Gabby Sidibe and The Debate on Fat Acceptance

As long as I’m covering serious topics like cherry blossoms and libertarians this week, let’s talk about Gabby SidibeThis post discusses her success and how people have reacted to it.  There are two very complicated and loaded sides, I think.

1.  She is extremely talented, funny, and self-confident in a way I am definitely not.
2.  She is overweight (over 350 lbs) and possibly risking her health.

Am I finally excited to see a woman who is a different body type and race than 90% of Hollywood?  Yes, incredibly so, even though, it seems like she was typecast for the role of Precious to begin with.

Daniels , who interviewed 400 girls, said, “I had gone to McDonald’s. I looked everywhere for that girl. And I realized once I spoke to Gabby that if I had hired any of those girls – I would have been exploiting those girls because they were precious.”

I think it would have been a bigger success for her if her breakout role was the lead in a romantic comedy, where stick-thin and unrealistic blonde white women (except for Ginnifer Goodwin and even she lost weight) are the norm.  But she was chosen specifically because she was overweight (though, in conjunction with her confidence) ,and that rubs me the wrong way.

Progressive women’s websites are now lauding her up and down.  But, as soon as there is ANY discussion about her weight, they say, hands off.  My question is, at which point does body acceptance and celebration become dangerous?  That we should accept women of all different sizes is a no-brainer, in movies, in real life, and in clothing sizes (as someone who is short for my weight, I can NEVER find pants of the right length.)   But my issue is with why those women are different sizes.  If they are overweight not as a result of genetics, but because of poor diet choices (obviously I don’t know Gaby’s situation and therefore can’tcompletely), how can they be a role model for girls and why is it ok to accept them?  Why is it ok to accept people that are obviously unhealthy?  Would you tell an anorexic that she was doing the right thing?  Obesity is just going in the other direction.

The reason I’m thinking about this issue that I am overweight, and I’m not ok with people telling me it’s ok to be overweight by choice.  In general, we shouldn’t all be fitness freaks and eating kale chips, and people should definitely accept my figure, but they shouldn’t vocally approve of the fact that I’ve gained weight.   After working extremely hard in college to lose weight in college and maintain a healthy lifestyle, I gained all of it back and more after Mr. B and I got married, because I became lazy and I have awful genetics-whenever I eat anything, it immediately translates onto the scale.  Hence the healthier diet and running.  I will never, ever, ever be a size 2, or even a 4 or 6.  This is easier for me to accept now than in college.   And other people should accept it, too.  But not that I’ve gained x amount of weight, just because.

However, According to the commenter from Jezebel below, it’s ok that my BMI is now above acceptable levels and that I am now at more risk for things like breast cancer later on in life.  The following is from a response to a quote that Kirstie Alley made about wanting to lose weight:

What bothers me most about this quote is that I had the same exact experience and, while I don’t necessarily need people telling me I’ve gained weight, I also should have realized I needed to stop and start eating in moderation. Having a body that gets larger over time is ok.  But over how much time? If you are deliberately putting on weight, it’s not ok, and shouldn’t be accepted, and even feminists need to stop jumping all over other people who genuinely are concerned that Gabby is presenting an unhealthy model to young girls.

I guess what it boils down to is this:  While we shouldn’t ridicule people who aren’t within BMI range or have health issues due to obesity or those who gain a few pounds, we need to be very careful about how and under what terms we accept weight gain.

Here’s another post covering it from a slightly different angle.  Thanks to Hannah for the link.




17 thoughts on “Gabby Sidibe and The Debate on Fat Acceptance

  1. Vicki: I think there are two slightly different issues here: (a) telling someone (anyone) that she is fat; and (b) telling someone you know well that she is fat.

    I’d happily do the latter and expect my friends to do the latter for me. I’d be upset, just like Kirstie Alley if they all encouraged me as I gained weight by saying things like ‘come on, you are not fat’.

    The former is tougher. There is more than a shade of the problem of proximity in ethics at work here. Sidibe is a ‘public personality’ and debate is bound to happen on her size. In that respect, this is no different from debating Demi Moore’s thigh being airbrushed or Mischa Barton being anorexic or gaining weight. But would you let a random person come up to you and say you are fat? Probably not. But you would not also do it to a stranger, would you?

    1. I agree with you, which is why I was careful to note that I wouldn’t want someone (even close friends/family) telling me I was fat. What I completely don’t agree with and the crux of my point was what you wrote, that “they all encouraged me as I gained weight by saying things like ‘come on, you are not fat’. This is what I’m most frustrated about.

  2. I have a feeling that what you are describing is not so much OKing fat people as it is hiding the fact that people are not doing enough to condemn underwieght eating disorders. It’s a skewed public debate, and that’s what is stinging my eye. Also, I agree with Shefaly. Some people definitely have the right to tell you you’re hazarding your health, while most people simply don’t.

