It is not enough to attribute the furor over Gabourey Sidibe’s appearance to a beauty double standard in society. What’s really “wrong” with Gabourey is that she takes up more space than she’s allotted, both physically and conceptually.
Let me explain. Women and feminists (because men can be feminists) have been fighting for generations just for “space.” And not just any space: space in the public sphere. Traditionally when social scientists talk about space they are referring the public/private dichotomy, the spatial spheres where gender is bifurcated both conceptually and physically. The public sphere has traditionally been the realm of men; men are expected to spend their days in the public realm working and participating in public affairs while women are charged with the task of staying home to maintain their designated part of space, the private sphere of the home. The first wave feminist movement in the 19th and early 20th century was the first time women formally demanded both physical and conceptual space in the public sphere; women wanted the right to take place in public affairs through voting and the holding of political office. During the second wave of feminism in the middle and late parts of the 20th century, women were fighting (and are still fighting) for the right to take up space in the workplace and not just in the private sphere of the home. For those engaged in the struggle now (third wave feminists and beyond) the fight for space has become conceptually different and more complex. Women, more than ever, are commanding more and more of a leading role in various parts of the public sphere of society.
However, the gains here are still spatially regulated. Take Gabourey as a prime example. As women have commanded more and more public space, society has reacted by demanding they get physically smaller. Thus, the message has consistently been, take up more space but don’t. Think about it. The beginning of second wave feminism is largely attributed to Betty Friedan’s seminal piece The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. About this time, we see the gradual decline of the Marilyn pin-up girl body type and the rise of the stick thin runway model embodied by famous models like Twiggy, who not coincidentally became popular around 1966. Flash forward to today and due to gains achieved by feminists, women are permitted more conceptual space but at the same time are expected to be physically smaller. We even have a women’s size ZERO; while there is nothing wrong with a naturally thin body, why is the size called a “zero,” i.e., nothing. But this “nothing” has become the ideal, what women strive to look like. Try for a second to imagine men shopping for blue jeans in a size zero. It would never happen.
The disgust about Gabourey’s body is a clear reflection of this lingering debate about space with the added dimension of race. Gabourey is not only a successful female actress but is a successful black female actress. With the added variable of race, we expect her not to take up any space at all. Yet there she is, dark and large. Black women have always been expected to hide even more in the background, even more relegated to the public sphere as conceptual “mammies” and house cleaners. And this legacy continues today. Case in point: In 2007, while white women made only about 78 cents on the dollar for doing the same job as a man, black women made less, 69 cents on the dollar (now.org). Moreover, white society has been especially afraid of black female sexuality, casting black women as “overbreeders” sucking up public resources. Again, there stands Gabourey, not only dark and large but dark, large and confident in her body. She is exploding the boundaries of the conceptual space, fearlessly taking up whatever space she wants. I suggest we support her before we all shrink into oblivion.