Fat, Black, Muslim, and Stylish as Hell: An Interview with Fashion Blogger Leah Vernon

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Photo by Reel Clever Films

I discovered Leah Vernon’s Instagram a few weeks ago and was wowed by her style. Her vibrant and bold approach to fashion struck a chord with me immediately. She is a fat, Black, Muslim woman with a strong voice in a society obsessed with thinness, whiteness, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Talk about facing multiple forms of oppression! Vernon is always covered from head to toe, as required by her religion. She wears a hijab daily, which she sometimes substitutes for a fabulous head wrap or turban. But that doesn’t stop her from experimenting with fashion. I adore her creativity and personal style. The truth is, this fashion femme fatale just can’t be ignored!

Leah is the creator behind the blogs Beauty and the Muse and LeahVDaily. She is a 20-something style/fashion blogger, plus model, freelance writer, novelist, and body-positive activist from Detroit. She was inspired to start blogging in 2013 because there wasn’t enough diverse representation of real beauty in the media. Her goals are to continue to spread style and self-love to underrepresented groups, and to spark a fashion revolution!

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Photo by Remy Roman

MFC: When and why did you start blogging? What inspired the name Beauty and the Muse?

LV: I started blogging in the early 2000’s, three separate times actually, and didn’t know what I was doing and failed miserably. Haha. On the fourth try, I started blogging in 2013. My friends had forced me to create an Instagram account and after telling them ‘hell nah’, I finally caved in. I was feeling depressed because I had injured myself pretty badly at work. The sun was shining through my window when I woke up one day. I began scrolling through my IG timeline and saw Essie Golden looking bad as fuck in an army fatigue inspired getup. At that moment, I was like I can do that, too. I wanna slay!

In the next moment, the name Beauty and the Muse came out of nowhere. “That’s my blog name,” I said to myself. In my world, I have a split personality. There’s the beauty part, where it’s slayage and Gaga glam all the time. Then there’s the muse part, where I’m quiet, thoughtful, educated, and always seeking some answer to the world’s secrets.

Basically, I started blogging because I needed a creative outlet to express myself. As a fat, Black, Muslim woman, we are often times hidden from mainstream media and even within our very communities. I was tired of being overlooked and stuffed into a square. So, I made a conscious decision to bust out.

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Photo by Reel Clever Films

MFC: Do you consider yourself a feminist? How does that tie into your religious beliefs, if at all?

LV: Interesting question. I’m not going to lie. Over the past few years my views of feminism have changed greatly. At first, I didn’t get it. I thought that all feminism equated to was women having the right to show off their boobs in public and be sexually free. But as I started to actually learn and meet other feminists in real life, my views started to sway.

At this moment, I think that feminism is whatever a woman wants it to be, but it’s mainly compromised of wanting and deserving equality and inclusion. And sometimes feminism is in the eye of the beholder when we start getting down to the smaller details. It’d be a little different fundamentally from an atheist feminist point of view versus a Muslim or a Hindu feminist point of view. I don’t claim to be a ‘feminist’. But if wanting inclusion across the board equates to being one, then yes, I am. Lol.

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MFC: Do you think feminism and fashion can exist simultaneously?

LV: I’m a fat, Black , Muslim from Detroit who models… Anything is possible. Haha. I feel like in this time and age fashion is used to express so many different movements. So feminism and fashion can exist. Religion and fashion can exist. Culture and fashion can exist.

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Photo by Brooklyn Cashmere

MFC: You have great style, and you take big risks. Do you ever feel limited knowing that you need to cover your body? And is that challenging during the hot summer months?

LV: When I was younger and didn’t know myself or my fashion capabilities, I used to think that covering my body was an issue. That I could never mix the two: fashionable and covered! They didn’t show that in the media. If I wasn’t out there wearing booty shorts, then I could never be confident and cute.

When you truly start to be comfortable with who you are and what you’re doing in life, and not caring what others think, things become a lot easier. When I started being creative with my head scarves/turbans and my makeup and my ridiculous outfits, I had people from all walks of life coming up to me, a fat Muslim, asking me how they can do it, too. So, now, I’m never limited. When you have true style and imagination, nothing can limit you. Nothing.

And as for dressing in the summer for a Muslim girl, you get used to the heat. But you dress accordingly. Lighter fabrics and less layering.

MFC: What does body positivity mean to you as a Black, Muslim woman of size?

LV: I rep the body positivity movement because to me, it means inclusion of all sized bodies regardless of whether they are naked, covered, lumpy, thin, pale, or Black. It means freedom to do what you want, when you want to do it, unapologetically.

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MFC: What do you want the people who are reading this right now to know about you?

LV: I want the readers to stop being afraid of failure, of looking stupid in front of people who really don’t matter, of speaking out on human injustices. I want them to wear what they feel like with confidence and poise. I want them to embrace their perfections as well as their imperfections  — inside and out. I want them to stop believing what the media says or shows all the time, because most of the time its skewed.

MFC: Where can we find you on social media/web?

http://www.beautyandthemuse.net
FB: http://www.facebook.com/Beautyandthemuse
Youtube: Leahvdaily
IG: @Lvernon2000 (www.instagram.com/Lvernon2000)
Email: Lvernon20@yahoo.com

 

Thank you, Leah. You are a body-positive Queen, who slays and slays and slays!

xo

The Fat and the Skinny on Body Positive Comic Artist & Illustrator Tatiana Gill

I first saw the fat illustrations of Tatiana Gill on instagram some time last year. The undulating bellies, textured stretchmarks, and hairy legs of the fat super sheroes she draws jumped off the screen at me, delighting me with their unabashed sass and sparkle.

