One of the most interesting aspects of gaining weight a few years back was my shift from living in the protected class of “thin-ish,” to the condemned class of “fat.” As a white person, I’ve gone throughout my life with my race privilege and my class privilege mostly intact (even when I was a broke grad student). Certainly my pretty privilege has started to erode as my youth fades away, and sexism has always been a variable to contend with in my life. But like many other middle-class white people who had not yet bumped up against ageism, ableism or a disastrous shift in financial position, my privilege, up until a few years ago, had roughly stayed intact.
So to move, during my 40s, into the reviled and denounced social category of “fat”—one that is erroneously seen as optional and within an individual’s control—was a bit of a mindfuck.
Years ago, as a thin-ish/mid-size white person, I had terrible, deeply obsessive body image days (i.e. days where my internalized fatphobia said to me, “I’m getting fat,” with the same level of shame you’d use to say to yourself “I just slit the throat of an innocent squirrel”). But what I never had to worry about was institutionalized size discrimination or interpersonal weight stigma. Instead, my biggest bully was my own mind.
(And let me emphasize that this bully was an absolute monster, driving me into the hellish depths of disordered eating until I finally got the help I needed.)
All humans fear judgement from others. This fear, emanating from our lizard brains, is intended to ensure our survival, because it helps keep our behaviour within the acceptable bounds of the group, the very entity we need to stay alive.
And although privileged white people fear judgement as much as everybody else, many of us don’t have the additional layer of institutional and interpersonal discrimination, bias or hate to worry about. This isn’t uniformly true, of course, but in my case, without being visibly queer, the only institutional axis of oppression I ever had to worry about was sexism. How quaint!
As a fat person, opportunities to feel the sting of interpersonal discrimination abound, particularly in the workplace. People make all kinds of assumptions about your skills, competence and fitness level when you’re fat. They also love assuming I want to lose weight, and eagerly offer me diet and workout tips (LOL). (Please, thins, don’t do this to your fat co-workers, please!)
At an institutional level, often this is about access: access to safe seating and seatbelts on planes; access to bias-free hiring and employment practices; access to seating in restaurants, theatres and other public spaces that accommodates your butt; access to the same quality of health care that thin folks receive.
This is why there is no such thing as “skinny shaming” (and why there is no such thing as racism against white people). Yes, there may be individual people who may hurt your feelings because they judge you for being white or being skinny. But at the level of the state and institutions? This is not a thing, and in fact, institutional settings are those at which whiteness and thinness is most prized. Losing social privilege sucks. It really does. And I know this is the thing that keeps so many people trapped in the diet-binge cycle or in the realm of chronic dieting.
But here’s thing: I have also had many wonderful blessings come my way as a direct result of no longer trying to manipulate my weight. I seldom have bad body image days anymore. I have a deep connection to myself and my spiritual life that I never could have cultivated as long as I was trying to control my physical meatsack. I developed a profound sense of trust in myself that is so deep it allowed me to confront my childhood sexual abuser. Where I was once ignorant and actively perpetuated all kinds of myths and bullshit against fat people, I am now a better, more ethical person in the world because I understand the intricate nature of weight stigma.
One of the biggest blessings of all? Losing my size privilege (even as I still maintain size privilege in the fat community) has been great practice for losing other, future privileges. I’m terrified of ageism, but getting fat has granted me practice space for letting go of my youth. I don’t look forward to becoming disabled as I age, but my relationship with my body now has been so transformed that I feel far more prepared to deal with both ableism and a changed body than I would have otherwise.
Honestly, being fat and ok with myself and subject to interpersonal and institutional size discrimination is a million times better than being thin and size privileged and fighting myself and obsessing over my food all the time.
I am certain the reason I can say that is because my race and class privilege buttresses my entire existence, and because I have so much privilege in relation to people bigger than me, i.e. the level of discrimination against fat people goes up in direct proportion to how big you are.
When I stopped obsessing about my weight, I wasn’t letting myself go. I was letting myself be free. I was freeing myself from the bullshit dictates of a society that hates for a woman to be anything other than an object of pleasure for men. I was freeing myself to be at peace with food, a thing that all living objects require to actually be ALIVE. I was liberating myself from the notion that I could control what others thought about me, and choosing to prioritize what *I* think about me. And as painful and deeply scary as that transition was, I would do it over and over and over again.