The Problem of Privilege
I should be doing my Exercise Science Homework right now. Instead, I’m ruminating on the idea of privilege.
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot lately, mostly as a function of losing weight.
Thin privilege is huge in the gay male universe and in the dance world. It’s something I’ve enjoyed most of my life. It’s also something I didn’t have for a while, and which now — as someone who is once again pretty lean in a way that’s fairly typically dancer-ish — I have again. I feel very, very differently about it now than I did before I lost it for a while.
It’s not specifically thin privilege I want to talk about, though (don’t worry, I’m working up a whole post on that; it’s just going to take a while to write, because it’s a sensitive topic for everybody). What I want to talk about here, now, is the problem with being a person who has privilege.
The problem is, succinctly, that if you have a certain kind of privilege, you probably don’t know it exists, even if you’ve heard of it. You may have rational knowledge of it, but in some sense, it’s probably not real to you — kind of like you’ve probably heard of Montréal, but if you haven’t been there, it might not be really real to you.
Growing up as a skinny kid with a fat sister, I knew that my sister got picked on and stuff about her weight, but I didn’t know there were what one might think of as systemic forces involved. I got picked on about other things entirely, so getting picked on just seemed like a normal part of life as a kid. It didn’t occur to me that the bullying my sister experienced was an ugly manifestation of a socially-acceptable norm.
Likewise, I knew my sister had kind of a hard time finding clothes, but I didn’t know that the selection of clothes available to her was in any way different than that available to other kids. (To be fair, as a kid, I hated shopping for clothes — which struck me as irretrievably boring — with a fiery, burning passion, and avoided all involvement therewith.) I think I figured she was just picky. She was into fashion, after all.
I knew my sister got bronchitis every single year (we both have seasonal allergies, and they weren’t treated when we were kids). I didn’t know that her doctor blamed it (and basically everything else, apparently) on her weight.
Nor did I know her doctor assumed that she was lazy and self-indulgent just because she was bigger than some kids. My sister was no lazier or more self-indulgent than any other kid — having me as a sibling kept her pretty active, in fact, and she was stuck eating the same selection of salads, terrible baked chicken, and so forth that I ate (in fact, we often picked violets together to toss in the salad).
I didn’t know that she felt squeezed out of things she loved doing, like dancing, because there just wasn’t a place for bigger people in ballet. Being both a skinny kid and pretty oblivious, I didn’t really notice, at the time, how the bigger kids sort of faded out as we progressed. I never really thought about it (oblivious, much?), but if I had, I probably would’ve assumed — just like everyone else did — that they dropped out because they were lazy (and also that they were fat for the same reason). From what I’ve seen, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Being a skinny kid, I didn’t notice that images out there in the world didn’t reflect my sister’s existence. In TV shows and movies, fat boys could at least be sidekicks; fat girls? If they showed up at all, they were uncool objects of derision: the kids it was okay to hate. Nobody ever rooted for the fat girls.
Meanwhile, I got to keep dancing. I got to ride bikes, ice skate, ski, do gymnastics, ride horses, swim in public. I could identify with the weird kids who are often the heroes in kids’ books and movies, because I was weird. I could crush on the fat-boy sidekicks in movies because they were there to crush on, because it was okay for boys to be fat, up to a point (as long as they were okay with being sidekicks, I guess).
No matter how much I hated it, I could buy clothes wherever I wanted (mostly: I remember kvetching about not being able to find a size that was small enough at PacSun when I was 19 and weighed about 120 pounds, but that’s a different problem entirely).
I didn’t recognize any of that stuff as privilege. To me, it was just, you know, life. I didn’t feel marginalized by the lack of fat girls in the media, because I wasn’t a fat girl. I didn’t notice whether or not there were cool jeans for fat boys, because I wasn’t a fat boy (not that I would have noticed, anyway, because I also wasn’t cool).
I didn’t feel alienated by the lack of fat kids in ballet class (or the lack of fat dancers on the stage) because I wasn’t a fat kid. I never realized that my pediatrician was kind of a fat-shaming dick about fat kids. I was a skinny kid. I was the default. I never noticed the pieces that were missing.
Flash forward to now. I can eat French fries at Burger King or buy sundae cones at the supermarket and nobody looks at me funny. I rock tights and a t-shirt in ballet class and out, and maybe people might look at me funny because they don’t expect dudes in tights, but nobody says a word about my size. I can go to the doctor’s office and kvetch about my asthma or whatever and nobody assumes that I’m sick because of my weight.
If I hadn’t been fat for a while, I wouldn’t recognize all that as privilege. In fact, I wouldn’t know most of it was happening.
A similar thing happens when white people think non-white people are being histrionic when they talk about experiencing racism. White people say, “I’ve never seen that happen.”
Of course we haven’t. Unless it happens really obviously, and right in front of us, we don’t know it happens at all — because it doesn’t happen to us. It’s hard for us to quite conceptualize what it’s like to be treated poorly because you’re a shade or two darker or a few kilos bigger than the next person.
Discrimination isn’t always super-obvious. In fact, it doesn’t usually come with a big, flashing neon sign. Privilege works the same way, only it’s even harder for us to imagine, because those of us who are on the “right” side of privilege benefit from it. Those benefits just seem normal, to us, so we figure everyone must get them.
Not everyone does.
Too few fat people have access to fun outfits for the weekend or stylish officewear (and that’s more important than it sounds), or health care without conclusion-jumping (my sister’s recurrent bronchitis has never been a function of her weight), or the chance to just freaking enjoy a meal out without being judged by everyone in sight (and, yes, praising someone for choosing the salad still really kind of implies judgment, especially when you’re scarfing down the fish and chips).
Too few women have their opinions taken seriously in business meetings or in academic settings.
Too few Muslims get to walk out their front doors without having to steel themselves against unwarranted comments.
I don’t think I would have ever really seen what thin privilege looks like if I hadn’t been, well, not-thin for a while. Surprisingly, I feel like it would be pretty easy to lose sight of it again (especially in the current cultural climate in the US, which is totally into making people who do lose weight feel pretty good about themselves).
I hope I won’t forget what it looks like, now.