Meet Sesali Bowen, the Bad Fat Black Girl Shifting the Media Landscape
Sesali Bowen — known as Bad Fat Black Girl on the internet — is set to speak on BLK's weekly Instagram Live series, "Connection, Community & Conversation: How to Mobilize Your Black Girl Magic to Excel in Life, Love and Career" on Wednesday, March 24. Photo by Sesali Bowen/Instagram.
Although I had to reschedule my Zoom call with Sesali Bowen (a.k.a @badfatblackgirl across social media platforms) at last minute, she was a ray of light the moment we met. I gushed about how incredible she was for a few minutes while she sat inside her New York apartment with a poster of Grammy award-winning rapper Megan Thee Stallion hung up behind her. It was truly an honor to be in Bowen's magnetic presence.
Sesali Bowen is known for being a self-proclaimed bad fat Black girl and a "fat femme." She is also a body positivity activist and helped bring trap feminism to the forefront of intersectionality, which she writes about in her forthcoming book, "Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes From a Trap Feminist."
Bowen is a proud champion of Black girls with nearly 45,000 Instagram followers who look to her for plus-size style, confidence and an authentic perspective on life. Aside from her successful career as an entertainment journalist (with notable profiles on Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, Issa Rae and Janelle Monáe), she’s also one of the subjects in "Black Girl Church," a documentary about Black women and one of their magically sacred spaces: the beauty supply store.
She's also the host and creator of the "Purse First" podcast, where she talks about the impact women in rap music have made on pop culture and society as we now know it.
BLK, the largest dating app made for Black singles, is hosting an exclusive online content series titled "Connection, Community & Conversation: How to Mobilize Your Black Girl Magic to Excel in Life, Love and Career," for which Sesali Bowen is a panelist. She's set to speak on BLK's Instagram Live on Wednesday, March 24.
The series aims to connect Black singles to established leaders in their respective industries to share anecdotes, advice and encouragement on how to navigate their careers and relationships. So, I asked Bowen about her life, career, her views on sex-ed and — of course — what she looks forward to for BLK's panel.
Shifter Mag: Can you tell us about who you are and what you do?
Sesali Bowen: First and foremost, I'm a writer. I mean, I've been a writer since I could read, honestly. It's always been cathartic for me to just put pen to paper, but I started writing publicly for the internet — shout out to Facebook notes. That was in 2007 and then that evolved into a blog that's really embarrassing. And then that evolved into me getting selected to be a columnist for Feministing.com. I can't say enough about how pivotal that was, because not only, obviously, that was a place where I was able to like, get my clips to show people, "Hey, I can write." That was the moment where I really married two parts of my life in my professional life.
So, what a lot of people don't know is that before I had a career in media, I actually worked in progressive politics. I was the national campus organizer for Planned Parenthood, and before that, I was the training director for the United States Student Association. So I worked in this nonprofit sector and I was all about women's rights and advocacy. I was basically like a professional activist, if you will. When I started to write at Feministing, essentially, I was able to start taking this kind of professional feminism that I had been doing in my career and applying it more broadly. The first way I did that was being able to take some feminist or anti-feminist policy and break it down into accessible language for the Feministing readers. But I also was able to like talk about pop culture and explore how that was feminist.
Beyoncé performing at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards on August 24, 2014 in support of her self-titled album. Photo by Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic/Getty Images.
Y'all remember back in like 2012, 2013, it was right around the time where Beyoncé had the word "Feminist" written behind her and everybody wanted it, and it was around the time [Shonda Rhimes'] "Scandal" was out. So anything — every piece of content — we wanted to know "Is this feminist or not?" And so that worked in my favor because I was writing a lot of that stuff. I was calling Miley Cyrus out for cultural appropriation the moment she twerked — the moment she dropped the first video of her twerking in that onesie —I was writing something about that. You know, I was writing about "Scandal," I was writing about all these things. That kind of pushed me into this career in media. That's how I eventually got to move to New York and got my first writer's job as like a pop culture staff writer.
I got started at Refinery29 and then Nylon, and a lot of those jobs, you know, I didn't apply for any of them. Like people just saw my work and wanted to see it — that's how I got my start.
I think that some people just think that I'm like a plus-size influencer. People who don't know my professional background, they're just like, "Oh, a cute fat girl on the internet." Honestly, I don't make money from social media.
"That's just a testimony to how hungry people were to see fat Black girls out in the world."
That's just a testimony to how hungry people were to see fat Black girls out in the world. With celebrities and as an entertainment journalist, I would have all these moments where I would be at events or parties with certain people. I stood out because fat girls don't usually have that type of access.
SM: What sets trap feminism apart from (intersectional) feminism as we know it?
SB: First of all, intersectional feminism is a huge framework from which you can kind of develop and build other frameworks. So I would a hundred percent say that trap feminism is an intersectional feminist lens and framework. Period. Trap Feminism focuses specifically on two things. I think that one, it acknowledges the experiences and the inherent feminism that can be found in the practices of hood Black girls — cis and trans —who are really in the trenches. Like girls who have to like do shit that's sometimes illegal, girls who have to fight sometimes, girls who might not ever get a college education, girls who are immigrants. And so it acknowledges those lived experiences and those practices are also part of feminist resistance, but then it also acknowledges Black women as the cultural source of a lot of our popular media and our popular culture now.
