A note on thin privilege: Alexa Chung is not your friend

Alexa Chung, the British fashion model turned TV host, recently gave an interview in which she responded to criticism she had received over some pictures that she had posted of herself on her Instagram account. The outcry against these pictures (which, for the most part, were really pretty innocuous, depicting, for example, an admittedly skeletal Chung standing next to her mother) came largely from folks who wanted to label them as “thinspo,” i.e. as glorifying an unhealthily low body weight and intended as inspiration for other people out there struggling to attain such a weight. The big idea here being that seeing someone else who has managed to whittle themselves down in such a way and who is totally loving it will give people a final burst of energy to vomit up just that much more food or skip that one more meal so they can join their emaciated pals in socially-conditioned-body-satisfaction-heaven (I should note that this trend has, in general, rightfully been condemned by almost all reasonable people who have commented on it).

I am actually entirely uninterested in the question of whether or not Chung’s pictures were thinspiration or not, but what I am interested in is her response to her critics, in which she shifted the focus from the intent and effects of the pictures to the much more interesting and important issue of whether or not her simply being the way she is (i.e. thin) is or is not tantamount to an endorsement of a particular social ideal of the body. To put it another way, Chung, though likely unintentionally, raises in her response to her critics the issue of whether or not simply being skinny is thinspo.

Her most important statement in the interview came when she said this, “Just because I exist in this shape doesn’t mean that I’m like advocating it.” She goes on to position herself as a warrior in the battle against negative body-image; a comrade in the struggle, saying “I just think the whole culture of hatred, and also feeling like it’s your right to judge people when you don’t know them is really fucked up…Self-esteem, that’s something you’ve got to work on yourself. I know for me it’s different day to day.” A writer on Jezebel, commenting on the whole affair (here), seems to gladly and unquestioningly welcome Chung into the ranks of those who must struggle against a society which teaches us, first and foremost, to despise our bodies, and particularly to despise them in proportion to how closely they approximate the social ideal of space-occupancy which is “take up as little of it as possible,” writing “She’s fucking right on. This culture of policing women’s bodies hurts us all.”

I want to make a suggestion here. Specifically, I want to argue that Alexa Chung, and anyone like her, in her current state, with her current ontology, yes, existing in the shape she exists in is not and cannot be an ally to those of us who are not in conformity, as she is, with the current cultural archetype of the ideal body. Ms. Chung’s attempts to wash her hands of responsibility for being the way she is and the effects that the actions which stem from that have should be viewed as harmful apologetics and sophistry. Being “naturally thin” (a concept which itself should probably be done away with, as should the concept of being “naturally” anything when it comes to bodily ontology) or “thin but not judgmental of non-thin people” should be rejected as excuses for participating in and fueling the malicious cultural processes that cause shame of the body in our society.

I think that the hypocrisy of Ms. Chung’s position is essentially self-evident on a number of levels. As was observed by some of the commenters on the Jezebel article, there is something fundamentally absurd about an individual who chose, of her own free will, to become a high fashion model and, therefore to participate in an industry which is perhaps the single greatest cultural wellspring of bodily anxiety (along with the other two heads of the body-hate Cerberus, the advertising and the fitness industries) complaining about being judged for how she looks. The further, and more dramatic, irony and hypocrisy, though, comes from the fact that Chung, as someone who has not only directly benefited from the cultural hegemony of weight and body types (as all thin people do) but who has actively participated in in perpetuating that hegemony (as all thin people do) is trying to encourage the rest of us to love our bodies and ourselves as if she has to face the same shaming and vilification that, say, a fat person must face on a daily basis in this country (which, if you’re catching my drift here, she doesn’t).

Let me make something clear: The idea that skinny people must struggle to love their bodies and must deal with the same obstacles to self-esteem that non-skinny people must deal with is pernicious nonsense. Let me make something else clear: Of course Alexa Chung, her fashion-model brethren, and those millions who torture themselves to become and stay thin are victims of the unattainable bodily ideals our society holds up. What I am saying is that they are just less victimized than non-thin people, and it’s time we admitted it.

