As a woman, I face an exorbitant amount of stress concerning the way I look – particularly how much I weigh. I’ve been trained from an early age to feel like most of my value comes from being thin and pretty, and even though I’ve spent much time intentionally unlearning those kinds of thoughts, I still feel haunted by the feeling that I’m not good enough if I’m not skinny enough. Most women are made to feel like they should take up as little space as possible, and that the best way to gain attention from men and respect from women is to be thin. However, even though much of my concern with being thin comes from the oppression of sexism, many of those feelings also come from my privilege as a thin person. I’m terrified to gain weight because there are very real societal and interpersonal privileges I’ve always had because I am thin. While I have never been heavy, I recently lost significant weight and became “skinny.” It’s hard for me to admit, but I’ve been scared to gain any of that weight back because I don’t want to face how people would think of me and treat me if I became fat. I recently realized that that fear is one reason why I know thin privilege exists.
As a social justice activist, I understand some of the emotional, psychological, physical, and economic injustices that fat folks face on a daily basis, but I’ve only recently started to acknowledge my privilege as a thin person, and hold myself accountable for my own oppression of fat people. (Note: the term “fat” is preferred by many fat activists over “overweight” because it can help the fat acceptance movement by “normalizing the neutrality and/or positivity of ‘fat’” – see more on this website). My perpetuation of fat phobia comes from my own insecurity and body image issues. For example, I remember an instance when I was skimming through photos online of a guy I had just started dating, and when I found pictures of him and his ex-girlfriend, I started comparing myself to her. (Disclaimer: I’m not proud of this act.) In response to my anxiety, a friend said something about how ‘I didn’t have to worry about her because she looked fat and I was way skinnier and prettier than her.’ I knew she was out of line, only trying to make me feel better despite her use of fat phobia, but the thing is: it did make me feel better. I know that I have a silent power from being thin, and I chose to use that power in that situation to make myself feel more secure about my new relationship. This power brought itself to my attention again recently: I gained some temporary weight a couple of months ago when I was prescribed steroids for a sinus infection, and I was so afraid of feeling unattractive, that I started asking my boyfriend multiple times a day if I looked fat, desperately hoping that the answer was “No.” I did these things to hold onto my privilege because it has been so ingrained in me that I am worth more skinny than I am fat. I realize how problematic my thinking was now that fat phobia and thin privilege have been brought to my attention.
I wanted to write this article on fat phobia because, as a social justice educator, I think that it is important for me to explore the difference in oppression that fat and thin women face. I started to write from a very academic standpoint. Though, I honestly had not learned much about fat phobia throughout my activist career, so I read articles written by fat activists to try and understand the systemic, institutional, and personal oppression that fat people face in our society. However, I have come to realize that, at this point, I personally understand fat phobia best through my own perpetuation of it. Thin privilege is a very real thing that I benefit from, and until I and other people holding that power acknowledge our privilege – and hold ourselves accountable to think about it – fat phobia will continue to exist. My thinness means that I’m often perceived as being fit, healthy, beautiful, and “normal,” because those qualities are associated with success in our culture. A quick flip through the pages of almost any magazine confirms that ultra-thin women receive respect and admiration for their bodies, while fat women are shamed mercilessly for their weight. Since the list of ways in which thin folks are benefited by thin privilege is way too long to cover here, I found this article helpful in understanding more ways that my thin privilege benefits me.
Although it’s not my (or any one person’s) fault that fat phobia is so prevalent and harmful in our society, it is my responsibility as an aspiring ally to acknowledge my privilege and the ways in which I continue to oppress those around me. It’s not only unsupportive, but actively oppressive that I have used my thinness to feel superior to other women. I feel that acknowledging this shortsightedness is the first step in becoming more accountable in the social justice revolution. This issue is complicated, of course; however, it is unacceptable in our society that I, as a woman, feel like I have power based on my looks rather than my talent, intelligence, or other parts of my character. I’m still learning about fat activism and politics – and how to intentionally include fat phobia when teaching and learning about privilege and oppression; but I hope to continue this conversation and accountability with other activists.
Julia Ozog is an intersectionality feminist radical educator. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Social Thought and Political Economy program a year and a half ago, and currently lives outside of Boston. In college, she facilitated a community organizing class for undergraduates, which included subjects of privilege and oppression, identity politics, and social and economic justice through organizing. Julia’s passion is furthering social justice through liberatory education, and she is looking forward to continuing that work in the Boston area. For more of her written work (including another copy of this blog post), visit her blog at www.quiotgrrrl.com.