Why I Probably Won't Ever Shut Up About Body And Weight Issues (With Help From Gabourey Sidibe And Amy Schumer)

Oh, were you feeling good about yourself for a minute there? The world can fix that for you.
Publish date:
May 7, 2014
self esteem, weight, body politics, confidence, m-rated

At 11pm on Saturday night I went to put something in a drawer that I realized was a mess of half-folded swimwear and workout pants. I then decided to reorganize not only that drawer, but all of my drawers. I needed a soundtrack to this process, because I like to pretend I’m not a person who does something as boring and mundane on a Saturday night as tidying their dresser, at least not without entertainment.

So I went to Hulu, somewhat randomly picking a show I’d never seen before -- “Inside Amy Schumer” -- to watch on the basis that it was sketch comedy, which in my head means I can zone out from time to time and not really miss anything while trying to figure out how to fold these compression pants with the attached skirt in a way that doesn't result in a lump that looks like I just gave up on this, my biggest challenge today.

I found parts of the show very funny, but I knew nothing about the brain behind it. And that's how I ended up googling Amy Schumer (what, I’m too busy watching PBS to know non-nerdy things) and finding her speech from last week’s Ms. Foundation-hosted Gloria Awards and Gala.

I’d read Gabourey Sidibe’s speech from the same event days before, in which she discusses how strange it is that people always ask her how she continues to be so confident -- the subtext being, “when you don’t look like Hollywood actresses are expected to look,” I suppose. You should read the entire thing, which includes a story of tiny Gabby making horrible cookies for fifth-grade classmates who don’t want them, but here’s an excerpt:

"Gabourey, how are you so confident?" It's not easy. It's hard to get dressed up for award shows and red carpets when I know I will be made fun of because of my weight. There's always a big chance if I wear purple, I will be compared to Barney. If I wear white, a frozen turkey. And if I wear red, that pitcher of Kool-Aid that says, "Oh, yeah!" Twitter will blow up with nasty comments about how the recent earthquake was caused by me running to a hot dog cart or something. And "Diet or Die?"[She gives the finger to that] This is what I deal with every time I put on a dress. This is what I deal with every time someone takes a picture of me. Sometimes when I'm being interviewed by a fashion reporter, I can see it in her eyes, "How is she getting away with this? Why is she so confident? How does she deal with that body? Oh my God, I'm going to catch fat!"

I wouldn’t expect any less than absolute brilliance from Gabourey, given that she seems like such a magnificent human anytime she is interviewed, and this speech -- even just in text -- does not disappoint. Because she is so “confident,” it’s easy to assume that this is a woman who’s above the petty garbage people throw at her. Have you ever looked at Gabourey’s twitter mentions? I don't recommend it unless you have a strong tolerance for cruelty. Many of the comments there are lovely and appreciative, but there are also quite a few that are soul-crushing, bewildering in their viciousness toward a woman who is simply daring to live and be seen.

But even if these comments don’t stop her, she has to confront them. She has to face this every time she does press or just shows up at an event. She has to ponder what color she wears because of the jokes that will result. I can’t imagine how exhausting that must be sometimes, confidence notwithstanding.

Now, it’s not unexpected that Gabourey Sidibe is going to talk about these experiences. As her own speech explains, her “confidence” is always the first thing people ask her about, the unspoken context being, “How DARE you be so confident?” I knew I would love her speech even before I read it.

But then I read Amy Schumer’s speech, which took a different tack at the same subject. Amy tells a story of a grotesque college sexual encounter and how it woke her up and brought her back from becoming the girl who does anything for attention and approval from even the most loathsome of men. From there, she moves to the present day:

Now I feel strong and beautiful. I walk proudly down the streets of Manhattan. The people I love, love me. I make the funniest people in the country laugh, and they are my friends. I am a great friend and an even better sister. I have fought my way through harsh criticism and death threats for speaking my mind. I am alive, like the strong women in this room before me. I am a hot-blooded fighter and I am fearless. But I did morning radio last week, and a DJ asked, "Have you gained weight? You seem chunkier to me. You should strike while the iron is hot, Amy." And it's all gone. In an instant, it's all stripped away. I wrote an article for Men's Health and was so proud, until I saw instead of using my photo, they used one of a 16-year-old model wearing a clown nose, to show that she's hilarious. But those are my words. What about who I am, and what I have to say?

Occasionally people will ask me why I write so much and so often about body and weight-related issues, as though those issues are superfluous, or unimportant, or as though we've already said everything there is to say on the subject so we can just stop now, because if it’s not all solved and sorted at this point, it never will be. Sometimes they ask me about this in a sincere way, and sometimes in a way that belies an urge to just make me shut up. And every time they do, I think, “Hmm, why DO I keep writing about this? It makes me a target for unkind people. It doesn’t bring me much in way of fame or fortune. There are other people in the world who are just as good, or better, at it than I am.” I think about it every time, for a few minutes, just to check in with myself on the subject. But I always come up with the same answer.

I will continue to be a body-stuff gadfly for as long as I can bear it, because as long as physical standards of feminine beauty are causing smart, funny, talented women -- famous or not -- even an instant of self doubt or self reproach, we need to keep discussing them. We need to pick them apart, and break down their broader cultural purpose and how they affect us all. We need to question everything we hear about what makes us valuable as humans, and most particularly as women. Is it being “beautiful” by an abitrary and fluctuating standard? Or is it what we contribute to the world?

I have had moments where I've read cruel things about myself from strangers online, and felt sick, felt myself begin to internalize them. In my own personal headspace, I can stop that from happening. I have the skills and strategies to come back to a place of quiet understanding that not everyone is going to dig what I do, or who I am, or how I look, and that is okay. I don’t want to be the person everyone loves. I can think of nothing more boring than being someone who is universally adored, because that person is probably not challenging anyone, ever.

It’s okay for people to disagree, or to dislike me. What’s not okay is the way these armchair beauty assessments are used in an effort to shut women down. I think it’s important to understand why even “confident” women can be brought low by a consciously cruel or accidentally insensitive comment about her body or her weight. I want these things to not be so freaking important to women’s self-worth all of the time. I want to remove the ability of individuals to use “Have you gained weight?” or “Why are you so confident?” as weapons against people who are just trying to be themselves, to do the things that are meaningful to them. And I want women to be able to live true to themselves without wasting a single moment on wondering if their thighs or their upper arms or their face is good enough for them to be allowed to exist in the world without being mocked or attacked. Or as Gabourey concludes:

"How are you so confident?" "I'm an asshole!" Okay? It's my good time, and my good life, despite what you think of me. I live my life, because I dare. 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.

I guess put me on the roster for Team Asshole as well. It sounds far more fun than trying to play for the status quo.