‘Fat Off, Fat On’: How Clarkisha Kent found grace in the face of anti-Blackness and fatphobia

Culture critic Clarkisha Kent gets candid about writing her memoir and her hopes for readers.

“Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto” book cover

Despite what a lively social media presence may suggest, Clarkisha Kent doesn’t particularly like folks in her business.

Over the years, behind a Pikachu avi and pen name inspired by Superman’s secret identity (Clark Kent), she’s shared bits and pieces with her following between viral memes and jokes and pulled from lived experiences to produce a nuanced journalism portfolio. However, parts of herself she can’t hide — nor does she want to — being a fat, dark-skinned bisexual Black woman and how society sees/treats her as such.

These intersecting identities guide her work as a writer and ever-evolving change agent with her media accountability projects. The Kent Test is a media litmus test she designed in 2018 to determine whether a piece of media has provided the audience with thoughtful representation of Black women and/or women of color.

The Kelli & Kat Test was co-created by Kent and Sydneysky G in 2023 to determine whether a piece of media has provided the audience with thoughtful representation of fat [Black] women and/or non-men. Kent pulls back the curtain to share the experiences that shaped her work and who she is today in her debut memoir, Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto.

Kent set out to write Fat Off, Fat On because she wanted to get to the nitty-gritty of the inherent anti-Blackness within fatphobia. “People don’t like to be talked at, and sometimes when you try to explain these very complex concepts, people just tune out until you make it personal,” she says. In this memoir, she does just that by using moments in her life fatphobia reared its ugly head.

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“It’s not just about name-calling. I think that’s a very elementary understanding of fatphobia. [Fatphobia] is just as oppressive a force as racism, colorism, and ableism. I wanted people to understand how serious that was by interweaving it with all these other experiences. Because, again, fatphobia, to me, was intensified by colorism [and] my gender. I just wanted to show people that this is a serious issue, not just generally but also in [the Black] community,” Kent tells Reckon.

At a base level Fat Off, Fat On is a glimpse into how familial, platonic, romantic interactions and religion shape our story, even ones we tell ourselves. But with this memoir, Kent reclaims her right to a life that she authors and decides for herself unencumbered by those that take parts of her identity and deem it unworthy. Using a relaxed, personal tone and writing voice, Kent brings readers into her world as if she were having a wine-down and vent session with friends.

“I wanted to take this approach because I thought it’d be more fun. Storytelling is inherently intimate because you’re sitting someone down and inviting them into your world or maybe a fictional one. As the storyteller, you’re supposed to help them navigate,” Kent tells Reckon.

Opening up in this way wasn’t how she thought she’d make her debut as an author — especially with a memoir. Fiction was the entry point into publishing she always planned and spent the past couple of years working on a western novel. But after some convincing from her agent, Kent decided a memoir would be an opportunity to dip her toes into publishing and get her name out there before doing something more niche. Creating Fat Off, Fat On wasn’t easy; she feared having such a close lens on her life.

“I don’t like people in my business, though I have shared very intimate stories about myself before. But Fat Off, Fat On puts me under a microscope. That was the initial fear, but I had to get over that,” Kent says.

Luckily for readers, she did get over her fears. Kent went in fully understanding and respecting what the genre would require of her. “Memoirs are inherently narcissistic ... but [powerful] because it’s more personal than a biography. I was like, ‘okay, I don’t technically want to be writing this, but [I’ll] do it’ because I wanted to jump into it 100%. I didn’t want to half-ass it,” she says.

“Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto” book cover

The Nigerian-American writer spent more than a year sitting with and reliving the most challenging moments of her life to write the book. Kent’s trauma began to resurface while chronicling her childhood, romance, struggles with suicide, and family fallouts. “There were days [when I was] like, I don’t want to write this no more. It’s making me sad,” she says, adding that therapy helped her process while writing. “If I stumbled across a particularly traumatic memory, I would pause and email my therapist. Then we talked through it, and I’d lay it to rest and continue writing,” Kent tells Reckon.

However, like many Black folks, access to therapy wasn’t always available for Kent. She spent the first 25 years of her life often misunderstood, going undiagnosed with bipolar II disorder until October 2019. In one particularly poignant chapter, she uses her own therapy experience to highlight the difficulty Black women have receiving adequate mental health care.

“I got my [bipolar II disorder] diagnosis late in life, later than most. Being mentally ill is very complex, painful, a little dramatic, [and] a little messy. But that’s part of the human experience. I wanted to be open about it to help others come to terms with it,” Kent tells Reckon.

By talking about it, Kent hopes that if someone suspects they may be dealing with something similar, they can start asking those questions themselves. “But none of that happens if we do the work of shaming ourselves into silence,” she adds. Shame, internally and externally, is what Fat Off, Fat On analyzes throughout its 16 chapters. Beyond societal ailments of fatphobia, ableism, racism, colorism, etc., Kent digs deeper on a personal level to unpack her feelings about being on the receiving end of such bigotry. She allows herself to feel her emotions, even when she’s harsh on herself, because it’s what we do as humans. That nuanced authenticity lets readers give themselves that same grace.

She began encouraging this ideology of grace while writing Fat Off, Fat On as she saw her life laid bare on paper. “It’s difficult because when dealing with something, internalized shame is right there. But I’ve been able to get through it because I’m patient with myself, sitting in that moment and being like, ‘Okay, so what’s going on,’ without intellectualizing my feelings; we do that a lot, and should stop,” Kent tells Reckon.

Kent makes it clear to Reckon that, first and foremost, she wrote Fat Off, Fat On for herself but hopes that readers can take something from this memoir. For the average person, Kent wants them to understand the fact that fatphobia is very sinister. While for other fat Black women like her, she hopes it allows them to sit more comfortably in their fatness.

“I want people to say, ‘I went through that, and I’m still here, and I’m that bitch.’ I want you to feel good about yourself and the experiences that you experienced because now you know that you’re not alone. So those are two big things for me to make sure that particular audience [are] heard, [seen], [and] felt,” Kent tells Reckon.

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