When we think about what the looks are, when we think about what the language is, when we think about the culture itself, all of it is mined from hood Black girls. So, trap feminism really started with like the music of my generation as a Black girl, which is trap music. It's newer, and even now, it's already evolving into something else 'cause I'm older. For my generation, trap music was the center of that and I wanted to just think differently about how I was listening to that music and how women were being talked about and also how female rappers were talking about themselves and trying to find agency in that.
I said it out loud for the first time in maybe 2012, 2013 and then I wrote about it for Feministing and I included it in my master's thesis. So now, it's like actually a part of the academic world. Now, my book which is coming out, the subtitle of it is "Notes From a Trap Feminist." I really just tell that story and talk about how trap feminism has always been such a huge part of my life even before I knew what it was.
SM: What can people expect from your discussion on BLK’s online live series, “Connection, Community & Conversation: How to Mobilize Your Black Girl Magic to Excel in Life, Love and Career”?
SB: So first of all, we're going to spill a little bit of tea about how I met my boo on a dating app. I'm really excited though, to talk about why dating apps, in particular, are such good practice if you're in a place where you really want to reframe what your love life looks like. I feel very strongly that I am the strongest advocate for having standards and maintaining your standards because I think that's a very different thing. I think that people should feel more freedom in dating apps — that is the place where you get to practice that and where you get to double down on that and it's fun. I think, especially for fat Black women who are really, in a lot of ways, expected to just accept whatever they can get in terms of dating and their love lives. I'm really just excited to offer a different narrative about what dating can look like for us and what that means.
SM: As someone who identifies as queer, how do you feel about the lack of inclusivity in sex-ed? What do you wish you would have learned in these programs growing up?
SB: It's so funny because what I actually wish folks talked about more in sex-ed is about actual relationships. I think that sex-ed is very technical. It is very medical and sciencey, but it doesn't venture into the actual interpersonal dynamics in terms of what is healthy there, about how a partner should treat you and speak to you. Or even just about like how desire and attraction are not static things and that they change and evolve over time. That can also happen with sexuality because there were points in time where like I only dated cis men. Now I'm at a point in my life where like, you have to pay me to date a cis man. I tell people all the time that my orientation is that I'm straight for pay.
But I do think that like when I really look back on my life as a woman in her early thirties, is that I have not just been like flatly queer or flatly heterosexual for my entire life and that things have changed. I also think that like, as my life has changed and evolved, what I needed in a partner, what I was attracted to in people, has changed and evolved. One of the ways that sex-ed could be more inclusive is really for it to be more comprehensive, to talk about what sexuality means in the landscape of someone's life. Because I just don't think we do that enough. I think that's really how you get to tell more stories because we need to actually look at sexuality as part of someone's life and not just a thing that they do.
"Emotion is a huge part of it. Like, why is that not a part of the conversation? If we focus more on that, then that's how we have more humanity for people who identify in different parts of the spectrum."
It's not a label and it's not even just like one certain activity, you know what I mean? Having sex is not just like, or sexuality, is not just like a set of behaviors that one does like, "Oh, she wears wigs versus she wears braids." Like, no, it's not, it's not that surface; it's actually something that is very deeply, deeply enmeshed in the fabric of our lives.
Emotion is a huge part of it. Like, why is that not a part of the conversation? If we focus more on that, then that's how we have more humanity for people who identify in different parts of the spectrum.
SM: You radiate this incredible energy and confidence, even just through a phone screen on Instagram. We love that about you and your work; especially because a lot of people have the misconception that just because someone is plus-sized, they aren’t confident or happy with themselves. Do you have any advice for people who may be struggling with accepting their appearance or identity?
SB: I think that if you are just not feeling good about yourself, it's really easy for you to pour a lot of energy into assuming that it's a result of your appearance. But it's easier for me personally to feel good about myself because I feel like my shit is together. And I feel like I'm doing the shit I want to do. I'm living the life that I want to live.
Like, I have accomplished things I'm proud of. I go to therapy. I do shit that I enjoy, like getting body scrubs at Korean spas. Do you know what I mean? I spend time with my friends. I just like to do shit that makes me happy and makes me feel good. And I think that plays into my confidence because I have a life. It's hard to focus on what you look like when you have a life that you want to have, regardless. I've always been confident in the sense that I've always lived the life that I wanted to live, regardless of what I look like. But I do think that therapy is helping me reach a new level of acceptance that this is just the body that I have.
There isn't some standard that we can all have if we just do this certain set of things, right? Like, no, we just have what we have. There are a lot of days where I wish I was two sizes smaller because it would just really be easier to order from Pretty Little Thing if I just was in the mid-range, as opposed to the range of my size is always sold out or it might not fit because I'm kind of squeezing in and it's a little too tight. I have that, like, "I really want a small waist and a fat ass," you know what I mean? I'm not built like that. And maybe one day, I'll get surgery and be built like that, but I'm not built like that. The outcome of me having a small waist and a fat ass is like... what? And is that something that I don't have now without it?
"Go to therapy, talk to someone else about it. Take care of yourself. I think that that's important. Like it really matters."
For somebody who's really struggling, I would really recommend taking care of yourself. Go to therapy, talk to someone else about it. Take care of yourself. I think that that's important. Like it really matters. Once you get beyond that point where you're taking care of yourself and doing the things you need to do to have a life that you're happy with, whether that's getting on meds or whatever, then after that is the conversation about standards and about saying "no" to anything that's not what you want. Because that's really how you get the things that you really want to have.
Want to see more of Sesali Bowen?
Check her out on BLK's online live series, “Connection, Community & Conversation: How to Mobilize Your Black Girl Magic to Excel in Life, Love and Career” on Wednesday, March 24.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.