“All my body has ever done is keep me alive,” says Stephanie Yeboah.
The debut author and plus size activist refuses to apologise for her body and instead apologises to it over the course of her new novel, Fattily Ever After.
The book, which she dedicates to “fat black womxn” in its very first line, is part compassionate manifesto for plus size Black womxn, part survival guide and part memoir based on Yeboah’s own experiences.
Many of them, like Lizzo crying backstage at a concert with Yeboah as she promised this was for “all the women who felt they didn’t have a voice”, are empowering and joyful. Others, like the stigma she faced when seeking medical help for an eating disorder, are rage-inducing.
“Despite the negative self talk, despite the self harming, despite all of the horrible ways in which I’ve starved my body and things – [my body] still kept me here. And so I just felt like I needed to treat it with gratitude and love and apologise to it. That was kind of the start of my journey,” she explains.
It’s a journey that began with abusive childhood bullies, toxic diet culture and a drought of role models that looked like her both here in the UK and in Ghana. Yeboah grew up in southwest London to Ghanaian parents and while she lived in Ghana for a couple of years as a child, she would go onto finish her education in the UK.
Yeboah admits she at one point wanted to be a West End performer, but had her dreams “dashed” due to her lack of confidence at the time and a key turning point where her fatphobic bullies were seated front row of her GCSE performance – an anxiety-inducing move which resulted in Yeboah getting a D. As the pressure to adhere to societal beauty norms took its toll on Yeboah growing up, she began to track her weight daily on a personal tumblr account as she sought out fitspiration posts. However, the social media platform then began to surface self-love posts by women who looked like Yeboah, which made her re-evaluate everything as she moved away from her weight loss account.
Following in the footsteps of her new idols, the 31 year old would go onto create the moniker Nerd About Town as she launched a plus size fashion, beauty and lifestyle site. While Nerd About Town was launched a decade ago, she has since retired the title and stepped into the limelight under her real name.
While the bullies are still around (Yeboah writes that “70% of the interaction” she receives online is of an “abusive, fat-shaming nature”), Yeboah has thrived: landing a brand ambassadorship with beauty brand Dove, a role as contributing editor at Grazia and Refinery29, a book deal for Fattily Ever After and a dedicated Instagram following of over 174k and rising.
Explaining that it has been a “process [of] eventually learning how to love myself”, Yeboah has since fought over the years to redefine how the world views the “default” standard of beauty, Blackness, social media policy and even the word “fat” and stigma surrounding anything related to it.
Last year, she received a wave of backlash when Lizzo shared her own interpretation of the Vogue Challenge on TikTok, which featured a Yeboah tweet reading: “I never thought I would see a fat, black woman on the cover of Vogue. Not in my lifetime.”
While she later explained in a blog post she was expressing her “pride” at seeing Lizzo take centre stage, she received what she described as a “barrage of abuse from fans” who misinterpreted her tweet – thinking she was criticising the singer. (Lizzo later clarified that to fans and supported Yeboah in a follow up video.)
To Yeboah, the word “fat” doesn’t need to change – the culture around the word does.
She explains, “What I think is important is the way in which we perceive language and how important specific words… have had such a negative impression within the media. It’s important to take all of the negative power out the word and see your body for what it is.”
Beyond words, other battlegrounds for Yeboah include the stigma surrounding stretchmarks and hyperpigmentation (which she once referred to as the “piece de resistance of fatness” in a Bustle interview); making her a natural fit for Dove’s ambassadorship and its No Digital Distortion campaign – a pledge to show skin in its natural, unairbrushed state.
A recent study conducted by the brand revealed that more than one in ten women would describe their skin as “ugly”, but Yeboah puts hers directly in the spotlight.
Although she admits that in her youth she experimented with creams and wore long sleeved outfits to hide her stretchmarks and hyperpigmentation, her approach now has changed. Recalling the first time she shared a picture specifically of her stretchmarks two or three years ago, Yeboah says she was “nervous” to press post on Instagram at the time as she worried about trolls and unsolicited advice.
But at the same time, she said posting it was “empowering.”
“It was really a case of me embracing this part of my body that I had been trying to change for so long. And just saying, look: this is me. These stretch marks are always going to be here. It’s a part of me, it tells a story. So why should I not show it off?”
“I think it’s so important to confront these words head on in a bid to take the power out of it,” she continues, “And once we can do that, then we can start on that journey to learning how to love our skin with all of its marks and hyperpigmentation and all of the things that just come with age and weight gain and weight loss.”
She believes brands have a large part to play in shifting the conversation around beauty, saying they need to do more than be performative supporters of the body positivity movement and diverse beauty. In 2016, Yeboah revealed she had experienced firsthand the dissonance between public and private conversations with brands, commenting on Instagram that stretchmarks were “the reason why some (plus size) brands have refused to work with me.”
Saying brands needed to have “consistency” and to “make an active stand to try to be as diverse and as inclusive as possible”, she continues that they also needed to “[own] up to the ways in which [they] have acted beforehand.”
“If somebody random calls you out or something, it’s important to instead of being defensive about it to listen to what they have to say. If it appears that somebody may have dropped the ball, own up to it and say, you know what I’m gonna do better,” she continued.
She adds: “[Dove is] actually going out to say, look, we’re not photoshopping, we’re not distorting any images and for a beauty brand, that’s a huge thing to pledge to do. And I wish more brands would go out of their way to do it. Because I think the beauty sector is one of the biggest sectors when it comes to the standard of beauty and gets to dictate what is beautiful. And if we can kind of dismantle those ideas by going within the company structures and saying, look, we’ve been promoting this, this and that, and it’s making women feel like this…If more brands can do that, that would be amazing.”
