Updated: Nov 7
Exploring the top and bottom of the social hierarchy of body size.
Last week we talked about the social hierarchy of body size, how it flipped 180 degrees a century ago, and what that means about the way our body preferences are conditioned into us.
Today we’re going to explore this a little further, by looking at the folks who occupy the very top of this particular social hierarchy, as well as the folks who occupy the very bottom — and how that impacts their lives.
Let’s start by exploring who exists at the top of the hierarchy of body size, and how that affects them.
At the top of the body size social hierarchy are thin people.
This includes people with lower body fat percentages, people in smaller bodies, and people who are perceived to fit the “right body size and shape” for their gender, which generally means big, muscular, and/or very lean for men, and small, very lean, and/or thin for women.
Over the last ten years or so with the rise of “wellness culture,” it’s common to hear people say they prefer bodies that just “look fit” or “look healthy,” but in reality, since neither fitness nor health have a particular size, weight, or shape, what people are really saying is that they prefer bodies with at least a medium amount of muscle mass, and a low body fat percentage.
After all, athletes on the Olympic lifting team look completely different than ultra-marathon athletes, who look different than basketball players, who look different than ballet dancers. But all those athletes would be considered extremely fit, and all of them could be either healthy or unhealthy behind the scenes.
But as we talked about last week, studies done using the Implicit Association Test (a test used in social psychology research to measure people’s subconscious associations) consistently show that people in modern western culture associate individuals in smaller, thinner, and leaner bodies with being more motivated, intelligent, hard-working, likeable, disciplined, and attractive. They also make assumptions about the health, confidence, self-control, sex lives, and overall happiness of thin folks which are significantly more positive than those made about fat folks.
Studies show outright preferences for people with thin bodies (even in girls as young as three, as a study published in 2010 in the journal Sex Roles found), a fact which makes sense given that we tend to perceive thin folks as so much smarter, harder working, and likeable, right?
This means that generally speaking, a thin, lean, small-bodied person would move through the world getting advantages (like opportunities, friendliness, warmth, respect, success, and acceptance) not available to a fat or large-bodied person.
This is what we call “thin privilege,” and it’s very simply the advantages afforded to people at the top of the social hierarchy of body size.
Of course, since we all see the world through the lens of our own life experience, thin people aren’t usually aware that their positive life experiences occur at least in part because of the size of their body, and are more likely to attribute the opportunities, success, acceptance, and other privileges to internal qualities like hard work, intelligence, likeability, or skill.
After all, privilege is always the most difficult to see for the folks with the most of it, and we’ve all been conditioned to hold the same biases about what thinness and fatness mean!
Aware of it or not however, people at the top of the body weight and size hierarchy experience many social privileges that they haven’t done anything to “earn” other than by conforming to the body weight and size ideal that we uphold in modern western culture; by having a body that we’ve all learned to attached a positive meaning to.
Those privileges don’t stop at social status and the ability to get emotional needs (such as the need for respect, inclusion, intimacy, love, or belonging) met, however. The bias that thinness is inherently good translates into more money, resources, opportunities, physical safety, and freedom for people in smaller bodies.
Thinner people consistently make more money and get more job opportunities than fatter people, as demonstrated in the 2016 study by University of Exeter Medical School of over 120,000 people, which found that a weight difference of about fifteen pounds meant a thinner woman would make £1,500 more on average per year than her heavier counterpart. (And the same was found for men who were three inches taller than their shorter counterparts!)
Thinner people receive better medical care, because doctors are more inclined to believe them and run tests to figure out what’s wrong instead of blaming the issue on their weight. They have an easier time accessing opportunities like jobs, loans, education, promotions, and more, and can move through the world generally expecting to fit into waiting room chairs, airplane seats, the clothes available in local clothing stores, and representation in tv/film/media of people who look like the, among other public spaces and situations.
Thin folks also experience less harassment, shaming, and abuse about the size of their bodies than fat folks (not none of course, as thin-shaming also exists, but it’s much less common and much less connected to marginalization and discrimination than fat shaming).
All of this thin privilege (aka the opportunities, safety, respect, and kindness) applies to people in thinner bodies no matter how they got there. They could be sick, grieving, struggling with addiction, suffering from an eating disorder, engaging in compulsive exercise behaviors, or simply have been born with the right genetics for it.
Either way, people with thin/lean bodies are undeniably granted a superior social status, and access to many opportunities and advantages, that people with fat/big bodies don’t.
Now let’s explore who exists at the bottom of this hierarchy, and how that affects them.
The bottom of the social hierarchy of body size is occupied by people living in larger bodies. This includes fat people, people with higher body fat percentages, and people whose body size inexplicably seems to inspire rage, contempt, disgust, hatred, and violence just for existing in public.
