2.04.2011

A Spectrum of Privilege

My fat body is privileged. Not by by virtue of being fat, of course. But by a lot of other things that interact with fat prejudice and impact the way I am treated.

I experience privilege as a white fat person. I experience privilege as a fat male. I experience privilege being fat and straight. And in what is a tricky thing for Fat Acceptance to respond to, I experience privilege because I am thin.

Except, I'm not thin. Still, while I am not privileged by virtue of being fat, I am privileged by the comparative level of fat I am. As the male equivalent of a mid-size fatty, I experience a number of advantages over my fatter brethren. The chances of being of being publicly harassed are sharply reduced, I can buy clothes at many mainstream retailers, I can fit into most airline seats. I didn't ask to be privileged in these ways, but I am. This is what our culture has done and I cannot pretend that doesn't exist

Which doesn't mean I don't face challenges. I have been publicly harassed because of my size. While I can shop at many mainstream clothing stores, I can only just barely and even then only online for many. Fitting in an airline seat actually doesn't provide me much protection from being forced to pay for a second seat given that I am visibly fat. So, of course, there is a reason to speak out about the ways my fat body is stigmatized, but I still need to be mindful of the ways I am privileged compared to others, such as those who experience harsher fat stigmatization.

I feel like there is often an eagerness in FA to accept the false equivalency that a fat person saying something like "Skinny people are evil" is the same thing as the stigmatization that fat people experience. I always see haughty declarations about how this is about accepting all people. While that sort of declaration is profoundly nonconstructive and entirely unacceptable, we do a disservice to reality by treating it as two sides of a body hating coin. They aren't. To say that they are same thing is actually feeding into a culture of fat stigmatization by minimizing how fat bigotry enforces itself in our culture. Its akin to those who act like "reverse racism" or "man hating" are somehow equal evils to the subjugation of non-whites and of women.

I feel it is imperative that we follow the lead of other social justice movements and strive to respond to these kinds of resentments from the underprivileged without endorsing false equivalencies about them. That we find ways to express our dissatisfaction with these examples of resentment while still acknowledging that they are not a cause of what we are fighting, but a product of it. Especially when we are, ourselves, the subjects of this resentment because of where we might be on the spectrum of thin privilege.

As long as I've seen FA, I've seen smaller fat people complaining about how they don't feel welcome. As a bonafide smaller fat person, I don't buy this. I don't deny that some resentment is real and sometimes gets expressed in counterproductive outbursts. Still, I feel there needs to be some responsibility on the part of those of us who experience privilege to not make these resentments all about us. The privileged cannot put the burden on the stigmatized to make us comfortable. That is a very common dynamic but one which always serves to enforce stigmatization. This is easier to see when, say, straight people insist that the gay rights movement be more "comfortable" for straight people. It feels odd when you suffer stigmatization to realize that you can also be a beneficiary of the same example of privilege that stigmatizes you. This is the reality, though.

Its a challenge to find the right balance to respond to resentments that are ultimately counterproductive but still come from a very honest situation. It is a challenge we must take up, though. We cannot just lump in these forms of resentment from the underprivileged with the stigmatization from the privileged. They are not the same thing and cannot be responded to in the same way. I can get the allure of taking such a position, but it is not actually reasonable. Without the power dynamic seen with the privileged, this resentment simply doesn't mean the same thing. We do need to push past these resentments because they manifest in outbursts that are not fair or constructive, but we still must acknowledge the truths that produced them and recognize that they are a product of what we are fighting, not what we are fighting.

13 comments:

Anna Guest-Jelley said...

Thank you so much for this--very important.

Palaverer said...

This reminds me of the comment thread at Teenagerie (a blog I really like) where the commenters got all upset over Lane Bryant's use of the term "Real Women" in their sales events. It didn't matter to them that Lane Bryant wasn't claiming that women who can't or don't shop in their stores aren't also real women, just that the women who do shop there are real women, a message they don't often hear. Oh no! The skinny women were being left out! Lane Bryant's campaign has nothing to do with them whatsoever but we must make it be about them!

Regina T said...

Interesting perspective of this Brian. I have been struggling to define the way I feel about the common argument that "eat a sandwich" is just as harsh and damaging as "put your fork down". Mostly because the level of hatred is not equally spewed. Most people don't go out of their way to tell someone they're too thin, but will go out of their way to tell someone they're too fat...AND will offer diet solutions, advice, and more often ugly insults yelled from afar. This is why it's important that oppressed voices are heard, and are the ones leading the movement for change. It's not to play Oppression Olympics--which is often an attempt to find a common ground of relatablility--it's allowing the underprivileged the right to set the tone, standards, and course of action for change. When a government panel is gathered to come up with policy regarding services for members of a group (i.e. the obese), it's pertinent to have an actual member of that group present during policymaking. We can all relate to human suffering because it is universal. Suffering = suffering everywhere. That is the only common ground we all can and should embrace while allowing the oppressed their voice to drive the efforts for change. People can get hung up on the "exclusionism" of it, and that can derail any movement. The "What about ME?" people need to understand that demanding to be heard takes away from the core purpose of the movement.

Brian said...

