Thin Privilege

In Weight-Loss Maintenance on August 1, 2011 at 10:20 am

Last week was vacation.  Breckenridge, Colorado.  Note in the picture below, I am the one you cannot see because my head is down, on the far side of the raft, and I’m paddling with the intensity of a windmill in a tornado, thinking “Oh, Sh*t!  Oh, Sh*t!  Those rocks are so hard and my head (under this cheap-assed plastic salad bowl) is so soft!”  My kid is the one smiling so hard he had to loosen the chin strap on his helmet.

Rafting Brown's Canyon 2011

Rafting Brown's Canyon in the Arkansas River, Colorado. Photo by Performance Tours Rafting.

I didn’t give many details in my “away” post about being gone or why, because one doesn’t want to hand a map and game plan to robbers and such who troll the internet looking for people to reveal when and how long their houses will be empty.  I suppose I could have said something about hoping my house sitter’s Rottweiler would behave himself around my terrier, but that would have been an obvious ruse.

At any rate, I’m back, and the house is intact, unrobbed, and the terrier is home from the Hound-Dog Hilton.  And I have a blatant experience of thin privilege to share.  And that prompts me to talk more on the topic.

Eight years living in Maintenanceville, thin privilege is different.  I think it would be good for my size acceptance friends, in particular, to know how so.  Anyone who has ever lost and regained weight (as most people in the size acceptance community have) has had a taste of the “early” form of thin privilege and I think this is sad, because the first few months of thin privilege is tinged with the worst kind cruelty, hubris, embarrassment and awkwardness.   Eight years out, it’s still awkward and wrong, but it isn’t so cruel.

In the early days, the easy coast period of weight loss and maintenance, when people know that you used to be fat, and now you aren’t, they hand you an engraved invitation to join a bully culture.  Even as I was in my forties, when people should have grown up, I can recall friends or acquaintances my age indicating some fat restaurant patron, and assuming that I would agree with such observations as, “Can you believe she’s eating that!?” 

Perhaps they thought that inviting me to participate in fat ridicule was a harmless compliment to my hard work at weight loss, a reward, and (for those who “knew” it was a “lifestyle”) a tool to re-enforce my resolve to never be fat again.  Equally likely, however, their fat hate was an expression of insecurity and fear.  They wanted my reassurance that they would continue to avoid this fat woman’s fate, because they would stop eating such unbelievable food long before they got that big, right?  I was to offer this reassurance by re-enforcing their prejudices (and sense of superiority) by sharing some outrage with them.

I always felt wrong, but didn’t know what to say.  I responded by mumbling “Well, I don’t. . .,” or something equally incoherent.  Because the thin privilege was wrong, I was compelled to shake my head, but then I knew that was interpreted as agreement with the fat hate, “Oh no, I too cannot fathom why that fat woman is eating so!”  I just felt awful about it.  And helpless.  And I didn’t have the vocabulary or experience to express the complexity of weight management, and I lacked the courage to say, “Wow.  What qualifies you to cast stones!?”

Interestingly, it wasn’t always naturally trim people who extended the invitation to the Fat Shame Bully Society.  “Good” fat people, who eat salads and exercise, are as likely to be as hateful and fearful as anyone.  Subtext:  “Please assure me I won’t get fatter.”

Thin privilege for me now no longer solicits cruelty; it is mostly just the absence of fat shaming.  It means not having to fret at a restaurant because my friends may ask for a booth instead of a table, and the seat may be set too close for comfort.  It means the drape at the doctor’s office covers me, the doctor shows no signs of disappointment or disgust at my body, and I’m spared the weight-loss lecture.  It means I can buy expensive running shoes and no one gives me a side-long glance, “Lotta good they’re doin’ her.”  It means no one critiques the food in my grocery cart.  It means that the panty hose chart is accurate for my dimensions, so the nylon will not fray and burn lesions into the insides of my thighs.  It means that all the news reports on how bad and unhealthy it is to be fat, and how expensive it is to society, do not apply to me, so I may ignore them some days.  I get to take a break. 

Thin privilege is how people don’t look disparagingly at me (or avert their gaze uncomfortably as they pray I won’t sit with them) when I board a commercial airplane.  I would not now be subjected to the humiliation that I was when fat, of being asked to sit at the back of a commuter jet, “to balance the load.”   Thin privilege means never being treated like ballast. 

