Clarkisha Kent’s debut memoir, Fat Off, Fat On, is one of the year’s best books. The author and online icon, who identifies as a fat Black queer woman, uses her experiences with family estrangement, fatphobia, religion, and colorism to paint a picture of how these issues impact people on both personal and systemic levels.
To honor these dynamic intersections, Sweet July invited Kent and two other powerful women for a layered conversation touching on the many themes of Kent’s book. The panel includes Gabrielle Union, an actress, author, and activist, who saw Kent on Twitter years ago and was drawn to her “well-crafted shade.” We also invited Stephanie Yeboah, a content creator from the UK and author of Fattily Ever After, a memoir about her experiences as a dark-skinned plus-sized woman.
We used Fat Off, Fat On as a starting point to discuss how society sets out to demonize Black women’s bodies. With our different sets of traumas and experiences, we each came to talk, to relate, and to heal.
On Eating Disorders:
NYLAH (moderator): Clarkisha wrote about the assumption that fat or larger people don’t struggle with eating disorders. There’s almost this idea that if you’re fat or what someone might consider overweight, you should have an eating disorder. If a thin person was displaying these behaviors, they would say, “Oh my God, you beautiful little flower. Why are you harming yourself?” But if someone who is a size that they find unacceptable is doing it, they say, “Congratulations, you’re getting your life together.”
“It’s really weird that the face of eating disorders is still slim white women. Fat people can definitely have eating disorders and it angers me when people encourage it or they see it as a good thing.” – Stephanie Yeboah
STEPHANIE: I had a bad eating disorder from the age of about 16 to 23. I was encouraged by my family to continue doing what I was doing because they could see that I was losing weight. But it was starvation. My own aunt was buying weird medications from Russia and bringing them over to the UK and giving them to me not knowing what was in them. she was like, “Oh, Steph, continue taking it. You’re losing weight. You’re doing such a good job.” It took me a long time to realize that I had a disorder.
It’s really weird that the face of eating disorders is still slim white women. Fat people can definitely have eating disorders and it angers me when people encourage it or they see it as a good thing. Because regardless of your weight, if you are eating nothing or having 200 calories a day, that is very detrimental to your metabolism, to your health, to your mental health. For people to look at all of that and still think, well, at least you’re slimmer now…
CLARKISHA: There’s an association with eating disorders and fragile or soft people. Black women aren’t allowed to be fragile or sensitive or anything of that sort. So when one of us speaks up about having eating disorders, their brains start short circuiting because they’re going by stereotypes they’ve assigned to you—strong, impermeable, hard. They think our pain threshold is through the roof, but that’s not the case. That obviously contributes to our erasure when we’re thinking about medicine and medical research.
STEPHANIE: It’s about Blackness and desirability as well. Sometimes, we’re not believed because people say, “In your community, people love curves on your women, so why would you wanna lose weight?” I remember a woman said she didn’t think eating disorders were a thing that existed in the Black community.
On The Intersections Of Colorism And Texturism:
GABRIELLE: My mom’s side of the family is very fair. And my dad’s side is about my skin tone and darker. Then my little cousin bursts on the scene. We call her Deedee, the world calls her Saweetie. Her mom is Filipino. As we’re watching her ascend, the compliments took me right back to being five, six, seven when you’re playing dress up and wanting the same compliments that my cousins got. They were called little, beautiful princesses. Now, we’re both in the spotlight and I’m seeing the differences in the compliments.
Deedee—Saweetie—she graduated with honors from USC, she’s wildly brilliant. To see her be reduced to just her face or the circumstance of her birth is to rob her of so much of her agency. But there was that part of me that was just like, “I wonder what that’s like to be objectified in such a way.”
“Sometimes if you take a step back and you realize how you have been impacted, but also how you might have benefited, it allows you to leave a lot more space for people to tell their truth and not feel so triggered by it.” – Gabrielle Union
The more we try to pretend like [colorism] is not happening, we all will continue to lose.
I’m curious when we can ask different questions or be okay and prepared for different responses that we don’t try to commandeer and control. Sometimes if you take a step back and you realize how you have been impacted, but also how you might have benefited, it allows you to leave a lot more space for people to tell their truth and not feel so triggered by it.
NYLAH: I find that another one of the things that our community is most unwilling to face is texturism. Clarkisha wrote, “Sometimes we use the ever-changing state of our versatile hair to absorb the heavier blows of fatphobia fueled by anti-Blackness.”
