Whenever an activist movement that focuses on equality for marginalized people begins getting frequent and mainstream attention, the end result often seems to be widespread critique by those less marginalized about their lack of inclusion within the movement. Such is undoubtedly the case with body positivity, which is constantly beset by critics unwilling to acknowledge their own thin privilege. Most recently, we have seen critiques of body positivity flare up around plus-size mannequins displayed in a London Nike store.
"Wow @Telegraph - nice job with the Tanya Gold click bait. I look like that @nike mannequin, and I’ve done a 10k, a half, & a marathon this year. And there’s another 10k & a half coming up. If you think obese women can’t run you’ve clearly been living under a rock," tweeted user Tegwen Tucker.
But the criticism that an athletic store choosing to showcase realistic bodies is somehow a threat to public health was nothing new.
Body positivity is a term (or community, for those who still call it that) born of the fat acceptance movement before it; a term that, back in the early 2010s, aimed to shed light on the myriad ways thin privilege and fat-phobia permeate all aspects of people's lives, including their access to healthcare, their access to fashion, and, simply, the ways they are received and treated by others day-to-day.
But "body positivity" soon made its way outside of LiveJournal, independent feminist websites, and the first plus-size fashion blogs and landed just about everywhere else: In multi-million-dollar corporations, within the press releases for brands that didn't even include plus-sizes (or that did include them, up to a size 20), and into the mouths of celebrities who simultaneously endorse appetite suppressants. It became less about "all bodies are equal, but black ones, fat ones, brown ones, disabled ones, and queer ones are not treated as such," and more about "all bodies are equal," period. Outcries (and ensuing thinkpieces) along the lines of "thin people are beautiful, too," the ableist "everyone should love themselves, as long as they're healthy," or "skinny shaming is just as severe as fat shaming" soon followed, as they continue to do so today.
For many of us who care deeply about size acceptance, the message is loud and clear. Body positivity, as it was originally intended, has failed. This failure is a subject that's been covered by longtime activists and brilliant voices within body politics, including Lesley Kinzel, Evette Dionne for Bitch Media and Revelist alike, Amanda Mull, Bethany Rutter, and many more.
Still, the conversation is far from over. It can't be, because despite the advent of a few more semi-inclusive retailers or plus-size characters on TV shows (many of whom still have a weight-loss narrative, FYI), cultural fat-phobia is just as prevalent as ever. With that, the conversation about skinny/thin privilege remains relevant.
Thin privilege manifests everywhere, in infinite forms. Last year, an Editor's Note for The Cut defended a piece about prairie dresses published on the site. It was a story that saluted the prairie dress trend, accompanied by a 10-product roundup.
After seeing said roundup, writer Amanda Mull tweeted, "Lol I'm sorry but thinking you look good in a high-neck, ankle-length floral sack is skinny privilege, in which you are so conventionally attractive that no one ever makes fun of you for dressing like a jackass."
One of the most toxic, and life-threatening, manifestations of thin privilege comes via healthcare.
While there's a conversation to be had about critiquing people's clothing options or labelling a look that you don't like "jackass"-esque, the greater conversation arguably comes down to The Cut's response. It was a note that, at its core, seemingly wanted to recognize how alienating fashion can be for bodies that do not fit conventional standards of beauty. It was a note that preached "wear whatever you like, whenever you like, and never let anybody tell you that you don’t deserve to participate because of your size, gender, age, or economic status."
Still, it was a note that ultimately defended an article in which only two out of 10 merchandise options were available in plus-sizes (that's 20 percent, in a country where 67 percent of women wear plus-sizes), with no options available above a size 28, and with no options featuring visibly fat models. To make a case for the inclusivity of such a roundup is thin privilege. It's easy to forget that bodies above a size 30 exist, and also need to wear clothing, when you've never personally worn anything above a 12. It's easy to think throwing in two plus-size clothing options makes your content "diverse" when, historically, there haven't been any options at all.
It's critical to note that fashion is but one aspect of contemporary living that's been more or less off limits to fat people. One of the most toxic, and life-threatening, manifestations of thin privilege comes via healthcare. Where a thin person might go to a doctor for back pain, blurred vision, a sprained ankle, inexplicable chest pain, or struggles with disordered eating and receive the actual testing needed to find a diagnosis and suitable treatment, a fat one has to fight to be taken seriously; to be met with anything other than weight loss tips and blatant disregard for symptoms. Cancer goes unnoticed, eating disorders are actively encouraged, broken bones remain unset, organ slicing is recommended, and people die. Not because they are fat, but because their fatness so frequently blinds medical practitioners to the actual issues at hand. Look at my experience with PCOS — doctors told me I would never conceive.
Oftentimes, insurance providers won't even cover patients based on BMI alone. In 2013, The American Medical Association (AMA) officially recognized obesity as a disease, after all. Fat people's bodies (even those with no health concerns to speak of) are problems to be solved. They are worthy of the shame they receive, because they are sick, broken, and in need of repair.
It's true that thin individuals can be the subjects of bullying. Plenty of skinny or "average"-weight folks suffer with low self-esteem. Sexism, beauty standards, patriarchy, and ideals of health mess many of us up, regardless of what we actually look like. However, thin privilege is failing to recognize that thin bodies are, culturally, upheld as valuable, beautiful, healthy, and essential. Fat ones are pathologized. Ridiculed at all turns. Avoided on public transportation, doxed and harassed off the internet, and worse on the basis of their size alone.
It is perhaps natural for folks to jump on the defensive when they feel their experiences are being invalidated. What is less natural is to recognize that our experiences might be ours alone. That is to say, that some of us might experience shaming, and the often-resulting lack of self-worth, as a result of being dealt some sh*tty cards, rather than as the result of systemic prejudice that affects everyone who looks similarly to how we look.
Thin privilege is not being avoided on public transportation, or being made to feel on display, uncomfortable, and visibly targeted on airplanes. It is being able to walk into most retailers and walk out with a shopping bag in hand. It is being paid fairly, or given raises and promotions, far more often than a visibly fat person. It is living your life without being assumed to be an epidemic. It is being able to get insurance. It is growing up seeing bodies like yours represented and celebrated in magazines, movies, shows, stock imagery, and literature. It is not having to constantly defend your diet or health, as if either of these things should be the determinants of worth. It is being told "you deserve better" when faced with an abusive partner, rather than being told "you should be grateful for whatever you can get." It is not having to consider whether the booths at a restaurant will accommodate your body before being put in an embarrassing situation. It is not being assumed lazy, undisciplined, undesirable, or pitiable. It is not being assumed to be a bad role model or parent.
It is not having to regularly think about any of this.