Weight Stigma: Privilege and Responsibility

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gina (2019)

Gina Susanna, NEDA Ambassador

As a person who’s never been fat, I’m not an authority on weight stigma. And as a person in recovery from an eating disorder (ED), it can sometimes be difficult to think of myself as thin. But when I look at the realities of my experience, there’s a lot of privilege there. I never need to worry if I’ll be kicked off an airplane due to my size, if a doctor will refuse to treat me, or if my ED will be taken seriously in treatment.

Because I live that privilege, and because I live with an ED, I make mistakes. We all do. Our job is to own them, and to learn to do better. Because as privileged people—as members of a privileged group—we have the responsibility to speak on our own lessons and help build bridges for others to do the same. We have the responsibility to risk our own pride and our own sense of comfort to make this world better and safer for everyone. We can’t brush it off and hope someone else will do it.

When I first came to this community, I had very little idea of what words like “privilege” and ”weight stigma” and “fatphobia” really meant. I mean, I knew what privilege was in a general sense, but my gut reaction to hearing that word was, “That doesn’t really apply to me, I struggled to get where I am. I don’t have everything handed to me. I’ve been through hell with my eating disorder.”   

I rejected the idea that privilege or fatphobia or weight stigma was something I needed to learn more about. Like many of us, early in my recovery, mine was the only experience I could see. I was finally learning to love myself and take care of myself, and I couldn’t see beyond the immediacy of that. I pushed back when people said some of my before/after recovery or side-by-side posts on Instagram were harmful to the fat community. I ignored the voices of people who said, “This hurts us,” and only listened to the ones who echoed my own interpretation of what recovery and body positivity meant.

Because the reality was: a ton of people liked what I was doing. People applauded me for my bravery, they commented with stories of their own, telling me that seeing the small rolls on my stomach when I sat down was the first time they’d ever seen someone who looked like them on social media, how that inspired them, how it encouraged them. And it made me feel amazing—getting comfortable with my body and learning to love it in all its most vulnerable forms was what helped get me through the hardest parts of my recovery. I thought that in my sharing that with others, I was being honest and helpful—but then I started getting called out for it.

I became inundated with comments from fat activists and body positive community members who told me that what I was doing wasn’t helpful—in fact, it was very, very harmful. They used the words “fatphobic” and “thin privilege” and talked about me in ways that I took very personally. It felt like an attack not only on my recovery but on my character. I wasn’t trying to exclude anyone—couldn’t they see that?? I couldn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with people loving their bodies. I rejected the idea that my work was harmful. It couldn’t be.

Body Positivity is for everyone, I thought. It helps everyone! Just because I’m not fat, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own shit to work through. Just because my body doesn’t represent everyone, that doesn’t necessarily make my message harmful. My healing is my own, and my recovery is mine, and no one has the right to tell me I’m doing it wrong. Right? 


And here’s where I really want you to hear me—yes, my healing was my own. Yes, my recovery had to be about me. But it also, simultaneously, exists within a larger framework of privilege and oppression. Because nothing exists in a vacuum.

I didn’t think of myself as a closed-minded person. Who does? But I had deeply closed myself off to the feedback I continued to get. And because of that, I silenced a lot of people. I hurt a lot of people. I felt those uncomfortable, guilty feelings bubbling to the surface, and instead of paying attention to them, I buried them.

Because the easy thing for me to believe was that those people didn’t know anything about my life. They didn’t know my struggle. The work I put in to loving my body and loving myself was hard. It was real. It is, and possibly will forever be, the most difficult process of my life. Absolutely nothing and no one can ever take that away from me. My recovery is mine. It’s not about anyone else.

But. My recovery exists within a larger system: one that benefits thin people, and systematically harms fat people.

