This Memoir Unpacks What It Means To Be A Fat, Black Woman

Cultural critic Clarkisha Kent's new book asks hard questions about how women like her are supposed to navigate the world.
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photo: Cheyenne Ewulu

Most of us know thee Clarkisha Kent from social media.

Over the years and in 280 characters, the Nigerian-American cultural critic and writer’s Twitter fingers have fiercely and unabashedly called out racism, colourism, fatphobia and basically anyone who refuses to be on the right side of history. Even better? She does it with unmatched sharp humour that can literally eviscerate anyone that tries it. (Who can ever forget the iconic Groupon Peen?)

But in her new memoir, “Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto,” Kent shows us a different side. Yes, she weaves in her much-loved wit on every page. But she tempers it because her little-known origin story of coming from immigrant parents and growing up in the South in a family of dysfunction and abuse isn’t necessarily what jokes are made of. Instead, with each chapter, we see how the intersections of race, class, religion, sexuality, gender and pop culture — for better or worse — have shaped the Clarkisha we see now.

At its core, “Fat Off, Fat On” asks hard questions about how women like her should navigate and fight back against a world — and a family — hell-bent on not loving, respecting and seeing them. Lucky for us, Kent reminds us that it’s more than possible to break the cycle of shame, silence and internalised fatphobia and, most importantly, thrive.

Why was “Fat Off, Fat On” the memoir you wanted to write now?

Honestly, I wanted to write a Black Western first — and I still will one of these days. [Laughs] But, shout out to my agent Claire Draper from Vent Agency, they wanted me to dip my toe into publishing first by writing a memoir. As a Black woman and creator, it made sense to go this route because it would give me a leg up in the industry and get my name out as an author. Yes, I’m young, but I’ve definitely experienced a lot in my life, and it made sense to put it down on paper. Now, am I concerned about putting all my business out there? Absolutely. [Laughs]

But that’s the strength of “Fat Off, Fat On.” You weren’t afraid to show us your business and be honest about it — even when that truth is ugly and contradictory to who you are now.

I went into the writing process knowing it was important to tell the truth, because people be lying in their memoirs, pretending that they always had perfect radical politics. We don’t come out of the womb ‘woke,’ right? And fuck Republicans for trying to Columbus that word. [Laughs] Our environments shape some of our earliest worldviews. I grew up religious and was very conservative. I knew I had to put those parts of myself on display and show you that several versions of myself existed before I got to the Clarkisha I am now. I needed to show the evolution of my politics and how it was a long, long journey.

Kent is the author of "Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto," a memoir that asks hard questions about how women like her should navigate and fight back against the world we live in today.
Feminist Press
Kent is the author of "Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto," a memoir that asks hard questions about how women like her should navigate and fight back against the world we live in today.

As Black people, many of us are raised with a cultural pressure to “not put our business in the streets.” Were you worried about being this open about your family, especially around the abuse?

Definitely, being Nigerian-American, that pressure is even more intense. [Laughs] I came from a secretive, tight-lipped community, but I realised that this silence never benefits the community or protects the harmed people. It’s always about protecting the worst of us, like the pedophile uncle, the predatory pastor or the abusive parents.

I wanted to flip that when writing this book. When it comes to my family, you don’t deserve to be protected because you are a shitty human being, so I am going to spill all the beans. And doing so raises awareness and reminds folks suffering in silence that this type of mistreatment isn’t rare. This is about breaking that cycle of silence and shame. You are not alone, and navigating through it and creating your own path is possible.

Lately, we’ve seen a disturbing uptick in how fatphobia has been weaponized against Black women online. How do you navigate your safety and sanity on social media?

First, NONE of these men would talk to me like that to my face. They only get courage when they get on the internet. But whether they’re talking about me, Lizzo, or whoever, the fatphobia and colourism they spew fall under the umbrella of white supremacy. And white people aren’t the only ones doing that work. You can be the same complexion as me and still be white supremacy’s foot soldier.

My safety comes in knowing that. This is about them and the systems that make them feel inadequate in their own lives. That’s your business, not mine. Yes, it can hurt, but nothing you can say will stop me personally or stop my bag and romantic options. That desirability part really gets people mad. Men will still chase me — the muscle heads and the skinny ones too. Lizzo is still being loved on by her man. Fat Black women are not miserable, isolated and dying alone like these podcasters and trolls keep telling y’all. Reality paints a different picture, and we can’t ever forget that.

Being a queer Black author, this is such an interesting and tumultuous time, given that books similar to yours are being banned across the country. Are you concerned?

There is always a slight worry. I’m not gonna lie. Becoming an author has been a life goal for me, period. So finally, seeing it come to fruition amid great turmoil is always very frustrating. But here’s what we know: Whether it’s the Black community, queer community, the disabled community and any overlap between those groups, they’ve always attacked us. Overt or covert. So we can’t stop working, living and telling our truth because Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) has decided he wants to be on some bullshit. I – we – have to keep pushing through and continue fighting and winning the good fight. That, and you can try to erase me, but I’m still gonna be Black and gay… sooooooo…. what now? [Laughs]

What’s the biggest thing you learned about yourself writing “Fat Off, Fat On”?

That I use humor as a coping mechanism, which has stopped my personal progress. Listen, it’s cool to be funny. I love being funny, cracking jokes and making people laugh. That’s important because life is shitty. But my use of humour was standing in the way of my healing and the path to doing some much-needed self-reflection. Writing the book let me know that I need to learn how to balance that out because if I’m doing too much, that will only hurt me in the end.

Finally, while this book draws on past trauma, you end it with so much optimism and the promise of “honouring” your body in whatever size it is. What does that promise entail?

Honouring my body is about understanding that my body houses everything that makes me, me. And knowing that once my body is gone, it’s gone, and nothing will be tethering me to this earth. So before that happens, I want to take care of it. Part of that means not internalising all the hate from the outside world, which can literally cut your mortality in half and destroy your body. That meant throwing my scale out and not allowing myself to be tied to some arbitrary number. By doing that, I had to repair my relationship with food and look at my history of disordered eating. Food is supposed to be this awesome thing. So why are we stigmatising it and denying ourselves this awesome thing that sustains our bodies?

Also, revisiting my attitude about exercise, which is not supposed to be about losing weight. It’s about stress release, meditation and becoming in tune with yourself, which can be spiritual. In this iteration, exercise strengthens your body, prolongs your mortality and keeps your mind sharp. This earth can weigh down on you, and you want to make sure your body is strong enough to withstand that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.