I am a Black mixed race, fat, queer, non-binary person. Most saliently, I am femme. I have come to understand radical femmeness, femme magic, femme community, femme love and femme power through my relationships with other womxn and femmes of colors. While femme communities evoke safeness and security for me they also often exist on the basis of trauma. There are an infinite number of tropes, stereotypes, pressures and violence placed on Black women and therefore also experienced by Black femmes of different genders, that allow people and systems to violate us in a myriad of ways. However, the struggle of non-binary people is often invisible within this conversation. Being fat, being extra AF, being a person of color and being bold and vibrant in my aesthetic, make me hypervisible. My femmeness is navigating that paradox.
My body is so seen, and so present yet my identity and my experiences are masked behind pervasive fatphobia.
The fast and early development of my body pushed me into the harsh reality of my femme identity. My hips and breasts grew in a way that exposed me to a forced projection of cisnormative adult womanhood. Before I even finished elementary school, I was repulsed by the curves of my body. I spent much of my upbringing in London attempting to conform and assimilate to whiteness and despised how my shapely body tied me so conspicuously to my African heritage. More than anything, I wanted to be skinny, to be small and graceful and delicate like my peers. Thin white girls were everything I desired to be; they were light, fast, feminine, pretty and attractive. I was chunky, clumsy, unsightly and messy.
Mentors and superiors began to place a strange form of masculinity onto me. Teachers would tell me to go and play football with the boys, or tell me I was ‘tough’ and ‘strong’. Worse yet, they seemed far less sympathetic towards me if I was struggling or in pain. I was always the perceived aggressor or instigator in playground fights while in all their feigned innocence, my thin, white counterparts were the victims. I was too big to be a child, too masculine to be a girl, too black to be innocent and too fat to be pretty. I yearned for a form of femininity that would never be accessible to me while being simultaneously forced into a perceived masculinity.
As girls in my class began to wear make-up and talk about boys, I felt silenced by the conflicting messages I received about my gender. How could I juggle being forced into womanhood by the sexualization of my physical form yet rejected from femininity because of my fatness and my blackness?
I know now, of course, that womanhood and femininity are not related, but within a cisnormative script, pre-pubescent girlhood is a race to mature into the most beautiful woman. I stumbled at the starting line, not knowing that the whole race was rigged… and that womanhood was not really the destination I desired anyway.
As my body grew, I noticed the oversexualization that old and young men alike would subject me to.
One significant memory is walking to the shop aged thirteen and being followed by a man in his mid-twenties. He asked me if I wanted to come home with him and told me I looked really sexy in my shorts (they were my pajamas… Disney pajamas). I remembered feeling incredibly confused. Sexy? That was reserved for thin white women in magazines – women that the girls in my class would grow up to be. For years I thought a lot about that experience; the combination of fear, confusion and desire. While my friends were getting boyfriends in high school, I felt starkly undesirable and I didn’t understand how these two contradictions could exist at once. My voluptuous, fast-growing and adult-seeming body was an object, I realized, but in my white, middle class environment, my blackness and blossoming queerness were too much.
As a brown-skinned fat femme, I suffer from the impacts of body terrorism. Even within all my confidence, not a day goes by when I don’t wish to be skinnier and whiter. My proximity to whiteness as a mixed person, my pretty privilege and my ability to find my size in some stores affords me some benefits but my daily life is still plagued with feelings of inadequacy, social and physical barriers and microaggressions. I combat this with my work; my writing, facilitation and most importantly my social media presence where I show the world a fearless version of myself.
For my 23rd birthday, my best friend K. Ho offered to take some boudoir photos for me. I felt anxious about the idea – my body is not traditionally desirable so who would want to see photos of me in my lingerie? Turns out, quite a lot of people. The overwhelmingly positive feedback that the photos garnered both online and in person reminded me of being six-years-old again; free, comfortable, popular, cheeky and proud. I felt my femmeness radiating from the images; if I were to boil down my gender expression to one look, that would be it. Raw, exposed, chubby, colorful, glittery, sexy and vulnerable.
[image description: the author, a brown-skinned fat femme, laying on a white bed in red and black lingerie. They have pink hair, a dark red lipstick, gold earrings and two visible tattoos. The bed is decorated with white fairy lights.]
Someone approached me on the train a few weeks later and said they saw my photos online. “Your confidence and body positivity are inspiring,” they said. They were speaking really loudly and I felt embarrassed as other passengers listened to our conversation. But soon I realized people were smiling; they seemed infected by the energy of the individual who had been touched by photos of my body in all its femme glory. The moment felt so validating; some passengers’ faces said huh? that person looked good in lingerie? but most looked equally inspired.
I live in the discomfort of wishing my body was different yet believing wholeheartedly in a body positive politic. I admit, sometimes I post photos of myself on Instagram and I feel vulnerable. I seek validation and I accept even comments that tell me I am pretty despite my fatness. It is a danger and a burden that our bodies as fat femmes are literally a site of activism. I simultaneously want to inspire self-love in others and still struggle with my own self-image. Perhaps I even use the flamboyance of my femmeness as a cover for my rolls and stretch marks and chafing scars and hairy patches.
For white femmes, particularly cisgender women, #femmevisibility can sometimes just mean an announcement of unchecked privilege.
Femmeness in a Western context is rooted in white beauty standards – scripted through thinness, able-bodiedness and pretty privilege.
Being femme is salient to my identity, particularly because of the ways in which I see other femmes of color create a non-gendered femininity. I believe there is a transformation in the meaning of the word ‘femme’ and naturally therefore a resistance but I am continually powered and uplifted by fierce, non-binary and gender-fucking femmes of color. Femininity leaves us exposed to violence, regardless of gender and I have found that to be a unifying issue within femme communities. So many of the things we talk about in femme spaces revolve around trauma, violence, sexual assault and how we survive within a heteropatriarchal society. As fat femmes, our bodies are an affront to traditional beauty standards, white feminism and masculine-centered queer spaces.
[Featured image: Black and white portrait of a person with dark brown hair and light brown skin, wearing hoop earrings and looking up. Flickr.com/ Russell Mondy]