Dry Land Fish

Perspectives from the misplaced.

Unfortunate, But Not Discrimination

Why we should be careful about how we use powerful words

According to Britton Delizia, who has launched a Kickstarter.com campaign to have her book funded, she and other thin, athletic women like her are being discriminated against by a society that now values fatness.

Describing her project to potential sponsors, she writes, “Its [sic] undeniable that when we stand a skinny, athletic or even average sized female next to a larger (even if less healthy, overweight or obese) female, that unless we live outside of this stigma, we as Americans will assume that the heavier person is funnier, smarter, nicer, and less sexually promiscuous, all because she is not as thin or physically fit than the girl next to her. The premise of the book is not to bash or assault any single body type, quite the opposite. I want to share the stories of women who have dealt with this discriminatory action.”

To further make her point, the Kickstarter campaign is titled “I’m Learning to Apologize for My Metabolism” and features a photo of Delizia holding a sign that reads, “I’m sorry the butt I work for isn’t as good as the one you ate for.”

This may be pointing out the obvious (or maybe not since the page has over 2,300 “likes” on Facebook), but Delizia isn’t facing discrimination because she’s thin and athletic.

She, and other women like her, may have been treated poorly because someone just didn’t like them or even because someone believed that a “skinny, athletic, or even average size female” was automatically less funny. Both of those incidents would certainly be unfortunate, but those are very likely isolated incidents and not discrimination.

Discrimination is different than something unfortunate happening once or even occasionally. I think “discrimination” is a word that we ought to use sparingly and carefully. As philosopher Marilyn Frye opines about the use of the word “oppression,” we ought not to stretch such a powerful concept to the point that it becomes meaningless.

To make her case, Frye notes that men are often not able to cry in our society because strictly defined gender roles make doing so unacceptable, yet she maintains that while this is unfortunate, it doesn’t rise to the level necessary to be called “oppression.” Why? Because we can acknowledge that a group may face some hardships while understanding that the degree of hardship members of that group face, the power involved, and the source of the hardship faced are important. In other words, context is paramount. Not being able to cry may make men’s lives more difficult, but it doesn’t expose them to the kind of systemic discrimination women face in terms of sexual assault, pay equity, or rights to control their own bodies.

Certainly we can all agree that bad things may happen to thin women in the world. It may be that thin women are sometimes stereotyped or scorned. I know, for example, that sometimes while teaching Women’s and Gender Studies classes I’ve had students make comments about a woman being “too skinny” or say something like, “she needs to eat a sandwich.” Inevitably, a thin woman in the class responds by saying that she resents such comments, which is reasonable. A thin female body shouldn’t automatically be read as a starving or pathological body.

While I point that out to students, I also caution them against using words like “oppression” or “discrimination” to describe the experiences of thin women in the United States because women like Delizia are not, in fact, discriminated against because of their thinness. As a group, thin women don’t lose jobs because of their thinness nor are they denied housing because of their thinness. Thin women, as a group, are not the victims of hate crimes because of their thinness. To name the experience of someone like Delizia as the result of “discrimination” dilutes that term to the point that nearly anything counts. If everyone is discriminated against, then no one is discriminated against, right? That’s exactly what I don’t want students to believe. There is real discrimination in the world, but not everything meets the litmus test.

It’s large people who face the kinds of attitudes that lead to discrimination in the workplace, education, and even in healthcare settings that goes beyond someone not being polite. When people earn less money, are given fewer opportunities and struggle to get decent healthcare, their overall quality of life and even their longevity suffers. Those are just some of the ways we know something is the result of discrimination against a group.

While Delizia may also face some of these barriers because women are still discriminated against in our society, she’s not facing these barriers because she’s thin and athletic. It’s important to separate those threads. I say this as a woman who’s been read as both fat and thin.

I don’t want Delizia to apologize for her metabolism. I would, however, like an apology for her misuse of the term “discrimination.”

Dr. April M. Herndon has a Ph.D. in American Studies and is an Associate Professor of English at Winona State University.

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