L.And I paint the scene. It's October 2019. I'm on a lonely beach in St. Lucia on a work trip with other influencers. It's a mild 38C and I'm wearing a two-tone glitter bikini under a yellow beach skirt. In a moment of pure spontaneity, I tear off my skirt and run into the sea. For most people this would be an everyday response to being hit on the beach, but for me it was an act of emancipation. A decision made right now that I would never allow other people's opinions to control my body and my self-esteem. It was an attempt to stick two fingers into the "bikini body" culture – the idea of having to present yourself as super slim to wear a bikini or to feel safe on the beach. Here I was in this fat body – still in a bikini – and had fun, felt free and didn't apologize. It felt exhilarating.
It had taken many years to get to that point. I was a happy, active child until I was eight or nine. I was a bit taller and taller than other kids, but for the most part it wasn't a problem for me until my father made me aware of my weight. He would often grab my plate in the middle of a meal and comment on how much bigger my arms and legs got.
I started to develop a complex around my body and often made a fuss when I had to wear something sleeveless. When I was nine years old, I began to fixate on the parts of the body that I believed were out of date. I was hurt and confused by his rejection. I started to blame myself and my plump body.
This attitude worsened in secondary school when physical and verbal bullying began. The bullies focused on my weight and the shadow of my skin. For five years I was beaten, strangled, repeatedly beaten, and constantly told that my physical appearance would make me unaffected. Three years after the bullying, I decided to open up to my parents about the abuse, and later I was told that "if I had lost weight, I wouldn't be the victim" – that the fault was mine. In that moment, I internalized self-hatred towards my body. I thought, "I deserve to be bullied and treated unfairly because of my weight."
"I thought, I deserved to be bullied and treated unfairly because of my weight." Photo: Sophia Spring / The Observer
I developed depression at the age of 14 and a few years later attended a group therapy session for children once a week. I was an introvert, I lived in my head most of the time, which made the bullying and isolation at school worse. I was enrolled in a WeightWatchers program by my mother and our GP, which had a daily limit of 800 calories. If I felt like I ate over that limit, I would throw up. I followed the diet plan at home and at school, routinely pouring out precise amounts of cereal, avoiding frozen bun desserts in the canteen. Because I thought I was to blame for the bullying because I felt awful inside my body, I saw the program as a means that could "fix" me. It became difficult to endure physically. I limited myself to a tiny amount of calories. But I thought, "Beauty is pain."
Back then, I did not recognize the behavior as an eating disorder as I assumed it only happened to super slim white women. Those were the pictures I saw on TV chat shows, in magazine articles, and on social media platforms. Around 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, according to the Eating Disorder Charity Beat. Some of them are bold. But when was the last time you saw conversations about eating disorders that focused on fat people, men, or blacks?
During this time my weight loss was celebrated. Even when I began to realize that what I was doing wasn't healthy, my doctor told me that the extreme hunger, the vomiting after meals, the excessive calorie counting, the strange way I eat my food "t" picked. It doesn't sound like an eating disorder. “I did what was best for my body, they thought. When you're oversized, people think that anything your body goes through to lose weight by default has to be better than what it went through before.
I found the advice puzzling, but assumed the doctor knew best and continued with the same habits. (Research has shown that health professionals often overlook eating disorders in overweight teenagers due to inherent anti-fat biases.) As I got older, my mental health deteriorated at an alarming rate and I became a recluse. I didn't have a social life. I would hardly leave my room. I've lived my life online. I watched TV which didn't help. Every time I turned on the TV I saw videos of scantily clad, fair-skinned, slim women in hip-hop videos. healthy, beautiful, slim white girls in TV sitcoms; sexy, white athletic women trying to save the world in action films. I used to watch children's television and rarely were chubby kids on the shows. Even in cartoons, the only oversized characters I would see would be the villain (Ursula, from The Little Mermaid) or portrayed as dumb and stupid (various characters from The Simpsons and Family Guy). Talking to my family about the problems I faced was a big no-no. Mental health was still considered a taboo in many African households.
I used books, video games, films, and television to detach myself from everyday life, a form of escapism. But I quickly realized that even in these alternate universes there was still a major problem with underrepresentation of not only larger bodies but black female bodies as well. Whenever I turned on the TV, I came across black characters portrayed as stereotypical caricatures based on historical racist tropes. On one side of the spectrum, we would see black, plump female characters portrayed as "Mammys," a term based on the character Mammy played by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind in 1939. Mammy was a slave and mother figure devoted to her white lover. She was dominant, bossy, very loyal to her "masters" and felt too comfortable in her submissive role. In the entertainment industry, we saw roles for fat black women following the same model: maternal, submissive, "funny", passive.