Thin privilege for me, at its worst now, is overhearing someone else’s fat-hate conversation, since the conversants will assume I’m in agreement and won’t bother to lower their voices.  My friends know my thoughts on weight loss and maintenance all too well and don’t try to engage me in anything hateful.  New friends who learn of my blog or my weight-maintenance status may ask me to acknowledge some cultural mythology:  “Children are fat now because of all the sweetened cereals and video games, right?”  I shake my head and tell them it’s more complicated than that.  They say, “Of course.” 

While thin privilege now is mostly the absence of shame, it can also be a subtle ritual, and that is what happened on this vacation.

At the beginning of any rafting trip is the requisite “scare talk,” in which you learn what to do if ejected from the raft.  Then you meet your guide and rafting companions for the day.  My family shared a raft with a family from Texas.  Because our raft had an odd number, seven, the guide told us that he’d need a partner in the stern with him, someone “light weight.”

The Texas mom looked at me, lifted her palm, and said, “You, could . . .”

I responded with a sheepish smile, “Well, I don’t . . .”

It lasted only three seconds, and anyone seeing the exchange would have no clue that a ritual in thin privilege had just occurred.  Here, however, was the subtext:

Texas Mom:  “You could volunteer.  You’re thin enough, probably three BMI points my junior, and I mean that as a compliment.  No one would think you were ridiculous or deluded if you volunteered.  (And I know you may be questioning that, because you’re a woman and, by definition, are plagued with doubts and body issues, regardless of your weight history.)  However, more importantly, the person who really should sit in the stern is my 85-pound, 12-year-old son, but he may think that idea is lame.  And I can’t step in to rescue him, but you can.”

Me:  “Well, I don’t qualify as the lightest, as you know.  Not even second lightest – that would be my 14-year-old son.  But both he and your son may think sitting in the stern is lame.  We both know that could be horribly awkward, but since you have given me permission, established my relative size qualification and offered your support, if this gets ugly, I’ll step forward and take the seat in the stern.”

Fortunately for both of us, the twelve-year-old raised his paddle and leaped to the side of our guide, “I’m lightest!  I’m in the back.”  Whew.

Yup.  Thin privilege means getting to be a hero, if only on stand-by, from time to time.  Perhaps I was also the hero when I served as the commuter jet’s ballast, but that made me cry when I reached my hotel room.  I must admit, this situation felt much better.  Thin privilege is getting to feel good about weight-related opportunities.

  1. Interesting thoughts.

    To be honest, I was hoping you’d let us know if there are weight cutoffs for white water rafting, because that looks really fun and I’d love to try it.

    • If there are weight cut-offs, I didn’t see them, and I did see a variety of people there. Actually, this is a sport that probably favors heavy people. The one person expelled from a boat in our group of five boats was a really thin, young woman.

      If you want to wear one of their wetsuits, you might want to call ahead and see if they have your size. Most people didn’t wear the wetsuits, but I did mainly because I’m so pale and it was like wearing SPF 1000 on my legs.

  2. Thin privilege has its dirty side: when you are not quite thin enough to be left alone in situations that may call for inordinate strength …. i.e., “I’m not as strong as I may look” …

    As an aging woman, that’s a double-edge sword

    • Welcome out of the lurking bushes, Tina. My husband, a square framed brute, with a bad back, empathizes with your thoughts completely!

    • I’ve had to tell both Pilates instructors, and, if you can believe it, therapists, exactly that.

  3. Oh, and welcome back!

  4. I got a little thin privilege on an airplane the last time I traveled. It felt weird. I was already sitting down, and a little nervous blond girl came and took the seat next to me, turned to me and said “we’re lucky, two small people sitting together”. She was so obviously freaking over her first flight though, and she was just kind of matter of fact about it, not snarking on someone nearby, so I didn’t comment. Even though I am hardly “small”.

    • What a sweet story, Cynthia. Airplanes are their own nightmare with regard to body size. Air flight discomfort affects people who are big-shouldered, long-legged, big all over, or simply big in some inconvenient place as it relates to an airline seat. Sadly, instead of demanding that airplanes figure out how to solve their problem, the customers get the blame, especially the fat customers. Is this the only realm in which the customer isn’t always right?

