In Praise of Thin Allies – Say Something Sunday

AllyThe idea of a “thin ally” within fat activism is a complicated one- both because classifying body sizes can be difficult, and because (though relative privilege because of size is a real thing) the culture of fat hatred hurts people of all sizes. For the purpose of this piece I’m talking about people who don’t identify as fat who engage in fat activism (everything from retweeting size acceptance stuff or attending rallies.) I also want to point out that, as always, I’m speaking for myself here and other fat people may disagree with what I’m about to say.

First of all, I want to talk about why I think having thin allies is important:

They aren’t subject to the “you are only trying to justify your fat!” argument

In an ideal world people would understand that our bodies need no justification. But this isn’t an ideal world and the truth is that an entire panel of fat people can have their message dismissed in less than a minute by this (totally bullshit) derailment technique and the bigotry upon which it is built.

Their privilege can mean that they are listened to

In an ideal world people would listen to fat people about our experiences and what we think is best for us. But this isn’t an ideal world and sometimes people whose prejudices get in the way of hearing what fat people are telling them are able to process the information when they hear it from a thin person.

Is this incredibly frustrating? Yes. Is it totally bullshit? Yes. Is it theoretically how social justice is supposed to work?  No. Is it how it often works in real life?  Yes. And I’ll point out that good allies also center fat people’s voices and work as part of their ally work and/or to give people information for future study.

It’s just nice to have someone stick up for me

As a fat person I have had tons of bad experiences with fat phobia and fat bashing where other people either joined in or sat by and did nothing while I was forced to fend for myself. So it feels really nice when someone sticks up for me, even if they are doing it “imperfectly.”

This is especially true considering the difficulties and challenges that allies face:

They put themselves in harm’s way

The fat hate trolls who are always yammering on the periphery of fat activists also target our allies with the same range of cyberbullying to threats on health, safety, and family. Many fat people avoid activism to avoid dealing with this (which is a completely legitimate choice!) so when people open themselves up to this horrific treatment to help dismantle a system that actually privileges them, I appreciate that.

Many thin allies suffer professionally in terms of professional respect, accolades, and even promotions and pay.

They will never “do it right”

Fat community is not a monolith, and members of the community have very different ideas about our goals, and how we should accomplish them.  That means that every single thing someone does as an ally (including what they have been specifically asked to do by some fat activists) other people in fat community will disagree with.

Call Out Culture and Kick the Puppy Syndrome

The issue with never pleasing all the activists can become more difficult because of call out culture – where activists are often very quick to criticize someone doing what they see as imperfect ally work, sometimes harshly and very publicly.  And even though allies are theoretically supposed to roll with this form of education, in the real world it can definitely hurt, and it can definitely make someone less likely to do ally work.

This can be further intensified because our allies are around and open to listening to us, while the people who are actively and purposefully engaged in fat oppression are not around and are unwilling to listen to us. When we can’t take out our frustrations on our worst oppressors, we sometimes take them out on our best allies which makes them less likely to be allies and/or puts them in a state of paralysis where they are scared to make a mistake that will not only lead to public humiliation but, they fear, actually make things worse instead of better.

I’ve definitely been guilty of unnecessarily harshly calling people out, and taking out my frustrations on allies, and it has never benefited me or my activism.  The theoretical argument says that allies should just suck it up because they are not in as bad a position as fat people are, but I’m not sure that’s realistic or entirely fair, or helpful.


No cookie for you

There is a school of thought that allies shouldn’t be praised or rewarded for being allies because it’s what everyone should do.  This is often expressed as the idea that you don’t get a cookie for doing what’s right.

In terms of the way that I interact with allies, I disagree with this emphatically.  I think that even if it’s true theoretically, the reality is that it definitely isn’t what everyone does, and it’s difficult work with real negative consequences.

I also think it’s important to remember that allies don’t have to do this, they can stop at any time and their lives may well be better and easier for it, and often their ally work is about dismantling systems that are currently benefiting them.

So I don’t want to take allies for granted and I really appreciate people who take on ally work and I’m happy to give allies a cookie (though it will be store-bought because I can’t bake for shit.)

It doesn’t cost me anything to appreciate people, in fact it often makes me feel better to recognize people who are helping. And not for nothing but it’s certainly been my experience that giving positive feedback to my allies increases the likelihood of continued ally work (and shows other people that doing the right thing has benefits) which is something that ultimately benefits me and my work.

If You Are An Ally

Being an ally can be difficult, but that’s also part of the deal.  While I stand by everything I said, I also want to be clear that none of that is a “get out of jail free” card to not be constantly educating ourselves, centering the voices of the oppressed communities we are trying to work in solidarity with, doing our own research, trying to use incidents of being called out as educational opportunities, and trying to have compassion for people who are having a difficult time and taking their frustrations out on us.

So, for Say Something Sunday this week, I recommend you thank an ally! And if you are someone who is/wants to be an ally find a way to be an ally today – post something fat positive, challenge a fat phobic remark, spend some time researching questions you have about how to be an ally to fat activists. Speaking of research, if you want to hear a bunch of amazing speakers talk about fat activism from an intersectional perspective, then the Fat Activism Conference is for you!


This year we have a kick ass line up of speakers. This is a virtual conference so you can listen by phone or computer wherever you are, and you’ll receive recordings and transcripts of each talk so that you can listen/read on your own schedule. The Conference will be held September 23-25, 2016

Click Here to Register!

