Kate Harding, a popular fat-acceptance writer, is sick of overweight people being judged. In a recent profile in the Chicago Tribune she makes tongue-in-cheek comments about how some thin people think she eats “baby-flavored” doughnuts, but behind her acerbic wit, Harding addresses the underlining assumption that fat people are ignorant or just plain disgusting. Even if you recoil at her snarkiness, it is hard to deny Harding’s point about how fat people are viewed within our society. Even if being a size 2 isn’t the norm within society, it is considered an ideal size for most women. So does that make being thin a form of privilege, much like being wealthy, white, heterosexual and/or male?
It seems like when we divide people according to a dichotomy of weight (“thin” vs. “fat”), we talk not about how we can be more supportive of heavier people, but about how we can eliminate them altogether – i.e., turn them into thin people. It’s when I think about the issue this way that the insidious nature of fat phobia and thin privilege becomes clear. In what other situation do people who are generally empathetic toward marginalized groups suggest not that the privileged group change its attitude but instead that the unprivileged group cease to exist?
Her comments sparked a debate among the other commenters, with one commenter telling her that overweight people aren’t part of an unprivileged group because “you can change your membership” and others arguing that the point is, if you are overweight and healthy, there shouldn’t be a need to “change your membership.”
While I am not sure if I can wholeheartedly agree that thinness is a privilege akin to being wealthy or white, it is an interesting concept to discuss. Being seen as thin by others has definitely gotten me a few benefits in life. I have walked into retail jobs knowing that if I was over a size 10 I probably wouldn’t be hired. I’ve never had to worry that most people would view me as being overweight and therefore might think I was unattractive, stupid or lazy because of it. It is kind of disheartening to think that people hold these prejudices against overweight people, but we all know that these prejudices exist. Why do we view fat people as being inherently lazy, unhealthy or ignorant? Why do we feel that thinness is the opposite of all of these things?
One of the clearest examples of negative stereotypes of overweight people is in fat jokes. It is ironic that some comedians feel the need to make fun of fat people for being lazy because mocking fat people is really the most tired, lazy form of comedy out there. How many jokes have we heard that were essentially just stating “this person is fat?” He he ha ha. Comedy! How’s that spec script for Dane Cook going, funnypants? In all seriousness, why is being fat the butt of a joke? Is it because fat people are assumed to be unhealthy (even though you could be overweight and still healthier than a wick-thin, beer-chugging, coke-snorting, cigarette-smoking hipster)? Why is being unhealthy considered hilarious by a certain strain of frat boy-lite humor?
On the other end of the spectrum, I am really sick of people mocking thin people for being “anorexic.” Why is anorexia, a serious psychological disease that can often lead to death, something to make fun of? Considering the fact that there are some cases of serious eating disorders not being taken seriously by insurance companies (much like other mental illnesses), it doesn’t seem like mocking someone for being anorexic is funny. Maybe if people stopped viewing eating disorders as simply cases of extreme dieting, narcissism or something inherent in anyone under a size 4, they would start being taken seriously by medical insurance companies.
However, for all the “anorexic” comments made to thin people, there are hundreds more inappropriate comments made to overweight people. If someone is overweight but ultimately healthy, do they need to change the way they are just to conform to our society’s idea of health? And is this an example of thin privilege?