Why 'Bad Fat Black Girl' creator Sesali Bowen won't be silent about fatphobia

·7 min read
How Sesali Bowen flipped the script on fatphobia. (Photo: Toni Smalls; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
How Sesali Bowen flipped the script on fatphobia. (Photo: Toni Smalls; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

As a queer fat Black girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago and establishing a career in New York, Sesali Bowen is no longer afraid of what stigmas people may hold against her.

The author of Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes From a Trap Feminist is known best for talking about her body as she started addressing a culture of fatphobia and her own experiences with it on Facebook, using the platform to denounce the misconceptions people hold against plus-size women.

"I do think that people who experience fatphobia are expected to be silent about it. Like we're expected to not have anything to say back," she tells Yahoo Life. "It was literally just me kind of yelling into the void — or actually yelling back at very specific people — about the things that were being said about how I understand my body was being viewed by other people. And people hadn't heard that before because people really feel entitled to their right to be fatphobic."

For Bowen, being fat and understanding her fatness has been a constant, as she grew up "in a household full of fat women" in Chicago. The thing that's evolved for her throughout her lifetime, however, is how she understands the fatphobia of others and how she engages with it. The first step to this was realizing as a child that she didn't have to subscribe to the negative thoughts that other family members had about living in a bigger body.

"It wasn't a body-positive household. A lot of them had a lot of negative thoughts about their bodies. Thoughts that for a long time I thought I was expected to internalize, especially around a relationship with body image and food," she says. "But I was not the fat girl that shied away or even stopped myself from having certain experiences."

She describes herself as having an inherent confidence that she's always possessed — although society only talks about confidence "as it pertains to what you look like," she says. "I think I’m just generally a more self-assured type of person."

Still, she faced instances of fatphobia, judgment and harassment as a fat person that would lead her to examine the nuances of it. Some of her earliest memories of understanding how fatphobia impacted society, and her role within it, came during middle school when people began to explore romantic relationships.

"As people are going through puberty and developing their crushes and all of those things, I started to gain a perspective on the value of what it meant to be desired or to not be desired, the kind of social capital that came with that," she explains. "I have understood that there is certain social capital attached to desirability and the way fatphobia works in that is that it inherently tries to deem people who are fat as less valuable. And that's why we have so many stereotypes about fat people being lazy or delusional, all of these negative tropes that come up when we start to talk about fat people. And I think that all of that works to contribute to this idea that because they are fat, they are less desirable."

Bowen's book explores the ways in which that thinking alone contributes to the discrimination that fat people face when it comes to accessing relationships, careers, wealth and joy, noting that it becomes even more complex when paired with racial and sexual identities as well. "We expect them to have a less lit life," she says of people in bigger bodies. She made a decision to use her understanding of fatphobia to determine ways to circumvent that perception. First and foremost, she chose to claim her identity as a fat person.

“I really kind of came up through that age of personal narrative and was able to get my foot in the door that way. So the kind of writing I do does require a certain level of visibility and exposure that I don't think I would have been able to participate in if I wasn't willing to say, ‘Alright, y'all let's address, no pun intended, the elephant in the room,'" Bowen says. "'I'm fat.'"

Her relationship with her fatness in the public sphere would still be complicated, even with her moniker of "Bad Fat Black Girl," as she found herself appeasing critics by distancing herself from certain assumptions about fat people. She reflects on a time when she felt that her ability to live publicly as a plus-size woman could be justified by the fact that she had a clean bill of health.

"When I was younger, in my early 20s, it was like, well, I don't have any of those problems. I've never had high blood pressure, my blood sugar levels are fine. I can show that I have this clean bill of health and so I have a right to exist here. But I think now how that's changed is, why do we demand health only from fat people?" she recalls. "I think that there's this demand that fat people be healthy that we don't put on anybody else. And that's why I really had to acknowledge that I was ableist. And also that fat people who are unhealthy also shouldn't be called whales and elephants under their pictures either."

She's continued to oppose stigmas surrounding fatness by opening up about her experience with an eating disorder, further evolving the conversation about fatness and the perception that many have about fat bodies. Ultimately, it's encouraged her to address the damage that people everywhere face when they're not allowed to "live comfortably in their body" — something that she says has maybe even become harder with the perceived control that we have over our appearance.

"We live in a culture that teaches us that your body is this thing that is like Play-Doh, and you can sit there every day and like tweak this and tweak that, and make it be the thing you want it to be, the thing it should be," she explains. "And that actually is not how our bodies work."

And despite the pushback from society and how insidious fatphobia has become among close family, friends and internet trolls, Bowen's acceptance and authenticity when it comes to her body allows her to live without the repercussions that come from hating herself.

"I've been talking about my body on the internet for over a decade at this point. And in the best way possible, I now have a strong sense of the lack of control I have over my body," she says. "While we have a lot of options in terms of things we can do to our bodies, we don't have as much control over them as we like to think that we do. If that was the case, we would stop ourselves from getting wrinkles or stop ourselves from getting gray hair. There are just things that are just going to happen with our bodies over time that are going to happen and I've been really reveling in that and experiencing a lot of acceptance around that."

Most importantly, the approach that Bowen has to understanding her body and speaking about it with others has allowed her to take control over the narrative surrounding her figure, making it the context to her story and not the story itself.

"People have to make a lot of really hard decisions about their bodies every single day just to exist. And that includes me, that includes you, that includes everybody," she says. "I'm here. I'm fat. I'm OK with it. Let me tell you how I feel about it and how I expect for you to discuss it. And then let's move right along."

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