Dietitians & Thin Privilege....pull up a pew, let's chat.


Today I met with the fierce and fabulous woman I mentor for a coffee. We walked into the café, negotiated our way around the tables, ordered at the front counter then found a comfortable-looking bench-style table with rounded tub-style chairs. We were chuffed…..mid-week coffee = winning! But do you know what else? Purely because we both have smaller bodies, we were able to walk into the café, easily find our way around the tables, no-one gave us a second glance, and we had the pick of where to sit. This is one example of thin privilege, something that unless you don’t have it, goes unnoticed by the very people who are benefitting the most from it.

Do you know what "thin privilege" is?

If you don’t, and you’re working with human beings (of any shape and size) AND you value equality and justice, then it’s incredibly important that we all understand this idea. And, it’s totally understandable if you have never heard of it before. If you’ve always lived in a smaller body, you may never have considered the benefits that are automatically attributed to you, and specifically the negative experiences that you avoid, just because of the body you inhabit. But “size-ism” is extremely prevalent in our culture and as a profession, I think we are in an important position to contribute towards helping make life better for everyone, of every shape and size. I too am a recipient of thin privilege, and am writing from this position, as well as strongly subscribing to the idea that ALL bodies are worthy of love, respect and a sense of justice. I do not think that certain bodies are better than others, or should be paid more attention but it’s high time that, as professionals who do work with diverse bodies, we develop a strong voice that reflects a demand for justice, and a space for everyone.

Please note at this point that I'm in no way assuming that

(a) all or most dietitians are/ have always been thin,

(b) all or most dietitians are/ have always been privileged, or

(c) that all or most dietitians have no idea what it might be like to be discriminated against whether that be overt bullying or subtle structural discrimination that makes life a little more difficult just because of who you are. This is designed not to be personal, not to be about *you*, but about how we can find opportunities to grow in our awareness of broader social justice issues that affect many humans. Perhaps even you.

In brief, thin privilege broadly describes the benefits that are automatically ascribed to you when you have a thinner, smaller or “not-fat” body

Things such as the assumption of your health status, your wonderful health eating habits, the clothes you can wear etc etc. You may or may not be aware of these benefits. I certainly wasn’t before I learned more about body privilege, and even now it’ still something I have to keep front of mind to stay engaged with the sense of justice I am committed to for my clients, family and friends.

When we are addressing stigma, bias and privilege, we also need to pay attention to the fact that NO BODY of any shape and size is left unscathed. That if you are a smaller Dietitian, then you too may be the subject of scrutiny. This is still body-shaming and is different than acknowledging thin privilege. I see the whole thing as "body shaming" and let’s be clear - none of it is OK. However, I do believe that in order to address this we need to recognise that the life experience of people of different shapes and sizes vary enormously. People who live in larger bodies are potentially exposed to ridicule, judgement and blame on a daily basis. Thinner people are applauded most of the time, but are sometimes exposed to the same judgements. This doesn't make it right. But it is absolutely, fundamentally different. 

Body shaming is never OK.....

We must equip Dietitians with the skills to be able to tackle ANY kinds of body shaming, whilst acknowledging that smaller people are ascribed benefits that fat people are not. Smaller bodies are not the object of systemic oppression and bias. Smaller bodies are not described as “epidemics” or problems to be fixed by throwing millions of dollars at you to make you smaller. In order to engage genuine compassion for others who make inappropriate body comments directed at you, you have to first be able acknowledge your own privilege. 

For Dietitians, being willing and able to acknowledge and connect with our own privilege opens the door to be able to address injustice, bias and stigma from an authentic place that doesn’t diminish or devalue the body experience of anyone, including you. It can support you to engage with your clients who live in larger bodies from a much more empathic place as you aim to support every person to live in a world which can be very difficult. 

In essence, when we can advocate for all bodies, it helps to address injustice and provides an environment from where people can nourish their bodies from a place of respect rather than from fear, or shame. And what we observe is that when people are able to make food and eating-based decisions from a place of feeling worthy and valued then they are much more likely to engage in health behaviours longer-term.

Where to from here?

If you’re feeling a teensy bit uncomfortable, or a bit defensive then this is good. Actually, it’s great! Conversations about sizeism are rarely comfortable but staying open minded to how we can all contribute to addressing body injustices is a valuable venture, and I believe critical in our work with human beings. The HAES ® paradigm is strongly rooted in advocating for justice on many fronts, but in particular providing a space where people of all shapes and sizes are supported to feel welcome, worthy and valuable.

You can learn more, or deepen your understanding of body privilege by taking a look at these resources, some of which are specifically for Dietitians:
 (training for Dietitians in the Non Diet Approach, also addressing issues of privilege, bias and stigma - please join Fiona Willer & myself!)