I Was an Unintentional Thin-Privileger (Or Was I?)
A few days ago, I was accused of thin- privileging and fat-shaming. I’m still on the fence as to whether or not I did either, but acknowledge that actions and intentions can often make for strange bedfellows. Still, the idea that I may have been unintentionally insensitive to someone else's feelings bothered me enough, that days later, I’m writing about it here.
It was a Facebook post of mine that led to the accusation. Late Friday night, I was sitting at my boyfriend’s kitchen table, eating a Banana Baby and thinking about going to bed, when it occurred to me how different my worries are depending on the time of the day.
During the day-light hours, my worries seem to be more ephemeral: an off-hand remark by a co-worker, a friend's criticism of a story I’m working on, the way my thighs look in a pair of vintage bathing trunks. Once the sun goes down, my worries seem to darken with the world around me: Will I ever be able to support my son on my own, and what will become of us if I can't? How will I deal with the death of my 92 year old grandmother? What awaits any of us when we die?
I thought I was making fun of myself and this realization when I logged onto Facebook and wrote, “A fear worse than fatness comes on in the night.”
The post had garnered a few "likes" before I logged off the site and went to bed.
The next morning, I saw that a woman I really like and respect named Claire had commented on the post. Hers and mine is a typical Facebook-style reconnection; she is someone I knew briefly, many years ago. At the time of our real-life acquaintance, we had similar interests, primarily punk rock shows and bands, most of the riot- grrl type variety, and she and I had played in a sort of joke-band together in her parent’s basement.
Later, she dated a close male friend of mine for years. Since that time, cumulatively, I have probably talked with her more online than I ever did face to face, but I still would have considered her a real-life friend because of the time we did spend together. She’s funny and smart and works as an editor in California, and has been extremely generous with her time and editorial skills when it comes to my writing. I have never asked her to edit my stories; she always volunteered to help, calling herself a fan of my writing.
Her response to my post was as surprising to me as it was succinct: “Tell me how this post is not fat-shaming?”
Since all of my exchanges with Claire online in the past had been as easy as they were eye-to-eye, I figured that once she heard my explanation, she would click on the "like" option, and that would be that.
“Not fat-shaming at all,” I typed quickly, then went into the CliffsNotes version about my worries seeming relative to the sun's place in the sky. In the interim, another Facebook friend had commented on my post with an Ernest Hemingway quote that illustrated what I had been going for with much more literary flourish:
I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started.
Claire responded a few minutes later, with full-on indignation.
“Would you post a fear worse than blackness comes on in the night? That's bullshit. This is bigotry.”
Then -- I'm sort of embarrassed to write this -- she wrote that we were not friends, just acquaintances, had never been friends, really, and because we had never been friends, really, there was no loyalty involved on her part, therefore, no sentimental reason for her to tolerate this kind of bigotry from me. Then she deleted me as a Facebook friend.
She also added I could edit my stories myself.
I was floored. The implication of her response was that my post had been so egregious, she felt she needed to qualify her association with me.
If I'd been given the chance to respond to her second comment, before she pulled the Facebook-plug on me, I probably would have written, “No, I wouldn’t have posted a fear worse than blackness, because I do not fear black people.” Only now, after spending a considerable amount of time thinking about what constitutes thin- privileging and fat-shaming, have I started to understand how that response would have probably just made things worse.
At its barest bones, I thought my post was an amusing (at least I aspired to amusement) poke at myself, and my neuroses, one of which is body image. This is one of the aspects of thin-privileging I have the hardest time wrapping my mind around: that regardless of how I feel about myself, how often I might agonize about my body, because, according to society’s standards, I am not fat, the conflict I have with myself about my body is a faux one.
It's not a conflict at all -- actually, it's a reward. I am privileged to be able to suffer from this kind of faux self-loathing, because one has to be not fat in order to suffer from it. I'm like a rich person complaining about a rotten vacation. At least I can afford to go on a vacation. I can fear fatness because it is something (that people outside of me have decided) I am not.
It took me the better part of the weekend to get through all the layers of self-loathing drawn out by my post.
I will cop to a possible insensitivity in the language I used in the post. I'd rather take the time to explain myself rather than resign myself to always speaking in politically correct terms, but I wonder, if I'd posted a fear worse than weight gain might all of this have been avoided?
In her book AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag explains why we so frequently use metaphors, calling them "the spawning grounds of most understanding." I found Claire’s substitution of black people for fatness to be inflammatory and sophist, but at that time I was still thinking in terms of physical characteristics -- adjectives, not maligned groups within society, nouns.
Using that mistaken criterion for comparison, I thought in terms of my nose. My whole life, I've weathered unsolicited comments about the shape of my nose. My father's Irish genes meeting my mom's Italian ones, what it lacks in width, it more than makes up for in length. The other day, a doctor that I'd never seen before asked me how many times I'd broken it. (Zero.) I've been reminded of its length so often, I don't argue against the opinion; I've accepted it. Survey says, I have a big nose.
How would I have felt if I'd logged on to Facebook and read, "A fear worse than a big nose comes on in the night?"
Would I have taken offense, reading someone else's subjective insecurity as an attack on my own?
Weight-related insecurity, body dysmorphia, self-loathing, mirror horror: these are all issues that so many women and men can relate to. I might be swimming dangerously close to the waters of straw-splitting, but putting my poor word choice aside, how can admitting to any insecurity, especially one so many women and men can relate to -- ever be wrong? Gay men and straight women “liked” my post; everyone seemed to interpret it the way I meant for it to be interpreted, except for Claire.
After she deleted me, I sent her an apology email:
I’m sad about what just happened. I’d like to think you know me better than to think I’m a bigot, but maybe you don’t. As you said, maybe I’m just an acquaintance, someone you knew briefly, decades ago. That being said, you are still a person whose opinion I value, who I think is smart and funny and liked talking to. I’m sorry if I offended you, it wasn’t my intention to offend anyone at all. My intention was to make fun of myself and my insecurities. Thanks for all your help with my writing.
Thanks for your apology, I genuinely appreciate it. Your post was just the last straw of a long shitty week of people with thin privilege (hate to use the phrase but that shit is real) acting like getting fat is like getting the fucking bubonic plague. It's insulting and hurtful and dumb. We're all going to get old and ugly and senile so who fucking cares anyway? Any who, take care.
Maybe I'm over-thinking this, but I don't like the undercurrent that my thin-privilege is so ingrained that I don't even realize when I am acting on it. My boyfriend always says he "responds well to a whipping" whenever we fight. So do I, but in this case, did I deserve one?
I've just expelled a few thousand words on this topic; maybe I said it best in the Facebook post I put up immediately after sending Claire my apology:
was accused of "thin-privileging" today. kind of exhausting. everybody brings their own issues to the table. don't feel that I should have to defend my issues, because of yours. can't our issues exist side by side? then all we would have to do is own them.