Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Gabourey Sidibe's Dress Debacle and Being Visible and Fat

[Content note: fatphobia, body shaming]

There's been a lot of talk about Gabourey Sidibe's dress at the Golden Globes and the negative reaction to it. There's been even more talk about her pitch perfect Twitter response:

Obviously, I was thrilled to see her shut down the critics like this. In fact, I'm not sure I could conceive of a better response if I had a think tank of 100 feisty fat ladies and 8 hours to brainstorm together. It is playful, as to not give their ridiculous comments any real merit. It's funny so that her personality shines through. It's delightfully snarky as to remind everyone that she is a successful actress. And it highlights that no matter what people might say about her clothes/body, she's living a happy life.

Like I said, perfection, so Sidibe doesn't need me to come to her defense or any such nonsense. But this is a very clear example of what fat ladies in the media face when they dare to be visible and fat, so I'd like to dig in a little.

Firstly, let's examine the actual backlash that Sidibe's dress inspired. I believe it highlights intersecting oppressions--specifically because Sidibe is a fat, black woman. She was accused of "eating the Golden Globe" and called things like "chubby Casper." So while some might argue that all celebrity women face criticism for what they wear at awards shows, I'd like to make it crystal clear that what people were specifically criticizing here is Sidibe's body. Contrast that with thin actress who wore unpopular things on Sunday (Emma Watson, Paula Patton) where the garment was the object of disdain.

Sure, I'd like to shift the focus away from women's clothes/looks in general, but if you can't see the difference in the way Sidibe was treated, you are lying to yourself.

I think that one of the things that Sidibe probably took the most heat for was that she was sporting VBO:

[Image text: Sidibe in her white dress on Sunday on the red carpet.]

If you're not familiar with the term, VBO in fatshion/fat positive spaces is "visible belly outline." It's kind of the biggest no-no of dressing as a fat person in our fatphobic culture (well maybe short of fatkinis.) We're constantly told that we should pick "flattering" outfits, where flattering really means clothes that hide the shape of our stomachs or other "problem areas." As any fat person knows, especially those of us who carry weight in the middle and aren't "hour glass" shaped, wearing something with VBO will get you comments about how the clothes don't fit or aren't "meant for your body."

But really, all that wearing an outfit with VBO is doing is wearing a form fitting garment, and our form is what people have a problem with. Thin people wear similar things all the time without anyone batting an eye.

[Image text: Taylor Swift, Halle Berry, and Scarlett Johansson all with VBO.]
Because these thin bodies are seen as better, VBO is not even a thing that anyone would think about. But when Gabourey Sidibe wears something that clings in the same way on her body, people got up at arms. It's like certain dresses are reserved for particular body types only, and frankly, I call bullshit on that.

People should be able to wear what they like. Clothes are about self-expression, for each individual person. If you don't like what you're seeing, look another direction.

Sadly, as Ragen Chastain wrote at Dances With Fat, often the strongest criticisms come from other fat people.
I’ve seen so much advice about fashion given by fat people to fat people insisting that we should ALL use fatshion to look as thin and young as possible. Every time I’m told that I need to choose something “flattering to hide my problem areas, and not look too old” or am encouraged to buy something to try to squish my body into a more acceptable shape, I can’t help but feel that it is buying into and reinforcing  the social stereotypes that are already used to shame, stigmatize and oppress me every day.
Gabourey Sidibe is one of the very, very, very few fat people who have made any kind of traction in Hollywood.  She has publicly had to deal with health concern trolls and fat bashers every step of the way (not to mention the racism that she has to deal with as a Woman of Color in a racist world).  I don’t understand why other fat people can’t allow her to dress as she wants without negative comments and offering to be her stylist like she isn’t smart or savvy or fashionable enough to get the job done on her own – like the fact that she is talented and has succeeded despite the bullshit that she has had to deal with means that she owes every fat person their definition of fashionable or she deserves to have her choices picked apart and criticized publicly.  Y’all, could we not?
AGREED. And I would double down on the message that everyone needs to back off of the unwarranted comments and feedback about what fat ladies choose to wear.

Like Chastian mentioned, Sidibe is one of the few fat ladies who is visible in Hollywood. I will never perceive negative statements about her clothes, size, shape, etc. as harmless or neutral fashion critiques. Of course, I wish that we could back off of these comments about anyone, but you better believe I'm going to go to bat extra hard for fat gals.

Please see the commenting policy before replying to this post.


  1. Thank you for writing this. You surprise me time and time again how often I have internalized opinions like these. I never thought twice about terms like "problem areas" and "flattering". But I will now.

  2. I think she looks great. The dress is beautiful on her.
    It shouldn't be shocking to see fat women in films and on television (besides as the butt of fat jokes) but it is. I can't count the number of times I've "joked" that they must only allow thin, acne-free white people to go to high school in any given TV program about that age group.
    By making fat people cease to exist, we are "othered," and it is easier to turn us into objects of scorn.
    I am thankful for Gabourey Sidibe and Melissa McCarthy.

  3. I cannot express how happy I am that I stumbled upon your blog. Not only is it good fodder for my dissertation, but a lot of your posts help me to be more self-critical. I am aware that the media encourages women in society to hide 'problem areas', but recently I found myself making fashion choices based on this advice. I was highly disappointed in myself when I realised that I had not only internalised these messages, but they were subtly influencing the way I dressed. This made me realise that no matter how aware you are about these issues, you constantly have to examine your opinions and be very honest with yourself.
    Concerning the shaming of fat people in society, I think that it affects people more when it comes from close friends and family members. Some of them might be doing it out of genuine concern for your health, but they approach the subject in an insensitive manner. I remember having to field questions last Christmas from 'concerned' family members over my weight. I constantly get compared to my siblings, and given 'helpful' advice concerning my eating habits. As much as I try to brush off these comments, it really hurts to hear them anyway. Nothing they say is helpful at all. It's even worse to get patronised.
    It's highly unfortunate that no matter how much you try to tackle ignorant comments, they continue to rise like weeds in a garden.


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