    1. I agree here. The debate is skewed in “favor” of underweight eating disorders and not enough about overweight disorders. I also agree that most people don’t have the right to tell you your acceptable weight, but shouldn’t be accepting of it if you bring it up yourself.

  3. Vicki,

    Has it been said or proven that Gabby is deliberately putting on weight? I hadn’t heard that (not that I pay that much attention to celeb stuff, so I could have missed it).

    I don’t think it’s “Ok” for anyone to be at risk for a health problem but if you use that criteria, anyone with a known (or unknown for that matter) genetic problem is not “Ok”.

    It takes as little as 5 lbs over the recommended weight for someone to not be Ok anymore. But at the same time, each person’s body can handle a range of weight and other environmental influences before they start entering the danger zone.

    This is such a toughie because someone’s weight is such a personal thing that no one should really have the right to tell another person “lose weight” unless they have an M.D. at the end of their name or own a private company that can legally refuse to serve someone based on whatever particular prejudice they deem fit.

    I understand you are speaking about it in a cultural way as well, though. Do we want to raise future generations with the thoughts that “I’m ok how I am, even if how I am is morbidly obese”…and no, but we also want to instill a healthy way of dealing with that sentiment. Making it a cultural or societal stigma is the wrong way of going about it though. You have to appeal to a person’s internal survival mechanism or instinct. If they think their own health is in danger and they may not live to see their families, friends, children, they are more likely to make the necessary changes for themselves versus saying “we don’t want our children to see you as a good role model” which is trying to get them to change for others.

    Ahh…the joys of NOT speaking in 140.


    1. Brianne,

      Thanks for your comment…I love talking off-Twitter for exactly this reason.

      “Has it been said or proven that Gabby is deliberately putting on weight? I hadn’t heard that (not that I pay that much attention to celeb stuff, so I could have missed it). ”

      No, it hasn’t, but I’ve read a bunch of articles about how she always used to have weight problems and her family tried to get her to lose it (also not the best way to do things.)

      I agree with your idea that we shouldn’t stigmatize people for being overweight, but we need to make it clear to those who are, especially as public figures, that they have a responsibility to let people know that it’s not the best way to live. Examples would be former models denouncing anorexia.

      It’s extremely hard to change people. As you said before, both positive and negative reinforcement won’t work unless the person wants it for themself, and that’s very hard.

  4. I think part of the problem is that you can’t please everybody 100%. You can either get a realistic or an idealised life on screen, and if an actor in the former category excels at acting, celebration is inevitable and criticism quickly is considered picky or driven by envy. Pop culture celebrates alcoholics, drug addicts and people with not necessarily healthy attitudes towards relationships and sexuality, and hardly ever does anybody point out that tolerating somebody’s behaviour is not the same as accepting it.

    Body image and children’s education have got in common that everybody feels qualified to comment on them – everybody’s got a body and certain aesthetic likes and dislikes, and everybody has been educated, more or less, at some point in their life. I read a few comments on various websites re: Sidibe’s body and possible health issues, and the commenters’ extreme views were as you presented above, but nowhere did anybody say that it’s the task of a qualified physician – not of a gym coach or a nutritionist trying to sell their services or a fat-people-acceptance advocacy group or a starved-down-to-00 fashionista – to check whether a person is healthy. Nowhere did anyboy add that recent research suggests that BMI is about as irrelevant as it gets in determining somebody’s health. (Just to give an example of this, a few years ago, I went to a health fair with a few friends of mine. One of my female friends, a volleyball coach that exercises about five to six hours per day, had her BMI checked – it was determined to be 32! Her then-boyfriend, lean, athletic but also a bad alcoholic, had a BMI of 18.) Nowhere did any of the critics claim that all self-destructive behaviour should not be displayed on screens. Adulterers, raging alcoholics, drug addicts and event violent spouses have made it an art to make glorious – and glorified – re-appearances on the celebrity stage. Apparently, it’s the common people that need to serve as role models, not celebrities.

    1. Point taken that BMI is not the best measure of healthiness, but I think it’s an ok proxy to use. Instead of telling people that they are “fat and ugly,” I think it’s better to tell them they’re not doing the best for their body rather than pointing out the physical side-effects.

      1. That’s just the point; the BMI has been proved as much as helpful as a tool as handreading. It doesn’t take a lot of factors into account e.g. whether a person’s muscular (muscles weigh more than body fat), their general “frame”, their actual state of health, addictions etc. You can achieve a good BMI through malnutrition.
        In Europe, you don’t see as many extreme cases of malnourishment as in the US. I can only imagine that is because it is still common here to cook; fresh ingredients are considerably cheaper than convience food or fast food (the money you spend on a large fastfood meal would be about what it takes to cook a regular meal of meat / fish, carbs, vegetables and salad for six people).

