Like most people who have souls, I teared up listening to Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress during Sunday night’s Oscar telecast. I admire Lupita not only for her obvious talent, but for her honesty and willingness to defend black beauty. Her inspirational speech on the intersection of race and beauty at Essence‘s Black Women in Hollywood luncheon reminded me of a time when schoolyard taunts made me insecure about my own complexion, and I had to smile at the thought of Nyong’o emboldening young girls just as dark-skinned supermodel Alek Wek had emboldened her.
As elated as I was for Nyong’o’s Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave and her democratization of beauty, I was unable to ignore the stark contrast between her and another actor who, despite her talent, receives only a fraction of Nyong’o’s fanfare.
When Gabourey Sibide first gained acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) for her role in Precious, she generated buzz in Hollywood for her acting chops, but never became the woman that paparazzi were angling for on the red carpet. Nyong’o, on the other hand, instantly became a media darling. It seemed like I couldn’t go a day without seeing her, draped in designer gowns, and it wasn’t long before Vogue—which never invited Sidibe to grace its pages—named Nyong’o to its 10 Rising Style Stars of 2014. The media was quick to bestow on Nyong’o the story of the underdog, the dreamer who made it despite all the odds, and though these compliments ring true, they were also true for Sidibe.
But obviously there’s a marked difference between who is allowed to represent “black beauty” and who isn’t. It’s apparently become okay to have black features like Nyong’o, but you still have to come in the right shape. You still have to be able to squeeze into sample sizes and look at home in a magazine photo shoot. You need to be dainty and petite, soft and feminine. Though Nyong’o’s ubiquity will do much for elevating the acceptance of black women, it’s difficult to imagine Sidibe would ever have been put in the same position.
A vicious undertone of fat phobia shadows pop culture conversations about Sidibe. Whenever she appears at an awards ceremony, the emphasis seems to be on her weight and rarely on the acting accomplishments that got her there. While she looked radiant in a magenta gown at the Oscars Sunday, the vast majority of tweets and comments were jokes about her size, and the same thing happened after her Golden Globes appearance a few weeks ago. Not that any of that seems to slow down Sidibe, though. She constantly brims with self-confidence and should have been given a Golden Globe for her Twitter retort alone:
It’s also possible that the disparity in Sidibe’s and Nyong’o’s reception was partially due to the roles they played. Nyong’o was essentially rewarded by the Academy for playing a long-ago slave, which Hollywood always recognizes. America seems to be galvanized by slave narratives, since they portray racism as something unfortunate that happened centuries ago, while narratives of present-day oppression, like the one in Precious, are deemed too unsettling to watch. I can’t count how many friends balked at seeing Precious a few years ago, but then practically sprinted to the theater to see 12 Years a Slave.
Celebrating black women who are only a certain size and only portray a certain narrative is problematic. Though I’m glad that there are black women and girls who now will walk a little bit taller because of what Nyong’o’s talent has done for them, Sidibe has been doing the same thing and is still deserving of her own pedestal.
Photo of Lupita Nyong’o (top) at the Oscars, courtesy of Flick user tonirealli; photo of Gabourey Sidibe at Toronto International Film Festival from Flickr user gdcgraphics, both via Creative Commons 2.0.
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.