personal experiences she doesn’t even make a stab at addressing the possible motivations of her interlocutors, and it’s worth pointing out that the cultural lionisation of thinness she mentions (briefly, on the way to further weight loss anecdata – yes, really. She went on a diet and lost weight! Lucky her!) means that those criticising her are used to being told by the majority of media and cultural sources that her body type is a) aspirational and b) the product of dieting and effort. Their assumption of the right to be rude to her about it is pretty horrible, but it also reflects something much, hah, bigger, than Rosie being thin and other people being mean about it.

Turns out, in her case, her size IS partly the result of dieting and effort. She put on weight after having 2 kids, as many women do, and decided she didn’t like it. She had the metabolic, financial and practical resources whereby dieting and exercise were feasible for her, and resulted in weight loss that she’s ‘happy’ with. Lucky her! These are totally legitimate feelings and life choices! We all have to come to our own accommodations with cultural body bullshit, and Rosie is lucky enough to be able to achieve with some lifestyle changes a state where ‘I don’t look in the mirror in the morning and punch the air with delight but nor do I sob into my coffee.’ That’s great, and I’m glad for her. But spending an entire article complaining about how people ‘hate me for being thin’ without addressing any of the cultural context in which that occurs or the structural fatphobia underlying contemporary culture and media manifests a quite staggering missing of the point.

She also, DESPITE HER EXTENSIVELY CITED EXPERIENCES TO THE CONTRARY, assumes that people are not dicks. Viz:

Pointing out what you don’t like about someone else’s size — too fat or too thin — is not going to change them. [Ed. note: very true! We’re within spitting distance of a sensible point here!] Would it be okay to go up to a woman and tell her she was overweight, that she looked ill or simply that she ate too much? Obviously not. You would be causing huge offence. It swings both ways.

Obvious to her, maybe, but….that happens. It happens all the time, from what I hear. Larger friends have had people commenting on their shopping in the supermarket, insulted by strangers and colleagues and tutors, and been yelled at in the street. More to the point, doctors – those people we trust for supposedly objective advice on our health and wellbeing – are as prone to fatphobia as the next enculturated person.[1] As one friend put it: “Saying mean things about fat women’s bodies is hurtful and wrong” is universally acknowledged as true.” Can I come and live in this world please?’ If people assume the right to comment on Rosie’s body, dehumanising her in the process, how much more does she think they assume the right to comment on bodies not widely constructed as acceptable and aspirational?

This baby orang really digs his tummy.

And do not get me STARTED on her complete failure to address or acknowledge the existence of thin privilege. (This list of examples is US-centric and has issues, but gives you the gist.)

For the record, and to define my own subject position here: I have roughly the same bmi as the author of that article. I’m a lot smaller (5’2 to her ‘tall’), often referred to as ‘tiny’ or ‘petite’. I too have a build describable as ‘slim’ or ‘slender’, although I still have various dysmorphic weirdnesses and try not to think about it too much. If, uh, this is your first time at the blog and you’ve never met me in meatspace, I also have a history of severe anorexia, so the vast majority of my experiences of ‘thin shaming’ happened when I was much thinner, and bore a more complex relation to my state of health and/or sanity. Although I have never experienced fat-shaming – I can count the number of times I’ve been referred to as ‘fat’ on the fingers of one hand, although see previous re: dysmorphic weirdnesses – I have also spent roughly the last 8 years researching and writing and talking about experiences of embodiment in culture. I therefore, when talking about this stuff, at least try to acknowledge that a) I do have thin privilege and b) other people have it a lot worse than me in contemporary culture, plus additional shit to deal with from the intersections of size with race, gender, disability, trans status, economic group, all the rest of it. I’m not looking for cookies here, I’m just pointing out that not being a dick is sort of a minimum requirement when you’re discussing something so central to so many people from a position of relative privilege.

The sad thing about all this is that Rosie is within spitting distance of making some decent (if basic) points that I actually agree with about how fucked up and unhelpful body shaming and making assumptions about other people’s bodies is.

F’rex:

But if someone suffers from [anorexia or bulimia] shaming them by telling them to “eat some cake” or that “it makes me feel sick just looking at you” is not going to help. [True! Shaming in ‘not fixing deep-rooted psychological problems’ shocker!]

These orangs think it’s important to snuggle and appreciate flowers.

There’s an Instagram account called You Did Not Eat That, dedicated entirely to pictures of thin people posing with calorific food — the assumption is that anyone of size eight or under will never eat a cheeseburger. [Which is clearly bollocks. My friends Stephani and Psyche went into a fascinating digression at this point about the cultural meaning of cheeseburgers that I would encourage all to consider in their spare time.)

What all this comes down to, though, is that (as Susie Orbach so wisely pointed out in Bodies, which everyone should read) is that embodiment, particularly although not limited to female embodiment, is REALLY FUCKING PROBLEMATIC in contemporary culture. I cannot express this better than my friends did, discussing this post on Facebook. A friend with extensive experience of thin shaming pointed out that ‘it is very, very difficult for women who are small to say anything whatsoever about our bodies or our body image issues without people getting pissed off’, whereupon another friend neatly summed up the whole cultural mess thus:

I think you could probably remove ‘who are small’ from that sentence and still have it be perfectly valid. “It is very, very difficult for women to say anything whatsoever about our bodies or our body image issues without people getting pissed off.” Like your body? You’re vain and/or deluded. Don’t like your body? You just need to stop whining and step away from/eat more cake, silly woman (like it might never have occurred to us to try that….). I have a whole rant saved up about the comment that invariably appears on any post about weight and health related issues: “Just eat less calories. It’s easy!” – like there are no social, cultural or emotional aspects to food and eating.

She is completely and entirely right, and cuts to the heart of all the issues Rosie so spectacularly managed to miss. Culture is fucked up about embodiment, food, eating and gender, and we’re all caught in the crossfire. Until we learn to shut the fuck up, live and let live, and try to approach others with empathy, kindness and consideration, we’re just bringing ourselves down, and we need to make this better. To put it another way, the price of privilege – and it is not a particularly heavy one, all things considered – is to acknowledge it, especially when you’re writing in a public forum about related issues. You check your privilege, you own your subject position, and you try not to be a dick to people further down whatever the relevant privilege axes are. It’s not much to ask, actually. [2]

[1] One commenter, currently disabled but previously a keen sportsperson competing in no fewer than ten different sports simultaneously, had some horror stories about doctors assuming their inactivity and thoughtlessly demanding further exercise without pausing to ask what their current levels were.)

[2] All this said, I’m well aware that I haven’t touched – much – on the intersections of size with cis and racial privilege here. I feel I should, but I’m not sure I know enough to do so, so this article is essentially a compromise.

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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; overanalytical, overaffectionate, overarticulate, oversensitive, certainly overfond of the prefix ‘over’. Purveyor of uncomfortable truths. Talks filth in public. Needs more sleep.
This entry was posted in bodies, Culture, frivolous wittering, Hunger, Psychobabble and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On thin privilege and not being a dick (again)

  1. Jack says:

    tl;dr “other people have it worse than you, so shut the hell up and take it.” A mantra suffered by everyone who ever complained about anything, ever. Classy.

    Like

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