While watching the Academy Awards on Sunday evening, I was delighted to see that Oprah Winfrey had been selected to win an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. This prestigious award is typically bestowed on a person whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the motion picture industry. Past recent recipients include Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford and Lauren Bacall.
But it’s not the award I want to talk about here. In fact, I’ve already forgotten who else was honored alongside Oprah the other night. No, what I noticed in seeing Oprah tearfully accept her honorary Oscar was how much of a relief it has been not to see her lately. She had so long dominated the mainstream media with apologies to America that it was driving me mad.
Perhaps I should explain.
Even with this latest honor, Oprah found herself once again in a defensive posture, as the press asked “Did she deserve it?” “Why her?” Rather than just be unabashedly proud of her success or appropriately accepting of who she is and what she does, she took up her most characteristic stance: apologizing for being what she is.
It’s one thing for her to express wonder that she has come so incredibly far from an impoverished childhood, filled with neglect and abuse – but why does she feel it necessary to apologize for what she does, what she supports?
This posture goes way back. She felt the need to explain her support for Barack Obama. She felt compelled to defend herself for donating millions of dollars of her own money to create a girls’ school in South Africa as opposed to America, I guess. Never mind that her Angel Network supports a multitude of charitable organizations both here and abroad or that hundreds of American students have received Oprah-funded scholarships to attend college.
But frankly, it was her focus on the issue of her weight that I have found irksome. Oprah has often, over the years, felt the need to apologize to Americans for the heinous crime of having gained weight.
This drama used to unfold before me across the television monitors during my own early morning visits to the gym. I would rev-up the treadmill at 6:15 a.m., and stare incredulously at the TV to behold Oprah Winfrey, millionaire, ashamed that she has gained 20-30-40 pounds, pounds that she had fought so hard to lose. She is heartsick for having disappointed her fans. Notwithstanding the fact that 80 percent of people who lose weight gain it back, she vows to take off the weight. We are invited on the journey as Oprah reclaims not only her skinny jeans, but more importantly her health and America’s respect.
Respect? I used to find myself breathless, and not from exertion. Here was a powerful, amazing woman; a celebrity, magazine founder, and hugely successful businesswoman who transcended abject poverty and racism through education and hard work. She accomplished in ten years what most of us will never hope to achieve in ten lifetimes. Yet she’s afraid she’s lost our respect because she gained some weight?
Perhaps it was because she had made her commitment to take weight off so public that she felt she had let Americans down by putting the weight back on? I’m not sure. Does Oprah’s value lie only in her BMI or the numbers on her scale? Is that all any of us are? I understand the health implications at risk, but why is she accountable to anyone but herself and maybe her physician?
It concerns me, you see, because, like Oprah (and a few million other Americans), I too have some weight to shed, weight that has stubbornly attached itself to me since the birth of my third child. While this is a part of who I am, it is not what defines me, nor should it define Oprah.
Watching her receive her much-deserved Oscar put me back in mind of all of this. Here again she tottered on the edge of apologizing. “It’s unimaginable,” she wept, “that I would be standing before you ...” Unimaginable? By now it’s almost expectable. Is she the only one who doesn’t know that she has made it? Can’t she accept who she is?
But maybe I’m being ungenerous; the answer to these questions is clearly complex. Perhaps all she has achieved within the context of the industry she achieved it in cannot eclipse her humble beginnings. We all fight the demons of our past; even, or especially, the Oprahs of this world.