WHAT THIN PRIVILEGE MEANS, AND WHY IT NEEDS TO BE RECOGNIZED

It’s not always easy to face the inequities that exist in society, but thin privilege must be addressed as we strive for health and happiness for all.


BY: KATHLEEN MEEHAN, MS, RD

Acknowledging privileges can feel uncomfortable for many people. Arguably, this makes it even more important to address them because we may not see our privileges unless we are intentional in learning about them.

And in the case of health and wellness, we must address thin privilege.

Full disclosure: I have thin privilege. Many of my fellow dietitians and other health care providers also have thin privilege, which is why it’s essential to have discussions around it. After all, if we don’t recognize it for what it is, we won’t recognize weight stigma. 

And if we want to promote true well-being and better health for all, we need to work to dismantle the weight stigma that hinders people in larger bodies from receiving the care that they need. 

By recognizing thin privilege, we acknowledge the reality that people in smaller bodies haven’t experienced exposure to stigmatizing events that are all too common for people in larger bodies. 

So, what exactly is thin privilege?  

By definition, privilege means a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.”

Thin privilege acknowledges that my body size has protected me from weight stigma and to a certain degree, diet culture. Here are 3 areas in which thin privilege plays into our society’s perspective of health.

BODY IMAGE & EATING DISORDERS

It’s important to explicitly acknowledge that having thin privilege doesn’t entirely protect a person from body image concerns and eating disorders, or even lead to full immunity from diet culture.  Absolutely not. 

But the reality is that having thin privilege often means your eating disorder is more likely to be diagnosed.   For those in larger bodies, disordered eating behaviors may, in fact, be praised and wrongly misinterpreted as being health-promoting, or a reflection of one’s ‘dedication’. While we are all exposed to diet culture at different degrees, this means that thin privilege creates a situation where a smaller-bodied person is often protected from diet culture and its harms. 

HEALTH CARE

Thin privilege is about never having to receive unsolicited suggestions to lose weight when seeking medical care (especially if you have been seeking treatment for an entirely unrelated ailment, like a sinus infection).  It’s the absence of assumptions based on body size alone, like the presumption that a person is ‘unhealthy’ or ‘lazy’ because of their body. 

SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT

Having thin privilege also means seeing a representation of bodies that look like yours in the media. It means you’re being able to find all types of clothing in your size while shopping, never giving a second thought to the size or sturdiness of a chair, and not worrying about a booth vs. table at a restaurant.  Thin privilege also allows a person to share a wide variety of food photos without critical judgments about how eating a certain food is ‘bad for my health.’ 

So why is it important to recognize this? Because we must examine our own biases as we work to address these health inequities that exist in our society.

I didn’t consider my own body privilege when I was first studying to become a dietitian. I wasn’t encouraged to do so, and I was young and naive with vague beliefs about body size and health behaviors.  

It wasn’t until I started to listen more closely that I heard the injustice my clients in larger bodies experienced that I started seeing it from a different lens. I started to recognize the biases around weight and size that contribute to their mistreatment and discrimination. 

And the research echoes the lived experience of others – it confirms that weight stigma is very real, and harmfully problematic as the unconscious bias within the health field continues.

Chronic stress and allostatic load are real for people in larger bodies, and continuing to glorify the thin ideal that’s pervasive in our health and wellness culture will only cause more harm than good.

As health professionals, it’s important to practice with empathy, compassion and an understanding of the cultural norms that cause harm. We need to do better to make health inclusive for all, and it starts by having these hard conversations. 

After all, we can’t dismantle what we don’t see.

Adapted from the original post.

Kathleen Meehan MS, RD is a Houston-based dietitian with a virtual private practice. She specializes in Intuitive Eating and uses a weight-inclusive approach to help clients manage conditions or concerns. Kathleen partners with clients to help them rediscover the pleasure and satisfaction of food, while exploring unhelpful beliefs to reduce the stress of eating. Outside of counseling, Kathleen enjoys a good book or podcast, spending time in the great outdoors (especially Vermont!), and being with loved ones. See more at KathleenMeehanRD.com.  

1 Comment
  1. My first reaction to the headline was puzzlement. Thin privilege, really? Is that a thing? Then, I read further and began to understand the concept. Still, I think that it is an unnecessarily simplistic argument and antagonistic to those who–for whatever reason–do not inhabit “large bodies.”

    Fat bias is unacceptable anywhere you find it, and, in healthcare especially, it is unprofessional and a violation of “do no harm.” You never get anyone to change, much less consider, objectively healthier behaviors by making them feel bad about themselves. There is no place for stigma or Puritan-like judgement when discussing health–and that includes excess weight. Obesity needs careful and compassionate management that goes way beyond merely recommending diet and exercise. Every patient/client is different and requires their own personalized approach to care.

    When clients come to me with the desire to lose weight, weight is the last thing we talk about. I get to know them and help them identify their goals and what is keeping them stuck. What is causing them to self-medicate with food? It can take months. But ultimately, they figure out what changes they need/want to make so they can get on a healthier, happier path. The objective is never pounds lost. It’s all about the self-knowledge and confidence gained.

    The last thing we need is more “us vs them.” Let’s keep blame out of the equation and treat one another with kindness. Fat or thin, you never know what they’re going through and it’s not for you to you to judge or call “privilege.”

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