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The Paradox of Privilege: A Call for Voices

by Dr. Jenny Copeland

(Side note: this piece is not the result of original insight, but rather the result of labor from generous folks of color, as well as queer, transgender, disabled, fat, and other oppressed people who shouldered the task of educating people with privilege, such as myself. I would not have this perspective without their work.)

Silence. They say it’s golden. That it’s deafening. That it speaks volumes.

Silence can be powerful. It can be oppressive. It can build walls to hide behind.

In reality, it is all of these. All of these, and more.

My family has called me the observant one. All around me I see the suffering, the oppression. I notice those with whom I am connected leaving their racism out in the open. I have many thoughts about their comments, their hatred, and what seems to be their evident lack of rationality. I share none of these thoughts out loud, convincing myself it is best not to ‘feed the trolls.’ Although I consider myself an advocate for concerns of size diversity and weight bias and address these concerns as often as I can, on the subject of racism I am too often silent. I say nothing, and yet the privilege of my skin color continues to speak volumes on my behalf.

The oppression and bias I have experienced as a woman in this society has convinced me time and time again that it is better to be silent. That there is no value in my voice or my opinion. This oppression has taught me to hold back in all that I do, in everything from practicing my self-care to my intuition (and ambition) of how I can impact the world in a meaningful way. I withhold, and stay back, certain I have nothing to offer. My senses of keen observation now have achieved the realization that this is the result of a larger, insidious web which has ensnared us all. The layers of privilege and power are rooted in the very fabric of our society with the ultimate goal to maintain one group over another.

When I speak of privilege, I am referring to an unearned right, advantage or immunity which is available only to members of a particular group. It is present in society in many forms, to folks based on race (i.e., white privilege), body size (i.e., thin privilege), gender (i.e., male privilege), and physical capacity (i.e., able-bodied privilege); this list is, unfortunately, by no means exhaustive. As a thin white woman, for example, I have an easier time finding a job, a romantic partner, and clothes at easily accessible stores. My life is simpler as I am much less likely to be subject to hatred simply for my weight or size. I have better access to compassionate and quality healthcare. I am more likely to be able to live my life safely simply because I am white.

Oppression may simply be described as the converse of privilege. Both privilege and oppression are a reflection of power held by an individual or group as a result of these identities or characteristics. Although there are many who vehemently deny the existence of privilege, the reality is that it is a part of all of us. For every movement we make, we are surrounded both individually and collectively within the insidious, tangled web of privilege. We are silenced as we are placed in a position of power over the rest of humanity. We are trapped, yet refused to speak out for fear of losing what pathetic amount of power we have been allotted. The truth is we are not in power, we are not in control. Privilege is the embodiment of hatred, arrogance, egocentricity, and blind ambition. Privilege rules us all.

The dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression have never been more important than in our present moment. Although privilege did not originate with me, as someone with privilege I carry responsibility for its dismantling.  It requires understanding my values and what choice best aligns with them. Am I a person who desires to maintain openness and curiosity for the ways in which I may (purposefully or inadvertently) impact those around me? Do I wish to close off in fear? I have been shamefully silent for some time now, although my integrity demands I speak up. And so I must ask myself, how may I be of service?

As a philosophy, the HAES approach began by taking a stand for people of all sizes to live peacefully in their bodies – specifically fat bodies. To declare that bodies are not a problem to be solved, but a component of our lives to be nourished and cherished. As the movement has evolved (and pushed forward by oppressed individuals including people of color, older, LGBTQ folks), those of us in the HAES movement are coming to realize that our original focus was too narrow and ultimately insufficient.

This movement, and the Association for Size Diversity and Health, was largely founded by middle aged white women. Women who did not know what they did not yet know: that their skin color provided them an easier experience of living in their fat bodies than women of color. That bias and discrimination based on body size differently impacts queer or trans folks, disabled people, and those who are marginalized by other forms of oppression than body size alone. This privilege was engrained within the pillars of our community, as with the society it exists within, and was oppressive to folks without that privilege.

