body image issues

Gabourey Sidibe Taught Me to Love My Body

in Life by

Tl;dr: I have wanted nothing more than to be in a different body.

As a young boy, I hated my body. Even as an adult with numerous self-help and motivational books on the shelf, countless hours of Oprah’s programming watched and people “lovingly” complimenting my assets, I have still hated my body.

Growing up, my sisters and cousins would taunt me for having a “bird” chest because my sternum and ribs were visibly on display. They’d ask if I were starving! As a pre-teen, I gained more weight than I cared for. The first time I was called fat (it happened in 7th grade gym class by a girl named Ashley because, you know, I’m a balanced, mature grown up who doesn’t remember or care about these things that happened so long ago in my adolescence, right?), I asked the gods why they hated me. Why had I been chosen for this cruel experiment of theirs? What did I do wrong and would they like me again if I just lost the weight?

Why had I been chosen for this cruel experiment of theirs? What did I do wrong? Would they like me again if I just lost the weight? These thoughts would haunt me throughout those awkward teenage years and, as bummed as I am to admit it, still currently bother me at times.

In our society, boys and men are largely forgotten about when it comes to body image issues and eating disorders. The available research does show that there are many more men dealing with these issues than previously expected or reported. Even still, a lot of the results are so stereotypical! Apparently, men are only concerned with wanting to become more muscular or view themselves as underweight. Yet again, there’s a huge community of men who are forgotten when reading studies containing these conclusions.

Looking back over the years, I can’t seem to pinpoint a moment in my life where I felt truly comfortable in my own body. Whenever I had a boyfriend, I wanted to lose another 10 lbs. because I thought a thinner version of myself would keep his eye from wandering. At my first fashion magazine job, I actually lost about 25 lbs in a very short time period but still thought I’d only be accepted if I were just a couple of inches taller. For almost two years, I worked in television. Anytime I visited the set of a show that filmed in the city, I’d skip breakfast and postpone lunch just in case I ran into the host. In her sky-high heels and form-fitting ensembles, she was literally a twelve-foot tall goddess clacking around in between takes. I couldn’t bear the thought of being around her with food in my belly turning into fat and adding more flesh to my bones.

Talk about messed up, right?

So, let’s set the scene to present day. Here I am, a 31-year-old man commuting to work on the R train. Janet Mock’s Never Before podcast is playing and, as with all of her podcasts, she is bringing me much needed entertainment. However, this particular episode seemed to be laced with something special. I was getting incredibly high from the words spilling from her guest’s mouth. I was being shook to my core as if Beyonce had just gifted me with her vocal abilities and bank account information.

Who was this magical guest? Actress, author and all-around bad ass, Gabourey Sidibe.

Sidibe discussed her book, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, her mind-boggling rise to fame as a new actress (her very first acting audition landed her the job which earned her a motherfucking Oscar nomination) and the public’s continued fixation on her weight. Sounds pretty standard but Sidibe’s delivery breaks down any barriers and you feel intimately drawn into every word she’s saying.

“What makes you think that you can A) police it or B) have an opinion about it? CAN I LIVE?” Sidibe shouts when discussing her body. I replayed that moment four or five times. Each time I listened to this sound bite, my smile grew wider, my confidence stronger. There are people in my life right now that provide unsolicited opinions about my body and I’m always wondering why they feel so confident in sharing. They sure as hell aren’t any better than me!

To listen to Sidibe speak of her experiences thwarting people’s remarks is like being with a friend in one of our apartments while we get ready for a night out. She’s speaking about herself but I understood exactly where she was coming from. It was a voice inadvertently saying “Hey, you! You are not alone in dealing with idiots thinking they have control of your body. And guess what? They don’t fucking matter.” Her appearance on Never Before made me feel empowered. It made me feel like I would be okay.

I walked away from that podcast knowing that my body might be critiqued but it is exceptional and flawless exactly how it is. I understand that it’s more important to be fit and healthy rather than focus on a specific “goal” weight. Life is a journey, though, and I’m not evolved enough to say the number that flashes across my scale don’t momentarily influence my mood. It does and even dealing with the fact that I weigh myself every morning and night is its own battle.

It would be great to sit down with Sidibe to actually talk through these things with her but would it matter? I’ll never truly understand her experience. How could I? I’m not a Black woman nor am I a celebrity. If you were in a group and passed around a recent photo of me, none of them would call me overweight if they had to choose a descriptor. But anyone who has struggled with body image issues knows that these surface identifiers mean nothing. It’s an ongoing conversation with voices that seem to exist to each individual and to them alone.

I’ve since listened to Sidibe’s guest appearance on Never Before multiple times now. It is clear that, for me, she is what Wendy Williams calls a “friend in my head.” She’s the one who would allow you to be in your feelings for the length of a YouTube commercial break before bringing you back into reality. She’s the one who sees a challenge and says “It’s your fault if you ever doubted me.” She’s the one who is leading the charge in self-love and positive body image perceptions even if she doesn’t realize it.

In the weeks since her episode went live, I have stopped to have another conversation with myself. It was to remind myself to love my body versus making it my enemy. Since starting a new job, I’ve actually gained about 20 pounds. As I walked to work today, I can’t remember the last time I felt as confident serving up my best Naomi Campbell and I owe part of this new confidence to a one Gabourey Sidibe.

Listen to her brilliantly hilarious and heartwarming interview with Janet Mock on Never Before here.

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