  5. I’m not lurking. I have posted on Debra’s Just Maintaining before, under the handle NoApologies.

  6. Hi Debra! Glad to have you back.

  7. There is one ‘thin’ privilege I was looking forward to, that has turned out to be quite disappointing. I couldn’t wait for the day to walk into a normal clothes store, cash in hand, ready to buy some gorgeous stuff. What I’ve discovered is that unless you’re talking haute couture designer level, post-GFC clothes aren’t made very well. Before I got fat, I used to enjoy wearing tailored clothes of beautiful fabrics. Those clothes seem to have gone, unless you’re willng to pay megabucks. Seams that aren’t quite right, hems that don’t drape properly etc etc Clothes stores I remember as being good value now charge the same prices, but don’t offer the same quality.

    But then, maybe imagining myself in killer outfits was all part of the ‘when I’m thin’ fantasy that couldn’t stand up to the real world…

    • You’re telling ME? It had been a major downer when I got a receipt for my purchase … oh, in a size 9 (that I have since regained a little from) … and on that receipt was written “SALE SHIT” next to the price …

      In those thin fantasies, we are all in classier stores where receipts like that do not exist … lol

    • Alexie, I don’t think you’re imagining it. So much clothing is made in third world sweat shops now, with no concern for the workers, and little concern for the customers. Durability or even accuracy of the workmanship is just a lucky accident in some labels. One that rhymes with Shmanne Staylor Phloft comes to mind. And I think many of the manufacturers have discovered that if they make their clothes to wear out, we’ll just buy more.

      I guess Thrift Shops are the alternative, along with some Fair Trade and American Made pieces. Also, perhaps, writing letters now and then to the offenders that we think might listen and do better/try harder. I wrote to Hanes last year thanking them for making in America the athletic socks I’d just bought, and encouraging them to consider moving their sports bra operations here too. No response. Sigh.

  8. So glad you’re back. I think a lot of people missed you!

    For me, thin privilege is a very double-edged sword. Being well under 5′ tall, when I lose weight, I also lose “presence”. When I go to buy clothes, people comment *even more* on how tiny I am. I become *even more* infantilized, although people don’t realize what they’re doing. They just think I look awfully cute when I’m small in size and stature. I suppose that’s in part why I have developed a strong, resonant voice and a large personality.

    Since I am now even smaller in stature (that’s what aging does to you!), just plain older and somewhat larger in girth, mostly I’m ignored.

    One more thought: There’s a corollary to “thin privilege”. It’s the “oh, but you’re not really fat” privilege. Recently, I spent four days working out of town with a reed-thin young woman and a clearly zaftig woman in her late forties. I guess I was somewhere in between, but obviously closer to my zaftig collegue. Over lunch one day, we starting talking about the myth of eat less – move more. Of course, the young, slim woman was convinced that this slogan is no less true than saying the world is round, or revolves around the sun. When the other colleague and I began to refute her certainties, she immediately interjected with fervour, “Oh, but *you’re* not fat!” It was such a patent lie that I was left speechless.

    • That absolutely floored me, NewMe … with my bodily proportions I get two times out of three, ” *you’re* not fat”, and the other third: ” … you could really pay attention more to what and when you eat ” (‘Who asked YOU?’, I’m too polite to reply to their face, but I would through Facebook, etc.)

    • Even fat people get that “Oh, you’re not fat” business. Meaning, 1)They think of fat people as loathsome beasts. 2) You’re clearly not a loathsome beast. 3) Therefore, no matter how much you weigh, you’re not fat.

    • Nice observations, NewMe. With regard to stature: as I understand it, for nearly every study that correlates fatness with depressed economic opportunity, etc., there is a study relating height — as in shortness — to that problem as well. And we won’t even GO to the “woman” issue — so complex. So unfair. I am glad you have developed a strong “voice” to compensate some — and in two languages. Important in your country.

      I’m also glad that the young, thin woman got to experience a bit of that “voice.” How I would have adored being a fly on the wall!!! I know a lot of my feminist consciousness was developed in my 20s, listening in on wise crones talking. You and your Zaftig colleague may have really made a big difference to this young potential reformer.

  9. As always Debra, a well-thought-out post. You always make me think, and usually I like that LOL.

    LOVE the pic of white water rafting. Its on my list of things to do someday. I’d better get to it before I become ‘too old’ to do such things.

