Last week was vacation. Breckenridge, Colorado. Note in the picture below, I am the one you cannot see because my head is down, on the far side of the raft, and I’m paddling with the intensity of a windmill in a tornado, thinking “Oh, Sh*t! Oh, Sh*t! Those rocks are so hard and my head (under this cheap-assed plastic salad bowl) is so soft!” My kid is the one smiling so hard he had to loosen the chin strap on his helmet.
I didn’t give many details in my “away” post about being gone or why, because one doesn’t want to hand a map and game plan to robbers and such who troll the internet looking for people to reveal when and how long their houses will be empty. I suppose I could have said something about hoping my house sitter’s Rottweiler would behave himself around my terrier, but that would have been an obvious ruse.
At any rate, I’m back, and the house is intact, unrobbed, and the terrier is home from the Hound-Dog Hilton. And I have a blatant experience of thin privilege to share. And that prompts me to talk more on the topic.
Eight years living in Maintenanceville, thin privilege is different. I think it would be good for my size acceptance friends, in particular, to know how so. Anyone who has ever lost and regained weight (as most people in the size acceptance community have) has had a taste of the “early” form of thin privilege and I think this is sad, because the first few months of thin privilege is tinged with the worst kind cruelty, hubris, embarrassment and awkwardness. Eight years out, it’s still awkward and wrong, but it isn’t so cruel.
In the early days, the easy coast period of weight loss and maintenance, when people know that you used to be fat, and now you aren’t, they hand you an engraved invitation to join a bully culture. Even as I was in my forties, when people should have grown up, I can recall friends or acquaintances my age indicating some fat restaurant patron, and assuming that I would agree with such observations as, “Can you believe she’s eating that!?”
Perhaps they thought that inviting me to participate in fat ridicule was a harmless compliment to my hard work at weight loss, a reward, and (for those who “knew” it was a “lifestyle”) a tool to re-enforce my resolve to never be fat again. Equally likely, however, their fat hate was an expression of insecurity and fear. They wanted my reassurance that they would continue to avoid this fat woman’s fate, because they would stop eating such unbelievable food long before they got that big, right? I was to offer this reassurance by re-enforcing their prejudices (and sense of superiority) by sharing some outrage with them.
I always felt wrong, but didn’t know what to say. I responded by mumbling “Well, I don’t. . .,” or something equally incoherent. Because the thin privilege was wrong, I was compelled to shake my head, but then I knew that was interpreted as agreement with the fat hate, “Oh no, I too cannot fathom why that fat woman is eating so!” I just felt awful about it. And helpless. And I didn’t have the vocabulary or experience to express the complexity of weight management, and I lacked the courage to say, “Wow. What qualifies you to cast stones!?”
Interestingly, it wasn’t always naturally trim people who extended the invitation to the Fat Shame Bully Society. “Good” fat people, who eat salads and exercise, are as likely to be as hateful and fearful as anyone. Subtext: “Please assure me I won’t get fatter.”
Thin privilege for me now no longer solicits cruelty; it is mostly just the absence of fat shaming. It means not having to fret at a restaurant because my friends may ask for a booth instead of a table, and the seat may be set too close for comfort. It means the drape at the doctor’s office covers me, the doctor shows no signs of disappointment or disgust at my body, and I’m spared the weight-loss lecture. It means I can buy expensive running shoes and no one gives me a side-long glance, “Lotta good they’re doin’ her.” It means no one critiques the food in my grocery cart. It means that the panty hose chart is accurate for my dimensions, so the nylon will not fray and burn lesions into the insides of my thighs. It means that all the news reports on how bad and unhealthy it is to be fat, and how expensive it is to society, do not apply to me, so I may ignore them some days. I get to take a break.
Thin privilege is how people don’t look disparagingly at me (or avert their gaze uncomfortably as they pray I won’t sit with them) when I board a commercial airplane. I would not now be subjected to the humiliation that I was when fat, of being asked to sit at the back of a commuter jet, “to balance the load.” Thin privilege means never being treated like ballast.
Thin privilege for me, at its worst now, is overhearing someone else’s fat-hate conversation, since the conversants will assume I’m in agreement and won’t bother to lower their voices. My friends know my thoughts on weight loss and maintenance all too well and don’t try to engage me in anything hateful. New friends who learn of my blog or my weight-maintenance status may ask me to acknowledge some cultural mythology: “Children are fat now because of all the sweetened cereals and video games, right?” I shake my head and tell them it’s more complicated than that. They say, “Of course.”
While thin privilege now is mostly the absence of shame, it can also be a subtle ritual, and that is what happened on this vacation.
At the beginning of any rafting trip is the requisite “scare talk,” in which you learn what to do if ejected from the raft. Then you meet your guide and rafting companions for the day. My family shared a raft with a family from Texas. Because our raft had an odd number, seven, the guide told us that he’d need a partner in the stern with him, someone “light weight.”
The Texas mom looked at me, lifted her palm, and said, “You, could . . .”
I responded with a sheepish smile, “Well, I don’t . . .”
It lasted only three seconds, and anyone seeing the exchange would have no clue that a ritual in thin privilege had just occurred. Here, however, was the subtext:
Texas Mom: “You could volunteer. You’re thin enough, probably three BMI points my junior, and I mean that as a compliment. No one would think you were ridiculous or deluded if you volunteered. (And I know you may be questioning that, because you’re a woman and, by definition, are plagued with doubts and body issues, regardless of your weight history.) However, more importantly, the person who really should sit in the stern is my 85-pound, 12-year-old son, but he may think that idea is lame. And I can’t step in to rescue him, but you can.”
Me: “Well, I don’t qualify as the lightest, as you know. Not even second lightest – that would be my 14-year-old son. But both he and your son may think sitting in the stern is lame. We both know that could be horribly awkward, but since you have given me permission, established my relative size qualification and offered your support, if this gets ugly, I’ll step forward and take the seat in the stern.”
Fortunately for both of us, the twelve-year-old raised his paddle and leaped to the side of our guide, “I’m lightest! I’m in the back.” Whew.
Yup. Thin privilege means getting to be a hero, if only on stand-by, from time to time. Perhaps I was also the hero when I served as the commuter jet’s ballast, but that made me cry when I reached my hotel room. I must admit, this situation felt much better. Thin privilege is getting to feel good about weight-related opportunities.