  5. Ok, two things.

    It’s not up to you to “Accept” or “Reject” anything about another person’s body. You don’t get to pass judgement on them.

    You can, however, express concern about a person’s actions and choices. Especially if someone is being held up as a role model.

    However, the reason most people freak out about fat women is not concern for their health, but because women’s bodies have historically not been their own, but men’s property. Think of Nora in The Doll House sneaking macaroons… women’s bodies, unlike men’s, have always been seen as objects available to commentary, use, and exploitation by others. And the main purpose of women’s bodies has been to provide things for others – pleasure, work, nurturing. So we feel perfectly comfortable discussing a woman’s body in a way we’d never think to do with a man, and we get very uncomfortable with women who refuse to use their bodies the way others want (fat women, women who don’t want to bear children, women who don’t want to have sex with men).

    And, for the most part, overweight because of overeating is a psychological/emotional health problem, not a rational choice someone’s making, despite all the rationalizing people do about it at the time and later. The solution is gaining the coping tools so that you don’t need to use food to feel better. Maybe you do it with cognitive-behavioral therapy, maybe with gum, or yoga, or meditation, whatever.

    1. //However, the reason most people freak out about fat women is not concern for their health, but because women’s bodies have historically not been their own, but men’s property. //

      I think you will find that the body narrative for black women, even in America, has been distinctly different from, sometimes the polar opposite of, that for white women. Historians of fat and body image issues document the trends, the turning points, possible complex sociological explanations etc. (I only know this because my doctoral work was on obesity and I read pretty much everything written under the sun on the matter of body size.)

      1. Really? I don’t know much about the body narrative for black women. For me, it seems like Sidibe has entered a discursive realm where thing white women are the rule, and so the commenters are using their typical (white women) norms for addressing her. Clearly she’s not buying it, which could be why she seems so unfazed by all of this.

    2. I’d love to read more about the field of male body image versus female body image and the balance between the two. I’ve thought a lot about this if I see a slumpy man with a gorgeous woman on shows like Real Housewives of Orange county or even in real life. For the most part, when my dad and I went to Russia, the women were dressed to a T, all the time. The men could get away with wearing sweatsuits and looking like they just came from a 1970s lounge party or The Godfather. Granted, Russia has always had a shortage of men, so I can see why they don’t have to look good to be selected, but still. Why are the men never critiqued as much as the women? Although I think there’s at least some pressure on men to lose weight.

  6. DonnaPirana here — I think that something needs to be clarified. As a society, we should not ignore the dangers that can come with overweight and obesity. Nor should we ignore the dangers that can come with underweight. We should not ignore the fact that poor nutrition and lack of exercise is dangerous no matter what your size. What we do need is an end to the idea that we can determine whether a person is healthy or not based on their size. We do not need people speculating or commenting on the weight and possible health issues of strangers, whether those strangers are famous or not.

    Obviously we need doctors to keep us informed of our actual HEALTH (again, being thin does not automatically make you healthier than a fat person). To express concern for a friend or relative who seems to be struggling with sudden or dramatic weight fluctuations is not a bad thing (though many of us know what it’s like to have loved ones who do this in a cruel and unhelpful way).

    But HOW is it helpful to anyone for people who have never met Gabourey Sidibe and who are not medical professionals to speculate about the effect her weight could have on her health? How is it dangerous to “accept” the fact that some people out there are obese? We should all be vigilant about our own health, and we should support those around us who seem to be struggling, but no one is going to be harmed if people learn to STFU about strangers’ weight.

    1. Donna,

      Thanks so much for commenting and clarifying.

      What I read from your comment is that if your friends are gaining weight and they say so, you should tell them that they still look ok when they don’t and are unhealthy. That’s the part I object to. Obviously we shouldn’t comment on strangers’ weight.

  7. This subject obviously touched a nerve. Weight problem in USA is a real problem, no matter how much you tiptoe around it. Although I am absolutely immune of celebrity phenomena ( I would never make any decisions of my life based on what other people say or how they look like just because they are good in acting or sport ) this is unfortunately not the case for a lot of people. For that reason I think the responsible celebrities along with other influential people have to take it upon themselves to promote healthy style of life, explaining of danger of extra weight and looking at the reasons why USA is so grossly overweight. I am very excited every time I see anything that encourages any kind of dialogue on this subject whether it is Big Loser or new show by Jamie Oliver. I think society absolutely should not judge people by appearance but raise awareness of obesity to the level that overweight people know they have to do something about it….
    Constantly fighting extra pounds – Mom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>