Full of promise: Stephanie Yeboah at home around 1992, as a happy three-year-old
But we were also portrayed as hypersexual, aggressive, dominant characters, a trope often associated with the BBW (Big Beautiful Women) category, which portrays plus size black women in this way.
When I saw these depictions, I had the feeling that we, as black, fat women, had no room in which we could be treated as "normal", full-fledged people who could be successful, attractive, desirable and sane. It sparked an identity crisis. I didn't know how to exist when I was. I thought I had to somehow fit into one of the two identities to really be seen and recognized.
A few years ago, As I approached my 22nd birthday, I decided to go on vacation to Barcelona on my own. As a kid I had always avoided the beach, unsure of the prospect of wearing small clothes. But I decided to put on a bikini for my birthday and face my fears.
I challenged myself to lose up to 4 before the trip, reverting to these dangerous eating habits: vomiting after eating; Taking appetite suppressants and laxatives; one week fast. I ended up losing almost 4. I went to Barcelona thinking of my dangerous lack of food as a success, an example of what I could achieve if I applied discipline in my life.
Three days after the start of the trip, I stood in my bikini in the bathroom and looked at my new body in horror. My mental health was a mess and I started taking my body apart bit by bit. Although I had lost significant weight, my mind was looking for other ways I could improve and tone myself. I thought, “Who am I doing this for? Why did I subject my body to such intense trauma? "
"I've decided to take steps to fall in love with myself." Photo: Sophia Spring / The Observer
Losing weight didn't make me feel good or more confident as a person. It was then that I realized that the problem was not my body, but my state of mind. I had spent an extraordinary amount of time abusing, hurting, starving and apologizing for my body instead of treating it with love and care. And yet it worked hard to keep me alive.
When I got back to the UK I decided to take steps to fall in love with myself. I started by curating my Instagram feed: I stopped following any accounts that made me undesirable or that made me feel low in self-worth. Instead, I followed reports that sparked joy. I discovered the body positivity movement on Tumblr, a movement that had emerged from the fat acceptance community, which at the time was mostly made up of oversized black and colored women.
Here was a place where I could be authentically without being ashamed of my body or how tall I was. For the first time in my life I felt accepted by a community. Seeing pages of oversized black women who looked like me on social media without apologizing and living their best lives gave me the inspiration I needed to start my own journey. The movement became a kind of utopia, a place where we can love our bodies out loud, celebrate one another, and lift one another up.
Eventually the movement changed. As the body positivity movement gained popularity, it began to implant a standard of beauty that ignored the bodies that contributed to its creation. Spoke models that represented the movement didn't look like the ones in them. It began to celebrate bodies that were predominantly white, chubby at best, and aesthetically beautiful. Black bodies, larger fat bodies, and disabled bodies were suddenly forgotten. A whole new standard of beauty was born.
Many of us no longer felt that we belonged to us. Realizing that I would compare myself to the influencers dubbed the "faces" of body positivity, I wondered why brands only really offered white, chubby content creators instead of being more diverse. I thought, "If I had cheekbones and fat in the right places, would I be considered more attractive?"
What we had now was a movement that celebrated aesthetically curvy, privileged bodies instead of bodies like mine, that ensures that the opinions, thoughts and perspectives of larger black women and women with color are erased. Slowly, along with others, we began to express our opinions through other communities, such as the Fat Acceptance Movement, which values trust and invites self-love into your larger body.
"It is society that needs to change its narrow-minded conception of what beauty is." Photo: Sophia Spring / The Observer
It took me 16 years to build a healthy relationship with my body. I stopped using it as a punching bag. I've learned that while I'm happy with how I look, it's not an aesthetic that is considered "attractive" by most people, especially when it comes to dating. But why should I have to physically change for someone else? It is society that needs to change its narrow-minded conception of what beauty is.
Despite the media's marginalization of black bodies, we continue to make ourselves heard and gradually find ourselves represented in pop culture, on television and in society. We have icons like Lizzo, a dominant force not only in the body positive community but also in the music industry – a shining example of what we, plus size black women, can do when given the opportunity. We can be successful in our areas. We are able to live full, rich lives.
If I could write a letter to my 13-year-old self, I would say, "Your dark skin, your Afro hair, your strong legs, and your soft body are all things that you should love and cherish."
We are beautiful, we are worth it. It's time we got a seat at the table.
Fattily Ever After: A Fat Black Girl's Guide to Living Without Apologies by Stephanie Yeboah is released by Hardie Grant on September 3rd for £ 12.99. Buy a copy for £ 11.30 from guardianbookshop.com
Pretty Little Thing Orange Dress; blue dress by ASOS Curve; Trainer from Converse; Khula earrings; Nails by Joanna Newbold at Terri Manduca with an elegant touch; Hair and make-up by Neusa Neves at Terri Manduca with Makeup by Benefit