What to Say When You’re a Thin Ally

I received an e-mail from Mel yesterday with some really good questions about how to be a thin ally to the fat community.  Here are the relevant bits with my thoughts and answers.  Please note that the scripting I use is generic,  I totally encourage rephrasing into something that is authentic to you.  I that the bottom line is that anything you say as an ally has to be authentic – if you think something sounds cheesy, don’t say it!

I’m not someone who is going to preach to you about thin privilege or insist that you should feel bad because you are treated well – frankly it drives me crazy when people do that.  I really appreciate anyone who wants to be an ally in the fight for my being treated respectfully and not judged on my size.  Thanks for jumping into an ugly fight when you don’t have to!  Without further adieu:

I’ve been trying, both explicitly and more subtly, to spread the word about fat not equaling unhealthy, diet claims being bogus, etc. – plus spreading body positivity – through conversations, Facebook links and so on.

Awesome, you totally rock.  Thank you very much!

But, I’ve run into situations where I’m with other “thin” people and I think they assume some kind of solidarity. So, they make uneducated or insulting comments about people who are fat or the “obesity problem”. Many times, I can respond with an alternative point of view, but sometimes I don’t know what to say that’s diplomatic and gets the point across.

I hear this from a lot of thin allies – the assumption that  if you share a body size you will have the same prejudices of other body sizes.  If it makes you feel any better (and it probably won’t) it happens both ways.  I get strange looks and push back when I defend a model that someone says is “obviously too thin” etc.  (Don’t believe me – take a look at some of the comments to my Things I’ve Heard about Thin Women post on Jezebel“) When it happens to me with another fat person, there are two options.  the first is the “dumb question”

“Oh, do you know her?”

“Um, no”

“Wait, so how do you know anything about her health?”

“I can see she’s fat”

“There are plenty of healthy fat people, and plenty of unhealthy thin ones.  Either way nobody deserves to be called names – this isn’t Junior High.”

Or, I’ll  try to point out that it is an assumption, then try to get them to feel some empathy, using myself as an example.

For example:  “Interesting that you should make that assumption about her.  You know, I’ve been trying really hard not to make guesses about people based on their appearance – It makes me so angry when people assume that I’m lazy and unhealthy because of my size, and I don’t want to turn around and do the same thing to someone else.”

I wonder if this could be used on someone of “normal” or “thin” body size, using a stereotype that fits you. – For example, if you are blond “Interesting that you should make that assumption about them.  I try not to make assumptions about people based on their appearance – it drives me crazy when people assume that I’m a ditz because I’m blond, I wouldn’t want to make the same mistake”.  Etc.

This is where it gets tricky because people will get defensive/give you push back and you have to decide how much teaching you want to do in this teachable moment – do you want to go into the science of it or just assert that you believe that people should be treated with respect – it’s totally up to you.

One creed that I live by is that I don’t try to control anyone else’s behavior, I simply control my reaction.  So you might try something like:   “You know, I’m really not comfortable with talk like that.  I think it’s shameful that in our society there is so much pressure to hate our bodies or fit into some ideal body type.  I doubt making people feel bad about themselves will help them be healthy (AND/OR) People can be healthy and happy at any size.  I’m going to [remove myself from this situation] until you’re done with this conversation.  When you’re done just come find me [at the place I’m going to].   I would probably add a bit of science to this because I’m a big giant nerd but that’s entirely up to you.

Some examples:

  • At dance class, where an unknown neighbor always complains about the music being too loud, new acquaintance says laughing, “What’s their problem? Maybe they should get off their fat butts and do some exercise.”

This seems a bit non sequitur  and I would likely point that out “I guess I can see how our music would be loud to someone nearby who is trying to work.  Of course they moved in knowing we were here so it’s pretty much their problem.  I never felt the urge to call them names though.”

  • I mention how our Zumba class was such a crazy workout and had me sweating my butt off, and she says something about now I have permission to eat whatever I want afterwards.

On this one I would go with something like “You know, I was just thinking about how we have this culture where people label foods as good or bad, or they starve themselves and just have really weird relationships with food.  I use the health at every size method and always give myself permission to eat whatever I want, that way I stay in touch with my body and make sure that I have a healthy relationship with food.”

  • She discusses a Zumba class she took in another part of the country where it was so great to see those people out there instead of eating potato chips in front of the television (something else about getting fat here, I think).

This is one of those situations where I would typically let her know that this conversation doesn’t work for me “You know, I’m sorry if this seems rude but that kind of stereotyping really bothers me.  It’s totally cool if that’s how you feel but I’m going to head out.  I’ll see you next week”.

The reason these comments are weird to me is b/c it’s implied that fatness is bad rather than when people say, “well, obesity is such a problem, people need to be less fat and lazy”.

So my response to this is mostly that I’m the boss of my underpants and nobody else’s:   “It actually really bothers me when someone guesses about other people’s habits or health by looking at their size.  There are plenty of healthy people and plenty of unhealthy people of all sizes.”  and/or”I don’t have the right to tell other people how to live.  I can’t make people look both ways before they cross the street, or not talk on the cellphone when they are trying to drive and I can’t make people eat healthy and exercise – I try to concentrate on myself and let other people make their own choices”.

I guess my main point is – people assume incorrectly that b/c they think I fit a thin ideal that I’ve never had body image issues or that I don’t truly believe in body positivity. Or that b/c of my genes, I have some kind of “right” to eat whatever I want b/c I won’t gain as much weight as the next person. And that I’m OK with “fat talk”.  None of these things are true – but I don’t how to point that out exactly.

I think that what you said right there is genius.  When something like this comes up, say just that “I don’t know if you are doing this but  I notice that a lot of times people assume that because I’m thin I’ve never had body issues, or I am ok with people saying nasty things about other people’s bodies, or that Health at Every Size doesn’t apply to me.  None of that is true and that kind of thing really bothers me.


In the end, you have to be ready for backlash.  Being an ally isn’t always easy.  You’re going to get the “everybody knows that fat is unhealthy” argument (not only doesn’t everybody know that, but not one shred of science can prove it).  You’re going to get “Well they cost so much money in healthcare or at the workplace” (to this I would say “Did you know those studies were funded by the companies that sell diets and weight loss surgery.  The way that they collected data and skewed statistics was ridiculous.”)  Again, you have to decide how much teaching you want to do in any given teachable moment, and that means you have to decide how much information you want to be armed with.

One that works in almost every situation “You know, I think that people of all shapes and sizes deserve to be treated with respect and I don’t feel like you are doing that now.  If you’re going to continue to act this way, I’m just going to end the conversation.”

Thanks a zillion for asking about this and thanks a zillion zillion for being an ally. You made my day!!!


6 thoughts on “What to Say When You’re a Thin Ally

  1. This is great advice and good talking points for anybody to use in such a situation. I’ll definitely be using some of them in my daily conversations. Thanks Regan. Your blog is one of my favourite parts of the day!

  2. This was really really helpful, Ragen! I’ve really worked on taking size and appearance out of all conversations and references to people.

    Thanks for a great lesson!
    xo Susie

  3. My daughter-in-law opened my eyes to the fact that -everyone- suffers from these assumptions. Thank you for your advice.

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