The Stakes of Skinnybashing: Thin Privilege in Body Image Advocacy
Sociological Images — the Contexts.org blog devoted to rethinking visual culture — is not exactly a reflection of the World at Large. Oh, sure, the images dissected at SI are lifted directly from mass culture and include everything from military brochures to cartoons. But SI is a space where terms like “heteronormative” and “kyriarchy” are used as freely as “like” and “um.” In working to develop the “sociological imaginations” of persons everywhere, the site works to create discussion about our everyday environments and to change how we experience common images. As a result, it generally provides an alternative way of experiencing those images rather than reflecting things “as they are” more widely.
But as with every good rule, there’s an exception. And one area where SI provides evidence of a larger cultural trend? …is in its discussion of skinnybashing.
Roughly a month ago, SI-blogger Gwen posted two images of t-shirts, which were also circulating among body image advocates: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” from Perez Hilton and “Eat Less” from Urban Outfitters. Gwen’s post noted some common concerns about both products, including suggestions that their messages “make light of, or even encourage, anorexia.”* The first several comments on Gwen’s post followed her lead, with discussions centering on pro-ana communities, fatphobia, et cetera. And then… something shifted. A commenter by the name of Ducky posted a direct attack on the body of the Urban Outfitters model — and sparked a veritable onslaught of replies. 26 of the 59 total comments on the original post respond to Ducky’s claims that the model “needs to eat more,” “has the body of a 9-year-old boy” and looks “confused” (not sexy) from lack of proper nutrition. The responding outrage is typical:
- “What gives you the right to police women’s bodies?”
- “Lines such as ‘she should eat more’ can be just as harmful as ‘she needs to eat less.'”
- “It’s surely possible to support some women without criticising others… isn’t it?”
- Society is uncomfortable with thin people as much as overweight people, as seen by the many tabloids critizing Nicole Richie and other women with eating disorders.
Responses like these extend beyond the discussion at SI. They’re equally common — these days — among body image advocates, who are taking pains to strike down messages that “real” women cannot be thin and to fight the notion that “thin” automatically equals “unhealthy.” Activists who offer counterpoints to fatphobia increasingly specify that they support “body diversity,” and more and more advocates are standing against measures such as mandating minimum weights in the modeling industry. They echo the SI commenters who note that fat-hatred and skinnybashing are equally harmful, that — as Bagelsan articulates — “size-ism in either direction is inappropriate, and related.”
I suspect that this argument is prevelant among body image activists for two main reasons. To begin with, many advocates address body image concerns following a painful personal experience — e.g. being bullied, having an eating disorder, et cetera. Given those individual experiences, we are quick to empathize with the folks who suggest “skinnybashing” is the flip-side of fatphobia. After all, if it hurt to have others hate your body (or to hate it yourself) for being so immense, why would it hurt any less to experience that hatred based on your thinness? It wouldn’t. So the logical way forward, it seems, is to pursue a “body diversity” track, in which all images are represented equally and all images are incorporated into our concepts of beauty and of health.
The second reason I see for this ideology’s prevalence among body image activists is the extent to which feminism informs discussions of body image. Although recently activists are exploring the pressures on men to change their bodies, this discussion originates from the position that body-oppression is — first and foremost — a female experience. Constructing body image as a women’s issue allows us to presume that all women experience oppression based on their body shape — and that they experience that oppression to the same extent and in the same way. The trap, inherent in this thinking, is one feminism has fallen into in a myriad of other areas: It’s the trap that suggests a White woman, a lesbian woman, a Black woman, and a woman with a disability all experience the same kind of sexism and are all “oppressed” together. It’s the presumption that women are always, equally, and solely members of an oppressed group, incapable of being oppressors. It’s the erasure of the other forms of privilege, which makes oppression possible in the first place.
Privilege is a characteristic of groups — (not individuals) — that affords them certain “rights” that those in the oppressed group are denied. Privilege, by definition, is not something you ask for; it’s something society gives you. Having it doesn’t make your life easy or painless, and it doesn’t assure you’ll succeed… It just increases the odds that you will.
“Skinnybashing” claims are fundamentally a display of thin privilege. …And every time that we construct fat-hatred as purely sexist — ignoring the extent to which it is specifically fatphobic — we facilitate that system of oppression.
