Actress Gabourey Sidibe is like an onion, and in her new memoir This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, she exposes her many layers. Bite in and get a mouthful of pugnacity, honesty, humor, and heart that will fill your eyes with prickly tears.
Sidibe became a household name after receiving a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her debut role in the 2009 film Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire. Her poignant portrayal of the film’s title character catapulted the Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, native into the spotlight. She appeared in three seasons of American Horror Story, was a cast member of Showtime’s The Big C, hosted Saturday Night Live, and acted in several more films. She currently plays Becky on Fox’s popular music-industry drama series Empire.
A three-year endeavor, This Is Just My Face is Sidibe’s ode to her unique upbringing in Brooklyn/Harlem with a polygamist cab-driver father and a Southern mother who made ends meet by singing in the subway. Sidibe also offers blunt commentary on her celebrity, self-image, depression, relationships, and more, told in her witty, unapologetic voice.
Sidibe thought the book would be a humorous look at her quirky pet peeves (she detests dinosaurs), red-carpet blunders, and setbacks on the road to fame. Instead, it became a platform for her to grapple with the pains of her childhood and the backlash from being an ebony-skinned, plus-sized actress in Hollywood.
“This all started when I wrote an essay about how annoyed I am when people ask me where I get my confidence,” Sidibe said to a crowd at the Free Library of Philadelphia on May 4, 2017. “It’s like this idea that I’m confident, but I shouldn’t be. When I wrote the first sentence of that essay I was annoyed, but by the time I got to the last sentence I was relieved, because I had figured my way through it. [Telling] these stories made me feel better.”
This Is Just My Face contains fascinating anecdotes that left me amazed at all Sidibe has experienced in 34 years. Once, her Senegalese father traveled to Africa to marry another woman, while still married to her mother. Another time, a psychic told Sidibe that she would be famous. (The psychic happened to be the second wife, who came to live with the family in their tiny Bed-Stuy apartment). Sidibe also had a stint as a phone-sex operator. Then she spontaneously auditioned for the film Precious; she was hired two days later.
This body is not made for bashing
Although many of the stories are fun and spunky, the parts of the book where Sidibe is at her best is when she unearths her struggle to “blend in” in Hollywood. When Sidibe walked her first red carpets for Precious in clothes she'd purchased at the mall, she was dismayed when she had to pose for paparazzi next to music icon Mariah Carey and actress Paula Patton. “I never understand addiction more than when I’m on a red carpet,” she writes. “I just want to be numb.”
In the chapter titled MYOB: Mind Your Own Body, Sidibe is critical of those who pick apart her frame and candid about her battle with obesity and bulimia. Later in the book, she discloses her decision to undergo weight-loss surgery. Despite all the hateful comments she endured, she hasn’t let them diminish her joy, nor the love she has for herself and her curves. She writes:
This is my body. It’s going to be with me forever. For all the ways it’s failed me, it’s come through for me a million times more. I’ll never be skinny and don’t really want to be. I want to be smaller and I want to be healthier. My body will get me there. Every day I have to remind myself to be good to my body and allow it to be good to me. I’m also trying to stop my urge to make the joke first. I know my body is not funny. I choose me and my body over my fear of someone making a joke of it.
What I like about This Is Just My Face is that it’s Sidibe being herself – being Gabby. Sidibe is raw, unfiltered, and funny. Reading this book is like having a cup of tea and girl talk with a close friend. Who doesn’t love (or need) girl talk?
I’m rooting for Sidibe and all she represents in Hollywood. She’s not thin, she has dark skin, and she’s helping to further define beauty in the land of silicone and Botox. When I turn on the television and see her sashaying across the screen, I appreciate that someone represents me, and many of the women I know, on a major television show.