It’s summertime again, which means that along with warmer weather comes the anxiety of body image issues. Even though I consider myself to be body-positive, I’ve caught myself scrutinizing my body in the mirror quite a bit lately. As a lifeguard, I wear a swimsuit all day, and there’s a lot of insecurity that goes along with that. I’m presenting my nearly naked body in front of both strangers and friends on a daily basis, and hence I sometimes worry that my body isn’t good enough in some way. When I’m fully clothed I feel more confident, but exposing my midriff often makes me anxious. My worries about whether my stomach is flat enough arise from the socialized message that fat = bad and skinny = good, and I know that it’s bullshit. Nonetheless, I could do more to love and accept my body – just the way that it is.
But now I need to address my privilege – because although my body image issues are valid, I have the privilege of being relatively thin and therefore accepted by society. I’ve written before that many, many women have far more serious body image issues than me, because their bodies are not validated by society as mine is. Women who are considered “too fat” are treated horribly and must endure a particular brand of discrimination that I will never have to experience. I’ve seen the pain they feel when their parents constantly comment on their weight, and the body hatred and general sense of low self-esteem. But although I try to empathize, I will never truly understand what they go through because I was granted privilege that they were not. So when I try to encourage other women to love their bodies, it’s perfectly reasonable for them to turn to me and say, “You don’t know what it’s like. You’re one of the skinniest people I know.”
As a body-positive feminist, I want to do better. I want to keep my thin privilege in check while helping other women love their bodies and raise their self-esteem. The problem is, how do I go about this? I know that my privilege blinds me at times. Is it my place, as a thin woman, to encourage body positivity in my heavier friends? I want to try, but I need to do so in a way that doesn’t presume I understand their personal experiences or know what is best for them. Loving my body isn’t easy for me, but it is so much harder for many – and this is something I must remind myself of often.
I’ve been confronted twice about my body-positive leanings, and both incidents forced me to acknowledge my privilege. The first incident involved a challenge by an ex-teacher. I had posted something on Facebook encouraging women to love their bodies as they are, sans weight loss, and she responded by stating that she liked her smaller body better (after weight loss). Later we talked in person, and she found it laughable that someone as thin and normatively bodied as me had any right to encourage body positivity in others. While I don’t agree with that completely, she was right in the sense that I needed to check my privilege. The second incident was a conversation between a friend and me. I said something encouraging body positivity and her response was, “get back to me once your thighs rub together.” I was taken aback and left speechless, because she had a point. I can’t understand how she feels in her body, because I don’t live in it. And as much as I want her to love herself and be happy, I don’t have the right to tell her how to do it.
So what can I do? All I want is for everyone to love themselves – no matter how fat, tall, skinny, or short. One thing that I’ve made a point to do is stop and/or prevent fat shaming whenever possible. I confronted my mom about it in high school, when her incessant comments about my weight hurt me deeply. I have challenged friends who make unnecessary comments about other women’s bodies and stood up for those with poor body image as a result of fat shaming. Fat shaming upsets and angers me deeply because I have witnessed its effects on people I love. No one deserves to feel ugly, disgusting, or worthless just because they are bigger than the size society deems acceptable. Although I cannot speak for fat activists, I strongly support the work they do and want to ally with them.
Navigating and understanding my privilege is constant work, but work that is extremely important for me as a feminist. I probably think about privilege far more than the average human, but it helps me build a stronger understanding of social justice and how to achieve it. I don’t want to be blinded by my privilege. I want to expose it, acknowledge it, and learn from it. I will inevitably make mistakes, but after each mistake I will have the opportunity to be better. To be a better feminist, a better activist, and a better person.
(Check out thisisthinprivilege.tumblr.com for some poignant examples of thin privilege.)