The Jezebel writer’s closing comment needs to be modified. It should have read “This culture of policing women’s (and men’s) bodies hurts us all, it just doesn’t hurt us all equally.” What needs to be acknowledged is that skinny people occupy the hegemonic position in our schema of social weight relations, in the same way that white people, men, and the like do in their respective schemata. Alexa Chung telling non-skinny people to love their bodies and to cultivate bodily self-esteem no matter what is, in this cultural climate, roughly analogous to a white slave owner in antebellum Georgia telling his field workers to love their race and to cultivate racial self-esteem no matter what, or a male village official telling a woman on trial in 17th century Scotland during the height of the witch burnings to love her biological sex and to cultivate sexual self-esteem no matter what. Those who benefit from and perpetuate cultural hegemonies are in no place to offer advice on how to deal with the negative effects of being on the losing end of those relationships. We ought to respond to Alexa Chung’s injunctions for us to love our bodies with a rousing “Easy for you to say!”

In a culture where non-skinny people are ostracized, discriminated against, have their health status constantly questioned, are seen as definitionally ugly, and are even identified with the ubiquitous “what-is-wrong-with-America,” the image of Alexa Chung in her size-0 designer clothing purchased with fashion industry blood money holding up her fist in attempted solidarity with the overweight high-schooler hiding in a bathroom stall during her lunch period, in tears and eating her ham sandwich (on white bread with mayonnaise) is head-shakingly ludicrous.

If this seems wrong to you, I suggest returning to my earlier analogy between body-relations and race-relations in this country. My claim, to make it explicit again, is that skinny people occupy more-or-less the same ideological space with respect to non-skinny people that white people occupy with respect to non-white people, or that men occupy with respect to women, i.e. the position at the top of a value-laden hegemonic food chain. Given the usefulness and acceptability of terms like white-privilege and male-privilege, I think it time that we bring into the mainstream a notion of skinny-privilege (something which has recently gained a minimal amount of traction on some out-of-the-way tumblr accounts). We need to begin criticizing skinny people for not recognizing this privilege in the same way that we criticize men who claim that being male is as challenging (or even just comparably challenging) as being female or white people who claim that racism hurts everybody in our society equally. People who talk in such ways are immediately and rightfully labeled as transparent bullshitters, and it strikes me that we should start similarly labeling skinny people who complain about body type discrimination and body-image issues affecting everybody equally. They just simply don’t.

In order for skinny people to ever truly be allies to non-skinny people, they must, at minimum, recognize their position in the hegemonic order, that is, recognize their power and privilege, and ultimately seek ways to work around and undermine that privilege. This is what we demand of men and white people who would join in the struggle on the side of their oppressed counterparts, so why should we not demand it of skinny people who would enter the fray on the side of non-skinny people?

Before closing, I want to make a slight detour into the question of why people feel compelled to defend Alexa Chung’s place at the table in the discussion among the bodily oppressed as to how to break out of this oppression. Why does it not seem so transparently silly and hypocritical to more people when skinny people preach body-love to fat people, especially when sensitivity to hypocrisy of this form is at its zenith in American cultural criticism (indeed, Jezebel, among others, has made something of a cottage industry out of calling out men who make statements about women or sex-relations that their male-privileged positions render them unauthorized to make)?

I would suggest that this widespread blindness to skinny-privilege is a result of the failure to disentangle issues of weight relations from what I would all general women’s issues, i.e. issues which apply to all or nearly all women more or less equally (things like rape, abortion, access to contraception, equal pay, etc.). Weight relations and weight issues, as unique topics of analysis, have so long been discussed exclusively under the auspices of general women’s issues that they have never been granted the ideological autonomy that they so clearly need and merit. The assumption (which no doubt has deep and complex historical roots entirely outside the scope of this short essay) has long been that body-image and weight issues are, more-or-less, exclusively women’s issues, and, more crucially, that all women are united in the struggle to remedy them. We can have a discussion about the justification for the first assumption (my own intuition is that these kinds of issues and anxieties are essentially ubiquitous in our culture, affecting not only the 14 year old girl reading Vogue and starving herself daily, but also the 18 year old boy chugging protein shakes and tearing his muscles to ribbons at the gym every waking moment essentially equally negatively, but this is clearly a subject for debate), but whether it is true or not is immaterial to my main concern, which is the second claim.

