Last night, in the comments to Big Fat Love, Shaker rvh asked, in response to a line in my piece:
"maybe your thin friends passive-aggressively use your weight to make themselves feel better about their insecurities"...This is a particular issue for women, since "diet/weight talk" and body policing are so central to much of female communication—it's a source of solidarity or contention (or both) between mothers and daughters (and sisters, etc.), a means of bonding between female friends and colleagues, a competitive frame between women, a means of auditing inclusion and exclusion in female groups—and is thus the source of a lot of good feelings and bad feelings among women. It is not, however, exclusive to women. One of the worst examples of ongoing, explicit, and profoundly harmful body policing around weight that I know is between a father and a son.
How does this work? I am asking because I wouldn't ever want to do it and I genuinely don't know what behaviour would fit into that category.
First, a caveat: Fat people police one another, too. (See Brian's great post, "Fat Isolation," which addresses some of the ways in which fat people engage with fat-shaming narratives.) This post isn't about how fat people are perfect saintly victims of meany thin people: Some of the most vicious fat-shaming ever directed at me has been by fat people who just weren't as fat as me, and boy howdy was their fragile self-esteem wrapped up in simply not being the fattest person in the room. And fat people even have their own special narratives of shaming one another, like the old "at least I'm proportionately fat!" chestnut, used to shame anyone whose fat body is fatter on the bottom, or on top, or in the torso, or the limbs, or some variation on failing to be a perfectly plump version of a thin person.
But, what we don't have is thin privilege, of the sort that gifts one the luxury of never having to consider the ways in which our language, and our public participation in the culture of weight-obsessed "diet/weight talk" and body policing, can inadvertently hurt and dehumanize the (other) fat people around us. That's central to the question rvh asked, and that's the question I'm going to answer.
Sometimes, it's just a function of unexamined privilege. It may not be your conscious intent to use a fat friend's weight to counterbalance your own insecurities, but that can be an unintended communication in habits like constantly referring to yourself as fat, or saying you "feel fat," or announcing that you need to lose weight, or body policing other people in front of a fat friend.
If you're saying things that could quite reasonably make your fat friend think, "Jesus, if zie thinks that about hirself/that other person who is not as fat as I am, what must zie think about ME?!" that's a problem.
If you're saying things that oblige your fat friend reassure you, "No, you're not fat; you look great!" that's a problem.
If you routinely talk about "looking good" and "being fat" as mutually exclusive concepts, e.g. "Oh, I look terrible in that picture—look how fat I look!", thus implicitly conveying to your fat friend that zie can't be fat and look good at the same time, that's a problem.
And, if your fat friend points out one of these unintended communications to you, and your response is either gaslighting ("I didn't mean it that way; you're putting words in my mouth because you're just sensitive about your weight!") or trying to create some secondary beauty standard just for fat people ("It's not that fat people can't look good; you just good look in a different way, but you really know how to work what you've got!"), that's a problem.
One of the things that thin friends have done to me my whole life, often without any malicious intent, is treat my general (but not total) lack of participation in the unwinnable game of achieving the beauty standard, as either evidence of my having "given up" or the logical response given how far outside the privileged aesthetic I am. Why bother, when you so obviously can't achieve anything resembling beauty, anyway? Oof.
There is truth to the fact that deviating so wildly from what is culturally regarded as "objective" beauty failed to inspire in me any ravenous desire to attain status on my appearance (though feminism was frankly a greater disincentive; I was still a small in-betweenie when I formed boundaries around how much I was willing to conform to imposed norms). But thin friends have often unintentionally conveyed harsh messaging about how (un)satisfied I should be with my body, by remarking on how evident it is I don't care. A lot of backhand-complimentary messaging verging on "letting yourself go" memes.
That's a problem, too.
And if you react differently to a thin friend's self-policing than to a fat friend's, if you figure that a thin friend wants to hear, "Oh, I hate my body, too!" and a fat friend wants to hear, "Oh, but your face/hair/blouse is so pretty!" that's also a big problem. Not only does it convey that fat friends should hate their bodies, but hey here's a weak compliment, it also conveys to fat friends that the body policing which is an invitation for inclusion in a sisterhood among thin women does not extend to us.