I’ll get back to why I believe this and why I think it’s important for body image activism to own up to this fact in a moment. …But first I want to discuss what I do not mean. I do not mean that it isn’t incredibly painful to be told you’re too skinny. I do not mean that it’s okay to attack a friend for being a “stick” or to make assumptions about how someone eats (or should eat) based on her/ his/ zir appearance. I do not mean that skinny people really are less “real” than the rest of us, or that “criticising the cultural pressure to be thin is […] the same thing as body-shaming individual thin women.” In threads where skinnybashing is brought up, it is done so — almost universally — in the context of painful personal experiences, — experiences in which individuals were made to feel like their bodies were less worthy, less healthy, less beautiful, or less sexy because they were thin There’s nothing acceptable about that. However… Presuming that an individual experience of prejudice is “the same as” systemic discrimination is also unacceptable — because it disrupts the movements intended to address that system.
Think about in terms of a few other -isms: People with White privilege, for instance, routinely call out people of color (POC) for expressing prejudice against Whites, claiming that anti-White “racism” and racism against POC are equally damaging. But as Tim Wise recently discussed in relation to the Sherrod controversy, “racial bias on the part of black folks, even the most vicious and unhinged bigotry on their part, is pretty impotent” in a systemic sense. And that prejudice — toward White people — is far more likely to be called out and given attention than individual or systemic racism toward POC, despite the fact that it occurs more rarely. Because privileged groups have power – including the power to control the media – cases of individual racism directed at Whites — (even cases like Sherrod’s that turn out to be largely fabricated) — consistently receive attention, “while the institutionalized mistreatment of people of color goes ignored.” Keep in mind that Wise does not suggest that the exchanges in which a White person is discriminated against or bullied, on the basis of their race, hurt that individual any less than a Black or Brown person is hurt when they experience something similar. However, he makes an important distinction between the pain of an individual experience and the social context in which it occurs. Prejudice hurts, regardless. But we cannot ignore that it occurs significantly more often and with significantly more backing from social institutions, when it’s directed at POC.
We see the same arguments in response to every social justice movement. When feminists attack sexism, we hear about the oppression of men. When advocates attack heterosexism, there are sudden declarations of “straight pride.” Particularly in American society — where “equality” is one of our favorite buzz-words — the notion that my experience of prejudice is not the same as your experience does not sit well. Why should my pain matter less just because I’m not in the so-called oppressed group? When you prick me, I still bleed.
The truth is, the pain skinnybashing causes individual people with thin privilege does not hurt less (or matter less) than the pain caused by fatphobia. But it does occur in a different context, and it has not been institutionalized to the extent that fat oppression has. And no matter how genuinely pained thin people are — and no matter how much we should be doing about that — skinnybashing claims re-direct discussions of fat oppression into terms of “body diversity,” erasing the power dynamics between body types and the continued prevelance of fat oppression. In other words, while body diversity is a laudable goal, to demand that fat-acceptance activists redirect toward “diversity” requires that they quit fighting fat oppression and embrace the false notion that thin and fat bodies are — on a societal level — policed equally. It’s the more pallatable alternative, which we use to opt out of the challenging admission that our pain and our privilege exist simultaneously.
Allan Johnson discusses this phenomenon in-depth, in his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, one of my favorite readings on this topic. He notes that, “Since few people like to see themselves as bad, [discussion of the ‘-isms’ is] taboo in ‘polite’ company. So, instead of talking about the racism and sexism that plague people’s lives, people talk about ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘appreciating difference.’ Those are good things to talk about” — and notably, the exact discussions we’re seeing pop up among body image advocates — “but they’re not the same as the isms and the trouble they’re connected to.” In fact, our shift toward discussions of diversity and inclusion end up being exclusionary — because they reinforce privilege and disempower both fat and thin people, who would attempt to discuss the size-ism that (in different ways) affects their lives.
Johnson further notes that “in systems of privilege, the focus is on dominant groups all the time as a matter of course, so much that it’s never recognized as something special. The slightest deviation, then, can be perceived as a loss of privilege” and can provoke a defensive response. Focusing on the oppression of fat people, specifically, is uncomfortable for those of us who have thin privilege, in part because we’re used to our experience being the center of discussion and — perhaps even more so — because we’re uncomfortable with the notion of ourselves as oppressors. But oppression isn’t about who you and I are as people. It’s about — to borrow Johnson’s phrasing — “oppression and dominance, […] social realities that we can participate in without being oppressive or dominant people.” Critiques of our behavior do not have to be critiques of our identity. To borrow from Jay Smooth: “I don’t care who you are; I care about what you did.”