Individual health practices will be thwarted and carry little meaning if we focus on our own bodies to the exclusion of others’. But this initial understanding of the HAES approach is also important and its influence cannot be ignored. The early HAES principles opened our hearts and our bodies to the possibility of nourishment. Now we must continue the journey towards the deeper practice of liberation for all.

The health practices which originated with the HAES approach were only our beginning. Although intuitive eating and joyful physical activity are wonderful and important, focusing only on them limits the movement itself and leaves behind the deepest, most beautiful and liberating aspects of this philosophy. A focus on body positivity in exclusion of other forms of oppression maintains a focus on the individual. This preserves the structures of oppression and power. The solution is not directing our gaze where privilege shifts it, but to choose to broaden our focus with intention. To move deeper, we must fight against oppression in all its forms because not one of us is free unless we are all free.

Take a moment to consider this: your actions (or inactions) in the face of pain and injustice speak more to your integrity than they do the perpetrators’ or the contexts. What volumes are your silence speaking? Are you someone who questions someone’s feelings to determine their validity before responding or do you put stock into that person’s story, their wisdom regarding their own experience, and respond to that? Must one justify their hurt and you agree for it to be considered legitimate and real? Is the fact of their pain insufficient? Does it fit your personal values to demand transgender folks justify their very existence in order to use a restroom? In what way do your principles support sitting by in unquestioning silence rather than entertain the possibility of hate crimes or racially motivated police shootings? Is it compatible with your integrity to question the rage of a community you will never be able to possibly imagine?

I hope you will join me in speaking up and shining the light. Although I can confirm that it is not the ‘easy road,’ I, for one, am no longer content to sit by while those who have already suffered must continue to fight alone for the simple right to exist. All it requires is a choice. We need not have the answers or THE solution to the problem. Your presence is needed and your silence only strengthens the problem. The first step is showing up for your fellow humans who are working simply to survive. The rest will come as you, and we all, move closer to true liberation.

It is vital to simply do the work. For my own understanding, I consider two layers to address: the internal and the external. The latter is more pragmatic; both are equally challenging.

Our individual thoughts, beliefs, and judgments are directly under our control, although at times outside our awareness. Therein lies the problem, as it is quite difficult to alter something we are not certain exists. It is important, then, to take advantage of available resources to identify and challenge these patterns. For example:

Adjusting our own thoughts is not enough. As members of privileged group(s) it is our responsibility to take action and disrupt (or better yet, dismantle) the system. It is overwhelming at first, this is true. But it is most important to not allow this to freeze us in our tracks, but to simply begin and learn from each inevitable mistake. Find what tugs at your heart strings, the place where you may have the most impact, and begin there. Notice each opportunity and consider how you may play a role. Listen to what those who are hurting are asking for, and respect their wishes.

  • Stand up in solidarity against bullying and hatred, whether in person or online. Consider how you may authentically speak up and use your voice, whether it is in online forums or daily interactions in the ‘real’ world. Ensure your actions are not a performance, but rooted with the well-being of others.
  • Support the work and organizations who work daily to dismantle systems of oppression. Consider The Body Is Not An Apology, Nalgona Positivity Pride, Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders, Yoga and Body Image Coalition, CTZNWELL, Adios Barbie, and many others.

Above all, do not be silent.

Jenny Copeland, PsyD is a licensed psychologist and licensed professional counselor working with Ozark Center in Southwest Missouri. Dr. Copeland has conducted studies on weight stigma among healthcare providers, and developed programming rooted in the Health At Every Size® model to guide others toward positive lifestyle improvements. Her work has earned awards including the Research and Evaluation Fellowship at The School of Professional Psychology at Forest Institute and the inaugural NAAFA Health At Every Size Scholar Award. You can find Dr. Copeland on Twitter at @DrJennyCopeland.

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