Thin Privilege

I had the opportunity to explain white privilege to my daughter the other day.

She was telling me how her friends were arguing with her about why boys never show any interest in her. Basically, she said, “I never get attention from boys, and no one ever likes me,” and her friends said, “That’s not true...You’re so pretty and smart.”

When we started to unravel the whole thing, I finally said to her: “They’re speaking from the perspective of white privilege. They don’t understand your experience because they’ve never been discriminated against because of their race.” Just for context: my daughter IS so pretty and smart, and has a very socially acceptable body, and is very outgoing and fun. And she’s also a very dark-skinned Ethiopian.

She was relieved to finally “get” that the lack of interest from boys isn’t about her as a person. And while her friends were trying to be supportive, they were not taking into consideration the larger social context in which we have these experiences: things are not equal for everyone, and we don’t all face the same challenges.

It’s the same issue that makes white men say things like: “I didn’t have anything handed to me. People can accomplish anything if they just work hard enough.” Again, it’s not that the American, heterosexual, Christian, white, able-bodied, middle class male doesn’t ever face challenges, but he probably doesn’t face challenges because of his race or socio-economic status or sexuality or physical abilities or religion or immigration status. Those are all privileges.

There’s been a lot of talk about thin privilege in the Intuitive Eating Facebook community as of late. Of course thin people also face real body image challenges and eating disorders, but their challenges likely aren’t exacerbated by their body size or shape. It means that people in socially acceptable bodies are more likely to get effective medical care (rather than just being told to lose weight), eat without judgment or “advice” from onlookers, have their eating disorder acknowledged as a real illness (rather than lack of will-power), fit into airplane seats, find bathroom stalls that can accommodate them, not worry about the width of the armed-chairs in the conference room at work or the amount of space between the booth and the table at restaurants, find clothes that fit properly, not have to ask for seat-belt extenders or be forced to pay for two seats on airplanes, and generally move about the world in a comfortable way without worrying about whether they “fit.”

Having thin privilege isn’t wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re less worthy of support. It doesn’t mean your problems are easier to deal with. It just means you probably don’t face additional problems because of your size. And when you’re talking to people who don’t enjoy the same privileges you do, it’s considerate to acknowledge your privilege and the fact that you probably don’t understand their experience because it isn’t the same as yours.

For some reason this subject is really confronting for people. There’s a tendency to clap back with “I have problems, too!” But it’s not about comparing our struggles. It’s not about who’s suffering more. It’s just about recognizing that we all have varying advantages and people without the privileges you enjoy have a much different experience in the world.

I would never discount my daughter’s experience, because I have no idea what it feels like to be ignored or isolated because of my race. That has never happened to me, and likely never will. But I have been discriminated against and judged because of my body, as recently as last week, and I would never want a thin person to invalidate or minimize my experience because they don’t understand what it feels like.

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