Your flaws are so big or multitudinous, we don't even know what do to with you. Often, thin women, in a failed bid at sensitivity, exclude fat women from self-policing with platitudes, instead of just not doing it at all. One of the least obvious but most common ways thin women hurt their fat friends is with pity.
Sometimes, it's evidence of an agenda. Most of us have thin friends who do this sort of thing out of thin privilege—simply not considering what it unintentionally communicates—and many of us also have thin friends (or family members, etc.) who do this sort of thing with an agenda. That is, they fat-shame with the desired objective of feeling better about themselves.
I have a thin friend who incessantly gripes to me about how "fat" she's getting. She will examine herself in a mirror, or look down at her leg while she's wearing shorts, or grab her flesh and say things like, "Look at this disgusting cellulite!" She then looks at me pointedly, waiting for me to "compliment" her by observing the manifestly obvious: That she is not fat.
(I trust I don't need to elucidate why obliging me to treat "You're not fat" as a compliment is no fucking fun.)
Or she'll grouse about having not accomplished some professional goal she thought she'd have accomplished by her current age, or about getting grey hair, and say, "Well, at least I'm doing better than X. I just saw her at the store and OMG she has gained SO MUCH WEIGHT." She then carefully scrutinizes my face, searching for evidence that I feel terrible about being fat, so she can feel better about herself because at least she's not fat and feeling terrible about it!
Inevitably, I disappoint her by saying instead, "Your body is strong and healthy, which is such a privilege for which to be thankful!" or "Oh, I'd love to run into her. She was always so nice/funny/smart/whatever."
I disappoint her by failing to give her the satisfaction of seeing me crushed at the implication I'm a monstrous wreck in comparison to her—an implication that cannot be overtly challenged, because, of course, she gives herself plenty of room to say, "That's not what I said! You're just being insecure!"
We are old friends, but I don't see her very much—for reasons that I'm guessing are obvious, but I will state it plainly nonetheless: My body does not exist to make other people feel better about theirs, and I do not consider my fatness the negative benchmark on a competitive scale.
You may be wondering how you're supposed to convey that you're unhappy with your body in a way that doesn't effectively imply there's something wrong with your fat friend's body. And the truth is: Maybe there isn't. Like other forms of privilege, thin privilege means that complaining of some aspect of that privilege, even if it is a legitimate complaint, can make you look like a real asshole to people who don't share it.
"My raise at work wasn't enough that I can buy the dream home I wanted, and I'm super disappointed!" is a valid thing to express, when you've worked hard and laid plans and been given promises by an employer who didn't deliver. But it's also something most of us realize isn't a concern about which we want to oblige consolation from our unemployed friend who's just lost hir home to foreclosure.
Body policing and "diet/weight talk" are so pervasive, and fat hatred so accepted, that it's not considered bad form for people with thin privilege to oblige commiseration from fat friends. (In fact, some thin people get miffed when fat people object to being drafted into such conversations: "I thought you of all people would understand!") The first step in avoiding trading on thin privilege is simply to acknowledge that even participating in policing, of self or others, can convey negative, judgmental messaging to fat friends.
Obviously, every friendship is unique, and some fat friends are completely comfortable discussing body image with thin friends. But that should not be assumed, even if fat friends have previously joined in weight talk and body policing. Fat people are expected, and often pressured, to join in, and can use that participation as a self-defense mechanism, even if it makes them anxious and unhappy.
(For me, as one example, I'm comfortable discussing body image with some friends, and not others, based on individual levels of empathy and sensitivity, and the quality of the discussion—attention-seeking negativity I can't abide, but straightforward or humorous self-evaluating is something I value with many of my friends.)
If you want to discuss body image with a fat friend, my recommendation is this: Talk to them explicitly about their comfort level with that subject. If you're not good enough friends to have that conversation, don't discuss it all.