The “Precious” Effect: Black Women and Weight Problems

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Have you ever noticed how often black women are used to meet the “big girl” quotas in advertisements and television programming? The Dove beauty commercials in which the only black woman is plus-sized immediately comes to mind.

And, while this sort of typecasting is certainly nothing new, it seems like it has received a jolt of energy since Gabourey Sidibe’s Oscar-nominated performance in Precious. A performance that I, honestly, am not sure was so moving because of her acting abilities or the prowess of the casting director, but because her physical appearance was the perfect portrayal of the character.

Like Howard Stern (but in very different words), I didn’t see her getting much, if any, subsequent work. But Sidibe has managed to land roles in Showtime’s The Big C, Tower Heist with Eddie Murphy and the Sundance Lab project Yelling to the Sky alongside Zoe Kravitz, where she plays a bully.

She is indeed a working actress and, perhaps, to credit for Amber Riley’s roles on Glee, who received a nod from E! channel’s Fashion Police as one of the best dressed at the 2010 Emmy Awards. You see, the media’s love affair with Gabourey Sidibe opened the door wider for heavier (okay, obese) black girls everywhere as if people wanted to see more, forgetting two things: It is an unfair representation and obesity is very unhealthy.

Black women are constantly fighting the general assumption that most of us are fat, and the last things we need are more big girls on television and in film. It’s not that they do not deserve representation, but black women shouldn’t carry the big-girl torch as our norm. It only validates the belief that (a lot of) extra meat on your bones is okay. And in reality, it’s not. Two hundred pounds doesn’t look good on any woman. There is a reason Sidibe’s ELLE magazine cover was practically a headshot.

Furthermore, it is an early death sentence. Diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea, colon cancer, gallbladder disease—you can have them all if you’d like. Women with a BMI index greater than 30 are considered obese, and roughly 51 percent of black women ages 20 and over qualify. Obesity is a real health concern in our community. And while the successes of women like Sidibe should be celebrated, someone should also be pushing her to lose weight—for life’s sake. Two years later, I should be applauding her for shedding pounds, not watching late-night promotional appearances and totally missing her cute personality because I’m thinking, “Wow…she’s really big. That can’t be healthy.”

Black women are not “naturally” bigger than other groups of women, and it is time that this is projected through our entertainment and media figures. But, first, they have to drop the weight. When that happens legions of fans will be empowered to do so, too.

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