Advocating For Gabourey Sidibe Means Viewing Weight Bias And Stigma Through A Cultural Lens

There is a difference in fighting for your right to exist and fighting for fat acceptance

For years we at Daily Venus Diva have documented the brilliant rise of Gabourey Sidibe in Hollywood. The stories have been in defense and celebration of her to combat the vitriol that we saw in the media. Due to her recent admission that she had Gastric Sleeve weight loss surgery, she has been thrust into the spotlight again not because of her acting prowess but what she looks like and how her decision to have the surgery impacts all of us. Daily Venus Diva historically has reported on the culturally specific ways we experience our bodies. We were one of the first to talk about criticism after her Oscar nomination. We were also the first to report on how queries on Google for Gabby and Melissa McCarthy were noticeably different. My head began to hurt as I watched people go back and forth hurling insults at each other and it truly saddened me. One of my good girl friends in my head in my head Author Luvvie Ajayi once wrote that we should be turning these long social media diatribes into content on our platforms. So please give me a little time to do some cathartic venting.

Gabby began her career in the movie “Precious-Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire in which she played a young woman named Precious who was horrifically abused, that lived in poverty, sexually assaulted, was deemed unattractive, bullied and unworthy of love. She played this role so superbly that she was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal in 2009. The world never allowed her to be an actress playing the role. Instead, she became Precious; a reference now used to describe every fat, dark skinned girl that is too seen as unworthy of love but worthy of ridicule, abuse, and disregard. From the moment she stepped onto the scene she had to fight for her right to exist as a real person in Hollywood and in society at large, a fight that had up until that point never before witnessed in the burgeoning social media forum. Her fight was her own. It is inconceivable to me that a woman who has suffered such terrible and horrific bullying for years in real life should bare the responsibility of any movement. The body positive movement is so complex and nuanced that those who are in it have a hard time understanding where we fit in. She had mother Oprah around her who advocated on her behalf until she found her public voice. Maybe we thought that was enough.

It is was our responsibility to support her during her immediate peril that began in Hollywood in 2009 and rally behind her in her very personal fight for survival now. I am not saying you have to support any procedure or choice that goes against what you feel is dangerous or harmful. We have to love her through her recovery, so she doesn’t feel isolated and in defense of her existence, again. We all want her to live and thrive in the way she plans to. Now more than ever we need to show up in the best most productive way possible.

When you are black and fat, it is about being black and fat then everything else

There are some uncomfortable truths that the image of Gabby represents and that allies often overlook in this discussion. Black women are rarely given serious roles in Hollywood. When they are recognized for their work, it is always from the narrative of struggle, abuse, and domestic service. Fat, black women are most times the sassy brash sister with an attitude that strikes fear in her supporting cast members. Always strong, always unbreakable. Many women in my life were strong and seemingly unbreakable. Not to be cute but to survive.

As black women it is always about survival and the protection of our bodies, fighting the stigma placed on us and for our right to be defined by our terms. Simple things like wearing our hair in its natural state become a political statement seen as defiance against the societal norms. For over 200 years the black female body with a small waist and large hips have been commodified, sexualized and promoted on the world’s stages i.e. Sarah Baartman. 200 years into this messaging society still sees this body type as more favorable, more desirable. So people that look like Gabby, shaped like Gabby are less of a desired commodity that can be packaged and sold to the masses. If she were not in the public eye, her struggle would be the same. Your workplace won’t promote you because they can’t have someone like that represent their brand and be more visible. Companies can’t feature you in their campaign ads because how can they explain away the fat black body deserves the products she is peddling? Gabby had to suffer for what she looked like first before anything else. This culture is responsible for that. No matter what size she eventually will go down to she can never experience thin privilege the way others may be able to, because of blackness. In the discussion on my timeline in social media people only referenced Jennifer Hudson and Gabby as an afront to this work. No one ever brought up Melissa McCarthy, Lisa Lampanelli, Lauren Manzo. Mama June just had weight loss surgery too and is now a size 4, saw no mention. This is an opportunity to see in real time what the conversations will be surrounding the two of them; it is already different.

Advocacy defines who we are, not who they need to be.

