Let me paint the scene. It’s October 2019. I’m on a deserted beach in St Lucia, on a work trip with other influencers. It’s a balmy 38C and I’m wearing a duo-toned glitter bikini underneath a yellow beach skirt. In a moment of sheer spontaneity, I rip off the skirt and run into the sea. To most people, this would be an everyday response to hitting the beach, but for me it was an act of emancipation; a decision, made in the moment, that I would never let the opinions of others hold power over my body and my self-esteem. It was an attempt to stick two fingers up at “bikini body” culture – the idea that in order to wear a bikini, or to feel confident at the beach, you need to present as super slim. Here I was in this fat body – in a bikini nonetheless – having fun, feeling free, unapologetically me. It felt exhilarating.
It had taken many years to get to this point. Until the age of eight or nine, I had been a happy, active child. I was a bit taller and bigger than other kids, sure, but it had mostly been a non-issue for me, until I started to be made aware of my weight by my dad. He would frequently snatch away my plate in the middle of a meal and comment on how much bigger my arms and legs were getting.
I started developing a complex about my body and would often kick up a fuss if I were made to wear anything sleeveless. As a nine year old, I began to fixate on the parts of my body I felt weren’t up to scratch. I was hurt and confused by his rejection. I began to place myself and my chubby body at the centre of the blame.
This mindset worsened at secondary school, when the physical and verbal bullying began. The bullies focussed on my weight and the shade of my skin. For five years I was beaten, strangled, hit repeatedly and constantly told that I wouldn’t amount to anything, because of my physical appearance. Three years into the bullying, I decided to open up to my parents about the abuse, and was subsequently told that “had I lost weight, I wouldn’t be the victim” – that the fault lay with me. It was at that moment I internalised self-hate towards my body. I thought: “I deserve to be bullied and treated unfairly, because of my weight.”
I developed depression at 14, and would go on to attend a children’s group therapy session once a week a few years later. I was introverted, I lived inside my head for much of the time, which made the bullying and isolation worse at school. I was put on a WeightWatchers programme by my mum and our local GP, which involved sticking to a daily limit of 800 calories. If I felt I had eaten over that limit, I would throw up. I followed the diet plan at home and at school, routinely pouring out exact amounts of cereal, avoiding iced bun desserts in the canteen. Because I thought I was to blame for the bullying, for feeling terrible in my body, I saw the programme as a remedy that could “fix” me. It became difficult to endure physically. I restricted myself to a tiny calorie intake. But I thought: “Beauty is pain.”
At the time, I didn’t acknowledge the behaviour as an eating disorder, because that was something I assumed only happened to super-slim white women. Those were the images I saw on TV chat shows, in magazine articles and on social media platforms. Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, according to the eating disorder charity Beat. Some of them are fat. But when was the last time you saw conversations about eating disorders that focussed on fat people, or men, or black people?
Throughout this period, my weight loss was celebrated. Even when I started to acknowledge that what I was doing wasn’t healthy, my doctor told me that the extreme starvation, the throwing up after the meals, the excessive calorie counting, the odd way I picked at my food while eating “didn’t sound like an eating disorder”. I was doing what was best for my body, they thought. When you’re plus-size, people think that whatever your body is going through in an attempt to lose weight must be better, by default, than what it was going through before.
I found the advice puzzling, but assumed the doctor knew best and continued with the same habits. (Research has shown that medical professionals often miss eating disorders in overweight teens, because of inherent anti-fat biases.) As I got older, my mental health declined at an alarming rate and I became a recluse. I had no social life. I would hardly leave my room. I lived my life online. I watched TV, which didn’t help. Anytime I switched on the television, I saw videos of scantily clad, light-skinned, slim women in hip-hop videos; wholesome, beautiful, slim white girls in TV sitcoms; sexy, white athletic women trying to save the world in action films. I’d watch kids’ TV and rarely were there chubby kids featured on the shows. Even in cartoons, the only plus-sized characters I’d watch would be the villain (Ursula, from The Little Mermaid) or portrayed as stupid and dim-witted (various characters from The Simpsons and Family Guy). Speaking to my family about the issues I was facing was a big no-no. The topic of mental health was still seen as taboo within a lot of African households.
I used books, video games, movies and television as a way to disassociate from my everyday life, a form of escapism. But I quickly began to realise that, even in these alternative universes, there was still a huge issue with underrepresentation not only of bigger bodies but of black female bodies, too. Whenever I turned on the TV I was met with black characters depicted as stereotypical caricatures based on historical racist tropes. On one side of the spectrum we would see black, fat female characters depicted as “Mammys”, a term based on the character Mammy played by Hattie McDaniel in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Mammy was a slave and a maternal figure who was devoted to her white mistress. She was domineering, bossy, fiercely loyal to her “masters” and entirely too comfortable within her subservient role. Within the entertainment industry, we started to see roles carved out for fat black women that followed this same model: maternal, subservient, “jolly”, passive.
