Every Body-Shamed Woman Needs to Hear Gabourey Sidibe’s Inspiring Message

‘I dare to show up when everyone else might hide their faces and hide their bodies in shame,’ the actor said.

Gabourey Sidibe. (Photo: Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images)

May 6, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Actor Gabourey Sidibe is putting the smackdown on all her body-shaming, fat-phobic haters. No one ever asks Rihanna why she’s so confident, Sidibe noted as she began her incredible speech at the recent Gloria Awards and Gala, which is hosted by the Ms. Foundation for Women. But “one of the first things people usually ask me is, ‘Gabourey, how are you so confident?’ ” Sidibe said. “I hate that.”

That’s because, she said, she knows what people are really wondering: How the heck does a plus-size, dark-skinned woman who doesn’t fit Western beauty standards even get out of bed and show her face to the world?

In her speech, the actor, who shot to fame portraying the lead character in the Oscar-winning film Precious and recently starred in American Horror Story: Coven, said that over the years she’s learned to use brutal remarks about her appearance to fuel her drive to succeed.

When she was growing up, Sidibe said, her classmates hated her not just because of her size and skin color but also because she was a know-it-all in school. Although she got excellent grades, her parents never told her that they were proud of her for being so smart. Instead, her mom told her, “You are too fat,” said Sidibe, and her father told her, “You need to lose weight so I can be proud of you.”

A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that girls who are teased about their weight or told they’re fat end up gaining more weight because the comments are demoralizing. Indeed, Sidibe said she retreated and ate even more.

Then Sidibe’s family moved in with her feminist-activist aunt, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, who was friends with Gloria Steinem. Pitman Hughes had a powerful photo of herself and Steinem standing together and pumping their fists in the air that Sidibe walked by every day. “And every day as I would leave the house...I would give that photo a fist right back. And I’d march off into battle,” Sidibe said. “I didn’t know that I was being inspired then. On my way home, I’d walk back up those stairs, I’d give that photo the fist again, and continue my march back in for more battle.”

Nowadays, Sidibe needs that fist pump anytime she has to walk a red carpet: Social media explodes with snark, comparing her to Barney or to the Kool-Aid pitcher. Or “Twitter will blow up with nasty comments about how the recent earthquake was caused by me running to a hot dog cart or something,” Sidibe said. She said she also has to deal with fashion reporters who look at her like, “Oh, my God, I’m going to catch fat!”

Despite that, she’s confident because “It’s my good time, and my good life, despite what you think of me. I live my life because I dare,” she said. “I dare to show up when everyone else might hide their faces and hide their bodies in shame. I show up because I’m an asshole, and I want to have a good time.

“If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable,” Sidibe said.

There’s no doubt that the vicious bullying and more subtle “How are you so confident?” digs Sidibe and other body-shamed people endure need to stop. And harsh, merciless remarks shouldn’t be used as motivation. In the meantime, kudos to Sidibe for being so honest and providing such inspiration to us all.