I sparked discussion in my circles around this topic that lasted for two days. I watched how sections of the community lost respect for her, dismissed her and discredited as a human being because of her personal choice to get Gastric Sleeve surgery. Some saw it as a betrayal to the body positive movement that has embraced her and applauded her stance. She talked about her body in a positive way she somehow became popular of the backs of the movement. I want to be clear. Gabby never wanted to be a body positive activist or advocate.

In the interview for MTV in November of 2015 literally titled “GABOUREY SIDIBE DOESN’T WANT TO BE THE FACE OF THE BODY POSITIVITY MOVEMENT” she talks about her love scene on “Empire” that sparked the discussion surrounding her. “I don’t want any responsibility ever. I’d prefer to pretend to be a 4-year-old. I’m not purposely trying to be the face of anything,” she said. .”This week has been very strange because I did one love scene, and I said one paragraph about it, and now my Twitter has been blowing up for the last five days. That’s a lot of responsibility!” She goes on to say “…”I don’t necessarily do it on purpose, but the thing is I can’t ever decide to be anything other than a plus-sized, dark-skinned black actress. There are no other options… Being the face of this also isn’t an option for me. It’s just what comes along with it.” She never wanted the pedestal we placed her on, she never wanted the responsibility. Why are we forcing her to make informed choices of the movement and mirror messaging and its philosophies? Her defiant body love was a declaration of her self-love and worth. It wasn’t her fault that she spoke confidently in the same way that the movement does. Ashley Graham for YEARS before her recent rise in stardom said that we need to do away with the word plus. Why are we surprised that she mentions it again in the Glamour magazine and then vilify her for it? Outrage towards Gabby’s and Ashley’s stance should have come much earlier if that was the position. They told us who they were in relation to this work. If you don’t seek to find out who people are if you don’t watch what they say in its entirety and believe them when they say it then you are doing a disservice to yourself and the people you advocate for. It doesn’t make them less inspirational; it just means that they don’t speak for you.

Fashion clearly is not for everyone

I have watched since 2009 how her fashion choices were ridiculed and scrutinized, mainly because she had a VBO-visible belly outline. They accused her of being stupid for wearing it, as if she was some mindless bobble-head who never had a choice in what she wore. Designers after receiving backlash for creating her red carpet looks were quick to disassociate from the final look, saying it was altered. I watched as other people zoomed in on her feet in a scene on “Empire” and talked about the struggle of it all. They said she looked terrible. In the age of wear whatever you want advocacy how can we fix ourselves to say anything about her choices. People lambasted her for what she looked like as if she stumbled out of the trash and into the Golden Globes. I have never seen the same level of vitriol thrown at Beth Ditto, a plus size Icon who is also unapologetic. Google searches for her yield queries for Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs though. I am so very excited about Gabby’s feature in the new Lane Bryant Campaigns. Seeing her in the fashion discussion positively was refreshing and I look forward to more!

While there is no data available to document the long term affects of this new procedure, there has been documented cases of the affects of other weight loss surgeries and the harm that it has caused some people resulting even in death for some. There are others who are happy they had it done and they claim reversal of major health issues that plagued them. It is not my job to force you into making choices that do not impact me in any way. But it is my job as an advocate to speak about what we know to be true, leaving the ultimate decision to each individual.

It should be our responsibility to advocate for marginalized people that experience fatness in a culturally specific way. You may not view Gabby as marginalized because she is THE ONE that seems to have it all. In 2012 Viola Davis,a dark complected accomplished actress strolled down the red carpet at the Oscars in anticipation of possibly winning her first Oscar for her role in “The Help” where she played a maid. (sigh). She walked the carpet in an emerald green gown and her hair in a beautiful fro. A CNN reporter asked how she found the courage to be so brave in wearing her natural hair,since we are used to her looking so glamorous, cuz her natural hair was clearly not that. Viola took a noticeable pause and said “It was just time”.

So it is time: Time to recognize that we can not work effectively and productively to end weight bias and stigma unless we view through this work through a cultural lens. It is time we give voice to understanding that there is diversity in the ways each of us experience our bodies and that drives us to make decisions in our lives. It is time to recognize that the defiant stance of black women is an amazing act of self care and survival against the things that we face and experience.

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