Studies consistently show that most people in western culture implicitly associate fat people with being lazy, greedy, unintelligent, poor, out of control, untrustworthy, and unhappy, as well as making extremely negative assumptions about their health, lifestyle, and sex lives (fat people tend to be viewed as less attractive and less sexual overall than thin people).
The meaning we’ve all learned to attach to fatness means people in larger bodies are seen as lower status, and they end up treated as second class citizens in many ways. Not only do they not have access to the privileges and opportunities readily available to thin people as outlined above, but they also have to contend with the abuse, threats to safety, and discrimination at the hands of weight stigma and the anti-fat bias.
Among the findings of a paper published in 2012 from the North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO) on weight stigma and discrimination was that twenty eight percent of teachers in one study thought becoming obese is the worst thing that can happen to a person, while twenty four percent of nurses reported being “repulsed” by obese persons, and anyone living life in larger body can tell you that they face daily harassment, judgment, and exclusion based on the size of their body.
I had a client once report that she receives harassment for eating or existing in public on a daily basis, that simply ordering a latte or eating a protein bar while fat seems to inspire rage in strangers, who regularly say things like “fatty” or “disgusting” under their breath, offer “helpful” suggestions for how to lose weight, or shout things like “lose some weight” to her from across the street.
People in larger bodies regularly get told to lose weight by doctors with anti-fat biases (who have been shown to view their fatter clients as less compliant and honest), leading to a lack of early testing and higher risk of mortality by the time a serious problem gets diagnosed and treated. Not to mention that the fear of being lectured and shamed by doctors for their weight keeps people in larger bodies from even going to get medical care in the first place, again leading to higher risk for serious negative health outcomes and death.
So not only do people in larger bodies not have access to the status and privilege of people in smaller bodies, they also have to fight a daily battle just to exist. They are taught that by virtue of the size of their body, they are unworthy of getting their emotional needs for connection, respect, belonging, safety, and care met… and that any violence, neglect, or discrimination against them is their own fault.
Due to the way we’ve all been conditioned to associate fatness with ugliness and non-sexualness, people in larger bodies have a much harder time accessing romantic and sexual partners, even though someone in their exact body might have been considered the height of beauty and sex appeal a few hundred years ago.
They have to contend with tangible daily reminders that they do not belong and are not wanted in this society, from a lack of representation in tv/film/media, to a lack of available clothing and public seating options, to everyone (even much thinner people) constantly talking about “feeling fat” and attempting to lose weight so as to avoid looking like them.
All of this stigma, harassment, abuse, threats to safety, and inability to access resources can be referred to either as weight stigma, or fatphobia, and it affects people in larger bodies no matter how they got there.
A person could live in a bigger body due to genetics, illness or disability, side effects to a medication, a history of trauma, a lack of access to resources (such as time, money, and childcare support), or a history of dieting or trying to lose weight– which has actually been shown to lead to long term weight gain for most people. Maybe they gained weight to recover from an eating disorder, or because they were falling in love and learning to accept and embody their whole juicy self.
It doesn’t matter. Because weight stigma and fatphobia mean that anyone in a larger body will experience discrimination, social exclusion, and physical danger on a daily basis.
Whew! That was a lot. Now let’s do a little self-examination.
Check in with yourself about your own beliefs and biases, both explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) about body size and weight.
Do you believe thin people are more deserving of kindness, respect, safety, and opportunities than fat people? If so, what makes them more deserving? What do you believe you can tell by looking at a thin person, about their health, happiness, overall character, value to society, or work ethic?
What meaning do you associate with smaller bodies, and what significance do you ascribe to thinness? Where did you learn this? Is it objectively true? Do your beliefs about thinness apply to everyone, including you? Why or why not?
How about fat people — do you believe a person in a larger body is more deserving of facing discrimination, bullying, harassment, stigma, and a lack of accurate medical diagnoses and education or income opportunities? If so, why? Do you believe fat people are less worthy of kindness, autonomy, happiness, success, safety, or respect than thin people?
What do you believe you can tell by looking at a fat person, about their health, happiness, overall character, or work ethic? What meaning do you associate with larger bodies, and what significance do you ascribe to fatness? Where did you learn this? Is it objectively true? Do your beliefs about fatness apply to everyone, including you? Why or why not?
Don’t worry if you experience some conflict in your answers to these questions. A lot of people have conscious beliefs and unconscious beliefs that clash when it comes to these hierarchies, and that’s normal.
For example, if you’ve been conditioned from a young age to view fat people as bad and lazy, but now as an adult you’re passionate about spreading kindness and fighting oppression, you might find that you believe both “fat people are exactly as worthy of respect as thin people,” and “it’s very important for me to stay thin so people respect me,” at the same time.
Just notice that for now, and get curious about it.
It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, vain, stupid, or crazy. It just means that you’ve been conditioned to internalize and uphold the social hierarchy of body size.
How does where you’re situated on this hierarchy impact your lived experience? How does it impact your body image?
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