Heavy by Kiese Laymon was recommended to me several times before I decided it was a work of non-fiction that I needed to read given my work exploring the intersections of race and fatness and the special oppression exacted upon these identities.

Aside from Roxane Gay, social, political, economic, and cultural work around the (fat) body is overwhelmingly white—despite the ways in which anti-fat oppression is felt most harshly by Black fat bodies. Much less of this work is authored by or written for Black boys and nonbinary people assigned male at birth (AMAB). But Laymon’s Heavy interrupts this pattern so poignantly in that my own experiences were reflected in ways that were all times provocative, thought provoking, and inspirational.

Like Laymon says, I, too, often want to write a lie; to pen words which I know will not be my [full] truth, but will receive praise anyway. I am so glad, however, that he did not write a lie. Because on the white pages of that first part of his first chapter—the part which he named Train—Laymon unearthed the skeleton of a body that left its spirit behind to haunt me.

And now I can heal.

In this part of Heavy, Laymon discusses how he felt that he was his sexiest self when Reneta, a character in the memoir, put her breasts in his mouth, when she touched him, and when she breathed like she enjoyed what her body was feeling. He named just how unsexy he would feel when she’d come over and not touch him or let him touch her.

The story is further complicated when Laymon reveals that Reneta was his babysitter and he had not yet reached the dawn of his teenage years when these acts of molestation began.

Laymon complicates our understandings of sex, sexual violence, and desire by ushering us from a layered conversation around the hyper-sexualization of fat Black boys due to anti-fatness and beauty politics, to an even more complex conversation about the fat body and what it is forced to endure for the sake of pleasure/desirability.

A little over a year ago, I penned an essay where I discussed a few of my encounters with sexual abuse, and my relation to Laymon is a result of the sexual abuse we were forced to endure. Often, I don’t feel sexy unless I’m pleasuring someone else’s body through sex. In those moments, my body is most desired, and my body is not often appreciated outside of  sexualized context.

When Laymon writes about his “thighs and calves” not being “muscly enough,” I read an embarrassment that is not foreign to me. I empathize with how his lack of muscularity would sometimes keep Renata from touching him, and though she was sexually abusive, the feeling of being unwanted was nonetheless difficult to bear. Kiese’s experience of abuse from Renata was further explored when he watched her have “fully naked” sex with her muscular boyfriend, highlighting again the extent to which sexual violence is psychologically disturbing and emotionally wrangling.

The feeling that your gut is figuratively and literally keeping you from experiencing what it’s like to wrap your whole self around someone and for them to do the same to you is almost suffocating. As sad as it is, the feeling of your body being a physical barrier in sexual contact is oftentimes what we have to process before we can ever even consider that what we’ve experienced is sexual abuse.

I know what it’s like to not process your assault for the deadly act that it is because fat people, generally—but fat Black boys, specifically—are taught (sometimes, inadvertently) that we cannot be sexually assaulted; that we should appreciate when our bodies are being touched in any way, even when the behavior is violent.

Fat people are sexually assaulted, but the confines of gender limit whose stories we get to hear. Overarchingly, fat people are not believed when we are victims and survivors, and yet, women courageously share their stories despite the risks. However, seldom do we hear from victims and survivors who are fat Black boys, and the lack of adequate and accessible data to support our claims does little for our supposed credibility.

Yet people socialized as fat Black boys are sexually abused all the time, and our invisibility as victims and survivors further demonstrates the ways anti-fatness is detrimental to the minds and bodies of fat Black boys and must be eradicated in full.

I have had my fair share of run-ins with sexual violence, both when I was being socialized as a fat Black boy and now as a fat Black nonbinary person. And part of what caused me to be slow to recognizing these encounters as assault/rape is the thought that I had to be grateful. I have not yet processed these abuses—not enough, anyway—because I am still working past the crossroad at which the hyper-sexualization of Black boys and the gaslighting of fat survivors meet.

There is an exhaustive history of Black boys and men being fetishized and hyper-sexualized because of their dicks, their ‘hard’ demeanor, and the animalistic characteristics assigned to their being and existence. This is exacerbated when the Black man is a fat one.

There is also a long history of fat Black people, especially Black women, not being believed when they accuse men of rape. Many are even assaulted by police when they report. So for fat Black men and nonbinary folk, who live with the heightened fear of being hyper-sexualized while simultaneously never being desired, this story rests heavy in our hearts.

Fat Black people are misdiagnosed by medical professionals; we are skipped over for jobs and housing; we sit at the crux of harm committed by dieting and diet culture; we experience heightened interactions with police, leading to state-sanctioned brutality; we are showcased as the evil that waits in children’s stories and beastly gluttons in religious texts.

In various ways, the world around us has normalized the teachings that we are not desirable and, thus, our bodies are deserving of the abuse they endure.

Anti-fatness coerces us into believing that our bodies are only supposed to endure pain, never pleasure; that our very existence is always defined by Death, never Life; that our value, if any is assigned to us at all, is wrapped up in our ability to perform. We have to be the mammy archetype and, for fat dark skin Black men and nonbinary people, what I like to call the Fat Albert trope—existing with the sole purpose of caring for everyone other than ourselves.

And sex can’t be desired, only taken. Because what more is a fat Black woman with agency over her body than a loud mouth and wide hips to the slave master? And what more is a fat Black boy whose body is filled with insecurities and stiffened by trauma than an opportunity to the DL man? And what more is a fat Black man who wants to offer more than his body to the women who only see him as an experience?

Yet this is our reality. One we never once asked for, but it has been our cross and our calvary; the hill we are forced to die on, be resurrected from, and nailed to again.

What I am really naming here is the complicatedness of feeling both affirmed and harmed by your assault because your body is never really your own when you’re fat and Black, and the trauma you arrive at upon realizing that there is so affirmation in touch intended to harm.

The solution doesn’t have to be a complicated one, however. For those of you who are raising fat Black boys, be sure to share with them how beautiful they are, always. That weight loss is not a requirement for them to be beautiful. That their body is not an extension of their beauty but is, instead, central to their beauty. That they can be as sexual as they want, but their bodies don’t have to endure being hyper-sexualized by anyone. That abuse of their bodies—through medicine, sex, religion, and other institutions—is not something you tolerate.

Parents and people raising fat children have the power to shift culture and disarm structural anti-fatness by teaching the boys they raise to believe in, not necessarily love, their bodies before they are ever taught to hate them. Doing so can literally save them from processing their assault(s) as points of desirability rather than abused power.

Suggested Reading

The medical industry is gaslighting Black people to help the state kill us” — Rosemary Ajegwu, RaceBaitr (October 18, 2018)

The Bracing Honesty of Kiese Laymon’s Heavy” — Cady Lang, Time (October 18, 2018)










Originally penned for: racebaitr.