Stephanie Yeboah: 'Obesity is a disgusting word... it's just used to scare people'

The body positivity movement changed Stephanie Yeboah's life. Now she explains why she feels it has let her down and what needs to change

Steph Yeboah
In her new debut book, the 31-year-old writes openly about how she has found self-worth Credit: Kaye Ford Photography   

Stephanie Yeboah had just started secondary school when the bullying first began. “I developed really bad and low self esteem and was mocked for being not only plus-sized but also dark-skinned as well,” she says.

Born to Ghanaian parents and raised in Battersea, south London, the treatment she received at the hands of her peers sent her on a downward spiral, culminating in her diagnosis with depression at the age of just 14.

“I wanted to look different,” she admits, when we speak over the phone. “I became introverted and began extreme dieting, as I thought that would fix me. Essentially all of the things that didn't help my state of mind at the time.”

Now a prominent “fat acceptance advocate” and social media influencer, she has not only stopped apologising - to herself and others - for the way she looks: she has also helped chip away at the toxic narrative around women’s appearance.  

In her debut book, Fattily Ever After, the 31-year-old writes openly about how she has found self-worth in a world where judgement and discrimination are rife. But the journey has been bumpy. In her teens, as the bullying continued, she developed an eating disorder, forcing herself to throw up when she ate more than she was “allowed”. She struggled to make any new friends at college, and only felt safe while eating her lunch alone in the loo.  

It wasn’t until she forced herself to lose a lot of weight to fit into a bikini, that the practice of starving and harming herself came to an abrupt halt.

“I wasn’t doing any of it for myself or because I wanted to lose weight,” she says. “I was doing it because I just wanted the policing to stop and for people to think I was desirable. So I dedicated my early 20s to apologising to my body, instead of apologising for my body.”

Now a prominent 'fat-acceptance advocate' and social media influencer, Stephanie Yeboah hasn't always been this confident  Credit: Kaye Ford Photography

In 2007, when she started her first blog, Nerd About Town, she wrote extensively on body confidence and mental health.

Then in 2010, she discovered the body positivity movement. But, ten years on, however, she has serious issues with the turn the movement has taken. Created to promote the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of physical ability, size, gender, race, or appearance, it is now failing to be as inclusive as it should be, she believes.

Yeboah explains that it’s neglecting to advocate for black plus-size women, many of whom pioneered the movement, saying it has been “incredibly whitewashed” and “completely eradicated black voices."

She adds: “I don’t associate myself with that movement, because it's not a safe space for people who look like me anymore. It's a bit of a free for all, and everyone is claiming body positivity. In a sense, it's lost its meaning completely.”

If Yeboah is on a journey, she’s brought many others along with her: her Instagram following has grown to more than 175,000. Her book is dedicated to some of these people - she calls it “a love letter to plus-size black women” - and contains advice on how to live life unapologetically and with confidence. It also lays bare the identity crisis that crippled her over the last 18 years, and weaves in the stories of other black plus size women from around the world.

These are set in context by a thoughtful exploration of the historical and social aspects of body image and everyday misogynoir (misogyny that specifically targets women of colour) - something of which she herself has plenty of experience.

Yeboah sits within all the intersections that, in her words, “are seen as disgusting, ugly and grotesque at every level. I’m not only a woman, but a plus-sized woman. I’m not only a plus-sized woman, but a black woman. I’m not only a black woman, but a dark skinned black woman.”

She is happy to use the word “fat” to describe herself, too. “It's not an offensive word, but a descriptive word for a body shape,” she says.

“Unfortunately people have taken this word and used it in a horrible way, substituting it for ugly. For me, it was all about taking the power out the word. If that's the worst thing someone can say about me, then I think I'm doing pretty well being a decent human being.”  

Yeboah is happy to use the word 'fat' to describe herself too Credit: Kaye Ford Photography   

Yeboah dislikes how the Government has “used body positivity to scaremonger people into thinking about their health” in its efforts to tackle obesity in the wake of evidence that having a high BMI can lead to worse outcomes for coronavirus patients.  

“Obesity is a disgusting term,” Yeboah objects. “I see it as a bit of a slur. I hate it... When we talk about other body shapes, slim, tall, athletic, there isn't a scientific term to describe any of them. I would love to take the power out of that word, too, but it’s grotesque and used to scare people.”  

Language matters, of course; but so does imagery. In August, Yeboah had a meeting with Instagram about the constant censorship of fat bodies and black bodies on the social media platform, while simultaneously allowing smaller bodies to show partial nudity.  

“I think this lends itself to the idea of whiteness being pure, artistic and innocent, while black bodies are portrayed as being hyper-sexual and almost scary,” she says. “It’s very sneaky, insidious racism.”  

How did Instagram respond? “[They agreed] fat bodies are subject to extreme hyper-sexualisation and have decided to change their policy on how they review semi-nudity and are also retraining their staff on the topics of bigger bodies and nudity.”  

But for Yeboah, much more is needed. The next step she would like to see is for white people to start being allies to black plus-size women. “I think there is also a huge responsibility on brands, as they started focusing more on slimmer white women to represent their body positive campaigns," she adds.

But she doesn’t place all the responsibility on others and wants to encourage her fellow influencers  "to create the content that they wish they could see in public, and in doing that can create more awareness.

“Hopefully, when people are exposed to more bodies, the movement can perhaps shift back to what it was meant to be. It’s so much bigger than my own experiences.”

Fattily Ever After by Stephanie Yeboah (Hardie Grant, £12.99) is out now.