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.
Dexter Mayfield may be known today for his breathtaking moves featured in the performances of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Jennifer Lopez. But before the Dallas, Texas, native was celebrated for his body and ability, he recalls a constant need to overcome the perception that people had of him as a "fat, Black, queer" man.
Mayfield’s journey with body image began at just 7 years old, when he was first exposed to the ways in which his body might be used to classify his talents in a youth football league.
“It was categorized by age but then secondarily it was by size. When I turned 7, I had to go into a category called younger but heavier. So I would have to go to the next team automatically because my weight was not deemed appropriate for my age," Mayfield, 36, explains. "That's when I started to understand that my body wasn't like everybody else's and that it wasn't necessarily up to standard for everybody else. And I think that's the first time I kind of encountered a little bit of fatphobia.”
The judgment that he faced as a result of his figure continued from there, as he recalls being “a bigger kid with a bigger booty and bigger thighs” throughout his school years. Although it was something that he was reminded of consistently, he tried not to fixate on it himself.
"I never really focused too much attention on it because it was already being focused on outside of my control," he says. "There was this expectation of what bigger bodies technically can do, will do or won't do."
Still, Mayfield inevitably internalized the criticism, finding that he felt more comfortable turning away from any environment where he might be judged by his body. Ultimately, that led him to disengage from physical activity altogether. “Early on in my 20s, I was like, 'Hey, you haven't been really active lately. You're starting to feel it,’” he recalls thinking to himself.
It was then that he decided to explore his passion for dance without any expectation of where it might lead.
"I honestly went to dance as a means of fitness," he says. "I wanted to find a form of fitness that I'd enjoy without having to really think about how my body applied to fitness.”
Mayfield worried about the scrutiny that he might be subjected to in a formal dance setting, knowing that there was a body standard he’d be held to. Instead, he went to a dance class at a gym, calling it a “basic place to start.” His dancing ability as soon as he entered the room, however, was anything but basic.
“People were coming up to me and they're like, so when is your class? And I was like, this is the first time I've been here," he says, recalling gym-goers who mistook him for the instructor. "I figured maybe this was a space for me."
Validation from fellow dancers and teachers led Mayfield to a number of local dance studios before he decided to give his skill a real shot. “I started to realize, if I'm doing well in these dance classes, why is this not an option I've ever thought of as far as a career goes?” he recalls thinking.
The process of turning his passion into a profession would quickly become a difficult one, as Mayfield was reminded of the stereotypes at play.
“Once I moved to Los Angeles, that's again where reality sets in,” he recalls. “Being a fat Black queer performer in the industry, almost every odd is against you. I missed out on so many opportunities because I was too gay or I wasn't masculine enough or on the flip side, I had lost a lot of weight just from the sheer training schedule and work schedule that I had had, and I was booking nothing because I had kind of an in-between body, so they were like, well, we can't use you at all.”
Mayfield was again surrounded by people trying to put him into a box, judging his capabilities by his appearance or sexuality. He even recalls being told not to "femme out" at auditions because he was less likely to book jobs. When he went against this guidance, however, is when he was given the opportunity to pave the way for more inclusive representation by becoming that representation himself.
"I was just determined at that point to be the example and to make sure that no one in my position ever felt the way I had again as a younger person," he says. "There were so many times where I was so frustrated and I was just so upset that it wasn't happening on my timing that I really leaned into this perspective of there has to be opportunities for everyone, including me."
Body positivity and size inclusivity was a prevalent conversation for women at the time, which allowed Mayfield to consider how he might insert himself as a queer man. And although he hadn’t found many opportunities to do so with dance, he landed a spot in a runway show for the men’s underwear company Marco Marco during L.A. Fashion Week in 2015 — a life-altering experience that subjected him to the “ugly side of body-shaming” before pushing him toward true body acceptance.
"Something changed in me that I didn't think that I was even capable of," he says of his runway experience. "That's when I started to really begin a conscious journey with my body and loving myself and understanding that this body deserves to occupy this space, in this time and in this part of the industry, and it's not worth any more or less than anybody else. I deserve to be here along with everybody else who has a passion."
Mayfield goes on to explain how he had to determine whether he truly loved his body or felt it was something he had to "deal with" because of the emphasis that society had placed on his size. Through fashion and dance, he says, he learned to truly love it.
"Fashion is literally a part of my love language now, I guess you could say," he explains. "Obviously the five love languages, but then mine extends to dance and fashion because it's really helped me love myself and love up on who I am as an individual."
He's now had the opportunity to share this love with not only his online community but also the world through his collaborations with fashion brands and his work onscreen, where he proudly represents all intersections of his identity as a Black fat queer man.
"It's working. What I'm trying to do or what I've been focused on doing is working," he says, noting the presence of other men in the space, especially through brands like Marco Marco and SavagexFenty. "It's just such a beautiful thing to see someone who has worked so hard, strive so hard for what they want to do and to see them occupy and live and execute and perform and slay the spaces that they're in. That's really what warms my heart and really keeps me inspired to keep going on a daily basis."
He adds, "You just have to be the example that you needed when you were younger."