STEPHANIE: When I was younger, my mom loved the film Coming to America and specifically the scene with the Soul Glo, the wet look. She didn’t know how to do Jheri curls, but she did it on me when I was seven anyway because she wanted to try it out. Not only did my hair straighten, but all of my hair fell out. That was the moment when I hated straight hair. I had long, thick hair. For her to do that to me without asking me, and then having all of my hair fall out, it reinforced how much I loved my Afro hair.
When I went to Ghana, I had to shave off all of my hair to go to school because in Ghana they didn’t like the girls having long Afro hair. You could either relax it or have it in braids or shave it all off because they assumed natural hair to be unkempt. And because a lot of the schools in Ghana were run by Europeans and British, because it’s a former colonized country, those were the rules that were coming through from the UK via these British-owned schools in Ghana. So from a very young age, we were taught to hate our Afro hair.
NYLAH: I credit my mother to my eating disorder because she instilled in me that the worst thing that I could be was fat, because she was. Clarkisha, how do you get rid of those voices from your mother that said similar things?
CLARKISHA: In the words of Bruce from the book, “You gotta find a new voice.” I just had to replace mine. I couldn’t necessarily kill it because when that damage is done to you in your formative years, it’s hard. Those were the building blocks of your existence. It’s always going to be very hard. I wouldn’t say impossible. It’s always going to be hard to finally go against those big bosses that are your parents and tell them to shut the fuck up.
My best therapist was Dr. Siddiq, a dark-skinned Pakistani woman. We were both honest with each other about the things that were said to us growing up and the violence of those things. Therapy helps. I wish it was free. Universal healthcare needs to happen because everybody needs to step in that office at least once to really see the extent of the damage.
NYLAH: In the book, Clarkisha talks about not having sex until she was 24 and how religion, anti-Blackness, and fatphobia played into that. She wrote, “Every separate demon took turns trying to explain to me why I should be denied love, someone else’s love and someone else’s touch.” That immediately took me to how so many use dating and love as an incentive for why you should lose weight.
STEPHANIE: l lost my virginity when I was 24. But for me, sex and dating have always been unfortunately linked with lack of self-worth, trauma, removal of consent, those kinds of things. I almost felt I had to contort myself into a certain body shape in order to be seen as attractive or dateable. I think with my experiences, most of the guys that I’ve dated have told me directly that my fatness is a reason why they find me unattractive. A few years ago, I wrote an article about a date that I went on with a guy who I found out later on had been paid to sleep with me.
It was this thing called Pull a Pig where friends would dare others or bet their friends to sleep with a fat girl. And I found out that this guy that I’d actually really liked had been paid to go on a date with me. That really took a toll on my self-esteem. Unfortunately it’s been the case where a lot of the time I almost feel I have to force myself to be put in certain positions or experiences because I’m made to feel, “Well if you don’t do this act or if you don’t sleep with this person, Steph, it’s never gonna happen for you because every time you go on a date, you are constantly being told that your weight is the reason why you are undesirable.”
Luckily, I’m happily in a relationship now. Even that’s a bit weird because I’m being loved very loudly and I don’t know how to respond to it. It’s very strange for me still, being liked loudly because I’m often seen as the secret, you know? It’s difficult to accept genuine love in a relationship being plus-sized because there’s always [the question], “Is there a catch?”
“Being loved loudly, loved well, and loved in the most healthy, beautiful way—that’s the dream.” – Gabrielle Union
GABRIELLE: Both sides of my family [are religious] and they have very clear ideas about what kind of woman is deserving of a big, open, beautiful, mutually exclusive and loving relationship. That woman allows herself to be shaped into whatever creation that particular man or men decide is worthy enough. Good women apparently are also trauma mules that will just stick it out no matter how low a man takes you. That is a sign that if you stick it out, then you’re a real one, then you are worthy of this big love that the world sees.
My sisters and I had a cackle the other day. We were like, “Have any of us had any sort of open, beautiful, big loving relationships that did not involve a healthy dose of trauma? My sister’s 55, I’m 50, my little sister’s 43… not one of us. These conversations are so important because sometimes you think, “I’m the only one that could possibly be happening to, I’m on this island by myself and I’m drowning and nobody is hearing me or seeing me. And even if they are seeing me, they’re like, ‘Well you probably deserve to drown. Because you’re not the right kind of woman who deserves safety and protection.’”
Being loved loudly, loved well, and loved in the most healthy, beautiful way—that’s the dream.
NYLAH: We claw our way out of these cycles. Sometimes online discussions make it seem like you just wake up one day and you decide to break a generational curse. Like you got a little wand and a poofy dress and you go bibbity bop. But every day is a struggle, and it takes these conversations like what you are having with your sisters and the one we’re having right now. It’s work. It is not magic. It is not a spell. It is work.