Our Fat Bodies Are Not Your Metaphors
A look at reactions to Gabourey Sidibe’s engagement reveal a frustrating, persisting reality: when good things happen to fat people, the world doesn’t know how to act.
I once had a conversation on campus with a few fellow graduate students about the upcoming weekend. I, like every other weekend, was going to spend time with my husband and pretend that I was in no way affiliated with an academic entity. One of these students did not know that I am married; they were, in general, unaware of most facts about me, since I’d already gotten the clear hint that they were not very interested in getting to know me.
Their reaction to finding out I was married is still one of the most uncalled for responses I’ve ever received. First, they were stunned and silent. Then, they laughed, hard and uncomfortably. They looked at the others sitting nearby, perhaps for confirmation, and then back at me.
Weeks later, this person saw my husband in his white, straight-sized glory and was, I think, very confused. I believe they were confused because, the next day, they asked me many questions about how we met, how long we’d been together, and the nature of our time spent together. I answered as best as I could, but without them asking what they really wanted to know, I could not help them.
What they really wanted to know was how. How had I — a fat, ungraceful woman of color — managed to trap someone like my husband, who, by virtue of his race and size, was out of my league? There are some fat women who have “skinny faces” (meaning “beautiful” faces with pronounced bone structure and a singular chin and dainty noses and big eyes that most thin people do not have anyway) and long, thick hair and adorable mannerisms and interesting hobbies, but I am not one of those women and never have been.
It doesn’t take very many hints to know when someone doesn’t think very highly of you. But fat people get lots of hints, all the time. When people comment on a change in your size that may or may not exist. When people assume you do not know things you probably do know. When people look intensely at or comment on what you’re eating. When people see old pictures of you and ask “what happened?”. These occurrences have been regular parts of my life. So believe me when I write that what this person really wanted to know was how, despite my inherently revolting and also mediocre nature, did I find someone who is and has always been so openly and deeply in love with me and also looks like that.
This was not the first or last time I was asked this question. So yes, my first reaction to learning Gabourey Sidibe was engaged to a conventionally-sized white man was potent, barrel-aged dread.
In case you didn’t know, Gabourey Sidibe recently announced her engagement to Brandon Frankel, who works in marketing and branding. If you follow either on Instagram, you are already aware that they are a ridiculously cute and gushy couple.
Many outlets followed up on the announcement and made their own posts congratulating the couple. The Shade Room was just one of many accounts that reposted the couple’s video and pictures of the event. It was just one of many places in which thousands of people congregated to comment on the engagement. The image for this post contains just some of the comments that affirmed my dread.
Some were more well-meaning than others. For instance, one person commented “Before I see comments from ‘black men’ ask yourself how many black men would find gabby desirable sis deserves to be loved.” Another said “had to put a ring on his BBBW! (Big Beautiful Black Woman).” While both of these comments reduce Sidibe down to her fatness, and therefore give in to the idea that fat is abnormal and less lovable, they could be absolutely be worse or more openly hostile. From a certain perspective, these commenters are trying to be kind as well as conscious of issues like colorism, featurism, and aspirational whiteness within historically marginalized groups.
Other comments were much worse. Many people remarked on the fact that they were alone; given Sidibe’s fatness, these try to imply that it is unacceptable or unfathomable for other (probably thin) people to be single while she is engaged. Some said that her partner was only with her for her money or to hide the fact that he’s gay, neither of which need or deserve elaboration. Others, “in the most respectful way” possible (yes, that is an actual quote), said that if Sidibe could get engaged, then they could also get engaged. Even read in the most positive light, the question of why Sidibe’s specific engagement means this for another person needs to be answered. One person just sent the sickly green emoji on the verge of throwing up.
When a fat person — especially one who is Black and whose body does not conform to the mandated hourglass — gets engaged or married, it is never just about that person’s momentous life event. The understanding that the positive event being discussed shouldn’t really be possible for fat people is always underneath the celebration (if it happens at all).