  10. Oh, Debby, you make me think too. And you have the power to change and move people because underneath everything is this all-too-apparent sweet heart. I can “hear” things from you that someone with a similar opinion but harder heart could not beat into my thick head.

    Yes, by all means, do the rafting! You’re right there, for crying out loud! It is really, really fun (starting about ten minutes in when you have gotten over being really, really scared).

    I was thinking of you quite a lot when I was in Colorado, by the way. “Wow, these wildflowers are as pretty as the ones in Debby’s pictures!” Truly, you live in the most beautiful part of the world — at least in the summer. I love your winter pics, but wouldn’t want to live in them.

    You might also appreciate this, knowing your state. I went passed a sign every day on my morning walk “Sensitive wildlife. Do not disturb.” It just cracked me up. For grins, I would yell stuff over the fence. “Sensitive, eh? Well, you little deadbeats, just get up off your butts and do something, and stop complaining! Take THAT to your therapist!”

    • “I went passed a sign every day on my morning walk “Sensitive wildlife. Do not disturb.” It just cracked me up. For grins, I would yell stuff over the fence. “Sensitive, eh? Well, you little deadbeats, just get up off your butts and do something, and stop complaining! Take THAT to your therapist!””

      I just laughed out loud in a public place. People are looking at me funny.

  11. @Mulberry: I hate to think it, but another translation may be “You are fat, but you’re obviously deluded, because if you knew how fat you were you’d do something about it, so I’ll just play along with your delusion, because I think you’re nice and I want to be your friend, and it’ll make you feel better to think I think you’re not fat.”

  12. Oh, yeah, I remember those days as well … but it’s a vicious cycle (insofar as myself having been the recipient of such left-handed compliments)

    In order to have someone think so highly of you that they would say “you’re not fat” (out of love for you) you really have had to have bent over backwards being nice to them first. More than is healthy for YOU.

    Of course, there is another possible scenario: If one is really mean and has power over them. If one has been successful at bullying them in such a power-imbalance situation: I have also been privy to those, when it is said or implied in a “do not hurt me/do not hurt me further” sort of vein. There are Machiavellian fat people all over; I have never been one of them.

  13. For clothes – I have had good luck with Lands’ End. Their plus sizes fit me extremely well – I have never had clothes that fit my particular shape as well. They are well made, I still have clothes that I bought several years ago that I am wearing, as well as newer things that are of the same quality (post-GFC). They have a no-questions-asked returns policy and if you get something that is too large or too small you can exchange it easily for another size. Or for any other reason – you don’t like the color, the fit, the feel, and of course if the garment has a defect.

    They may seem pricey, but considering they last three or more years (on once-a-week wear) they are a bargain.

    Don’t mean to sound like a salesperson but I like them so much I did a presentation on them for a business class!


  14. My thin privilege is to be treated with more respect. I was surprised by this. I don’t feel like my performance has changed at all. That really brought fat discrimination home for me. I do feel like though once you are out of high school, no one will call you fat. As 60 lbs crept on since my wedding my husband kept saying “you’re not fat.” I wanted to believe him so I did. When I overheard someone referring to my as fat at a restaurant I was shocked. It shouldn’t have bothered me but it did. Now that I am experiencing thin privledge and the respect from others I don’t want to go back even though I know society is twisted and wrong. I am so scared to go back.

  15. When I was a brand-new thin person, people were constantly coming up to me and telling me how great I looked. I found this really embarrassing because I always added the unspoken ending to the sentence, “…compared to what you looked like before you lost weight.” I couldn’t wait until enough time passed that people would forget I was ever fat and I could just be a “normal” person. Now, almost four years into maintenance, people seem to accept me as a permanently thin person and I know lots of people who never knew me when I was heavier, so no one comments on how I look anymore. But, strangley enough, I now feel compelled to remind people that I used to be fat. It seems that my thin priviledge is to be able to talk about being fat, which I could never do when I was fat.

  16. Sandy,

    During the rare times when I was slimmer (I’ve never been thin), I too would get told how great I looked and I felt exactly the same thing that you did. It’s not a great feeling.

