He figures is Yahoo Life’s body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring people as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
As a fat queer black girl growing up in South Chicago and establishing a career in New York, Sesali Bowen no longer afraid of the stigma that people may have against her.
The author of Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trapped Feminist is known to talk about her body when she started addressing a culture of fatphobia and her own experiences on Facebook, using the platform to expose the misconceptions people have about tall women .
“I think people who suffer from grossophobia are supposed to be quiet about it. Like we’re expected to have nothing to say back,” she told Yahoo Life. “It was literally just me screaming into the void – or actually screaming at very specific people – about the things that were being said about how I understand my body was seen by other people. And people never heard that before because people really feel entitled to be fatphobic.”
For Bowen, being fat and understanding her fatness has been a constant, as she grew up “in a house full of fat women” in Chicago. However, what has evolved for her throughout her life is how she understands fatphobia in others and how she engages with it. The first step to this was realizing that she didn’t have to subscribe to the negative thoughts other family members had about living in a larger body.
“It wasn’t a body-positive home. A lot of them had a lot of negative thoughts about their bodies. Thoughts that for a long time I thought I needed to internalize, especially around a relationship with the body. ‘body image and food,’ she says. “But I wasn’t the fat girl who hesitated or even held herself back from having certain experiences.”
She describes herself as having an inherent confidence that she’s always possessed — although society only talks about confidence “in regards to how you look,” she says. “I think I’m generally a more confident person.”
Still, she faced instances of fatphobia, judgment, and bullying as a fat person that would cause her to examine the nuances of it. Some of her earliest memories of understanding the impact of fatphobia on society and her role within it came in middle school, when people started exploring romantic relationships.
“As people go through puberty and develop their crushes and all those things, I started to get a sense of the value of what it meant to be wanted or not wanted, the kind of social capital that came with it” , she explains. “I understood that there is a certain social capital attached to desirability and the way fatphobia works is that it inherently tries to view fat people as less valuable. And that’s why we have so many stereotypes about fat people being lazy or delusional, all these negative tropes that come up when we start talking about fat people, and I think that all of that contributes to this idea that because they’re fat, they’re less desirable.
Bowen’s book explores the ways this thought alone contributes to the discrimination fat people face when it comes to accessing relationships, careers, wealth and joy, noting that it becomes even more complex when it is also associated with racial and sexual identities. “We expect them to have a less enlightened life,” she says of people with larger bodies. She decided to use her understanding of fatphobia to determine ways to circumvent this perception. Above all, she chose to assert her identity as a fat person.
“I really walked through that era of personal storytelling and was able to get my foot in the door that way. So the kind of writing that I do requires a certain level of visibility and exposure that I don’t think I could have participated in if I wasn’t ready to say, ‘Okay, let’s go, no pun intended, the elephant in the room,” Bowen says. “‘I’m fat'”
Her relationship with her fatness in the public sphere would always be complicated, even with her “Bad Fat Black Girl” nickname, as she found herself mollifying 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 good health.
“When I was younger, in my early twenties, it was like, Well, I don’t have any of those problems. I’ve never had high blood pressure, my blood sugar is fine. I can show that I have this good state of health and therefore I have the right to exist here. But I think now that has changed, why do we only require obese people to be healthy?” she recalled. “I think there is this requirement that obese people be healthy that we don’t impose to no one else. And that’s why I really had to admit that I was ableist. And also that fat people who aren’t healthy shouldn’t be called whales and elephants in their pictures either.”
She continued to challenge the stigma surrounding obesity by opening up about her experience with a eating disorder, changing the conversation about fat and the perception that many have of fat bodies. Ultimately, it encouraged her to address the damage people everywhere face when they’re not allowed to “live comfortably in their bodies” – something she says may have even become more difficult with the perceived control we have over our appearance.
“We live in a culture that teaches us that your body is this thing that’s like Play-Doh, and you can sit there every day and tweak this and tweak that, and make it the thing you want. be, the thing it should be,” she explains. “And that’s not really how our bodies work.”
And despite societal decline and how insidious fatphobia has become among close family, friends and internet trolls, Bowen’s acceptance and authenticity about his body allows him to live without the repercussions of self-hatred.
“I’ve been talking about my body on the internet for over a decade at this point. And in the best possible way, I now have a strong sense of the lack of control I have over my body,” she says. “While we have lots 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 we have. ‘getting wrinkles or preventing us from having gray hair. There are just things that are going to happen with our bodies over time that are going to happen and I really reveled in that and felt a lot of acceptance around of that.
More importantly, Bowen’s approach to understanding his body and talking about it with others allowed him to take control of the narrative surrounding his figure, making it the context of his story and not the story itself.
“People have to make a lot of very difficult decisions every day about their bodies just to exist. And that includes me, that includes you, that includes everyone,” she says. “I’m here. I’m fat. I’m okay with that. Let me tell you how I feel about this and how I expect you to discuss it. And then let’s move on.”
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