Why Are We Talking About Octavia Spencer's Weight and not Her Work?

I have yet to see The Help.  I simply cannot bring myself to watch yet another movie in which a Black woman plays a maid, regardless of how many awards the movie, or the actresses win.  Spencer won best supporting actress at the SAG (screen actors guild) awards.  This is an exciting moment for any actress, and in the case of Spencer, carries with it a host of racial issues, and yet People Magazine decided to focus on her weight, by choosing to highlight the following quote:

“I am not healthy at this weight,” Spencer, 39, said backstage at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, where she won a best supporting actress trophy. “Any time you have too much around the middle, then there is a problem. [And] when you reach a certain weight, you are less valuable.”

But Spencer, who also won a Golden Globe, says that Hollywood should be more accepting of actresses of different sizes, including those who are extra thin.

Blaming “society” for the stigmas attached to looks, Spencer adds, “I feel for the overly thin women as much as I do for the overweight women. It … has to change.”

First, let me start by saying that she is right about the constant policing of women’s bodies. Women are forever seen as imperfect and in need of change no matter how thin, or how beautiful they are. This of course keeps women unbalanced and helps the bottom line of the diet and exercise companies. I am however disappointed to hear Spencer declare herself to be unhealthy, because of the weight and shape of her body.  I believe that what she should be focusing on is HAES (health at any size)  As long as you are eating a moderately healthy diet, and are excising, there is no reason to believe that one is unhealthy simply based in size.  The media has done much to perpetuate the idea that unless one fits into a very narrow standard, that one is unhealthy, and therefore undesirable.

Women of size are particularly invisible and when they do appear, they are often the butt of the joke or forced into a position to say some terribly hateful things about themselves and their size.  The example that stands out the most to me is Gabourey Sidibe’s character on The Big C. Even when fat women do appear in the media, they are constantly shamed for their size, despite their personal feelings on their body image.  They are asked to justify why they are fat, and are expected to initiate a plan immediately to get down to the supposed acceptable size. Consider for a moment the talent that Jennifer Hudson represented on American Idol, and Simon Cowell’s obsession with her weight, versus the celebration of Hudson now that she is a size zero. No matter how talented they are, weight is always a part of the conversation, as though their weight represents everything there is to know about them as people.

The triple threat Jill Scott played Precious on HBO’s The Ladies No. 1 Detective agency and though she was most definitely understood to be beautiful and desirable, there was a constant reference to the fact that she had a “traditional figure.”  This description is not only pervasive in the books, but in the show as well.  Though Precious is clearly accepting of her size and confidant about who she is as a person, I don’t believe for one moment that there would be this many references to size, if Precious were a thin woman.  It’s almost as though the writers of the show, and the book, felt the need to constantly remind us that Precious is fat, as though we could somehow forget this fact. Whatever else Precious might be, apparently her weight said something significant about her person.

Fat bodies are considered to be flawed and something to be ashamed of.  When this is combined with issues of race and gender, fat becomes even more complicated.  A fat Black woman is often constructed as the ever loving mammy.  Mammy must put the concerns of others before herself at all time.  It is ingrained in the mammy stereotype, that she is necessarily worth less than all those around her, and that her only value comes from how well she serves her nice White folks. Mammy is ashamed of her body, and her blackness, and though Spencer did not indicate that race in this case was an issue, it is worth noting that unless fat Black women can be squeezed into this role, they are often erased outright from the media. Thus, when we talk about fat and Black women, we cannot ignore mammy.

I agree with Spencer that we need to have a conversation about how certain bodies are constructed, and how these negative ideas hurt, even as they elevate a standard that is not realistic for the majority of women; however, the night that she won a SAG award is not when it should have happened.  To me, this is yet another example of how weight continues to be thought of as saying something significant about one’s morals or being.  We don’t have these conversations when actors or actresses are really tall; we simply accept that as natural to who they are.  People’s fixation on this quote, suggests that SAG messed up by letting a fat Black woman win something, because everyone knows that fat women are meant to be hidden in their homes eating ice cream while crying about not being thin.   In the end, we need to stop apologizing, or making excuses for our size, and I wish that instead of taking the approach that she did, Spencer had restricted  her comments to her character and the movie that she performed in. Fat does not say anything significant about anyone, and is as relevant as eye colour to determining worth.    

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