  17. “. . . compelled to remind people that I used to be fat.” That happens to me too, and I’m not sure what it’s about. It’s not bragging so much as a subtext of “. . . so please don’t try to push food at me or make food decisions for me, and don’t judge what may appear to be unusual behavior, because I know what I need to do, and it’s nothing you’ve read in shallow magazines, except on those days when it is the sum total of everything you’ve read in those shallow magazines, and I’m struggling like a club-footed mountain goat and you’re saying dumb stuff like “one cookie won’t kill you,” when I know it can “hurt” in a complex way.” That.

  18. The bubble that’s popped the loudest for me is the one where I thought that being thin would make me gorgeous. I have a couple of work colleagues who are very petite and I continue to tower over them in an ungainly way. They still look more effortlessly elegant than me, even though (by necessity) my clothes are newer. I still have hair that refuses to take direction very well – in fact, sometimes I think the combination of me being very thin and having short hair that sticks up has given me a distinctive ‘toilet brush’ look.

    *Sigh* I guess I’ve finally learned you have to be happy in the body you’ve got, because if you’re not, you’re doomed to be unhappy… there’s always someone younger, prettier, whatever…

    • “Distinctive ‘toilet brush’ look.” Literally, I did laugh out loud on that one.

      When I used to look at photos of myself, I’d say, “Gawsh, I don’t feel that fat.” Now I say, “Gawsh, I don’t feel that old.”


  19. Wow. your content is amazing…and the comments are quite amazing as well. The honesty of the blog-post quite literally stuns me. I had visited here – actually, just kind of “fell” into here from another site, a short time ago. Glad I put you on my RSS feed! As a woman who was nearly 100 lbs heavier than I have been for about 9 years now, I identify with so much that I am reading.

    I, too, frequently get “thin privilige” comments. Many of these come from women at my local Curves where I work out 4-5 days/week and just recently have started teaching Zumba in the Circuit. I continue to be stunned when women say to me ” You don’t even need to be coming here. You’re one of those people who probably couldn’t get fat if they tried.” It’s actually very important for me to tell them that not only “could” I gain weight very easily, but that in some cases, I used to weigh far more than they are working at taking off now.

    For me, it is reality and authenticity, most of all, with myself. And it reminds me at least once a week of exactly where I have been and the almost inhuman effort it took and takes to change that. And we all have different trajectories into carrying differing amounts of unwanted/extra weight and that I still have a body that is essentially trying every day, to take me right back to high weight set-point.


    Thank you for this blog. It is very meaningful to me.


    • THANK YOU, mem. What a kind comment.

      Re: “You don’t even need to be coming here. You’re one of those people who probably couldn’t get fat if they tried.” That is a suscint summary of one of the great American fantacies, that thin is easy. And even when you tell them that you were once fat, they probably still think your current level of training is optional. And, actually, it is, but then there would be weight consequences. Are weight consequences the end of the world? No. But yes.

      Note: for what it is worth, I started expanding on that line of thinking and just did a cut and paste into a Word document. There may be a post coming out of this.

  20. Ha, what a coincidence – we also got in a mini-white-water rafting trip on MY far-too-short vacation! (yes, I need to blog about it, now that I’m safely home – having left a Rottie, 2 Shepard mixes, the black Lab, & the Catahoula on guard patrol 😉

    I don’t think there are any weight limits, Dee – although there were a few tricky moments on our trip: it was cool & overcast, starting spitting rain before we left, so the guides issued us wetsuits… Fortunately she guess-timated my size perfectly, but I was grateful for their dressing rooms, so no one had to witness me stuffing myself into it! Could still barely move after being strapped tightly into a life jacket; when I got down to the river I slipped on a loose rock, went down awkwardly on my back like a turtle & couldn’t get up (didn’t want to drop paddle OR water bottle). One of the guides came over & helped me up as I made self-deprecating jokes about being like the Stay-Puff marshmallow man.

    After that, we had lots of fun – my 105-lb, 13 yr old son was also placed in the stern (behind me); no one was ejected although he voluntarily jumped in for a brief swim in the frigid Yellowstone (I wanted to, but did not want to subject anyone to the ordeal of having to haul my carcass back into the raft)

    Kiddo also had “the most fun he’s ever had in his whole life” when we bought him a tandem hang-glider ride. However, they DID have a weight limit on that (200 lbs). I’ll have to peel off a few more lbs before I can try it!

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