The Role of Thin Privilege in Eating Disorder Treatment
Last week, I came across the idea of "thin privilege," a term I had been unfamiliar with up to that point, and as I researched this concept, I was forced to confront the role of thin privilege in eating disorder treatment—my own experience included. Thin privilege is a systemic ease and entitlement in which people with smaller bodies tend to move through society. More opportunities and advantages are often afforded to people who look the way mainstream culture has deemed acceptable or ideal. In terms of the eating disorder population, those who mirror the stereotype of "emaciated" are more likely to have their illnesses treated with serious concern and validation than people whose bodies do not reflect this arbitrary mold. But if eating disorder recovery is to be made accessible for all those who suffer—not based on outward size or shape—then it's time to address the role of thin privilege in eating disorder treatment.
My Experience with Thin Privilege and an Eating Disorder
When I was a teenager—and later a young adult—deep in the throes of my battle with anorexia, I had no awareness of thin privilege, and I certainly didn't know that I possessed it. But now I understand the reality of this position I hold as a white female with a petite frame and narrow build. I can walk into a clothing store and locate my exact size. I can be seated comfortably on airplanes or in chairs with armrests. I can make it through a doctor's checkup without being prescribed weight loss. For the most part, I can feel confident that assumptions are not lobbed at me on the basis of my appearance. This is an uncomfortable admission, but it's also the undeniable truth of how thin privilege manifests.
Moreover, when I entered an inpatient treatment facility for eating disorders almost a decade ago, my bodyweight had reached a threshold low enough to cause alarm. In other words, I looked the part of a malnourished anorexic, and my condition was handled as the severe threat it was. I received tireless care and attention from therapists, dietitians, and other expert clinicians who knew I could recover and became my ardent champions. With their efforts, I did not just survive—I actually healed, but some people are not as fortunate. Some people remain trapped in their cycles of disordered eating because they do not appear "sick enough" to be offered the treatment resources and interventions they need.
Why Thin Privilege Should Be Removed from Eating Disorder Treatment
If my access to quality treatment had been denied because my overall body composition did not meet the standard eating disorder profile, then I might not be alive today. The reason I am is that trained professionals chose to take my deteriorated health seriously until I was stable enough to pursue recovery for myself. While I am grateful for the care made available to me, I also know that my thin privilege opened many doors to treatment that are often closed to people whose bodies are not as culturally normative as mine. This is why thin privilege is such an insidious, detrimental concept—it marginalizes those who are labeled "overweight" and snares them in a continuous vortex of body hatred or shame.
But I think the mainstream approach to eating disorder treatment can do better. In fact, I believe it absolutely should do better. The established model was created to benefit people like my younger self—those who appear as starved on the outside as they are inside—but the real spectrum of eating disorder sufferers is more diverse and complex than just this one segment of the population. Therefore, how the illness is treated needs to account for such diversity and complexity. If all bodies are not afforded the basic right of inclusion, untold numbers of people could remain sick, isolated, or even near death. So I refuse to condone the role of thin privilege in eating disorder treatment anymore because humans across-the-board deserve to experience health, wholeness, and self-love.
Schurrer, M. (2019, May 15). The Role of Thin Privilege in Eating Disorder Treatment, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, August 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2019/5/the-role-of-thin-privilege-in-eating-disorder-treatment
Author: Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer
I really appreciate your bringing attention to the “thin privilege.” My 16 yr old niece is suffering from bulimia, she’s thin but apparently not thin enough to get the help she needs. She’s also dealing with depression, anxiety and has tried to commit suicide multiple times... yet NO ONE will help her. Her mother is told that her daughter is not sick enough to get the treatment or other facilities tell her that she’s too sick and they can’t help her. (We’re literally all pulling our hair out.) Maybe calling attention to the “thin privilege” may help my sister in getting her daughter into treatment. *sorry for the book*
Thank you so much for reaching out, and please don't feel the need to apologize. I am so grateful for your comment and the sincere concern you have for your niece. I am so sorry to hear that she and your entire family are not receiving the support and intervention that is so necessary for healing. As a starting point, I would advise visiting the HealthyPlace Eating Disorders Community page (https://www.healthyplace.com/eating-disorders) which can help you find resources and information on support groups, treatment, hotlines and other areas of connection. In addition, I would like to point you toward the National Eating Disorder Association (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/) which is an excellent website to help your entire family navigate this process. Finally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, and it can be reached 24/7. My thoughts are with your beautiful niece and all of your who are walking this road alongside her.