Earlier today, while waiting for the SeaBus to take me to family practice, an ad on the TV in the waiting room caught my eye.
It was one of the few times I’ve seen someone whose body resembles mine in an ad that wasn’t about plus-size clothing, and it was a lovely surprise.
I suspect it may not have caught most people’s attention–not for this reason, anyway–but if you’re used to seeing uplifting representations of people who look like you, your sensors may not be as attuned to detecting them as someone for whom they are rare occasions. (and yes, I’m aware that the underrepresentation and negative portrayals of women of colour across the board make my experience seem trivial in comparison, and it is. I also know that racism exacerbates fat-shaming and I’ve noticed that people will defend the persistence of both forms of discrimination using surprisingly similar arguments.)
I have a BMI of exactly 25; teetering precariously between overweight and ‘normal’, and many people don’t read me as fat (or so they tell me). But for as long as I can remember, I’ve been told implicitly by media and explicitly by family, that I should strive to be thinner. Although the label of “fat person” is rarely applied to me now that I live in Canada, the phobia of it is something I’ve both carried and tried to resist almost all my life including the present day.
Relevant to this discussion is my position on many axes of privilege, as a white, settler, university educated, cisgendered, straight-passing, able-bodied person. All of these reduce the likelihood that I will experience fat-shaming in the context in which I live, and increase the chances that I will have access to other sources of validation if I do. On the whole, being heavier-of-center has minimal impacts on my life today, and in general there are so many sources of joy and meaning in my life that don’t have thinness as a prerequisite, that these impacts are almost unnoticeable.
I can’t help but notice that I’m the largest person in most social groups I’m part of (and in my medical school class, among women, I’m in at least the 95th percentile when it comes to BMI). This is not the kind of statistical significance you get excited about.
I’m also not used to seeing young women who look like me in media, and it’s always a pleasant, memorable surprise when they do. You can try this out for yourself: flip open a magazine (it needn’t be about fashion) and count the number of images you see of women who aren’t, well, thin. I’m pretty attuned to being heavier than most successful women across a variety of occupations.
From time to time I’ll walk into a store and find out that the waist of their largest size pants would perhaps fit one of my thighs. Tall boots are a lost cause, though I do currently own a pair that must have had some kind of production error, because they actually fit pretty well.
Yet in spite of the grievances I just listed, I also realize that my relative position on the BMI spectrum means that thin privilege actually benefits me more than not. For example:
– People, including health care providers, don’t jump to the conclusion that I don’t value my own health, eat healthy food or get sufficient exercise based on my appearance.
– If I don’t manage to complete an assignment on time, my colleagues will not assume that it’s because people with bodies like mine are inherently lazy.
– Airline and bus seats are built to comfortably accommodate people like me; people don’t dread having to sit next to me (at least until I start talking to them!)
– I don’t receive unsolicited, disparaging comments on the amount or type of food I eat (most of the time)
– I don’t really worry about my body shape being an impediment to finding a partner (then again I’m still single, so who knows)
For me the impact of living in a society that puts enormous pressure on women to be thin has been subtle but persistent. I recognize that many people’s experiences with fatphobia and fat-shaming make mine pale in comparison and so I was uncertain whether it was appropriate for me to write about these topics at all. Part of the reason I did is I believe staying silent only serves the status quo. A society which is comfortable putting enormous amounts of pressure on women to be thin must also be made comfortable with the consequences of doing so. I also realize that people experience anti-fat stigma to very different extents (and, again, I realize mine has been just barely above the limit of detection and I would never talk over someone who has been affected to a greater degree), but the underlying reasons are often shared. Finally, while I can help amplify voices which I think need to be heard, all I can really write about is my own story, in the hopes that talking about my own vulnerabilities may find resonance with others in similar situations and contribute to a broader understanding that we are not alone.