Discussions of “skinnybashing” disrupt conversations on fat oppression regardless of whether those making the claims intend that disruption. While “skinnybashing” claims draw attention to important issues — diversity of representation, acceptance of all bodies — they still draw attention away from equally vital discussions on size-ism. As nutrition professor Linda Bacon explains, in her fantastic keynote address to NAAFA, “unexamined privilege factors strongly in making the best of intentions go awry.” Bacon notes the discomfort inherent in the suggestion that — rather than having “derived [our values] from a well-reasoned thought process of our own volition” — we’ve inherited the beliefs of “an oppressive system” and she suggests that this discomfort pushes us to “reach for denial when an intolerable situation [is] pointed out to [us…] causing even those who may be more willing and capable of challenging hegemony to get suckered back into the denial.” Who among us wants to believe that we are “actively complicit in our own oppression and that of others”? Or that our skinnybashing claims — which we intend as an attack on a hateful practice — in fact contribute to oppression?
It’s important to recognize that examining privilege is not about taking on guilt. Bacon addresses this directly, speaking to the “tremendous guilt” she experienced when she first began to come to terms with her thin privilege. Yet she notes that “over time, [she has] lightened up on this.” She says she’s “learning to be patient with [herself] when [she colludes] with the enemy.” Since, “like all of us, [she’s] been well-trained to tolerate fat-phobia,” she recognizes that “it’s not surprising that [she continues] to be a work in progress.” Furthermore –
“Being confronted with my privilege has been a painful process for me. Even though I am not responsible for this unfair system, I live with its consequences. It’s easy to feel guilty, to beat myself up over a system that supports me and excludes and harms my fat friends. But as I have little control over the huge system of inequity, the guilt doesn’t seem very effective. In fact, the guilt essentially just turns me into another victim of the unfair system.”
Ironically, it is far more comfortable — in discussions of oppression — to take the victim role. None of us want to be the oppressor, in part because we struggle to distinguish our “oppressive behaviors” from our sense that we are “bad people” … and in part because we tend to think we must either be the oppressors or the oppressed, and we’re wary of having our Very Real Experiences of oppression dismissed or minimized. But — as Bacon notes — privilege isn’t binary. It’s not something you have or don’t have. It’s something a person experiences differently based on all factors of their identity. Systems of oppression play off each other, and our experience of thin privilege will vary based on our position in the racist, sexist, heterosexist, and ableist systems. In addition, fatphobia itself works to disguise “thin” privilege. Since most of us — fat, thin, and in between — struggle with anxiety about our weight and shape — we may find it more difficult to recognize that others perceive us as “thin” and that we receive certain treatment based on that assumption. Along with the many, many other ways that we defend ourselves against the claim that we have privilege, thin privilege — uniquely — invites us to ignore the fact that we qualify for it in the first place. Our poor body image — made possible for the fat and the skinny by fatphobia — works to disguise thin privilege as an oppressive system. By convincing us that we aren’t thin (enough), and therefore cannot have thin privilege, the system tricks us into perpetuating oppression.
When we work to emphasize that “thin can be healthy” we ignore the overwhelming prevalance of campaigns that uncritically conflate obesity and ill health. When we fight solely for body diversity, we ignore the dynamics that have erased the fat body specifically — dynamics which continue to erase fat bodies, even as critics express outrage over skinny model bans. It’s important to work toward body diversity, to expand our beauty ideal and our concept of health, and to protect individual women against body-policing. These are all laudable goals, and many of them complement campaigns to address fat hatred and size-ism in our society. But they cannot replace those campaigns. And they must not be used to erase the privilege that makes it possible for us to redirect discussions of body image. Instead — as Bacon suggests — we must uncover our privilege and use it responsibly.
Otherwise, the “skinnybashing” discourse remains as damaging — on the systemic level — as the experience of skinnybashing is on a personal one. And a fat lotta good that does anyone.
*The notion of how — and whether — EDs can be “promoted” is another question entirely.