Interview: Culture Critic Clarkisha Kent Isn’t Afraid of a Changing Body

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Very early in Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto, cultural critic Clarkisha Kent’s new memoir unpacking how fatphobia, disability, and other social issues intersect, Kent makes her most salient identities known: She is a dark-skinned, first-generation, Nigerian American, bisexual, disabled woman. With this foundation set, Kent recounts her lifelong navigation of a society and culture that often felt opposed to her mind and body, regardless of how they changed or expanded.

Namely, Kent’s commitment to fully embracing her disability is more recent, a decision delayed by family members’ misguided hopes of shielding her from further oppression. It’s a common experience for many Black disabled people like us, who have been disconnected from the disability community and/or discouraged from identifying as disabled by their loved ones in attempts to avoid grappling with ableism’s impact. But after an ACL injury brought the inaccessibility of the world front and center, Kent could no longer deny this part of herself, nor the way ableism was colluding with sexism and racism in her experiences.

The book walks through Kent’s reconciliation with her identities and her life thus far in a way that is conversational and amusing yet incisive. Amid the intense scrutiny that comes with writing so vulnerably and sharing it with the world, I spoke to Kent about the expansive nature of disability, advocating for your needs when others don’t, and the foods that always bring her comfort.

Sami Schalk: In the book, you talk about multiple experiences of disability. There’s the ACL injury, but you also talk about depression, disordered eating, and bipolar disorder. What are some of the challenges of an inaccessible world and what was their impact on your mental health, especially in combination with all these other identities?

Clarkisha Kent: This country and world operate on anti-Blackness as the default. So [as a Black woman], obviously you’re used to certain microaggressions, and that doesn’t make them okay. But disability definitely added an extra, sinister layer to it. People would be visibly — like, they think they’re being subtle with it — but visibly annoyed. Let’s say when I get on a bus and I have my little boot [on], or my crutches. I have to take up more space because I obviously [have] extra stuff with me. People will be huffing and puffing, just making all sorts of sounds that weren’t previously made until I entered the space. Really passive-aggressive shit. Same thing with holding and opening the doors. I feel like all of us have met that person who wants to close the elevator on you early when they see you coming. Shit that’s really petty.

I can’t get too rowdy about [my undergraduate institution], but I will say that they pride themselves on having a lot of old, beautiful architecture. But a lot of these buildings have no elevator; some of them don’t have ramps, and if they do, it is going to be in the boonies in the back. [Laughs] Accessibility is still an afterthought for not just them, but [also for] a lot of elite institutions. So having to navigate these things firsthand was an eye-opener. Not to say that I wasn’t semi-aware before, but those were just a few experiences that really shook me. It was like, Wake up! This is what people are dealing with every day. It sucks right now to be you with this injury, but there are people who’ve been dealing with this since they hopped out of the womb.

You finished school, but I think there are a lot of people who leave institutions because that additional, new layer just makes it too much.

When you add that disability aspect, people get really bold. You know, Chicago has a lot of snow. The place is beautiful, but it gets a lot of snow. So dealing with my ACL also coincided with the polar vortex that happened, where we got, like, eight feet of snow. Certain professors, they don’t care. To them, it’s just a regular old Tuesday, and we get snow all [the] time.

That said, my mobility’s been shot. So I’m still making it to class knowing the kind of instructors that I was dealing with, but for one or two particular classes, they were all the way across [campus]. If I were to walk, it’d be 30 minutes at least. But even the bus is still 15 to 20 [minutes], depending on how many stops. So I remember one of the art classes I had consistently been late to. Again, it takes me a lot to get out to that class. One day he got really bitchy with me about being late, and I’m just looking at my crutches like, Are we doing this right now, for real? I think I ended up talking to someone about him and it didn’t get brought up again. But I was just looking at him like, Man, fuck your class.

The audacity has always been a thing. I’m Black, you know. People try all the time, but with that extra layer [of disability], people think they can talk to you any way. They try to remove your agency, treat you like a child. I was just like, You all are wild. I see I’m going to have to fight some of you.

I think a lot of professors think that their classes are the most important thing in someone’s life.

Right?!

I want to talk about disordered eating. A lot of folks don’t think of it as a disability, but I do. I identified a lot with your experiences with strict dieting in high school and overexercising and how, when you moved to California, being broke and depressed shaped your relationship with food. Why was it important for you to talk about disordered eating in these different ways?

I really wanted to talk about these experiences because when people mention body dysmorphia and eating disorders, they never remember Black women or Black nonbinary people, and they never mention fat people. It’s always some skinny-ass white girl talking about her eating disorder. Not to minimize that, but discourse is oversaturated with them. I’m actually sick of it. I am. I don’t want to say I don’t care, but okay, what else is new? We always get overlooked in these discussions, and sometimes not even just overlooked. Even if we do speak, [we’re] just straight-up ignored.