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9 thoughts on “In Praise of Thin Allies – Say Something Sunday

  1. This is brilliant, thank you for writing it. I have felt very much the same way – not everyone is going to get it “perfect” so why alienate them by calling out harshly? There are still people who are actively trying to discriminate against fat people (and LGBT people, people of color, etc) that I want to encourage the people who are actually interested in helping. Yay for thin allies!

    1. IMO, calling out harshly is for people who are actively trying to harm others, aka haters.

      Gentle education (“Umm, dude, I’m not sure you realize it, but what you did there was bad because…”) is what you do when an ally “does it wrong.”

      If I know and recognize a hater, then harsh is the go-to response. If I know and recognize an ally, then gentle education is the go-to response.

      If I don’t know the person, then I’m afraid my response depends on the mood at the moment. If I’m doing OK, I’ll probably give the benefit of the doubt, but if I’m already down from other haters hating their hatred at me, I’ll probably jump to “Oh, it’s another hater,” and go from there.

      Sadly, that can drive away allies. Which is ANOTHER burden that allies face: To accept that they will, sometimes, be judged as haters, simply because the person being victimized that day couldn’t tell the difference between purposeful infliction of pain and a well-intended screw-up.

      The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but you know what? SO IS THE ROAD TO HEAVEN! You don’t do good works without good intentions! It just doesn’t happen. So yes, I do believe that good intentions DO COUNT. They just don’t count for everything.

      Allies need to have their good intentions recognized, appreciated, and accepted, as much as they need education and direction.

      I’m all for cookies!

  2. Thank you for the bits about call out culture and no cookie for you. I’ve seen that several times and been hurt by it personally. Having a construct to understand the metacommunication involved is extremely helpful, and as always you are eloquent and compassionate in your presentation.

  3. Allies are important. The thing is, it’s a fine line to walk, because a true ally should not speak for or over the people with whom they are allied. Too many times, though, it does come across as a person talking for someone else, who is perfectly capable of speaking for themselves.

    Having a thin person talk about fat acceptance may be more heard by fat-haters than a fat person saying the same thing. But the fat person who JUST SAID THAT may feel like the thin person is talking over them.

    It can be done, though. It requires a bit of coordination.

    Let me give an example in the business world, with misogyny.

    A woman in an office notices that boss-man never, ever, ever listens to her suggestions, but if a man makes the very same suggestion two minutes later, he’ll praise it to the skies.

    The woman approaches the man who repeats her suggestions, and discusses the situation with him, saying how hurt she is by the blatant misogyny, and how she feels the man is taking credit for her innovations.

    The man can now 1) say, “Ha! Sucks to be you!” and continue taking the credit for her ideas or 2) say, “Yeah, you have great ideas, and he just won’t listen to them, unless they come from someone else. At least when I say them, they are heard. Hey, let’s use that! You tell me your ideas, and I’ll put them out there in a way that they won’t be automatically dismissed.”

    If option 2 is taken, the best ally will follow through by giving credit where it is due.

    Boss-man: Hey, man, that’s a great idea!
    Ally-man: Thanks, boss. It was woman’s idea! Give her the credit!

    In the fat acceptance community, I believe thin people can help by linking to posts by fat people, and saying out loud that they do not speak FOR fat people; they are simply *repeating* the message on behalf of the fat people. Point that out, somewhere in your message, and that changes the whole thing from usurping the message to boosting it.

    I really appreciate good allies. And yes, they do suffer some consequences from haters.

    You know, there are thin people who find fat a turn-on, but don’t dare date fat people, because of the hatred that will then be directed on them, the thin ones who go against the accepted “norm.” It’s tough being an ally, and it takes real courage to act on it.

    So, here’s a big THANK YOU to all our real allies out there!

  4. I’m thin, but a religious and ethnic minority in a very visible way. Being a fat ally in real life is easy because you can say to a real person’s actual face “Hey, those are real people living real lives. They’re not some punchline; they’re human beings and they deserve the same respect you and I do.” It’s a lot harder online because assholes come out when anonymity is involved and usually the response I get is an ethnic and/or religious slur if it’s a platform I have an avatar on, or I get called an obviously fake thin person and an assortment of fat shaming names on platforms like this one where I chose not to make an avatar. Online is exhausting. Honestly, Reagan, I don’t know how you do it every day.

  5. Great post. The discussion reminds me a bit of back in college, when I was organizing a Take Back The Night March and campus feminist groups were split as to whether to encourage men’s groups to join or not. I understand both wanting safe space for expressing frustration about how thin privilege works and wanting to be as inclusive as possible because it can help accelerate change. There are boing to be moments of conflict between the two goals, and hopefully everyone can get on board with a world where people can exist without being bullied or shamed.

    A question, if you have time–to me, being an ally has two very clear initial steps:

    1. Don’t actively be an asshole.
    2. Don’t passively be an asshole.
    3. Speak up when you see other people screwing up steps 1 and 2.

    Understanding that you don’t speak for the whole community (but respecting immensely what I know of you), what would you want to see from someone as step 4?

  6. Another extraordinary posting, Ragen. It reminded my of the ongoing contributions that Abigail Saguy makes. Her book “What’s Wrong With Fat?” continues to be regarded as an important resource. And she’s done all sorts of follow-up.

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