The Truth About Privilege

We live in a culture in which there is overwhelming evidence about the existence of prejudice, yet there continues to be a glaring omission of coverage of certain groups. The media repeatedly makes the error of portraying Westerners as primarily white, thin, able-bodied, cisgendered and middle class. Meanwhile, certain groups are virtually ignored or reviled. 

There is a serious lack of progress in covering underrepresented groups and bodies.

Ask yourself . . .

How often do you see fat bodies in the spotlight?

Elderly bodies?

Bodies with disabilities?

Bodies of color?

Asian bodies?

Muslim bodies?

Latinx bodies?

Queer bodies?

Trans bodies?

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We don’t see these bodies being featured often enough. What this means is that they are underrepresented in our culture.

Although we’ve made a little progress in expanding the reach of body positivity (please click here to read about why this actually isn’t that empowering), we are still failing to represent the full spectrum of body diversity, thus leaving people who are not white, thin, able-bodied, cisgendered and middle class without representation.

If you’ve ever dipped your toes into social justice spaces, you may be familiar with the term “privilege.”

Privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” In our culture, any person who is white, thin, able-bodied, cisgendered and middle class is awarded some level of privilege.

In the 1930s, US writer, sociologist, and political activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “psychological wage” that allowed poor white people to feel superior to poor black people. <– note that both groups were classified as “poor,” yet the white people felt superior to the black people.

Society awards privilege to people because of certain aspects of their identity, including their race, socioeconomic status, size, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability and religion, among several others.

Here are some key principles about privilege:

  1. Privilege is essentially the opposite of oppression.
    • Oppression is defined as “the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control.” 
    • Oppressed groups include: women, fat people, people with disabilities, non-white individuals, poor individuals, people whose sexuality does not fall under the queer umbrella, people with mental illness, etc.
  2. Privileged groups have power over oppressed groups.
  3. Oppression is easier to perceive and often, privileged groups do not recognize their privilege.
    • Why? The experience of being mistreated and discriminated against has a greater impact on an individual than being treated fairly. 

It’s also important to recognize and understand intersectionality:

From Everyday Feminism:

“All aspects of our identities – whether those aspects are oppressed or privileged by society – interact with one another. We experience the aspects of our identities collectively and simultaneously, not individually.

The interaction between different aspects of our identities is often referred to as an intersection. The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who used it to describe the experiences of black women – who experience both sexism and racism.”

For example, all women experience sexism, but the sexism that black women experience is  unique because it is informed by racism. The sexism that disabled women experience is unique because it is informed by ableism.

In other words, intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society are not mutually exclusive entities. These forms of oppression interrelate and generate a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination–including racism, weight discrimination, sexism, ageism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and belief-based bigotry.

I hate to make this seem like an “oppression Olympics,” but here are a few examples of how marginalized identities can intersect . . .

  1. Fat, black women experience weight discrimination, racism, and sexism.
  2. Fat, black, lesbian women experience weight discrimination, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
  3. Fat, black, lesbian, old women experience weight discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism.
  4. Fat, black, lesbian, old, disabled women experience weight discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and ableism.

The same goes for men. Being a black man is difficult, but being a gay, fat black man is even more difficult. The intersectionality of these identities creates very unique experiences.

Now that I’ve briefly explained the concept of privilege, we can talk more about the underrepresentation of marginalized groups and the overrepresentation of privileged groups.

For those of you who have explored the thriving body positive community on social media, you’ve probably noticed that the conversations revolve mostly around body size.

That’s cool, because fat bodies are certainly marginalized and the body positive movement does, after all, strive to create representation for marginalized bodies.

The problem I see is that the body positive message is watered down by the lack of non-white, non-able-bodied, non-cisgendered and non-thin people in the mainstream spotlight. Currently, (and thank goodness), a myriad of body positive leaders are prompting conversations about thin privilege in the body positive community.

For instance, influential models (e.g., Iskra Lawrence) are ferociously praised for posting pictures of their “rolls” whenever they sit or bend a certain way.

I agree that it is AMAZING to bring awareness to the fact that sitting down creates skin or fat rolls in the stomach/back areas of all human beings because not everyone realizes this is a common phenomenon. However, we must respect that some people have skin and fat rolls even when they are NOT sitting down or bending a certain way. Some people cannot “escape” skin and fat rolls simply by standing up, and this does not make their bodies ANY LESS worthy of praise, acceptance or love.

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Hundreds of slender women in the body positive community are applauded for posting photos of their rolls, but if those same women gained 50 lbs, they would no longer be applauded. They would be bullied. They would be told to stop eating. They would be told to stop existing.

 This is thin privilege.

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Every day, thin women flock to the profiles of fat women, talking about how they feel excluded from the body positive community. Thin women express the discrimination they experience for being told by strangers to go “eat a cheeseburger.” They talk about how much they hate their thin bodies.

I am going to emphasize this right now: NOBODY is immune to body image struggles or bullying. You cannot look at a thin person and say, “OMG they are so lucky that they don’t have to deal with hating their bodies or being bullied,” because thin people do experience bullying and their pain is real. Both skinny shaming and fat shaming are unacceptable and painful, and no one in the body positive community wants to invalidate ANYONE’S struggles.

But, as Everyday Feminism eloquently explains it:

“When you’re not thin, other people on the beach actually do take offense. When you’re not thin, people really do think that you shouldn’t be in a bathing suit. When you’re not thin, people really do make your body their moral obligation.

As horrible as skinny-shaming is (and it is!), what makes it different is that it does not involve a pervasive fear or hatred of thin bodies.

And while its personal effects are certainly influential, it is not restrictive on a social level.”

If you need more help conceptualizing thin privilege, here are 22 examples of thin privilege.

Anyway, I am so thankful that leaders of the body positive community are educating others about the existence of thin privilege. This is an excellent introduction to privilege for people who are new to the concept.

Eventually though, conversations about other forms of privilege and oppression need to be brought to the forefront. Anastasia Amour and Sarah Vance  are rockstars at this, showing the beauty and the value of bodies that are underrepresented.

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As we move forward, I urge the body positive community to honor that this movement is about understanding that ALL bodies are worthy of love, regardless of their color, age, gender, sexual orientation, size, and ability. All bodies deserve equal representation, and that’s why privileged individuals need to step out of the spotlight and make room for all bodies on stage.

The ultimate goal is, after all, to embrace that we are so much more than our bodies. Regardless of our bodies, we are worthy of love just for being who we are.


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