I would stress that "eat a sandwich" and the like is not productive, constructive, helpful, or even vaguely fair. We need to be committed to non-divisive discourse. But, the find that we need to respect that resentment born of oppression is not the same problem as oppressive stigmatization. We cannot respond to both in the same way or we won't really be responding at all. Too often, voices get excluded in the name of inclusion. And, presumably, irony. That's not a complaint about FA, specifically, either, because this is a pattern much bigger than that. But where it happens in FA, we need to commit ourselves to listening to the voices of those who have been most denied their voice and respecting the place they are coming from, even if we must disagree with the place it has taken them to. Acting like these stigmatized voices are the same as social and economic players enforcing fat hatred is not a way to understanding and we need to reject that as much as we reject unfair divisiveness.

Sleepydumpling said...

Thank you for this post Brian. I have not got involved in the discussion (particularly on Tumblr) simply because I don't have the emotional energy to deal with the conflation of "being deathfat is a whole host of difficulties that smaller fats don't have to deal with" with "shut up smaller fats you're not fat enough" arguments.

Mostly I just want to look at a blog called "Fatshion February" and not have to wade through photographs of people who never have to set foot near a plus-size store. Even if those people are called fat by body snarking jerks, being called fat, and actually BEING fat are two completely different issues.

After all, find me a woman who hasn't been called fat (even the thinnest of women have copped it at some time).

We have two clearly different issues that need to be addressed. The first is those of us who live life as fat (regardless of where on the spectrum we sit) need space and a voice. The second being that we live in a culture that deems "fat" as the ultimate insult, and are presented with such distorted images of bodies that one in the "normal" range is considered fat.

Brian said...

It bares mention that while I became aware something touching on this on Tumblr, I'm fairly clueless when it comes to Tumblr so I didn't really follow that. As is often the case with my posts, though, I'm not really inspired by a specific instance but rather a lot of instances I've seen over years.

I think its important to note that the complaints from deathfats about smaller fats is rarely an outright, "shut up". What I have seen over the years are people saying that smaller fats "don't get it". Sometimes when that is a germaine observation, sometimes when its not. Even when its not really a meaningful complaint, though, its still essentially a true observation. We don't get it. There is a level where as empathic as we might be, we can't get it because we haven't been there. That's an experience we need to be understanding of and can support those voices by listening, not dictating. Fat stigmatization negatively impacts an enormous range of people. It should be self-evident that it does so with an enormous range of results.

wriggles said...

Without the power dynamic seen with the privileged, this resentment simply doesn't mean the same thing.

Exactly, the "sandwich" thing has ticked me off from the beginning. The difference between being told to eat/don't eat x is there even in essence let alone overall where the former is not backed up by anything.

Virtually the whole of the scientific and medical establishment and all areas of society including progressives are on board with it, there is almost no escape from it, full stop.

Just what kind of person hasn't noticed that? But what annoyed me is not this point in itself but that it is part of an overall response-by those who know but won't do better- to maintain the status quo of silence and erasure of fatz so that they continue their hating in peace.

Heather said...

This is a fantastic post- thank you so much.

notblueatall said...

So reliably fantastic! Thank you, Brian, this topic is near and dear to me and I am so glad to have the opportunity to read your thoughts on the subject.

Brian said...

My concern is really with the pattern we keep seeing of people experiencing privilege complaining about being shut out by people who do not experience that privilege. Even if something unfair was said, that kind of approach just silences voices already being silenced and I ultimately find that to be really counterproductive. It comes off as privileged people screaming "Make this about me" and that's also unfair. We can do better. Fat acceptance is for all of us, but that doesn't mean some perspectives need to be made less visible for the benefit of others. That's not a solution.

silentbeep said...

FA conversations have multiple layers, there are ranges, nuances and complexities, and that's really o.k. Some convos on the fatosphere don't apply to me, some of them do: I only wish more people could see that as well.

Anonymous said...

FROM: The Dandelion Thief.

Its so hard to convince people that they're privileged at all. Its slightly easier for me, I suppose, since there isn't any kind of privilege I don't have, so people tend to listen to me when they would ignore other people. But its still damned hard.

Bilt4cmfrt said...

You beat me to it again. As a (male) minority within the 'sphere you would figure some folks might get it. That a Bull-in-a-china-shop attitude is not going to go over well. Nor is it conducive to constructive dialogue. Yah know, since an over-reliance on strict confrontation only serves to paint a person as an ass or a troll. Whatevever.

Personally, I lean towards a more inclusive philosophy where the whole 'who's fat and who's not' debate is concerned. Recognizing that, due to media mind fuckery / BMI inconsistency / just plain difference of opinion, there is no real definition of who is or isn't fat. With some people it's nearly entirely subjective. There's also the consideration, as you' pointed out, that you don't have to be fat to join or advocate for fat acceptance. The problem, I think, with this particular turn on the merry-go-round, is Tumblr itself. By it's very nature response / commenting on Tumblr is almost reflex driven / reactionary. Folks see something on their dashboards and, sometimes before they even know what it's about, are firing off comments so that barely controlled chaos is the norm. 

 Being able to post fast and loose, from anywhere, at anytime is cool and all, but there's something to be said for a format where people are encouraged to do a bit more, in-depth, reading and research. That is, before the impulse to pledge undying allegiance, drop a STFU Bomb, or blast their Opinion Vuvuzela hits. Maybe I'm too old fashioned. Or maybe I'm just old.

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