I also want to point out the dangers of overexercising. Fifteen or 20 years ago, I don’t think people classified exercising too much as a disorder, but it is. Now we have the language. So for me, it’s really about carving out space to speak to experiences that are historically ignored. Not just socially, but [also] with research. It has real-world consequences because there’s ongoing research to figure out how to treat eating disorders, but because people keep overlooking the groups that I’m part of, valuable research that could be done hasn’t been done.

I think there are going to be a lot of people who relate to your story and see themselves or loved ones differently after. I agree that we are definitely left out of the conversation. ​How has your relationship with food improved, and what helped? I assume, to be able to write about it, there has to be some distance from it, so what are things that were helpful for you?

Most recently, with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, I threw out my scale. I threw it out because there’s so much about that number, but that number doesn’t tell you shit. It fluctuates in a day. If I drink water right now, the scale’s going to be like, “You’ve gained 10 pounds.” It’s so arbitrary and doesn’t take into account bone density, nutrition, what you’re actually eating. It’s just this number that is there to taunt you based on bullshitty-ass BMI, which, you know, there’s a whole history there, but that’s a side conversation. I first threw out my scale, then I tried to get back into contact with my body in terms of my food cues, hunger cues especially. And it was really important for me to do that because for a while I was on Adderall for ADHD, and there were side effects in terms of suppressing appetite. It’s important for me to reassess my relationship with my body and food in general, and [get] rid of that scale, which has so much history and sadness and pain associated with it for me.

Do you think that leaving California also helped?

Yes. I know there’s people [who] love living there. I get it. I’m from Tennessee. There’s some people who would not set foot in Tennessee ever. For me, California is my Tennessee. [Laughs] I can’t. Oof! It was a lot. A lot of people’s relationships with food in [Los Angeles] are just bad. Even as a bystander overhearing conversations about crash diets and this latest food fad, et cetera. It’s bad. Like, do you all not like eating? Because that’s what it sounds like. And whether I liked it or not, that environment definitely influenced, even unconsciously, how I was able to engage with food or my body. Because we are in LA, a spitting distance away from Hollywood. We know what that industry likes to push out in terms of appearances. So I feel like by proxy, if you live in that, around that, you’re going to have some distorted issues with your body and food. Once I left, I mentally felt some of the weight of everything come off my chest.

When it’s the norm, it’s hard to escape it. I’ve had to intentionally change whom I follow on social media because I just need it to not be in my face. So when it’s just bombarding you every time you’re in public, every time you go somewhere, I get it. ​Okay, last question. What foods bring you comfort or evoke nostalgia? What foods bring you happiness?

Yellow curry, Thai rice, that’s always going to be the homie. It comes through in the dark times and the happy times, too. It’s just delicious. If we’re talking Nigerian food, I would say ogbono soup, fufu, [I] just love it. [It] can be a little heavy if you’re not used to it, but still delicious. Besides that… I’m not going to lie to you, the little fruit and yogurt Special K cereal. That shit is good. I’m sad that people push it for diet purposes because it’s delicious. It’s genuinely delicious. I be like, “Don’t do that. Don’t corrupt this very tasty cereal. Just be normal. It’s cereal, just be normal about it!” I love it. It’s quick because sometimes you don’t have time to sit and make no three-, four-, or five-course breakfast. Sometimes I want to sit and get my regular milk, or my little oat milk, and just eat my cereal! Besides that… I’m back on kabobs.

Is there anything else you want to make sure readers know about you or the book?

It’s very heavy [and] potentially triggering because of some of the subject matter. I definitely want to caution survivors when jumping in to read it. Thankfully some of that stuff is up front, it doesn’t sneak up on you later. I would also caution [you] if you have religious trauma because I’m sure that’ll bring some stuff up for people. But also, just keep an open mind. I don’t say that because I’m scared of criticism. I don’t care. At the end of the day, I wrote this book for me.

But the book, even for me as the person who wrote it, is definitely going to challenge some biases that one may have in general, but also challenge some biases that one may hold against themselves. So maybe you read something and you’re like, “Oh, shit! I do that.” It’s not the end of life. When you experience that, just stay in that moment and unpack it, like, “I exercise too much. Where does that come from?” No need to come down super hard on yourself, but just think about that and how it affects how you view [not only] yourself but also the people around you. Because how you view yourself is going to inadvertently have some effect on your outside view, too.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sami Schalk is an associate professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison & author of two books: Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race & Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction & Black Disability Politics.
Ananya Rao-Middleton is an illustrator and disability activist who uses her work to speak truth to the voices of marginalized communities.
Terri Lynne Hudson is a performer, interdisciplinary artist and disability rights advocate based in Chicago.

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