This is, in great part, because fatphobia tells us that fat people are not worthy of good things. And fatphobia emphasizes that fat Black women are the least deserving of all.
However, another, less-emphasized part of this backhanded celebration is the fact that fat people’s bodies are not supposed to be for the use of fat people. In a society that’s equated Blackness to fatness and Black fatness to immorality, the existence of the fat Black body has become a societal issue warranting widespread panic.
Since fatness has been pathologized and the threat of an “obesity epidemic” is, therefore, scary as hell to many people, there are entire scientific fields (e.g. “obesity medicine”) dedicated to eradicating fat people. Blackness has been similarly pathologized, often in tandem with fatness, and is at the foundation of much of the work done in health disparities research. Fatness and Blackness are both constructed and imposed by racial capitalism and give authorities — scientific, political, carceral — license to intervene in the lives of fat Black people beyond what would typically be considered normal or appropriate. Having a fat, Black body means that the whole of society is obsessed with your existence and the implications of your existence.
Given how pervasive fatphobia and anti-Blackness are, the reaction to Sidibe’s engagement could be extended to any positive life event, such as an award or a promotion or something almost entirely up to chance, like winning the lottery. But when it comes to issues of love or impending marriage, it hits different. It always does.
The world wants to take fat people’s bodies away from us in a million different ways. It is not just about how it implores us to shrink, to lose mass. To force all these violations into a box called “weight loss” or “diet culture” is doing us an injustice.
When you are fat, you are fair game. You are fair use. We are supposed to be props for manipulation by the world around us. Our worth or meaning are supposed to depend on the people or entities using our bodies for their own means.
When people want to critique Trump, the fat body is just an extension of greed or American imperialism or gluttony or incompetence. When diet companies want to sell products, the fat body is the “before” body — the crystallization of unruliness, of loss of control. When public health practitioners want to make a given community or population “healthier”, fat bodies are their first stop; fat bodies hold thin, better bodies hostage on their insides. They trap the inner skinny person in a shroud of fat and grease. If you can chip away at the fat Black bodies in the community and unearth the thin Black bodies inside, this is evidence that you have succeeded in making everyone healthier, somehow.
The reactions to Gabourey Sidibe’s proposal — the anger and pantomimed hopefulness and shock and insecurity — are due to the fact that Sidibe refuses to be fair game or fair use. Those disgusted by Sidibe, who positively glows from adoration, want to fashion her into an ornate mirror. They want to see their thin reflections outlined by her fatness and Blackness and feel relief at her misery or loneliness or lack of success because it would justify the way they’ve shrink-wrapped their self worth and morality around the contours of their comparatively small frames. Sidibe cannot and should not be happy because happiness is for the individual that fully owns their life and deserves good things and fat Black people are not allowed either of these realities.
And yet, to the beholders’ frustration and anger, Sidibe is happy. She is beaming. She is desired.
Sidibe is loved.
Sidibe is loved not in spite of her body, as those who have bitterly espoused something regarding “inner beauty” would say.
Sidibe is loved not because of her body, as those who point to a “BBW” fetish quickly assert.
She is just loved, as most would hope to become.
Our fat bodies are not lessons. Our fat bodies are not apologies. They do not exist to imply wrongdoing or malice or evil. Our fat bodies are not failures. Our fat bodies are not metaphors; they are not vehicles for your emotions, your projections, or your impositions.
They are meat and fat and blood and bone. They are tissue and muscle and viscera. They hold complex organ systems and sticky, viscous substances. We breathe in our fat bodies. We eat in our fat bodies. We work in our fat bodies. We fuck in our fat bodies. We sleep in our fat bodies. We could not live without our fat bodies. And we do, in fact, live.
So yes, we love and are loved — deeply, brightly, overwhelmingly — in our fat bodies. We have been and will continue to be for the rest of time. If you find that makes you feel ashamed or uncomfortable or even unusually motivated, understand this:
Our fat bodies are ours. And they exist with or without you.