The subject of weight has always been a hot-button issue and on everyone’s opinionated lips. It’s inescapable. One person’s Lusciously Large Lady is another’s Disgusting Fat Pig. For years we’ve been bombarded with distorted depictions and unrealistic images fueling the debate about how our bodies should look. And now the catalyst that has everyone arguing and taking sides is both the character and actress in the highly hyped movie, Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire.
If you’ve been living under a rock and aren’t familiar with Precious, directed by envelope-pushing producer/director Lee Daniels, here’s the Cliff Notes: Based on the controversial 1999 novel, Push, the movie lets us into the fantasy-filled life of Clareece “Precious” Jones, a morbidly obese black girl living a horrific life, abused by her mother and raped by her father. This oft-times excruciating portrayal of an extremely obese teen is clearly a challenging role; Daniels talked about having doubts that he’d find someone big enough to fill the part. Then along came Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe, a 300-plus-pound actress who apparently embodied the character and nailed the part.
But as Sidibe—and the media—are quick to point out, the harrowing, yet ultimately redemptive story does not reflect her own experience. According to interviews, including a recent New York magazine, Sidibe is a confident, well-adjusted 25-year-old with a positive body image and no shortage of self-esteem. Readers writing in were overwhelmingly positive … and invariably mentioned her size. One declared, “she’s so incredible and so comfortable in her own skin that she’s probably lined with mink.” GAG!
So putting aside the PC platitudes, the facts tell a different story. Yes, Sidibe is a promising performer, one who’s already generating Oscar buzz. So if we just stick to her acting, kudos. But if we’re talking about her size—which has become part of the conversation—are people delusional? A five-foot-something woman tipping the scales at over 300 pounds is not something to celebrate. That’s SUPER fat, and no matter how passionately you argue the opposite, medical science will pull the plug on that position: Your health will suffer from carrying such an extreme amount of weight. Obesity can lead to a host of dangerous health issues including high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory problems and sleep apnea—and that’s just the short list. When you’re extremely overweight, even walking becomes a struggle.
And what about the psychological issues? As well adjusted as Sidibe purports to be, there’s got to be an emotional disconnect between the mind and body. Finding comfort eating one’s way to morbid obesity is not healthy, nor is it self-affirming.
Given all that, why do some people celebrate clinical obesity? Have we become so fearful of giving offense that we’re unwilling to say that it’s not OK to be obese? What do we make of larger-sized celebrities who proudly flaunt their status as a BBW (big beautiful women)—only to become the next Jenny Craig spokesperson? I remember Star Jones railing against “skinny bitches,” emphatically declaring that she would “die fat and happy.” Until, that is, she lost a tremendous amount of weight (and I don’t mean divorcing Al Reynolds) by undergoing gastric bypass surgery.
But it’s not only about obesity. The crazy weight pendulum swings to the other side, normalizing anorexia. The biggest culprit is the fashion industry where models are notoriously thin; designers seem to favor stick figures with protruding clavicles. For most regular women, that physique is impossible to achieve. But lately, even skinny models are ordered to slim down. Recently, Ralph Lauren had to offer a mea culpa for Photoshopping a picture of Fillipa Hamilton, a 5-foot-10-inch, 120 lb model so that her hips were smaller than her head. This after he’d fired her. According to Hamilton, the designer said she was too fat to fit the clothes; his people denied the accusation.
The weight thing isn’t the sole purview of fashion and entertainment folks. It’s permeated in politics, too. The hotly contested New Jersey governor’s race took a nasty turn when rotund challenger Chris Christie accused incumbent Jon Corzine of playing the weight card. Among the numerous negative ads, one showed Christie lumbering to get out of his SUV in slow motion, highlighting every jiggle and roll. The insanity extends even further … to the toy industry. Yes, the toy industry. Shoe czar Christian Louboutin is designing a line of shoes for the already ridiculously proportioned Barbie. His issue with her? She’s got cankles . He feels her stout calves don’t properly display his exquisite footwear, so he’s demanding a slimmed-down doll. (Though I’m sure that he won’t be marching down to Harpo Studios to snatch his signature stilettos off Oprah’s feet.)
So how do we reconcile the bizarre extremes; the pressure to be painfully thin and the backlash that glorifies obesity? Is there a middle ground? Hopefully and tentatively, yes. Real women can, and do, have curves; people do come in all different shapes and sizes. So the message is to be the healthiest you. That means not hauling around a mountain of excess of weight that limits activities and invites health problems. Nor does it mean starving yourself or over-exercising to the brink of cardiovascular failure. It’s about being comfortable in your own skin and loving yourself, but always striving to be better. If you’re overweight, say yes to dropping some pounds, but do so with an emphasis on obtaining better health. A recent salvo into sanity was the August spread in Glamour that featured nude photos of a Lizzie Miller, a gorgeous 180-pound woman. Another good example is Dove's real beauty campaign: It’s a genuine commitment by the company to promote positive image and self-esteem in women and girls. Hopefully the idea and images will gain traction and lead to some real and lasting changes in how we view ourselves and the body type that we idealize.
So to Sidibe, I say: Congratulations on Precious. And my hope is that you get a handle on your health so that you can take full advantage of this tremendous opportunity—and be around to enjoy your success for many, healthy years to come.
Alicia Villarosa is a regular contributor to The Root.