But we were also depicted as hypersexual, aggressive, dominant characters, a trope often associated with the pornographic “BBW” (Big Beautiful Women) category, in which black, plus-size women are represented in this way.
Seeing these depictions made me feel as if we as black, fat women didn’t have or deserve a space where we could be treated as “normal”, fully-fledged human beings capable of being successful, attractive, desired and mentally sound. It triggered an identity crisis. I didn’t know how to exist being me. I thought I would somehow need to fit into one of the two identities in order to truly be seen and acknowledged.
A few years ago, as I was approaching my 22nd birthday, I decided to go on holiday to Barcelona, alone. As a child, I’d always avoided the beach, insecure about the prospect of wearing little clothing. But I decided that, for my birthday, I would put on a bikini and face my fears.
I challenged myself to lose up to 4st before the trip and, in doing so, I reverted back to those dangerous eating habits: throwing up after eating; ingesting appetite- suppressant pills and laxatives; week-long fasts. In the end, I lost close to 4st. I went to Barcelona thinking of my dangerous lack of eating as a success, an example of what I could achieve if I applied discipline to my life.
Three days into the trip, I stood in the bathroom in my bikini looking at my new body, horrified at myself. My mental health was a shambles and I started to pick apart my body piece by piece. Even though I’d lost a significant amount of weight, my mind was looking for other ways in which I could improve, tighten up. I thought: “Who am I doing this for? Why had I put my body through such intense trauma?”
Losing weight had not made me feel good about myself or more confident as a person. At that point I realised that it wasn’t my body that was the problem, it was my state of mind that was. I’d spent an extraordinary amount of time abusing, harming, starving and apologising for my body, instead of treating it with love and care. And yet, throughout all of this, it was still working hard to keep me alive.
Once I arrived back in the UK, I decided to take steps to help me fall in love with myself. I started by curating my Instagram feed: I unfollowed all of the accounts that made me feel undesirable or that triggered a sense of low self-worth in me. Instead, I followed accounts that sparked joy. I discovered the body-positivity movement on Tumblr, a movement that had stemmed from the fat-acceptance community, which at the time was made of predominantly plus-size black women and women of colour.
Here was a place I could be authentically me without feeling ashamed of my body or how big I was. For the first time in my life, I felt accepted by a community. Seeing pages of plus-size black women who looked like me on social media being unapologetic, living their best lives, gave me the inspiration I needed to start my own journey. The movement became a kind of utopia, a place in which to love our bodies loudly, celebrate each other, lift each other up.
Eventually, the movement changed. As the body- positivity movement began to gain popularity, it began to implant a standard of beauty that ignored the bodies that helped create it. Spokesmodels representing the movement looked nothing like those within it. It began to celebrate bodies that were predominantly white, chubby at best, aesthetically beautiful. Black bodies, larger fat bodies and disabled bodies were suddenly forgotten. A whole new beauty standard was born.
Many of us didn’t really feel as if we belonged anymore. I started noting that I would compare myself to the influencers tipped as the “faces” of body positivity, and wondered why brands only really offered opportunities to white, chubby content creators instead of being more diverse. I thought: “If I had cheekbones and fat in the right areas, would I be considered more attractive?”
What we now had was a movement that celebrated aesthetically curvy, privileged bodies instead of bodies like my own, which ensures that the opinions, thoughts and perspectives of larger black women and women of colour are erased. Slowly, along with others, we began to voice our opinions through other communities, such as the fat-acceptance movement, which places importance on confidence, on inviting self-love into your larger body.
It has taken me 16 years to develop a healthy relationship with my body. I have stopped using it as a punch bag. I have learned that, even though I am happy with the way I look, it is not an aesthetic that is considered “attractive” by most people, especially when it comes to dating. But why should I have to change myself physically for another person? It is society that needs to change its narrow-minded idea of what beauty is.
Despite the marginalisation of black bodies by the media, we are continuing to make our voices heard and we are beginning to see ourselves represented in pop culture, on TV, in society. We have icons such as Lizzo, a dominant force within not just the body-positive community but the music industry, too – a shining example of what we can do as plus-size black women if we are given the opportunity to do so. We can be successful in our fields. We are capable of having fulfilling, rich lives.
If I could write a letter to my 13-year-old self, I’d say: “Your dark skin, your afro hair, your strong legs and your soft body are all things to love and cherish.”
We are beautiful, we are worthy. It’s about time we are given a seat at the table.
Fattily Ever After: A Fat, Black Girl’s Guide to Living Life Unapologetically, by Stephanie Yeboah, is published by Hardie Grant on 3 September at £12.99. Buy a copy for £11.30 at guardianbookshop.com
Orange dress by Pretty Little Thing; blue dress by ASOS Curve; trainers by Converse; earrings by Khula; nails by Joanna Newbold at Terri Manduca using Elegant Touch; hair and makeup by Neusa Neves at Terri Manduca using Makeup by Benefit