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GABOUREY SIDIBE AND THE HISTORY AND POLITICS OF FAT

March 20, 2010

In the past week, I have started about 7 or so different blog posts about what Howard Stern said about Gabourey Sidibe. If you didn’t hear/read about it, Howard Stern said that Gabourey Sidibe is going to die, never work again, and is just some fat black chick. The problem I’ve had with writing something thoughtful about this issue is that I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with my own issues with fat oppression.
If you dare, watch this video to hear the initial conversation Howard Stern and co-host Robin Quivers had about Sidibe on his satellite radio show last Monday:

According to Stern and Quivers, Sidibe deserved to win the Oscar for her role in Precious because of her “enormous size” she will never work in Hollywood ever again. Of course, as many a blogger pointed out, Sidibe has already filmed another movie that has yet to be released, and is working on a television show for Showtime, so while Stern and Quivers may think Sidibe will never work again this is obviously not true. Stern is certainly no stranger to bigotry,and this incident is no exception, yet I still want to (begrudgingly) give him credit for bringing up the point that because of her size, Sidibe will have a difficult time finding roles. Sidibe’s size will (most likely) have to take center stage in every role she plays. She will probably have a hard time getting a part that doesn’t, in some way, reference her size. She will have a hard time escaping the endless stereotypes in popular culture about large people. Fat oppression is all too alive and well.
Of course, in contemporary western culture, women of all sizes experience oppression based on their bodies alone. However, the obese woman’s body as a cultural marker of identity and the oppressive stereotypes and consequences that come along from this particular type of body departs from the general discourse of the woman’s body. So, let’s put this all into historical context, shall we?
Once upon a time, large bodies were a symbol of wealth and power. Before the rapid industrialism of the late 19th century United States, the ability to be fat meant that you were not only wealthy enough to afford as much food as you wanted, but also that you did not have to partake in much physical labor.  At the same time, however, the puritanical values of hard work and self-control permeated through the aristocratic elite, and, by the time industrialization allowed more people of more backgrounds access to more food and less physically demanding labor, fatness became more obtainable, and thus less desirable for the elite. Because fatness had lost its elite status, upper-class Anglo-Americans began to equate excess body fat with laziness and the inability to control impulses and desires. The way that fat people are viewed and stereotyped in contemporary culture, then, is similar to the oppression of other groups of people. That is, in the binary of privilege v. oppression, fat people fit squarely in the latter category.
Coming to terms with acknowledging my own body issues has been difficult. A lot of the reason why it’s so hard to acknowledge is that underlying attitude that being fat is your own fault, unlike, say, race or gender. Fatness is all too-often removed from its socio-cultural background and put squarely in the arena of health. It thus becomes easy for even the most well-meaning of folks to not recognize their oppressive attitudes towards fat people. In that vein, then, it becomes difficult for me, and lots of other fat people, to discuss their fatness as an oppression with people that aren’t fat.

To plenty of readers I’m sure this isn’t anything new; I’m not writing anything groundbreaking here. Yet, at the same time, I have this selfish need to work through this rationally, without letting the idea that women of all shapes and sizes experience oppression based on their bodies circumvent and undermine the fact that fatness needs to be recognized as a distinct form of oppression.
I’m going to write more on this later, I promise. I need to hash out some things in my mind, and do some research. Anyone have reading suggestions?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Vanessa Baum permalink
    March 20, 2010 10:20 pm

    As a successful fat businesswoman, despite what people think about us fatties, we as a people in western society are getting fatter. When I attend corporate business meetings or clients a high percentage are over weight.

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