[trigger warning: fat shaming; content note: thin privilege, race, gender]
When I was in the eighth grade, I participated in the colorguard, the flag-twirling, formation-making on the football field auxiliary to an amazing Black middle school marching band. It was one of the best years of my adolescence. Anyone who knows Black band culture can attest to the excitement of watching one or being a member of one. Our auxiliary coach at my predominantly Black middle school was actually a White woman. She was really nice and went out of her way to support the girls in the colorguard.
One day after a long practice for an upcoming colorguard competition and full band show, the team members were gathered and chatting. Conversation about a student versus teacher basketball game surfaced and I voiced my disinterest in the game. I wasn’t used to attending after school social events because I grew up with strict parents, so to protect the truth that I most likely wouldn’t be allowed to attend, I instead said that I was not interested at all. I then said something at 13 years old that I still regret today at 34 years old. I said “why would I want to watch a bunch of fat teachers play basketball?” This is bad enough but the worst part is that my coach was there and she wasn’t just a White woman but a fat White woman. She was always subjected to jokes by the students as fatness, along with hair texture and skin complexion were prime subjects for insults. (Colourism is always a key source of insults among Black kids, thanks to White supremacy.) As soon as I said this, I wanted to take it back. I saw the hurt in her eyes as she brushed it off as if nothing was wrong. Another student said “shut up” to me. And I did. And the thing is, the student who said it always made jokes (including against me) about every facet of a person that wasn’t basically White, male, thin or middle class, but it didn’t matter. In that moment I was the wrong one. Dead wrong.
I felt terrible and tried to apologize but my coach abruptly changed the subject. I never forgot this because even after this, she continued to be helpful and kind to me. This was unique since many of the White teachers at our predominantly Black middle school were not kind to Black students and could barely hide their disdain for us. My comment that day was not only bigoted but also oppressive. Fat jokes or anti-fat statements are not just insults but tools of oppression as they connect to the stereotypes used to discriminate and oppress fat people. In my case, my statement connected to the long legacy of implying that fat people are unhealthy, non-athletic or unattractive in a physical situation. And though I did not know all of this at 13–what I know now– I still knew in my heart that I hurt someone that I cared about who also cared about me.
At 13, though I was learning about womanism and acutely understood the White, male and class privilege that I didn’t have, I wasn’t aware of thin privilege and what it meant. I knew that not having light skin, curly hair or long hair made me “average” at best and not “pretty.” But at the same time, I knew that not being considered “very dark skinned” or “fat” meant a safer place from ridicule versus others who fit that description. I didn’t realize the damage that statements shaming fat people would cause until I saw it with my own eyes.
Throughout high school and college, I began to understand more about how people are insulted, discriminated against and oppressed because of weight. And since I’ve always been a size considered thin by Black cultural standards and wear a size available at any store–literally any store–I’ve never experienced discrimination for size.
All of this taught me that privilege is a source of protection for those who have it, but a source of abuse for those who do not. And I knew this long before I knew of the anti-oppression concept of “privilege” just like I knew I lived an intersectional experience long before I knew the concept of “intersectionality.”
As with any privilege, however, how oppression manifests in a person’s life also has to be considered. The vastness of White privilege is such that even a White woman without thin privilege doesn’t face what a dark skinned Black woman without thin privilege faces. Her White privilege still protects her in ways that a thinner Black woman like me is not protected. The way in which oppression and privilege intersect means that even with thin privilege, Black women still face oppressive standards regarding beauty and appearance (including certain intracultural instances where thinness isn’t valued but also isn’t a core source of oppression). Beauty privilege, which deeply corresponds to thin privilege operates on a sliding scale where race, complexion, eye colour, hair texture, hair length, weight, weight distribution and more are factors. And all have to be considered on intersectional terms. Because ultimately, being a Black woman with thin privilege, like I am, will never come close to meaning what being a light skinned Black woman/woman of colour or especially a White woman with thin privilege does. But I still have thin privilege.
