Thin people are treated differently than fat people.
For many fat people, this is a plain and simple fact that’s been apparent for as long as we’ve been fat. But for many people who aren’t or haven’t been fat—and even for some fat people on the smaller end of the plus-size spectrum—this can still be a revelation. I feel terrible about my body all the time. How am I getting anything other than the short end of the stick?
But emerging data tells an increasingly clear story about the advantages that straight-size people (that is, people who don’t wear plus sizes) can access that fat people can’t. From as early as 1988, study after study and survey after survey has found that fat workers are more likely to experience discrimination and stereotyping in the workplace. This can even have a tangible effect on wages. In a recent survey of 4,000 workers in the U.K., LinkedIn found that, on average, fat workers earned £1,940 ($2,512) less each year than their colleagues within the BMI’s “normal” range.
Those troubling trends are borne out in longitudinal studies too. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology hypothesized that women in the U.S. and Germany would experience “a negative weight-income relationship that is steepest at the thin end of the distribution.” Their findings generally confirmed that hypothesis, even among individuals whose weight changed over time. And anti-fat bias can even show up in the workplace before we do. According to MIT researchers, managers who believed they would be training a fat worker “had lower expectations about the trainee’s success and work ethic prior to training.”
And that differential treatment doesn’t end in the workplace. Fat people have hair-raising stories about discrimination in health care, in reporting sexual assault, and even in trying to board an airplane. Those dynamics are often replicated among fat people too. Smaller fat people (those who are only slightly larger than standard, straight sizes) experience some benefits of thinness through their own proximity to it. As more retailers expand their selection of clothing to include plus sizes, for example, those retailers overwhelmingly focus on the smallest plus sizes, increasing access to clothing only for those fat people who are nearest to thinness.
In order to change these troubling and clearly discriminatory phenomena, we have to be able to name them. But those conversations are often complicated by one single, troubling reality: Simply put, many of us seem to think we’re fat. Just under 50% of American adults tried to lose weight between 2013 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (Notably, white people and people with higher incomes were the most likely to be engaged in weight-loss efforts—meaning that those of us with particularly pronounced privileges were most likely to be engaged in activities to try to reduce our size.) A 2014 Gallup poll found that almost half of Americans worry about their weight all or some of the time. A scant 16% of American women reported that they never worry about their weight.
We live in a world that’s hellbent on convincing us that we’re impossibly fat, and that our bodies need changing. As a result, few of us would dare to call ourselves “thin,” wrongly conflating how we feel about our own bodies with how our bodies are received by individuals and institutions around us.
But the benefits of thinness aren’t reserved for people who consider themselves thin. Like many systems of preferential treatment, the social and economic benefits of thinness operate on a spectrum. Even among straight-size people, there’s a gradient of treatment. A size 2 may not experience the tut-tutting about needing to lose those last few pounds that a size 12 might.
There are differing experiences of anti-fat bias and privilege among fat people too. For example, a smaller fat person (say, a size 16) might get a lecture about weight loss from their health care provider. A larger fat person (a size 26) might be told they can’t get needed treatments until they lose weight. And a size 36 person might need to go to a junkyard to weigh in because their primary care provider doesn’t have a scale that will hold them.
Those are all deeply different experiences. In the same way it’s important to name the ways in which a size 8 experiences the world differently than a size 18, it’s important to be able to distinguish how a size 18 experiences the world differently than a size 28 or 38 or 48.
But fat people’s access to the benefits of thinness doesn’t end there. Many of us exhibit some physical characteristics that afford us some proximity to thinness. A face without a double chin, a clearly defined waist, a clearly defined neck, not being visibly disabled, having relatively flat stomachs, lacking rolls in our arms and legs, and having a body shape that reinforces gendered ideals (hourglass figures for women, broad shoulders and barrel chests for men) can all help shield fat people from the most brutal aspects of anti-fatness.
When we hear about the experiences of people who are fatter than we are—or people who are more legibly fat than we are (i.e., people with double chins, fat faces, or body shapes that don’t reinforce gendered norms)—many of us struggle to hear those experiences as anything other than a dismissal or minimization of our own.
None of that means we can’t all participate in conversations about anti-fatness, about struggles with body image, or about institutional biases against fat people. But it does mean that we have to be honest with ourselves and others when we do. Acknowledging that people who are fatter than we are have experienced more gruesome aspects of anti-fat bias doesn’t minimize our own experiences. Rather, it puts those experiences in some much-needed social context. And it keeps me from centering myself at every turn in complex conversations about pervasive societal biases.
It’s on each of us to own up to the truths we’re not telling about our own bodies and our experiences of marginalization. Because if we don’t, we’ll end up centering ourselves—privileges and all—in conversations that aim to fix entrenched social biases. And if we continue to center our own privileges in those conversations, we’ll reproduce inequities and create new, subtler forms of exclusion.
If we really want everyone to experience body liberation, we’ve got to be willing to put our own stories in a context that allows us to truly see and hear others’ stories too. We’ll never see the forest if we can’t look past our own tree.
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