I am a multi-privileged Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Because of my privileges, and because of the culture at large, it is easier for me to share my voice and message. It is easier for me to stand on a stage and display my education, work, and experience. Fact: I am privileged to have the ability to bring this education & experience to a community that I feel needs guidance: dancers.
And throughout my time as a dietitian thus far, I’ve had to un-learn A LOT of what was taught to me. As a society, the increasing awareness of our privilege(s) can help us better understand the world around us and how others, not just our immediate circles, perceive it.
What privileges exist in regard to body size?
Similar to how diet culture categorizes foods as being either “bad” or “good” for “health” the same happens with body shapes and sizes. There’s an unfortunate hierarchy that elevates smaller bodies and demonizes larger bodies. However, research supports the fact that body size is not a reflection of health. In fact, weight discrimination poses worse health outcomes.
Admittingly, it took me years to fully comprehend what it meant to have thin privilege. My years of struggling with body dissatisfaction felt like anything but a privilege. But learning more about thin privilege helped me to better comprehend how vastly different my experiences are, as a thin-bodied person. Especially in comparison to those who live with a body type not deemed “acceptable” by our culture.
But isn’t body size a reflection of our choices?
Here’s a truth most are not ready to hear: body size is not really up to us. We are often told— whether it be from the media, or our doctors, friends, family, etc— that health and, ultimately, thinness, is a personal responsibility. Through this rhetoric comes a multi-billion dollar industry of food products, supplements, fitness trends, and more— tools to supposedly provide the control needed to manipulate our health and how our body looks.
But contrary to these messages, these tools do not actually support health and certainly do not lead to the body changes otherwise promised. In fact, we know that 98% of dieters regain their weight and those who keep it off might be partaking in behaviors that parallel those of an eating disorder. We also know that weight cycling, a result of dieting, comes with a host of negative health complications. The notion that we, as individuals, have full control over our body weight and body size shifts the blame from an (otherwise inevitable) failing diet to the dieter.
Truth is, body shape, size, and weight are largely out of our control. I’ve previously discussed set-point weight and how genetics plays a major role. But what about our environment?
How our environment impacts body size
To an extent, we do have some control over how our body looks. My choice to consume balanced and nutrient-dense foods throughout the day, my choice to tune into my hunger and fullness cues, along with tools like mindful eating, and my choice to partake in regular exercise. These choices are all within my immediate control… right?
Wrong. These abilities are less a reflection of choice and more a reflection of privilege. I am privileged with the time to listen to my hunger and practice mindful eating. I am privileged with the finances to stop eating when feeling full. I am privileged to have the capacity to partake in regular movement and exercise. I am also privileged to live in an area with easy access to fresh, lesser processed foods— something that is not the reality in lower-income communities. So truth is, these privileges reflect environmental factors that allow me to live in a body scripted by my genetics.
What is thin privilege?
Fellow non-diet dietitian Christy Harrison explains thin privilege as “by virtue of some characteristic of your body—in this case, being below a certain [body] size—you have greater access to resources and face less discrimination in society than people without that characteristic.”
When you experience thin privilege, you have easier access to resources (like medical care) and face less discrimination on a systemic level. I experience thin privilege because I live in a body deemed acceptable by a fatphobic culture that stigmatizes those in larger bodies. Because my set-point weight allows me to live in a thin body, I do not experience the same systemic oppression that is faced by those in larger bodies. I also acknowledge the privilege (mainly socioeconomic privilege) that led me to my current career in a field predominantly saturated with fellow able- and thin-bodied white dietitians.
Thin privilege in the dance world
The experience of thin privilege is exacerbated among dancers. Assumptions that a dancer is not doing enough (dancing or cross-training) and/or is “out of shape” exemplifies this. All bodies are different; two dancers can partake in the same level of training, but look completely different. Attempting to attain one specific aesthetic can lead a dancer to extremely disordered eating, increasing their risk of injury and burnout.
Can you have thin privilege and still experience a negative body image?
Absolutely. Thin privilege and negative body image (for the purpose of this article, I’m referring to body dissatisfaction and/or body dysmorphia) are not mutually exclusive and can coexist. Let’s dive into this a bit more:
Negative body image is rooted in fatphobia or the fear of larger bodies. Fatphobia is also apparent in one’s personal fear of a changing body. Fat activist Virgie Tovar explains fatphobia as an experience that occurs on three distinct levels:
- The intrapersonal level is how we perceive ourselves. This includes feelings of body dissatisfaction (a topic I talk more about here) and body dysmorphia, both of which can be experienced in ALL body shapes and sizes.
- The interpersonal level of fatphobia involves how other individuals treat and see you. For example, how friends, family members, and coworkers treat you.
- The institutional level of fatphobia involves the systemic oppression of larger bodies in society. Tovvar explains an example of institutional fatphobia as when a fat person goes to the doctor seeking treatment for anxiety and leaves with a prescription to lose weight rather than a prescription for anti-anxiety. Another example is not being able to comfortably fit into airplane seats.
Those with thin privilege might experience fatphobia on both the intrapersonal and even interpersonal level, but do not experience fatphobia on the institutional level. Thin privilege embodies the systemic perception of smaller bodies: how others perceive body shape, weight, and size. You have thin privilege if you can:
- Shop at stores without concern over what sizes are stocked
- Fit comfortably into airplane seats.
- Eat in a public setting without experiencing diet-related judgment.
- Experience more access to appropriate healthcare.
- Move throughout life without feeling ostracized for their choices around food and movement.
Thin privilege embodies the systemic perception of smaller bodies.
There is no doubt that systemic oppression of larger bodies is apparent in today’s world. As a white, able- and thin-bodied dietitian, I know that my privileges give me an easily-accessible stage to speak against a culture (diet/wellness culture) that marginalizes so many. I also know that for some, hearing the anti-diet message from a thin-bodied individual can feel more frustrating than helpful.
But remember: anti-diet does not mean anti-dietER. The desire for a specific body type is unfortunately normalized in our world and exacerbated in the dance world. While it’s not my place to discredit anyone’s goal, what I can do is remind you of these facts:
- Weight loss does not equate to better health.
- Long-term “successful” dieters are often partaking in severely disordered eating habits.
- The negative health impacts of weight cycling outweigh any supposed benefits to extreme weight loss.
How can I be an ally to those who live in bodies discriminated by our culture?
- Become a fat ally (here’s a great article that dives into this!)
- Support those in marginalized communities- help to make space for their voices to be heard.
- Support size-inclusive clothing and dance-wear brands.
- Detox your social media feeds from accounts that don’t support diversity.
- Change the narrative: speak out against weight discrimination in the studio.
- Challenge any implicit bias you might have around body size.
- Educate yourself: resources are available (my favorite is this podcast) to learn more about the harmful truths of diet culture and how ALL bodies can find peace amongst the toxic chatter.
In my over ten years as a practicing dietitian for dancers living in all body shapes and sizes, I have experienced the positive outcomes associated with healing one’s relationship with both food and body. For dancers specifically, this includes flourishing and satisfying careers (both on stage and on-screen) free from overwhelming body dissatisfaction and extreme measures to control body weight. But given my thin privilege, I am aware that I might have limitations in my expertise and therefore encourage additional resources for those interested in utilizing intuitive eating alongside their journey to body acceptance. These include:
- The work of Marquisele (Mikey) Mercedes
- The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH)
- Lindley Ashline’s work