Blogs such as Shakesville and Fat Body Politics articulate having White privilege while not having thin privilege. Blogs such as Big Beautiful Black Girls and A Thick Girls Closet convey positive body image and style choices for thick Black women and in a revolutionary way. How often is it that Black women are conveyed as beautiful, confident and stylish in mainstream media, let alone Black women who aren’t a size 6 and below? Blogs like these exist to fill in those holes and redefine Black beauty and style as something inclusive. See Body Love Self by Ivy Cooper promotes positive body image for Black women as an agent of social change. The blog This Is Thin Privilege includes critical information that reveals how “thin shaming” is not the same as the oppression that fat people face (it really isn’t), and includes plenty of examples of thin privilege. Viewing, reading and learning from these spaces have been vital to me in continuing to think about thin privilege/fat shaming/oppression for fatness and doing so within an intersectional scope. And they aren’t just “learning portals;” no blog about oppression is. These are human women with nuanced lives who convey the experiences they and other women who aren’t thin face. They celebrate who they are and/or articulate what oppression because of fatness causes.
I can’t undo what I said all of those years ago though I will always regret it. However, I can continue to keep learning how even despite not having race, gender, class, light skinned or theist privilege, I still have cis, heterosexual, literacy/education, citizenship, western, global north and yes, thin privilege. And how I experience oppression and have privilege, both, are central to my experiences and perspectives as a Black woman.
It’s important for womanists and intersectional feminists to recognize thin privilege in any discussion of beauty, health, employment, media or politics in the way that we would for privilege based on race, class or sexuality, for example. This adds to the dimension of thinking intersectionally. The perception of fatness as well as the misinformation and bigotry attached to it is a source of oppression that cannot be ignored.
Related Posts: Thin Privilege vs. “Thin Shaming”, Thin Shaming and Fat Shaming Because of Fatphobia Are Not Parallels, Conversations About Beauty and Beauty Privilege Need To Be Intersectional, Continuing The Conversation About Beauty and Beauty Privilege
Tags:racegenderintersectionalitythin privilegefatphobiastereotypesbeautyracismsexismmisogynoircolorismwhite privilegeclass privilegeeurocentric beauty mythkidswomanismfeminismmediabody positivityessaysecant
“Are you tired of systemic prejudice?” a new television commercial asks. The ad offers a solution: White Squad, a “professional white-advantage service.” If you’re, say, a black American, or an American of Arabic descent, and need to hail a cab, or appear in front of a judge, or get through airport security without a lengthy pat-down by a suspicious TSA agent, the company will send a preppy, peppy white representative to stand in as your proxy. After all, white people enjoy a systemic benefit of the doubt that allows them to pass through life relatively hassle-free. It’s called white privilege, and White Squad is here to help even the playing field.
The commercial is a work of satire, as you may have suspected.
A year ago, MTV launched “Look Different,” an online and on-air campaign to expose, elucidate and eradicate the insidious prejudices that can escape the glow of the radar when there are more glaring examples of bigotry at hand. The campaign loaded the faux advertisement to YouTube on Wednesday evening. The con goes deep — there’s an accompanying website, which is meticulously well-done — but click around a bit and you’ll find yourself at a portal page to the Look Different site, which offers a series of essays, data sets, and interactive features to explain the realities compelling the satire.
The video’s thesis echoes the point Louis C.K. was trying to make in that one tongue-in-cheek bit from “Chewed Up,” the 2008 standup special that propelled him to stardom. “I’m not saying white people are better,” he panned. “I’m saying being white is clearly better. Who could even argue with that?” In short, the argument goes, acknowledging the inequities of white privilege is not the same as endorsing them; on the contrary, frankly discussing these imbalances is the first step in diffusing them.
The problem with good satire is that the line between it and reality is often precariously thin. After the video went up on Wednesday night, a number of online commentators grimly noted that their first instinct was that White Squad was a real firm. Many who saw it as a joke took issue with its apparent glibness and levity — “It kind of came off as though it was making fun of the issue,” one person wrote, “as opposed to actually putting it in a way that says this needs to stop.”