It's the question that most annoys Academy Award-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe, who points out in this heartfelt speech that the questioners don't ask that question, one of "incredulous disbelief," of other performers.
Sidibe unpacked this undermining, uncomfortable, unspoken view of her weight and appearance in a moving tribute speech at the Ms. Magazine Gala in May this year. The event also served as an 80th birthday party for feminist icon Gloria Steinem, for whom the evening's Gloria Awards are named. While this speech starts out sounding like it's about the actress, it's really about self-esteem and Steinem's inspiration. In one of the more revealing passages about herself, Sidibe says:
I think the reason I thought so highly of myself all the time was because no one else ever did. I figured out I was smart because my mother would yell at my older brother. She'd say, "Your little sister is going to pass you in school. You're going to get left behind and she's going to graduate before you." But she never said to me, "You are smart." What she did say was, "You are too fat." I got the message that I wasn't pretty, and I probably wasn't normal, but I was smart! Why wouldn't they just say that? "You're smart." It's actually not that hard. My dad would yell at my brother, "Gabourey does her homework by herself! Why can't you?" But he never said to me, "Good job." What he did say was, "You need to lose weight so I can be proud of you." I know. So I got made fun of at school, I got made fun of at home too, my older brother hated me, my dad just didn't understand me, and my mom, who had been a fat girl at my age herself, understood me perfectly ... but she berated me because she was so afraid of what she knew was to come for me. So I never felt safe when I was at home. And my response was always to eat more, because nothing says, "You hurt my feelings. Fuck you!" like eating a delicious cookie. Cookies never hurt me.Sidibe talks about a more direct impact that Steinem had on her day-to-day confidence, from a photo of her aunt, feminist activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes, with Steinem. When Sidibe's mother moved her to live with Hughes, she saw that picture every day. It's another great example of the invisible visual, something you can picture in your mind's eye:
Side by side they stood, one with long beautiful hair and one with the most beautiful, round, Afro hair I had ever seen, both with their fists held high in the air. Powerful. Confident. And every day as I would leave the house... I would give that photo a fist right back. And I'd march off into battle. I didn't know that I was being inspired then. On my way home, I'd walk back up those stairs, I'd give that photo the fist again, and continue my march back in for more battle.What can you learn from this famous speech?
- Tell it like it is: If your experience reflects a hard truth that people don't want to discuss, be the one who brings it up, as Sidibe does in these lines about how she is seen: "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....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." Shining a light on such belittling behavior helps to stop it. Keeping silent lets it continue.
- Honor the honoree and her work: This tribute to Gloria Steinem is all the more meaningful if you know--as many in the audience would have--that Steinem herself struggled with self-esteem. In Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, Steinem shared her own difficult upbringing and how it affected her belief in herself. Talking about her topic as well as the honoree herself made this a rich and on-point tribute, one with many parallels to Sidibe's experiences.
- Connect generations: There's nearly a half-century between Sidibe, 31, and Steinem, 80. Using her aunt as a logical connector, and echoing Steinem's experiences in her own, Sidibe's speech deftly ties these disparate generations together in a way meaningful to both. It's a great way to unite an audience in which many ages are represented.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Zadi Diaz)