Stephanie Yeboah is not your average ‘body positivity’ influencer. By reclaiming the meaning of the word ‘fat’, she has helped plus size women brush off the negative stereotypes in favour of self-love. And while other content creators with smaller bodies are, in Lizzo’s words, co-opting the body positivity movement, Yeboah stands firm in her belief that there is more work to be done to uplift plussize bodies in all areas of the media and society. After a fun day of shooting, we sat down with her to find out more...
Two years on from your successful book launch, Fattily Ever After, do you believe that plus-size women now have more visibility in the media?
I still think there’s a lot of work that could be done. With the release of my book and similar books centred around bigger bodies, I feel like while we have seen some improvement within media. However, I also feel as if there is a slow regression, especially when it comes to fashion. Even over the past year, it seems like brands are almost reverting back from using bigger models at the height of the movement, to a midsized focus, so much so that mid sizes are now centred within the ‘body positive’ movement. What I’m seeing now is that many publications are using women between the sizes of 12 to 16 as their ‘curve’ models. Even though this celebrates women with a curvy shape, it’s not a true reflection to being plus sized.
The conversation of inclusivity in fashion and beauty has been around for years now. Should we cancel brands that still aren’t being inclusive in 2022?
I think it’s important to come up with a productive medium where we can speak to brands about their lack of inclusivity and diversity, but not so that they become performative in their diversity. When we target brands from a place of shaming, it can go either one of two ways: they could retreat, ignore or stand firm in their decision to avoid diversity, or they go the other way and become performative, and this can lead to tokenism. It’s about having collaborative conversations with brands and impressing on them the need for there to be more inclusivity and why this is needed. This is opposed to the easier thing to do, which is calling them out on social media and shaming them – sometimes that can work, but a lot of times brands will react by being performative as opposed to taking the time out to really listen because they feel attacked and like they have to defend themselves. There can be ways to collaborate in a cooperative way without first resorting to shaming.
What do you think of cancel culture? Does it equate to bullying or can it be constructive?
I think that when cancel culture first became popular, it was something that, at its height, perhaps, was meant to be constructive. However, now I think it’s at a point where it is a tool that is used by people who are bullies. It has become a culture that lacks nuance, and the opportunity to really hear people out. It doesn’t give people the room or opportunity to grow. But, then again, we have to look at it on a case-by-case basis because there are some people that genuinely deserve to be cancelled.
Do you ever worry about being ‘cancelled’?
I don’t worry about it, only because I am someone who has called people out in the past, mostly brands that haven’t been inclusive or people who have been fatphobic. A lot of my work as an advocate and activist within those communities involves a certain degree of calling out and holding people accountable. So it would be counterproductive for me to not receive the same if I was ever in that position. I’ve always thought that the worst thing you can do in that situation is get defensive – even though your natural instinct is to say, ‘this was taken out of context’ or ‘this was a lie’. You just have to listen. I think I would be able to handle it quite well because I would know how to navigate it in terms of not being defensive, listening to what people are saying and why they’re saying it, and really doing the internal work to realise where I went wrong, make amends, apologise and try to learn from the situation.
You’ve talked in the past about how you used to have negative feelings about your body. What was your ‘eureka’ moment when it came to self love?
I was on a beach in Barcelona on my 23rd birthday. In the run up to that moment, I had given myself four months to lose four stone because I had never been on a beach in a bikini, and I wanted that ‘bikini body’. I thought that was the only way to feel attractive. I stuck to that goal and lost a lot of weight, but I remember being on the beach in this frilly pink bikini, and I realised that no one was looking at me. Nobody cared. At that moment I thought, who did I do this for? I lost all of that weight in a dangerous way and became very ill, so mentally I was very low and physically I was not well. But also, I still wasn’t happy; I had lost weight and I felt just as insecure. So I decided that I couldn’t allow this to continue – there had to be a point where I learnt to love my body. When I flew back to the UK, I started incorporating plus-size fashion and talking about body confidence and positivity on my blog. That was where I started trying to process and heal from all the negative self-talk and the toxic, fatphobic narrative that I had been brainwashed with my whole life. It was a long healing process from that point.
Is negative self-image part of being human?
