Gabourey Sidibe on Her Years-Long Journey to Body-Positivity: I Was 'Conditioned to Believe That I Was Ugly'

The Precious actress opens up about her weight-loss surgery in her new book This Is Just My Face, excerpted exclusively in the new issue of PEOPLE

After years of being bullied about her appearance and struggling to lose weight naturally, Gabourey Sidibe underwent laproscopic bariatric surgery last May, as she reveals in her first memoirThis Is Just My Face excerpted exclusively in the new issue of PEOPLE.

PEOPLE caught up with the Oscar-nominated star, 33, who opened up about her decision to go under the knife after she and her brother Ahmed, 34, were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

How did you decide to get weight-loss surgery?

I just didn’t want to worry. I truly didn’t want to worry about all the effects that go along with diabetes. I genuinely [would] worry all the time about losing my toes.

What angers me about what people say about my body is that they assume that they care about my health more than I do. And that is impossible. You don’t care. You only care that you have a voice, and you think your voice gets to say something about me. But I care more than anybody really knows. Of course I care. It’s been my body my whole life, and I didn’t want to be afraid anymore. And I’ve been feeling like that for some time.

Why now?

I took a long time to do [the surgery] because I really was trying [to lose weight]. I outlived my first trainer! He died of cancer. He was so great. I lost a ton of weight with him, then I didn’t; I really, really tried — I gave a valiant try. So I’m glad that I finally realized that the surgery wasn’t the easy way out. I wasn’t cheating by getting it done. I wouldn’t have been able to lose as much as I’ve lost without [the surgery]. I spent years trying to lose this much weight, and I didn’t do it. I wish I’d done it sooner.

I was off between March and July, and I went in, and I had the surgery a month and two days after the first meeting. It was just about time. It lined up for me.

How has life changed since you got the procedure?

I still obsess about eating, and I obsess about weight, and I obsess about my body just as much as I did before. I just trust more. Even though I obsess about everything, and I’m scared, and I’m nervous I’m talking about it — it terrifies me. I still am remembering to have faith over fear because my decision is my decision, and it really only affects me.

For a while I would get on the scale literally five to six times a day because your weight changes throughout the day; just because I’m obsessive about it. Then I just, I literally just figured out how to not do that anymore, how to weigh myself once every two weeks or whatever.

F:PHOTOReady RoomActionsInsert Request47221#Eric Ogden637531-2_ext copy.jpg
Gabourey Sidibe. Eric Ogden

What’s your diet and workout regimen like today?

For the first 17 days or so [after surgery], you literally cannot have food; it’s all liquid. So I wasn’t even hungry, and I’d write about like my low-ass point, I was so depressed. But now, I eat about five times a day — I use meal plans that are really, really good, especially for when I’m busy. I cook a lot more. I talk to my nutritionist a lot. I just had an appointment with her on my laptop two days ago. We keep in touch. I tell her all the things I’m worry about. I have all these apps to help me keep a food diary.

48th NAACP Image Awards - Arrivals
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

I work out with my trainer three to four days a week. If I’m not working out with a trainer, I get up, and I go swim. I live in a pretty nice building in Chicago [while filming Empire] with an indoor pool, and I’m such a nerd: I have a waterproof swim MP3 player that’s filled with all of the songs from the Hamilton soundtrack and the Hamilton Mixtape. So I have a protein shake, I just go down, and I swim for 20 laps, I come back upstairs, I have breakfast, later in the day, I see my trainer for an hour.

I’m as active as I can be, which is actually quite a lot. I have an Apple Watch that tracks me all the time. I have a tricycle at my house in L.A.; I also have a tricycle on set in Chicago. During my lunch break, I ride my tricycle around the block or I’ll ride it around set. I stay as active as possible. I’m stronger, and I’m able to move more, and I’m not worried about losing my f—ing toes anymore. That’s my life now.

Paul Zimmerman/Getty

Your weight, your size — they’ve always been something that you’ve thought about. What’s your goal now? Will that always be something that’s on your mind?

I mean, yeah, I have to eat every day. And I still really, really, really love cake. I do! It’s amazing! And I’ll forever, as long as I’m an actor, I’ll have to deal with craft service tables. I have everything in check. I know better, so I do better. As opposed to knowing better but wishing I could do better. I actually can. There’s no reason why I can’t now.

In terms of goals: I have a goal right now, and I’m almost there. And then once I’ve got it, I’ll set another goal — I’m just going to do it goal-by-goal. I’m being very careful about who I share the goal with. I truly just wrote this book for me. And it’s so wonderful that people love it and that people can see themselves and that people are getting something from it. But I wrote it for me. The chapter about surgery is still super-personal. My starting weight and my goal weight, they’re personal, so I’ll keep them to myself because it’s really not for everybody, and the weight I was, the goal weight, the size I wear, all that stuff — it’s got to stay with me because if too many people are involved, I’ll shut down, and I won’t get anything done.

Have you changed how you dress after the surgery?

