Welcome to my monthly column Some Of Us Are Brave. This space is all about the intersected identities and experiences of American women. My focus will be race, but I’ll also tackle age, class and other issues. Ideas for a column? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Actress Gabourey Sidibe has always seemed supremely comfortable being cute, Black, and fat. Earlier this year, she made jaws drop by bravely stripping down to silky lingerie and wrapping her generous thighs around an onscreen love interest for a sex scene on Empire. (Of course, fat sex isn’t “brave” in real life, where chubsters get it in on the regular—but in Hollywood, love only happens for the skinny, white, and symmetrical.) To the haters, and there were many, Gabby offered, “I, a plus-sized, dark-skinned woman, had a love scene on prime-time television. I had the most fun ever filming that scene even though I was nervous. But I felt sexy and beautiful and I felt like I was doing a good job.”
But no one ever got rich telling American women we are okay as we are, and today’s celebrity-industrial complex runs on “How X got her pre-baby body back” cover lines and Kardashian-branded waist trainers. What good are female celebrities if they aren’t aspirational? And if a star like Sidibe cannot be slim, as my friend and fellow writer Carolyn Edgar observed, “at least she can hate herself for being fat” and give us a good transformation story—a flab-to-fab tale for the tabloids. But Gabourey Sidibe won’t give entertainment media the weight-loss story they want, so some grimy, D-list websites are willing to make one up.
“See what Precious looks like now!” That headline has begun popping up all over the web, usually linking to click farms where you might find an actual Instagram photo of the actress looking slightly trimmer or her face Photoshopped on Jennifer Hudson’s body or a “before” shot of Gabby and an “after” of Amber Riley—who is pretty, Black, a talented actress, and plus-sized, but is not Gabourey Sidibe. These lately ubiquitous false stories are racist, dehumanizing, and sexist. They use thick, Black actresses interchangeably. They erase Gabourey Sidibe as a human being, turning her into the tragic character from her breakout role. They force a weight-loss story on a woman who has shown no inclination of wanting one, ignoring what she has actually said about her body and hijacking her narrative. And they illustrate that society finds confident women who do not meet mainstream standards of beauty confounding and maddening, something Sidibe has spoken about before.
“One of the first things people usually ask me is, ‘Gabourey, how are you so confident?’ I hate that. I always wonder if that’s the first thing they ask Rihanna when they meet her. ‘RiRi! How are you so confident?’ Gabby told the audience at a 2014 Ms. gala. “Nope. No. No. But me? They ask me with that same incredulous disbelief every single time. ‘You seem so confident! How is that?’” She added, “Sometimes when I’m being interviewed by a fashion reporter, I can see it in her eyes: ‘How is she getting away with this? Why is she so confident? How does she deal with that body? Oh my God, I’m going to catch fat!’”
Sidibe’s supremely fun Instagram account (@gabby3shabby—get into it!) may have sparked some of the speculation about the actress’s weight, with recent photos showing her looking smaller than usual. The idea that the actress might be slimming down thrilled some of her followers beyond measure (“You are changing lives by doing this!”) and angered at least one (“This bitch said she didn’t mind her fat and that she know she beautiful inside?? [The fuck you] losing weight for now? Tryna find your inner beauty?”)
Sidibe hasn’t commented on whether or not she is losing weight or how she feels about it. Maybe she is on a diet. Maybe she has a new, active schedule that has her unintentionally losing pounds. Maybe she’s rocking a new slimming wardrobe. Maybe she is simply working her camera angles. Maybe she weighs the same damn thing she always has. Either way: She is fabulous; it is her business; and if there is a story, it is hers to tell.
All those folks who said Precious would be Gabby’s last job, because a fat, Black woman wouldn’t suit any other role, must be in their feelings. She will not lament her size, nor let it block her success. She will not devote her social-media accounts to tales of cleanses and SoulCycle classes. She won’t play along with the narrative that she is less until she is thin. Folks stay scratching their heads at her cute, fat, Black confidence. And they can stay mad. What they should not be able to do, however, is steal her narrative, replacing it with a more societally acceptable one of fat-to-fit female body transformation.