Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique and the Misrepresentation of Overweight Black Women in Media

We live in an era where popular culture dominates media. From the films and television programs we absorb to the music videos that encourage us to call each other stupid hoes, African-American women are bombarded with images that are supposed to accurately depict us. For most black women, there exists a media image that represents us, even if that image only describes one aspect of our characters.

Vivica A. Fox, Gabrielle Union, and Halle Berry portray sexually charged characters in the films Booty Call, Two Can Play That Game, and Swordfish respectively, but this sexuality does not exist for overweight black women in media. Overweight African American women are considered unattractive, strong willed, and angry, so “[their] sexuality is purposefully excluded to present an image of fat as disgusting,” says Robyn McGee, the author of Can a Big Girl Get Some Love.

In 2009, Gabourey Sidibe exploded onto the A-list with her award-winning role as Precious Jones. Sidibe portrayed an illiterate, HIV-positive mother of two children conceived in incest. It was expected for Sidibe to be stripped of her sexual appeal because of the seriousness associated with her debut role according to the article, “As Big as Life.”

However, when Sidibe established herself as a confident plus-sized woman who wanted to further her career, media personalities including Howard Stern and Glenn Beck deemed her aspirations “impossible.” They didn’t think Sidibe would successful because of her weight. McGee asserts that these assumptions are common because plus size sexuality is often excluded from television and films roles. The images of obese women in media have never exuded sexuality or femininity.

The History

Historically, larger black women were purposefully stripped of their sexuality in the media through images including the mammy, a character that materialized in the 1900’s. Mammies’ were usually darker-complexioned and obese domestic workers who were dressed in moo-moos with colorful headscarves according to the documentary Ethnic Notions.

Mammies were often stripped of their sexuality and forced to wear unattractive garbs to prevent them from being considered competition the mistresses of the family they served. Actress Hattie McDaniel often portrayed the “mammy” in the movies she co-starred in. In her roles as a domestic worker in The Little Colonel and her Academy Award-winning turn as the character, Mammy, in the classic film Gone With the Wind, McDaniel’s characters were often strong-willed, pleasant, and completely devoid of sexuality.

The Evolution

Times have changed; the sexual revolution has come and gone, so there are some plus-sized African American actresses including Queen Latifah and Kym Whitley who are selected for roles that display them as confident in their sexuality e.g. Latifah as Charlene in Bringing Down the House and Whitley in the role of Sugar in Next Friday.

Even with the inclusion of Queen Latifah and Kym Whitley in this sexual revolution, plus-size black women’s sexuality is not well received in media. Mo’Nique prides herself on both exuding sexuality and promoting femininity. In numerous interviews, Mo’Nique has identified herself as a “sex symbol” and icon for all plus-size women. Her statements were controversial; Barbara Walters even questioned if there were underlying causes for her “overconfidence in her attractiveness.”

Similarly, when Lane Bryant, a clothing company catering to plus-sized women, released an advertisement for their Cacique lingerie collection, it was removed from primetime slots on Fox and ABC because it was deemed too provocative. The advertisement was pulled because it was considered too lewd for children, but with ABC airing Desperate Housewives, which often features intimate scenes between characters, several articles raised the question of whether the removal of the ad was really due to excessive raciness.

Unfortunately, this is the normal response because there are few images in the media that depict obese women as sexual. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty attempted to alter this perception by producing a media campaign using women of various sizes and complexions to promote healthiness and diverse beauty.  As with the Lane Bryant advertisement, Dove was attacked in the media by Bloomberg Businessweek, Women in Media News, and other publications for using the media campaign to promote unhealthy imperfections in women.

The Exclusion

Many plus-sized African American women are pressured to lose weight to improve their health and image. Toccarra Jones was an aspiring high fashion model who appeared as a contestant on Tyra Banks’ “America’s Next Top Model.” While participating on “America’s Next Top Model,” Banks chided Jones on several occasions for gaining weight.  On episode four of cycle three, Jones failed a challenge because the designer did not provide clothing for women larger than a ten.  In episode five, Jones was eliminated after a similar incident.

Five years after “America’s Next Top Model,” Jones has dwindled considerably and has appeared on the covers of several men’s magazines including KING and Maxim.  Several other plus-sized black women in entertainment have followed suit including Mo’Nique, Oprah Winfrey, Starr Jones, Jennifer Hudson, Jill Scott, and others.

Ultimately, plus-sized African American women, including Gabourey Sidibe, are presented with two options when considering careers in entertainment: lose weight or be completely stripped of their sexuality in their roles on television and in film.

Will we ever be represented?