  • When I’ve told people about my eating disorder, they believed me. Without question.
  • When I’ve asked doctors not to weigh me, they comply. Without question.
  • When I’ve sought treatment for my eating disorder, clinicians responded with concern, rather than the applause or ridicule that many fat people face.
  • When I’ve needed to ask a salesperson for jeans in the next size up, they have them. No snickering or side-eyed comments.
  • When I watch television, I see main characters with the same body type as mine, not secondary or minor characters (often whose weight is a focus of their character).
  • When I walk into a classroom and the only seating available is those small chairs with the desks attached, I can sit in them because they’re made for bodies my size.
  • When I have to board an airplane, the narrow seats are made for bodies my size; I’ve never panicked at the thought of seatbelts not fitting, or been afraid I’ll get removed from the flight if a passenger complains I’m taking up too much of “their” space. I’ve never had to purchase two seats just to be able to fly at all.
  • When I’ve gone to the doctor for mysterious pain or sudden illness, I’ve never had them dismiss my symptoms, make comments about my weight, or prescribe weight loss as the cure.

But these experiences are not the same for everyone. And because of my privilege I’ve been able to ignore the facts surrounding weight stigma, fatphobia, and body-based oppression simply because I do not experience them for myself.

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. They’re multifaced, manipulative liars. They do not look the same for everyone, just as they are not always caused by the same traumas or fueled by the same internal or external messages. We are all unique humans, and we all cope in different ways. But we all live within the same system: a system that rewards some bodies and penalizes others.

When we hear someone say, “Your perception of eating disorders has been shaped by white supremacy,” for many of us those guilty, uncomfortable feelings crop up again! We don’t like those feelings: they conjure up images of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, rather than a complex social system that lifts up and rewards whiteness at every turn. We don’t think of the ways in which our view of fatness and thinness has been directly shaped by anti-Black racism (which you can read about in Sabrina Strings’ Fearing the Black Body). We don’t like thinking about white supremacy, and we particularly don’t like being told that eating disorders are tied to it, and for many of us it feels like someone is pointing a finger at us and calling us and our struggle racist.

Or when someone says, “For true recovery to be possible, we have to address and eliminate weight stigma,” we feel attacked again, like someone is sweeping up every hardship and trauma and battle with our eating disorder and tossing it in the bin, and replacing with vanity, or saying that the driving force behind our EDs is actually just us not wanting to be fat.

So, we reject the idea wholeheartedly. It can’t be true. They don’t know my life. They don’t know what I’ve been through. What they’re saying must be wrong. 

But the truth is that, like so many things in life, both things can be true, simultaneously. My eating disorder can be my own individual, specific-to-my-own-trauma battle that I have to show up to every single day and fight. And it can also, more abstractly, exist within a system that encourages nutrient-starved bodies to gain weight—but not too much weight. It exists within a network of treatment providers who prescribe disordered behaviors to fat people but diagnose those same behaviors in thin people. It exists, echoed by societal doctrine that it’s better to take up less space. And that is why we cannot talk about eating disorders without talking about weight stigma. We cannot fully silence voices that tell us we’re not good enough without dismantling the system that makes it impossible to believe otherwise.

Treating and preventing eating disorders and fighting weight stigma aren’t at odds—in fact, we can’t do either without the other. The first step to addressing anti-fat bias is to own the privileges we may have, as uncomfortable as that may be. 

Even when it challenges our understanding of our own eating disorders.

Even when it hurts.

Every time we own our privileges and our mistakes (and the mistakes we will inevitably make in the future), we take another step toward building a more just and healing world for all of us.

I know it’s hard. But I know we can do it.

A note on resources: In addition to Sabrina Strings’ book, Gina also recommends Everyday Feminism and writings by Your Fat Friend, including A Toolkit for Fat Flyers.

Gina is a writer, blogger, and Instagrammer whose work integrates mental health and eating disorders on the axes of body politics and self acceptance. Currently she runs the Instagram account @nourishandeat, providing inspirational and thought-challenging content, along with sharing her own personal journey. She believes in the power of authenticity and acceptance, working to make sure her followers know that perfection — in life and in recovery — doesn’t exist, and that our bodies in every form are worthy of love and respect. Gina is a frequent speaker at various workshops, panels, retreats, and NEDA walks. She is also currently enrolled in graduate study to receive her Masters in Clinical Mental Health. You can find Gina on Instagram, Twitter, or somewhere under a blanket. With snacks.