Looking myself in the face
Self-love and body image in Clarkisha Kent’s ‘Fat Off, Fat On’
Note: I received an ARC of FAT OFF, FAT ON from Feminist Press in exchange for an honest, unpaid review.
When I was asked to review Clarkisha Kent’s FAT OFF, FAT ON, I was ecstatic. A memoir about the intersection of fatphobia and other isms, written by a Black, disabled author? Yes please.
I knew from the introduction that Kent would take me for a ride. From her conversational voice to her love of pop culture references, I felt immediately at ease in her presence — a trust that turned out to be necessary. Kent tackles difficult topics with humor, humility, and no small amount of cleverness. She is funny. She is self-aware. And she is extremely unwilling to blunt her lived experiences for the sake of reader’s sensibilities.
So the fact that Kent starts her memoir with a reference to “Scrubs” is, in fact, incredibly important. Because it shows me what kind of writer Kent is. For that matter, it shows me what kind of person Kent is, which is to say an intensely literate fandom person who may or may not have a Tumblr in the year of our Lord. Laugh all you want, but I know I can trust someone who references “Scrubs” in the first nine words of her debut memoir. Why? Because we are, on some level, alike — at least when it comes to our obsession with certain forms of media.
“TV shows and movies do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of ‘raising’ kids,” Kent writes, “or at the very least serve as the origin behind viewpoints that have a 50/50 chance of getting carried to adulthood.” I nodded, because of course! Of course. I’ve been arguing the very same thing — with considerably less eloquence — for years.
Media is important. Instances of representation in media are particularly important, as they show kids how in and what ways they can interact with the world. Girls in wheelchairs who grow up with physically disabled celebrities won’t wonder if they have a shot at making it big, because the evidence will be right in front of them. In contrast, girls in wheelchairs with no physically disabled heroines will struggle to believe in their own self-worth. This is proven fact — and also just so happen to be the central argument of FAT OFF, FAT ON:
Part of my own grand journey has revolved around me sifting through positive and toxic viewpoints. Both about my own body and about the world around me. Many of said “viewpoints” and the messaging I received while growing up (from parents to peers to media and general society) greatly affected my capacity to see myself as human. Or rather, it colored what “humanity” looked like to a fat, Black, dark-skinned little girl. And whether it was my destiny to be simultaneously invisible, hypervisible, and reviled in perpetuity.
Of course I trust Kent. How could I not? Her story may not be mine, but it reflects my experiences in the way that all memoirs should. It asks questions of me. It empathizes with and challenges me. It validates my struggles and, in the same breath, wonders what else might be possible.
What other worlds can we build? One in which the viewpoints we inherent do more good than harm? One in which our bodies are not liabilities but in fact miracles?
FAT OFF, FAT ON is revolutionary in its commitment to truth. I found myself pausing at various points throughout the book to catch my breath. My trust in her was challenged. I wanted to stop. To look away. I wanted to pretend that I didn’t see myself in Kent at her most vulnerable. I wanted to twist my reflection into some new, untrue shape, if only to avoid what was staring me in the face. But I couldn’t, because Kent was relentless in her storytelling.
For 270-something pages, I was part of Kent’s life. I was with her through every heartbreak and thrill. And by the end of the book, I realized with startling clarity that our stories are more similar than I initially expected.
I am white. I am also very, very thin. I won’t pretend those privileges don’t affect me to this day. But, like Kent, I struggle with internalized ableism. I wake up every day with a deep-seated, undying hatred for my body. I am so convinced of my destiny that I act in ways that confirm my deepest, most primal fear — that my disabled body makes me unlovable.
“For a long time, I considered fatness to be my adversary,” Kent writes. “But now I’m beginning to understand that my (fat) body was never my opposition. No. She was, in fact, my companion.”
Fatness isn’t my adversary for medical reasons. But disability is. My body is “my sworn enemy,” “a nemesis to rival all my nemeses.” Yet, through Kent’s writing, I have come to understand that my body has been with me my entire life, “[even] during the times that I hated her, couldn’t stand her, and couldn’t bear to look at her. She remained. Waiting for my triumphant return.”
That is, in my opinion, the enduring magic of memoir. The closeness of story. The companionship. Kent’s willingness to confront her viewpoints gave me permission to do the same. Her unflinching honesty gave me room to practice some truth-telling of my own. How has my body supported me through the years? And how have I betrayed her? Like Kent, I had to “look myself in the face … and teach myself to fall in love with all of it. Not again, but for the first time.”
The thing about first times is they never really end. We are always learning. Trying and failing. Making meaning of our mistakes and, if we’re lucky, finding ourselves in a perfectly imperfect memoir. In the meantime, we keep going, in the hopes of reaching a different place:
A place that is genuinely curious about who I am. And maybe who I want to be. A place that is committed to meeting every possible iteration of myself. And shaking her goddamn hand for making it this far.