2 thoughts on “Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique and the Misrepresentation of Overweight Black Women in Media

  1. I don’t think so unfortunately. I think race perceptions play a huge role in a lot of this. Remember when a big booty was seen as repulsive, abnormal, promoting bad health and unproportionate, well there has been a multitude of white and non-black women with big butts and getting butt jobs being embraced by society and western society. Now a big butt has become a beauty standard. I often wondered why there has been this break through of white and non-black women getting butts when black women were underrepresented in the media for our large derriere. Caucasion flare makes everything more mainstream and acceptable, kind of like Eminem and rap music. Remember society frowned upon rap music doesn’t matter if it was gangsta rap or just hip-hop shawcasing a plethora of rhyme and skill society constantly blamed it for the influence of violence and negativity for youth. Eminem came along with the same content in his rap music and was embraced by mainstream, he’s one of the most successful hip-hop artist of this era.

    Whites don’t have stigma and stereotypes attached to their images, even the most criminal and worst white male or female will not be judged the same as the worst black male or female. Social stigma regarding people of color specifically African American keeps rearing it’s ugly head, it allows black people to be persecuted under constant microscopes, if when it isn’t warranted. White society knows this. Black people were a fairly confident race, we supported anything associated with our culture, and stood behind it including embracing plus size and large women, mostly black women did. That created the confident atmosphere of the black plus size movement. It wasn’t until recently black women saw a lot of celebrity black women be persecuted, embarrassed and diminished for embracing their large frames, these black women took it upon themselves to cave in to the pressure of mainstream society. Conformity is one of the most strong social pressures. Everyone conforms to avoid feeling alienated and left out, that’s why we have activist and civil rights movements because of discrimination. We all want to feel accepted and loved, when that doesn’t happen and we’re ignored we feel the desire to conform and fit in to satisfy the rest of the society. That’s happening to black women now while the opposite is happening for white women. Michelle Obama didn’t help, she’s like a gift and a curse though she too had to endure jokes made about her body shape though she’s fit and in shape, the whole “Let’s Move” get America skinny movement orchestrated by a woman that looks like you and I also influences conformity as well.

    And for decades large black women have been the representation of the “ugly, bad, negative, fatness”. They’ve been showcased as unattractive, unappealing, aggressive, repulsive, loud, disgusting and poster child of what a person shouldn’t strive to be. It’s unfortunate because I see fashion blogs with plus size black women and they look so neat, classy, beautiful, sexy and elegant but they wouldn’t dare promote it. You have white celebrity women like Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera, Adele, Christina Hendricks and others embracing their extra weight and plus size bodies with western society, and social media supporting them.

    Look at how plus size white women are showcased? It also helps that white women for the past 100 years have been represented and docile, soft and angelic so apply that to large white women and then plus size becomes beautiful and acceptable. Even loud abnoxious white women like Rosie O’donell and Honey Boo Boo are seen as cute and funny. If Rosie and Honey Boo Boo were black you think we’d be applauded and loved? I think not.
    On another plus size blog the author posted an article where she screen captured a guy saying why don’t you date plus size black women, and he asked him would he date Oprah. The guy said hell no, you have to keep the fat girls white. That shows you the social damage done to black women image wise, especially plus size black women. I’ve seen the dating scene for big black women opposed to big black non-black women and the brothas would approach the non-sistas like they saw gold whereas the big black sista sat on the sidelines and watched. There are even blogs from black men that seek large white or non-black women and find them attractive.
    I frequent a page on FB that’s called real women have curves and I noticed a trend when the women post their pics, I’ve seen comments like “Nasty” “Why do we continue to support this” on a blog dedicated to large women when referring to the larger black women, then comes the so called doctors and scientist talking about health because how dare that large sista be confident and wear clothes the slimmer sistas would wear. But underneath the pictures of white and non-black women I’d see some the same faces saying things like “Sexy” “This is the kind of woman I want to marry” or “Sexy body” and I’m like you just totally fat shamed the sista witht he same body type, what gives.

    In conclusion plus size black wome seem to be losing confidence, I see a lot of movements trying to take place across seas but in American the stigma, the shaming, the hatred and negative portrayal keeps large black women in their place. Even on plus size black blogs the women are talking about weight loss, yeah they say it’s for health but we really know what it’s for. It’s so unfortnate because I don’t see it getting any better. Race, stereotyping and social stigma hurts black women ALOT!!!

  2. I’m confused. Are fat white or Hispanic women portrayed as “sexy?” No. It’s quite simply. It’s unhealthy and unattractive. This isn’t a racial thing. Rolls of skin and fat are disgusting. Not “sexy.” Have we gotten so PC we are to imagine the opposite of reality?

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