It’s of course impossible to talk about skin without talking about the colour of it and Yeboah speaks at length about her and others’ experiences as Black women in the plus size community – which is markedly different to their white counterparts. Around the time of our interview, Yeboah was in talks with Instagram about the censorship of Black plus-sized bodies on the platform. This was preceeded by a viral campaign – IWantToSeeNyome – which gathered speed in support of model Nyome Nicholas-Williams. Nicholas-Williams and others who posted semi-nude portraits of the model to the platform in support were threatened with account deletion as it was claimed they had breached Instagram’s Community Guidelines. This was in contrast to the way posts by other white influencers and celebrities were treated.
Yeboah says the conversation with Instagram was a “fruitful” one:
“They explained the fact that there are certain poses on Instagram that are automatically flagged because they think it’s very similar to pornographic poses. So one of those poses is having your arms [covering] your boobs like that. They explained that those types of images are normally flagged, and I said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, how come it’s always plus sized women’s ones [flagged] and [not] smaller women’s ones? On to which they said fair point basically, kind of got them there.”
Though Yeboah was optimistic about a shift she said it would “probably always be a work in progress.” After the conversation with Instagram she cosigned an open letter to the platform written by Nicholas-Williams alongside Munroe Bergdorf, Jameela Jamil (who wrote a blurb for Yeboah’s book) and other influencers such as Nicole Ocran and Char Ellesse. The letter, addressed to Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri, asked for Instagram’s “complete commitment and cooperation” in changing its Community Guidelines policies. “If you are part of a marginalised group you are subject to the results of a biased algorithm,” Nicholas-Williams wrote.
“Fat women and fat Black women should be able to express ourselves artistically in the same way [as smaller women], without our bodies being flagged” says Yeboah, “Fat bodies and fat black bodies have been hyper sexualized for a very, very long time, like, you know, dating way back. And it’s always been because we’re bigger in some areas it’s automatically seen as sexy. Whereas if you’re smaller, it seems classy and artistic,” she continued.
Instagram has since responded to the open letter and said in a statement to Evening Standard Insider they had “apologised directly to Nyome for repeatedly removing her image”, adding that they would be updating Instagram and Facebook’s policies next month “to make sure different body types aren’t treated unfairly.”
While Yeboah is affecting real change in the industry, she also feels the positivity movement needs to be “dismantled” as it “centralises on white, smaller women first.”
She says, “Within the body positive movement that was spearheaded by women of colour and Black women, what we found was when it started to get more popular within pop culture and the media, those bodies started to be left out, ignored, marginalised in favour of smaller bodies, and normally smaller bodies belonging to white women – because it was seen as a lot more acceptable, it fit the standard of beauty. I guess, people saw it as more marketable.”
Even amongst the plus size community Yeboah says there are still beauty standards (“kind of hourglass shaped, maybe maximum size 16 size 18. Normally white, high cheekbones, very beautiful big boobs, big bum, flat stomach”) and she asserts, “There is more than one way to be beautiful. There is more than one way to be a woman. There is more than one way to fight for our rights.”
“We don’t always have to be [viewed] through the guise of white women because it’s seen as the ultimate in femininity, and everything outside of that is either seen as subservient or aggressive or feral… It’s just important for us to have our communities be represented on the spectrum of womanhood, because it’s not a nice feeling to be dehumanised a lot of the time,” she says.
Yeboah continues, “[The body positivity movement] just needs to be dismantled and start again from the ground up. I think that’s the only way we can get the ball rolling when it comes to being fair across the board.”
Yeboah’s book is a start, as a response to “not seeing our perspectives and views spoken about within the forefront of body positivity.” Saying it was “really cathartic” to write, she says, “For us to not have that safe space where we can celebrate our bodies and talk about the unique experiences that we go through as plus size black women – it just seems a bit insane to me that there wasn’t any kind of like literature out there for us to kind of read and absorb.”
As a book she says she was partially writing for herself too, Yeboah puts plus sized Black women front and center of Fattily Ever After with anecdotes not just from herself, but from other role models across the world including mental health advocates, models and activists. With chapters dedicated to the prejudice towards Black plus size women in regards to dating as well as mental and physical health, she continues, “It was important for people to know that you know, this isn’t just me talking about my experience. It’s a shared experience.”
Yeboah says there are “loads more role models” for plus size Black women now, citing Lizzo specifically, but the lack of representation in her youth has left its mark. Returning to her childhood dreams of being a performer, she says, “I never had the confidence to [pursue that career] because I was fat and I didn’t really see lots of plus size people in the West End.”
“Now watching TV and seeing people like Lizzo, dancing and singing and performing, being on the front cover of Vogue, using her voice to advocate for people that look her – if I had had that when I was younger, I don’t think I would have grown up with as many body issues as I did, as many issues to do with my skin colour as well as I did,” she says.
Eventually, she relents, “I think it’s so important and amazing that we are in this climate now where we have – I guess – people like me and other plus sized women and Black women who are doing amazing work and just trying to spread self love and let people know you know, there is more than one way to be to be beautiful and to love yourself and you don’t have to subscribe to what society says in order to be amazing.”
“I am very proud of the person that I’ve become” she says, “even I’m still trying to process that. But yeah I guess I am [who I needed to see growing up]? It’s very much a full circle moment.”
Stephanie has teamed up with Dove to encourage women to celebrate the unique story their skin tells by sharing unfiltered images with their stretch marks and scars visible using the hashtag #DoveUnfiltered, ahead of the launch of its new deeply moisturising body washes.