When Gabourey Sidibe announced that she had bariatric surgery, a lot of her former supporters threw up their arms and called her a traitor.
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
This old saying comes to mind as I watch armchair critics weigh in on Gabourey Sidibe’s recent weight-loss surgery.
Can we just let Gabourey Sidibe live?
As a larger, plus-size, dark-skinned Black woman in Hollywood, the odds have always been against Sidibe. Most roles for fat women go to smaller-bodied, white, plus-size women like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson. I can just hear casting agents: “Need a fatty? I’ve got this blonde who will do a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. Not into blondes? We got a brunette.”
Despite the odds, Sidibe has managed to become a Hollywood “It Girl.” Starting out as a complete unknown in Precious, she moved into television with a role as a student who made a big impact on the life of the main character in The Big C, showed her witchy side in American Horror Story: Coven, and became an on-screen sensation (complete with the first Black plus-sized sex scene on primetime TV) in Empire. She’s also made seven films since Precious.
Sidibe, already a role model and idol for plus-size women everywhere, made a cultural impact with that rooftop love scene in Empire. She showed that plus-size women — dark-skinned Black women, too — can get the pretty boy. They can have the man that they want and love. With that, she earned a place in the hearts of fat women everywhere.
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For the last several months, we have noticed Sidibe has been shrinking — and wondered what was going on. This week, the 33-year-old actress revealed that she had bariatric surgery in May 2016, after she and her brother Ahmed, 34, were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
“I just didn’t want to worry,” Sidibe, tells People. “I truly didn’t want to worry about all the effects that go along with diabetes. I genuinely [would] worry all the time about losing my toes.”
“The surgery wasn’t the easy way out,” she continued. “I wasn’t cheating by getting it done. I wouldn’t have been able to lose as much as I’ve lost without it.”
The star revealed in her memoir that she has had a lifelong struggle with bulimia, as well as anxiety and depression that have shaped such behaviors.
“My surgeon said they’d cut my stomach in half,” she said. “This would limit my hunger and capacity to eat. My brain chemistry would change and I’d want to eat healthier. I’ll take it! My lifelong relationship with food had to change.”
When Sidibe announced that she had weight-loss surgery, a lot of her former supporters threw up their arms and called her a traitor. Many of them are just angry at a world where fat women are, frankly, treated like shit. Even today, the medical industry is so clouded with fatphobia (Got a cough? Your fault, fatty! Lose 50 pounds and then we’ll talk!) — and on-screen representation is next to nothing, so we find ourselves clinging tightly to anyone who looks like us.
Yet another overweight celebrity who swore she was happy and comfortable with her size has undergone weight loss surgery. #GaboureySidibe
— MeeZee (@MaryEmBern) March 10, 2017
Sidibe explains that this wasn’t a decision that she took lightly — and this wasn’t a decision motivated by a desire to be “more beautiful,” as her critics have suggested.
“It has taken me years to realize that what I was born with is all beautiful,” she wrote in her memoir, This Is Just My Face. “I did not get this surgery to be beautiful. I did it so I can walk around comfortably in heels. I want to do a cartwheel. I want not to be in pain every time I walk up a flight of stairs.”
When you have so little representation in the media, it’s hard not to attach yourself and your struggle to role models — strangers. Between Instagram, blog posts, Facebook and in-depth reviews, it sometimes feels like you know these people. Like they’re your friends. It can feel as though you, too, have personal investment in their choices.
But you do not. No one does. You have no right to anyone else’s body, just as they have no right to yours. It’s important to remember to separate your struggles from other folks, especially if their struggles are different in some ways from your own. When you are standing at the intersection of weight, race, and medical issues, life looks a lot different.
“I know I’m beautiful in my current face and my current body. What I don’t know about is the next body,” she writes in This Is Just My Face. “I admit it, I hope to God I don’t get skinny. If I could lose enough to just be a little chubby, I’ll be over the moon! Will I still be beautiful then? Shit. Probably. My beauty doesn’t come from a mirror. It never will.”
While we must stand beside each other in our fight against fatphobia, we have to remember that bodily autonomy is one of the core issues within the struggle, and so is the demonization of women and femmes.
A person’s right to choose is a person’s right to choose, whether it is having an abortion, gender reassignment, cosmetic changes or weight-loss surgery. Hate the system that creates these situations: rampant fatphobia within the medical-industrial complex that makes it difficult to get the care we need. How can fat people get proper treatment when MRI machines and medications aren’t even designed to accommodate them? That, and lack of representation in Hollywood, are just the tip of the iceberg. While we do have to keep fighting, it’s important to remember the enemy is not someone else within the movement. It’s the system the movement was created to fight.
When a person has weight-loss surgery, they are not necessarily saying “Fat is bad, I’m done.” We have to stop and listen to a person’s experience before we decide who is no longer an ally.