Model, Author, and Activist Leah Vernon on Embracing the Word ‘Fat’

This black, Muslim, plus-size model wants to show girls they’re fine just as they are
Leah Vernon
Leah Vernon photograph courtesy of Torrid

Detroit-native blogger, social media influencer, activist, public speaker, and plus-size hijabi model Leah Vernon has devoted herself to promoting body positivity and inclusive media representation. Last year she released her memoir, Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black, Muslim (Beacon Press),  which outlines the struggles of living in a marginalized body and her journey to self-acceptance. Vernon has reclaimed the word “fat,” denouncing its negative connotations, and embracing it simply as a descriptive word. She took some time to talk with us about the importance of representation and self-love.

Hour Detroit: What does body positivity mean to you and why is it so

Leah Vernon: Living your best life in the body you have right now — not the body you had before your baby or when you were 14 or the body you could have if you lost 20 pounds. I don’t have to lose or gain weight to be happy, to feel worthy. It’s important for everyone to embrace self-love, because hurt people hurt people. How am I going to treat people if I don’t see myself as worthy of being on this planet? It becomes a cycle of abuse. It’s about loving yourself, but it’s also about loving others.

You get a lot of hateful comments online — how do you remain so confident?

I don’t care if you’re Gigi Hadid or Lizzo — there’s always going to be some ingrained hate or insecurity you have to work on, and it’s never easy. So, I’m not going to say it’s easy when people attack me. But I have so many wonderful comments and messages, women of all shapes, sizes, and religions who come to my book signings and cry. I have 80-year-old white women and 12-year-old Arabic girls saying, “I’ve never seen this before, and it’s empowering me to do more than I ever thought I could.” That trumps the trolls.

What advice would you give somebody who is struggling with body negativity?

We’re all on borrowed time, and we waste so much of it being ungrateful, wallowing in what others think, doubting ourselves instead of figuring out how to make the most out of our vessel. Yeah, I might be fat, but I can hear and see. I have two legs and two arms. You have to look at yourself and say, “I’m going to find the beauty in my uniqueness.” So, I decided not to let social constructs limit me.

Why do you embrace the word “fat?”

When I was younger, I was a firecracker, and I’d get into arguments. I’d be winning, and then the person would call me fat, and that word would crumble me. We need to rethink why these words that have been used as daggers make us uncomfortable. We make the word “fat” negative. We say fat means lazy, undesirable, not sexy, the funny sidekick. It’s not true. I’m fat and that’s OK. Fat is not a negative word; it’s a descriptor.

Why were you determined to pursue a career in modeling, despite its prejudice against people who look like you?

I deserve to be here. I need to be here. People need to see my black fat-ass face with my hijab. That keeps me going — knowing I’m the representation I needed when I was little.

Why is it important for young girls to see people who look like them in mainstream media?

I grew up with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Paris Hilton. I never saw myself in them. I would have given my life to look like those girls, but that obsession led to eating disorders and self-hatred. Girls and women now are doing the same thing — hurting themselves because they don’t see that there are so many other forms of beauty.