Gabourey Sidibe's Recent Harper's Bazaar Photoshoot Proves How Far We Still Have To Go In Promoting Diversity In Fashion

Just more evidence that fashion doesn’t know what to do with fat women, except to deploy them to tick some vague box marked “diversity.”
Publish date:
August 8, 2013
FATshion, fat, fashion, body politics, plus size

When Gabourey Sidibe first began garnering attention for her outstanding turn in 2009's Oscar-nominated “Precious,” she surprised a lot of people -- mostly people who had a hard time differentiating her from the deeply tragic but profoundly brave character she played in the film -- by giving a series of warm, hilarious, and impossibly charming interviews in which the young woman who seemed to be custom-built for people to make erroneous assumptions about showed herself to be brilliantly likable.

Sidibe is a woman with an imposing presence, and not just because her personality lights up any stage she steps on -- she is also fat. She is fat not in the Hollywood sense, not in the way that people call Christina Hendricks fat. She is fat in a real-world sense; she is fat like I am fat. She is, indeed, probably the celebrity with a body shape more like my own than any other celebrity I’ve ever seen. In my whole life.

And when Sidibe started appearing in magazines as a result of her much-lauded performance, I was elated. Her photos (and cover!) in V Magazine’s 2010 Spring Preview issue were gorgeous and filled with personality.

But the good feelings couldn’t last forever. Her October 2010 cover of Elle magazine -- one of a series of four highlighting young actresses -- was heavily criticized when many folks suggested it looked like her skin had been lightened in post-processing, and also because Sidibe’s cover had her in close-up, while the other covers showed their subjects’ bodies (Ebony, on the other hand, put her full-length on their March 2010 cover, and so far as I know remains the only magazine to do so).

The difference between the Elle covers was stark, and the reaction vehement, and it really threw a spotlight on how inclusivity isn’t something lots of people in women’s or fashion media know how to do properly.

This week, Sidibe was revealed to be included in a fashion editorial for Harper’s Bazaar’s September issue. The theme is “Singular Beauties,” subtitled “An homage to the diversity of women,” and the shoot was styled by Carine Roitfeld and shot by Karl Lagerfeld, both massive luminaries of fashion. The aforementioned “diversity” is subtle, but then hey, it’s fashion, and even subtle movements are something, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. Because when you flip through image after image of immaculately and meticulously constructed images of women who are indeed beautiful, you will eventually come to Gabourey Sidibe’s entry, and she doesn’t look like the rest.

Where the other images are lush with detail, Sidibe’s almost seems like an afterthought. How hard did they try to find clothes to fit her? Did they really just give up and put her in dark leggings and a black t-shirt? Did they really put her in a jacket that might not even fit her (as pointed out by our own Marianne to me when we discussed this on the phone last night), as it sure seems like she’s only got one arm in that thing? And did they really throw a scarf over her head for lack of any other visual interest?

I mean, Sidibe still manages to look like herself, which is itself a testament to her indomitable personality. But while I can’t claim any inside knowledge as to how this image was conceived, it sure looks like they called Sidibe in without having given a single thought to the fact that nothing in the Harper’s Bazaar fashion closet was going to fit her, and thus they had to improvise.

And that -- if the perception is true -- is pretty insulting.

Still, her image does highlight why she has likely been included. Physically, Sidibe provides a stark contrast to what we are accustomed to seeing in the fashion world, and sometimes the fashion world loves nothing more than to do something totally unexpected in the most dramatic method possible. So while employing a more realistic variety of models in print campaigns and runway shows is often anathema -- who wants more REALITY in their fantasy, anyway? -- bringing out a woman like Sidibe is shocking in all the most appealing ways.

And she does stand out. Sidibe, with her impressive size, dark skin, and unyielding confidence (both in how she carries herself physically, as well as in her numerous interviews) is utterly astonishing to behold amongst a universe in which it seems only unusually slender and mostly white women get to be the brightest stars. In a 2010 interview, also in Harper’s Bazaar, Sidibe talked about the experience of being photographed.

[...] She adores photo shoots. "I feel like a model. It justifies everyone in my life who told me I wouldn't be anything until I lost weight. It justifies that little girl who cried because she didn't think she could be in front of the camera. And it's for other girls who feel like they can't do this or that and feel like they're not pretty and not worthy of having their photo taken."

This is a perception millions of girls grow up with. Some of them will internalize these limitations of what counts as beautiful -- or rather, what counts as worth looking at -- and spend a lifetime trying to reach a necessarily unreachable aspirational goal. Other girls, girls like Gabby Sidibe, or me, will see those narrow standards and realize that their appearance is so far outside cultural expectations that to even dream of being held up as any sort of socially-valued beauty, singular or otherwise, is folly.

Fashion photography is fantasy, yes. It’s not supposed to be real. It’s meant to show us a world that doesn’t exist. And yet, it has an effect on us. Both in terms of what we see, and what we don’t see. It has an effect on our culture, and it has an effect on who we value, and what types of people we deem worthy of being seen. Just because something is a fantasy does not mean it cannot touch us, or influence our perceptions of ourselves, and other people.

Nicolette Mason, a fashion writer herself, had a strong reaction to Sidibe’s portrayal in this series of photographs, which she blogged about yesterday. Ultimately she lands on a critical question:

I wonder if it would have been better to leave off Gabourey entirely, rather than include a half-assed attempt at styling when the other looks are so solid. In a story like this, the looks should be consistently thought out, manicured, inspired, and even aspirational... Would it have been better if Carine and Harper's Bazaar didn't broach the "challenge" of a full-figured woman at all? Would we then be screaming at the lack of body diversity? Or is it better that they tried (well, sort of) but did nothing impressive with their immense opportunity to wow their audience?

Is it better to try and fail? Or is this really trying at all? For my part, I think that it’s likely Sidibe was included because she provides the most dramatic contrast to the fashion-model standard. This is a problem for me because most egregiously, it disregards her as a person, reducing her to a counterpoint, and it fails to identify her as an individual representing her own form of beauty. Which should have been the point.

So while I appreciate that the intentions here may have been nothing but good, the execution does little except to highlight how spectacularly such efforts can fail when they don’t take into account that because women who look like Gabby aren’t often included in fashion, making space for them -- for us -- has to be about more than just dropping in a cursory tribute. In leggings. And a black T-shirt.

We need more Gabourey Sidibes. We need to see them, and to recognize the effect it has on us when we don’t, when they are made invisible. The truth is that there are thousands upon thousands of women who look like Gabourey Sidibe currently existing every day, going about their lives, their jobs, their relationships -- women who never get to see anyone who looks remotely like them in the pages of a fashion magazine, women who are therefore subject to the assumptions of culture and of individuals, even subconsciously, that they are less valuable people for it.

And now, when they do get that chance, they are just reminded of how completely out of place they are among the narrow beauty standards that dominate the media women are told to aspire to. It’s not helpful, and in this case, it may actually hurt.