Even if it is true that weight-relations turn out to somehow be solely a women’s issue, it does not at all follow that all women are united in that struggle. I want to forcefully call for a jerrymandering of the issues of weight and body-image out of the category of general women’s issues and into a new and sui generis arena of discussion. I think that the possibility of tension between a fat woman’s identity qua fat and her identity qua woman needs to be recognized and embraced. Think, as an analogy, of the tensions that arose for many black women when they began to engage with a white-dominated feminist discourse, and the subsequent mapping of the divisions and intersections between their identities as black and their identities as women that those tensions generated (contours which are still being drawn even as we speak). On certain issues for many black women, their blackness was determinative of their ideology, whereas on others their womanhood took precedence, and on still others there was no conflict to be found at all. So it should be for non-thin women. It should be an open question when it comes to positioning oneself on issues whether one aligns oneself with other non-thin women (or, more radically, non-thin men) qua non-thin, or with other women qua women. It should not be assumed that all cases will be of the second type. The issue of body-image, and the various specific permutations thereof (e.g. the effects of the fashion and advertising industries on women, relationships to food, bullying, etc.), just plainly are not the same for thin and non-thin women and people.

Once this is admitted and understood, the ideological battle lines can be properly redrawn and a discussion can genuinely begin to happen. While she may be an amazing resource on issues of abortion or women’s health or rape or any number of general women’s issues, if you are non-thin, then on this issue, and any issues stemming directly from it, Alexa Chung is not your ally, just like white women were for so long not the allies of black women on issues pertaining to race. Don’t let her pretend that she is and don’t be confused into believing her.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted November 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I get what you’re trying to say…

    BUT… the point of Chung’s response was ‘Keep your comments to your damn self — it’s not your right to comment on how I look just because I’m a woman’ Okay, so she’s a model, fine… but you go out of your way to claim that ALL thin people are like models. ALL thin people perpetuate the size-ism system. Okay… so… because I can’t gain any weight despite what I eat, I’m TRYING to devalue people whom are not thin?

    No.

    You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re entitled to your own emotions. But you are NOT entitled to your own facts. And whether this woman is TRYING to push the sexist, size-ist notions… you’re gonna have to do better than that.

  2. Posted November 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I take MAJOR issue with what you’re saying here. On many many levels.

    I won’t repeat Jacuqeline but I’m also naturally very thin – and so are many of my friends and relatives (I’m Asian). I eat a ton but literally can’t gain weight no matter what I do. I can’t tell you how often I have other women bad mouth me and call me anorexic and the like for this. I am not advocating being thin or any other such bullshit just b/c I’m thin. It’s just the way I am.

    Second of all – to me you’re victim blaming by telling her it’s her own fault for getting judged because she’s a model. I totally disagree. Everyone is a human being and being a model doesn’t neccessarily mean you’re a totally vain person who only cares about looks.

    Finally – you make it out like skinny people don’t have body issues. They DO. Often just as much! Skinny people get judged for being too skinny ALL THE TIME. They get judged for having small boobs or looking like boys or all sorts of things. And just b/c you’re skinny does not mean you are considered attractive by society. And even if you – it doesn’t mean you don’t hate your body.

    Heck most models hate their bodies. Everyone hates their body.

    We’re all in this together and I can’t get on board with you on this at all. You seriously come across as jealous towards skinny people and this is your chance to put them down and win one for your team. But it shouldn’t be us vs. them but all of us in it together.

  3. Posted November 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    First, let me say that I agree with the following: a thin person is not an ally to non-thin people if they go around claiming (or even cluelessly insinuating) that body-policing hurts them just as much as anyone else, and therefore they understand your struggle! And that thin privilege is a thing, and that body issues deserve a separate ideological space, and many other points.

    But I also disagree with some of the statements you made, which seem to me to summarize as: a thin person can NEVER be an ally, simply by virtue of being thin. This is like saying that men cannot be feminist allies, whites cannot be racial justice allies, etc, and I very much take issue with that. (I’m not taking issue with the argument that Alexa Chung is not an ally; only with some of the broader statements about *why* she isn’t.) Full disclosure: a lot of my irritation right now probably comes from being a thin person who feels like I’ve been personally accused of wrongdoing. I’m okay with just “getting over it” for that, but I still stand by my above opinions.

    In summary, I agree “thin privilege” needs to be a thing people get called out for not realizing; “body issues hurt everyone BUT HURT SOME PEOPLE MORE” is a very important point; and body issues aren’t just a women’s issue. But those with privilege can still be valuable allies – I have a few truly awesome feminist men in my life, so I hope that as I thin person I can learn from them how to be a good ally to people when I’m the one in the position of privilege. (Same goes for my straight, white, able-bodied, cis privilege too.)

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