I pre-ordered This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe for my Reading Fat Women Challenge. It was published in May 2017, but I’m not worried this memoir sat on my shelf for a little while because it’s important to support authors as soon as possible. Sidibe’s most famous for her first role as Precious in the Lee Daniel’s movie of the same title — she was 24. She’s also been in Empire and American Horror Story: Coven, neither of which I’ve seen.
The memoir opens strong when Sidibe gives a glimpse of the culture of celebrity. She’s headed to Lee Daniel’s office because she’s been asked to appear on the cover of Vogue, when she overhears him on the phone with André Leon Talley, the editor-at-large of the magazine. She overhears a horrible conversation:
“You hear me, Lee? I’m putting that fat bitch right on the cover of Vogue. I love her. That black bitch WILL be on the cover!” André yelled.
“YES!!!! She is EVERYTHING!” Lee screeched in agreement.
Sidibe acknowledges that Talley is also a fat black person in an attempt to forgive the comments. Although 24 isn’t a child, Sidibe comes from a background that makes her vulnerable, and I worried for her immediately. I thought this was the depth the memoir would have throughout.
This is Just My Face moves on to the actor’s childhood, which sounded, well, childish. Sidibe grew up in Harlem, was born Muslim, and her parents got married so her dad could get a green card. She paints her father poorly long before giving evidence for her feelings:
He’s African, so he has an accent. African is another word I use to describe his personality. African, cabdriver, boring.
Already, because she’s given such a vague image of her Senegalese father, she’s reinforced stereotypes about certain immigrants. He is a petty man, but Sidibe skips over moments that she could analyze. She only mentions how there was a time when her father told child protective services that their mother was abusing them to punish the mother. Sidibe and her brother were put in a foster home as a result, which was not their father’s intent. Very little is said about this. Instead, Sidibe sounds mad, like she’s crossed her arms and is pouting. Though she has a right to be upset, her tone and writing style don’t covey the depth of the situation.
At first, I thought the author sounded petulant because I was reading about her childhood and teen years, but she’s 35 today. If you go back a few years to when she would be writing this book, you have a rather young author, one who isn’t removed enough from her experiences to analyze them, to turn them around in her hands.
For example, Sidibe insists she’s funny, and when she writes funny things on Twitter, a lot of people don’t get her. This is one of her jokes:
Seriously! What the fuck is James Franco’s deal?! I’m sick of it, James! SICK OF IT!
Have you ever had someone say something mean to you, but when you didn’t laugh they said in a somewhat threatening tone, “I’M JUST JOKING.” Uh, no you weren’t. Sidibe writes “jokes” like that. As comedian Nicole Byer would say on her podcast Why Won’t You Date Me?, I don’t think Sidibe understands the structure of a joke.
About 75% of the way through the book, she complains that her immediate and extended family want money from her. She gives it to the extended family and pays for her parents’ rent. This is the epitome of childish to me: doing something she doesn’t have to do and then complaining about it behind her family’s back.
One positive in This is Just My Face was when Sidibe admitted she wrote fan fiction as a teen and continued for years. She included the guys from *NSYNC in 13 seasons of TV shows that she wrote and showed no one. Sometimes they were famous, but sometimes the guys and Sidibe were in the same high school. It was rewriting her life into TV episodes that allowed the actor to fix her own life in her head.
And not only did her fan fiction endear me to her, but it gave evidence of the problems in her family that she didn’t explore in her memoir: her father’s polygamy, her mother’s job as a subway singer, the money issues that arose from of her parents’ occupations, her inability to finish college, her family’s insistence that she lose weight and be a pretty girl, and her immediate rejection of Islam.
For those looking for a positive representation of a fat woman, I’m not sure this is the book. Sidibe claims to love her body, but she also discusses diabetes casually and undergoes weight-loss surgery. Although every individual body is only the owner’s business, many fat-positive activists caution against weight-loss surgery as a mechanism to mutilate fat people in the name of happiness, with some medical professionals even touting cures to health issues the fat person may not have, like diabetes or high blood pressure.
Overall, Sidibe’s book is simplistic, jumps around, and tries to be hip. I felt it would be a good read for teenagers, though she does use strong language, as evidenced above. Here’s an example of her tone throughout:
I block people [on Twitter] who don’t like my hair. I block people who Tweet that they don’t like my blonde hair on Empire. Hi! Empire is a TV show! I didn’t get to choose my character’s hair color, but it’s my job to wear it. I can’t do anything about it. You can do even less about it cuz ya blocked! Oh! You think I shouldn’t wear red? I LOVE wearing red! Don’t worry. You won’t see me wear read cuz YA BLOCKED!
Doesn’t that just scream teen or early 20s? I didn’t enjoy my reading experience.