Clarkisha Kent Takes Aim at Racialized Fatphobia

Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Cheyenne Ewulu

Clarkisha Kent is disabled, fat, queer, Nigerian American, and a Taurus. Her identity has many facets, and she is proud of them all. But that wasn’t always the case. In the cultural critic’s debut memoir, Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto, she recounts her journey to overcome the demons — Christianity and purity culture, an abusive childhood home, racialized fatphobia, ableism — that pushed her to hate her every layer.

While the subject matter is serious, the book is laced with the self-deprecating humor and niche pop-culture references that made Kent a leading voice and must-follow on Twitter. (Case in point: The chapter “My Bisexual Awakening” opens with “Last time on Dragon Ball Z,” a reference to the dramatic narrator intro that recapped plot points in the popular ’90s anime.) As evidenced by her creation of the “Kent test” — a media litmus test, deliberately more rigorous than the existing Bechdel test, that rates the quality of representation for Black women and women of color in a piece of media — Kent likes to use her platform to reform the way we talk and think about women both fictional and real. Fat Off, Fat On chronicles her long journey to deprogramming herself from the anti-fat sociocultural messaging that Kent absorbed while growing up. She’s hoping it will act as a guide to help readers deprogram themselves, too.

You wrote in your book, “The origins of fatphobia do not belong to us. Nor is it ours to hold.” I liked that line a lot, and it feels like it’s the spine of your memoir. Would you mind explaining the thought behind it a little more?
It all goes back to Fearing the Black Body, by Sabrina Strings, a brilliant author. She traces the origins of fatphobia back toward that split that happened between Europeans and Africans right before slavery. The line of demarcation was drawn between these two groups, which resulted in essentially the invention of “fatphobia.” Fat was used to separate the groups; Africans were fat, corpulent, unintelligent, dimwitted, and if you’re European, you’re thin, enlightened, that kind of thing. When I was writing my story, I was thinking about that book and how the root of many oppressions go right back to racism and anti-Blackness. I just wanted to, for people who know, nod to them, and then if you don’t know, encourage you to go look it up.

This book is your life story, but you also identify it as the story of you coming home to your body. What does it mean to come home to your body? 
Coming home to your body means appreciating it for what it is. That doesn’t mean you are happy with it 24/7. I’m not happy about my body 24/7. But the point is my body is doing its absolute best to protect me, so I’m not helping my body at all by deriding it. I was tired of being my body’s No. 1 opp, so I was like, Let me stop doing that. I thought it was important not only to remember the journey I took but also to chronicle it for myself and others.

One of the things that you do or learn to do in the book is boundary setting. I think I read somewhere that you got rid of your scale during the pandemic. That’s an example of setting a boundary with yourself, right?
Yes. I didn’t put it in the book as much, and that was actually a tough decision for me, but I used to obsessively weigh myself. I would get up every morning and before I even brushed my teeth I was on the scale. That was not healthy. I put it in the book, but I had already talked about a lot of triggers. After those initial years and postcollege, I got better. The scale was still in the house but not really within sight, which is good for me because I have ADHD so literally out of sight, out of mind.

But with the pandemic, these diet, exercise, and fitness companies clearly weren’t happy because people were sitting at home “getting fat,” but they were not bent out of shape about it. They’re like, Oh, well, my body’s doing its best. So they ramped up these anti-fat messages. I remember people were talking about the “COVID 15,” the 15 pounds. I’m like, Are you deadass? Stuff like that was really hard as someone who struggled with disordered eating and my weight. I really couldn’t believe it, and it was really affecting my psyche. The first thing that happened after I kept seeing these messages over and over again was bringing my scale back into view. In the back of my head, I knew, I’m in trouble. Once I let that little harrowing moment come and pass, I threw the scale out.

Were you worried this would be triggering for you to write about or for readers to read?
I think both. The scale, I mean, there’s a reason I put it on the cover. The scale has been a tool that’s been used to antagonize people for eons. Even writing about the crazy diets and exercise regimen I had was a lot for me. I just knew that trying to talk about that scale … I would’ve been like, I can’t do it. I also do try to look out for my audience as well because I know that can be really triggering for others. I don’t mind talking about it at length, but putting it on paper is a little bit different for me. I process by writing, so it’s one of those things where I’m like, Okay, that one, I got to put that aside. Maybe another day we’ll try to tackle writing about it. I definitely was looking out for myself but also for people who have that same battle that I’ve had with scales.

You recently tweeted about your book rising the best-seller ranks in Amazon’s “Feminist Theory” category. Do you think of this book as a theory book or a memoir or a combo?
First and foremost, it is a memoir; it is my story. But I am a feminist. Those politics, those thoughts, are literally all over the book, so if someone wanted to call it theory, I wouldn’t personally mind. Would I call it that myself? I don’t know — it feels awkward when I say it — but if someone else were to say it, I’d be like, I get it.

What is your intention with the book?
My mission was to inform whatever audience finds the book that fatphobia is very sinister. The origins are obviously racism and anti-Blackness. Fatphobia’s reach is very intense. It’s the reason why airline seats look like that — very skinny, very uncomfortable; for some, the belt doesn’t even naturally go around you, so you have to get an extender, an extra belt to tie your regular belt, right? Barstools. I won’t even explain it, but just think about bar stools. Something that seems as simple as clothes. When I walk into the standard clothing shop or mall, there’s like a 99.9 percent chance they’re not carrying my sizes. That’s just a thing that’s accepted. If you won’t give me clothes to wear, how will I go outside and exist in society?

And that’s the fucking point. These things, unconnected, seem very innocuous, but when you put them together, it’s a very sinister and coordinated effort to push fat people out of society, even if it’s not being said overtly. Racism and racist structures in this country don’t openly say what they’re doing or how they’re harming. You just have to be paying attention. That was really my intention. I used my stories as a vehicle to deliver those messages so that people could see the context of what I was talking about.

Clarkisha Kent Tackles Fatphobia in Her New Memoir