Reading memoirs by people in their twenties makes me feel old (and I am only thirty-three!). Fortunately, Clarkisha Kent makes up for that because her writing is intense, rich, and thoughtful. Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto is a memoir, yes, but I also love that framing of manifesto as well: Kent is bringing forth a type of energy that she wants to see in this world. I received a review copy from the Feminist Press.
From the beginning, Kent does not hold back. She gets into some heavy topics here—just a big content warning for mentions of child molestation and abuse, suicide attempts, mental illness, etc. Kent shares her trauma and talks about how it has shaped her. She is also quite critical of herself. At one point, as she is discussing how her religious upbringing influenced her ideas on sexuality, she describes how fervently she attempted to dissuade her peers from same-sex attraction. Kent, who would eventually realize she is bi, did not have the language as a teenager to properly analyze her experience. This resonated with me as a queer woman, and it also made me think, as a teacher, about why it’s so important to have labels and terms for things. If anyone needs convincing that banning books with queer or Black representation in them is a bad idea, reading about Kent’s experience growing up in a conservative southern state is a good place to start.
Fat Off, Fat On reminds me in some ways of Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be. Perkins and Kent have much in common at least superficially, from their origins in Tennessee to writing on pop culture and, of course, the experience of growing up as Black women in America. If you like one of these books, you will probably like other. That being said, I don’t want to give the impression that they are extremely similar in content. Each has her own unique story, with a distinct voice.
Kent’s memoir exists at the intersections of fatphobia, biphobia, and misogynoir. In particular, she returns time and again to the theme of how being fat in a society that mandates thinness for women and dark-skinned in a society that privileges lighter skin, especially among Black women, fucked up her relationship to her own body and to others. Kent makes the point that it is impossible to analyze any one of these traits by themselves—they are all connected, all a part of her. Add in poverty and mental and physical disability and—well, that’s a lot to contend with.
Yet never does it feel like Kent falls into the trap of performing her trauma for our entertainment as is so common within memoirs, especially the memoirs of marginalized people. A lot of white women will read memoirs from Black or Indigenous women as a kind of tourism, and then we love to talk about how much we learned, how grateful we are that this person shared their story of oppression with us. Fat Off, Fat On doesn’t let you do that. This is not the plucky story of someone rising above the obstacles in front of them.
That being said, did I learn? Of course I did. Kent’s experiences, her identity, her life are all very different from mine. Was I entertained? Um, hell yes. Kent is hilarious. Her writing style is not just present tense but intensely present on the page, with numerous allusions. There’s a whole chapter where she makes connections to Janelle Monáe and Dirty Computer, and had I not already been sitting, I would have needed to sit myself down and taken a moment just to recover. Like, this is the skill of Kent as a storyteller.
But I suspect and hope that the people who get the most out of this book are not thin white women like me. I hope this book reaches young Black women, fat women, baby queers stuck in southern states who need some reassurance that yes, you too can escape—even if it won’t be easy, and even if it might never truly be “over.” Kent’s too honest to make empty promises. As the final chapters attest, Kent is nowhere near done, nowhere near arrived; she has barely got started here. The hardship she has faced from multiple intersecting axes of oppression has neither evaporated nor, in many ways, has it ever let up. We need more memoirs like this, especially from Black women—not as educational aids for white women, mind you, but as the antithesis to that. This is a book designed to be seen and in turn make others feel seen. I really hope it can accomplish that.