I refuse to buy clothes that are a different size. It’s almost insane.

Today, I have to go to work early because I have to do a fitting. They fit me for every episode now because I keep shrinking out of the clothes. But when I buy clothes and when I wear clothes, I still wear the same stuff. If I’m swimming in it, that’s fine. A lot of it for a while was an optical illusion because I didn’t want people to realize that I was losing weight before I was ready.

You talk a lot about social media: Instagram comments, tweets — people not saying the nicest things, or making it seem like they care about your health. What’s your response to them and all the people who have said hurtful things to you over the years?

I’m not one of those people like, “My haters are my congratulaters.” No, no, no. You just don’t exist! You have an opinion, but you’re saying that I’m fat because what? Because I don’t have a mirror? Because I don’t know? You think I’m in the dark about this? And you think I’ve not heard worse than this since Kindergarten? You’re unoriginal.

Grab Cut Insert Cut Grab Cut Insert Cut F:PHOTOMediaFactory ActionsRequests DropBox29215#Lionsgate1_300dpi.jpg
Anne Marie Fox

You write in the book about being included in People‘s World’s Most Beautiful issue after you broke out in Precious. How did that feel at the time?

It was really dope! But also, like, I’m not so narcissistic that I don’t know that I wouldn’t have ended up on that list if I weren’t an actress. And to be fair, nobody else would because it’s all a bunch of actors and musicians and stuff. But to be fair, if I were like a really, really talented writer, I wouldn’t be on that list. I know that like there’s some portion of fame and what I do for a living, and that was my first film, that put me on the list more than what my face looks like, more than what my body looks like.

It’s kind of sad, but I’ll never quite be convinced that anybody that really is outside of my tribe thinks I’m beautiful. Not because I don’t think I’m beautiful — because I do. I’m so beautiful, because I look like my mom, and I look like my dad, and they’re beautiful. So the mask just is there for me to be beautiful. Other than my very obvious beautiful f—ing features, like my cheekbones, my skin-tone? Get out of here. Gorgeous!

My entire life, I have been conditioned to believe that I was ugly, from everybody outside of my tribe — from people that are inside of my tribe, at that. I think the People magazine list came out when I was 26. It’s really, really hard to live 26 years being told that everything, physically, about you is wrong. It’s really, really hard to tear that down. It’s actually really hard to tear that down with 9 years of an acting career, at that. I said something in some interview, like, “Yeah, I’m beautiful, but I’m not convinced that you’re convinced of that.” Like, it’s great that you say that, but I can’t be convinced that you really believe that; for all I know, you just feel like you need to say that to me. You really don’t. Because I got it. I already know. My beauty is like my own secret in this way.

F:PHOTOReady RoomActionsInsert Request47221#Eric Ogden637585 copy.jpg
Eric Ogden

But don’t you think it’s important that different body types are celebrated and given exposure?

Definitely; I really, really appreciate people with different bodies, of different skin tones, of different nations, religions — I appreciate the light that they get, especially the beauty spotlight that they get. Recently, during Fashion Week, there were models in wheelchairs. I think everyone is beautiful. But the media kind of doesn’t. I think that the media is like, “We’ll think that that person’s beautiful if you want us to.” But, like, universally, we’re on the outskirts of beauty; like the fringe beauty. But I see beauty in everyone and everything.

Gabourey Sidibe
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

What makes you feel confident?

High heels. Feeling tall makes me feel confident. My hair, depending on how it’s done, can make me feel confident. Allowing myself to feel smart makes me feel confident. My confidence, I can’t set it and forget it — I didn’t find confidence one day and I was fine forever: I have to put it on as much as much as I have to put on lipstick. I have to go through this mantra of who I am and my value, and all of that makes me feel confident. My friends, my humor, all of that makes me feel confident. And I have to keep remembering it to stay confident.

You end the chapter about your weight-loss surgery with this line that really struck me: “My beauty doesn’t come from a mirror. Never has, never will.” Where does your beauty come from?

It comes from knowing who my parents are. My mom’s a really talented, really smart woman, and she’s really fun, and she knows who she is. And my dad is from the crux of civilization, and my dad has beautiful dark skin, and he’s a really smart man, a really talented dude who didn’t pursue it because it was better for him to go to work in something that’s not artistic, to provide for his family. I just think of how I’m a mixture of two of those. I’m African-American: That in itself means that I’m filled with magic. There’s nothing ugly about me. Anyone trying to convince me that I am — and it’s usually me — is wasting her time.

  • For more on Gabourey Sidibe and exclusive excerpt from her memoir This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere now.

How do you feel about your body now, after the surgery and the weight loss?

I think I saw my body as being outside of myself; it was like an enemy, beside me not in me. And now I’ve won. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time being mad at it. Because if I’d started treating it better sooner, I wouldn’t have spent so many years hating myself, I wouldn’t have allowed that negative energy to be around me. Life is really, truly all about choices and decisions. I wish I’d made the choice to love my body sooner. But I finally have.

Related Articles