I think it is. We’re always going to compare ourselves to other people. When there is a specific standard of beauty, then there is going to be negative body talk and thoughts. We are uplifting one beauty standard as THE standard, so therefore if you don’t meet that standard, you’re less likely to get the partner you want, or a specific job, or be seen as desirable. And this is what can cause negative self-image. If there was no standard, we would be a lot better off.
Having had years of experience as an influencer, how do you deal with trolls and unsolicited advice now in comparison to when you first started?
I used to be petty and troll them back until they blocked me. I would say things that were really sarcastic and cutting, and keep the conversation going until I was ultimately blocked. But that took up a lot of time. My profile has increased somewhat, and I’m becoming the recipient of a lot more trolling - albeit, it’s usually not direct. It’s more a case of finding comments online on social media and message boards. That’s quite hard to deal with, so I have to protect my peace and that’s something I’m trying to learn how to do. That might mean limiting my time on certain social media platforms, such as Twitter, which can be a hot mess (luckily, Instagram seems to be the nicer platform out of the two), and blocking, restricting and actively unfollowing people. A lot of trolls tend to act either out of envy, boredom, or hate that has nothing to do with the individual they’re trolling. It’s often a projection of whatever negative feelings they have at that moment.
Lately, many influencers have rejected fast fashion in favour of more sustainable buys, but this has been particularly difficult for plus-size women to engage with due to lack of options. What are your tips for dressing more sustainably?
Being fat and dressing is a sustainable act in itself. We have always been sustainable, and often we do it without thinking. What I mean by that is, when we find an amazing piece of clothing we hang onto it because we probably won’t find it again anywhere else due to a lack of representation in fashion. For example, I found a corduroy jumpsuit that I had never seen anywhere else before; after I bought it, I made sure to really take care of it. We repair things, patch them up, take them to the dry cleaners, because as fat people we know that we aren’t going to be able to find that piece of clothing in the shops again. This is one of the reasons why you don’t tend to see a lot of plus-size clothing in charity shops, because we have to hold onto it. Unfortunately, sustainability is often an option for smaller people who have a disposable income. It’s very difficult for plus-size people to find trendy clothing in our size and at an affordable price. I feel that plus-size people should be excluded from the sustainability chat until slow fashion brands are more inclusive. Nobody should fault us for continually buying fast fashion, because it’s the only industry that is catering to our needs. You can’t blame us, because we don’t have the luxury of shopping as broadly as everyone else. One tip for dressing more sustainably is to look for key pieces that transcend trends such as a leopard print coat, a jumpsuit with quality, thick material, or a well-fitting suit. Another tip is to attend clothing swaps, even if it’s just with your friends.
Recently we’ve seen major world events rock social media, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and wildfires across the world. How do you balance the conversation between current affairs and your own content?
Influencers often question whether we should post our normal content during a global tragedy. It’s always going to be a bit different for me, because the majority of my content is about speaking up for the minorities and oppressed communities that I’m in, so that’s always going to be woven into everything that I do. I find it incredibly easy to talk about these issues and integrate it into my content, and I think that any person who has a platform should speak about these subjects without being performative. I’ve always been loud, bold and raw with how I talk, and I’ve held people accountable and talked about wider issues. Even though I don’t necessarily call myself an activist, it forms the fabric of what I do. So I’ll never shy away from talking about global events.
What’s the best thing that’s come out of your time as a content creator so far?
My confidence. As a teenager and young adult, I was very introverted and meek. I never mingled in groups and had terrible eye contact. The thought of public speaking gave me panic attacks. Willing myself to go to events, speak to people and create such vulnerable content has helped me come into my own as a speaker and writer. I wouldn’t say I’m extroverted now, but I’m so proud of how far I’ve come in regards to self-esteem and confidence. I can express my opinions without feeling anxious or nervous. Watching myself grow in that way has made me proud. Outside of that, I cherish being able to make other people who look like me feel seen. Growing up, I didn’t have anyone to look up to who also looked like me. When I receive emails from people thanking me for inspiring them, it makes me well up because I feel good knowing that I can be relatable to women and girls who might have never felt seen or heard, or who have felt like an anomaly because of the way they look.
Credits: Photography, Glenn Larkby; Hair, Pashcanel Mitchell; Assistant, Aisha Ibrahim; Make-up, Natasha Wright; Styling, Nicole Ranger