When this past June, my husband gifted me one of Tatiana’s comic books (and had it autographed),  I was ecstatic! Her quirky style and positive representation of diverse women is intoxicating. I set out to discover more about the Seattle-based badass behind the fabulous drawings. Specifically, I was interested in her journey toward body positivity and what inspires her to draw women of color as the subjects of some of her work.

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Olympian, Michelle Carter

Pia: Were you ever a dieter or body-obsessor?

Tatiana: Yes I was, in fact it was my self hate and obsessive dieting in my teens and 20’s that led me to attempt body acceptance. If I’d been able to diet in moderation, perhaps I’d still do it like so many of my friends. But every time I started weighing myself and counting calories, I immediately went into obsessive thinking and wound up engaging in self-harm like eating disorders and drugs. It was healthier for me to try not to think about any of it and accept the way I was. But until I discovered the body positive movement, I never truly accepted the way I am.

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P: What has your body positive journey been like?

T: It’s been a long road full of ups and downs. I have always liked bigger women aesthetically, but was ashamed of my own weight. I didn’t know anyone who was vocal about NOT being ashamed of their body. Then a few years ago I discovered the body positive movement, and immediately jumped on the bandwagon! It has been such a solace and inspiration for me. It’s also been an incredible boost to my mental health to realize I don’t have to be ashamed – I have lots of options from acceptance to pride.

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P: When and why did you begin drawing large bodies?

T: In my 20’s – the 1990’s – I began drawing larger bodies than what is in mainstream media, adding a belly or a fat roll here and there. I was motivated out of aesthetics for what I found beautiful. In 2013 I gained a lot of weight and felt very ashamed – but also angry that I was so ashamed, when I believe that all bodies are good bodies. I have always wanted to see people like me in the media, and in reaction to my shame, I was inspired to draw even larger bodies than before. I began really looking in the mirror and using reference photos to draw larger bodies, including visible belly outlines, cellulite, and double chins. I began taking the heroines I admire – TV stars and comic characters – and drawing them with larger bodies.

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I had been living in a bubble of white privilege and now that I realize how bad the problem is, representation seems more important than ever.

P: What inspired you to begin drawing fat women doing cool shit?

T: It felt like divine inspiration! I was creating the change I wanted to see in the world. My drawings have always been aspirational – I draw women I find beautiful, sexy, heroic, interesting. I was so tried of only one body type being presented in the mainstream media, and realized I could start to fill that hole with my own work.

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P: What motivates you to illustrate women of color? Was that a conscious decision?

T: I don’t think it started as a conscious decision, I was drawing people in my life and in the world around me. My sisters are of Korean descent and that helped me notice the lack of representation of people of color. It became more of a conscious decision when, thanks to social media and some high profile cases like Trayvon Martin, I started to realize how rampant racism is in our society. I had been living in a bubble of white privilege and now that I realize how bad the problem is, representation seems more important than ever.

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Gabi Fresh

P: What has the response been like from women of color who have seen or been the subject of your work?

T: It has been very positive – one friend sent me a video of her friend, a woman of color, reading my book and laughing with delight and saying ‘this is my favorite thing!’ And I was so excited when Gabi Fresh, one of my first body positive role models, wrote that she loved a drawing I made inspired by her. At comic cons where so many of the comics are of white people, occasionally a woman of color will zoom in on my ‘Plus’ book and stop to check it out. At times like that I really feel stoked that I can use my drawing skills in a positive way.

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P: Do you consider yourself an ally to fat women of color? If so, why?

TG: I do, and I aspire to be a better one. Thinking about this question shone a light on the ways I could be more politically active. I believe fat women of color are incredibly beautiful, valid, and should be cherished and celebrated. I think that all people are equals and should be treated as such. The fact that fat women of color rarely see themselves represented as heroines or stars in movies, TV, comics, and magazines sucks. We all deserve representation.

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P: Do you have any future projects the horizon?

TG: I don’t have long term plans currently, I tend to get struck by inspiration and follow my nose. I am currently drawing a comic about birth control, which I think is an important public health issue. I plan to keep making body-positive drawings of larger women, and I’d like to make more art embracing body positivity for all genders. I hope to make more art celebrating race equality, sexual orientation equality, gender equality, mental and physical health, self-care, and working through obstacles like trauma, anxiety, and addiction.

Where can people find you online?

My website is tatianagill.com
Facebook artist page https://www.facebook.com/tatianagill
Instagram @rupeegroupie
Twitter @tats_tweets
Tumblr http://tatianagill.tumblr.com/

I’m so thrilled to have an ally and a pal in Tatiana Gill. Keep up the great work — we need you!

xo

Talking Self-Love & Body Acceptance on The Chenese Lewis Show

I was so pleased when Chenese Lewis asked to interview me for her hugely popular podcast, The Chenese Lewis Show. Take a listen as we discuss my journey to self-acceptance, which includes my years of dieting, liposuction at age 23, and how I’ve come to love myself exactly as I am!

 

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I was lucky enough to interview Chenese a few years ago. She is an amazing advocate and early champion of body love. Learn about her journey here!

xo

My Interview with Velvet D’amour

Velvet, Velvet, Velvet.  There are no words to fully describe the divaliciousness of this woman.  I was recently lucky enough to interview the fashion photographer, founder of Vol Up 2 magazine, model and size acceptance activist.  She was in her Paris home, taking a break from editing some photos from a recent London photo shoot, when we made time to chat.  I had been following Velvet online for the last couple of years, and was so inspired by her beauty, honesty, confidence, grace, wit, and humor.  Needless to say that when she agreed to be interviewed by me, I was over the moon. I was also a nervous wreck.  I had no idea what to expect.  Could the seemingly cool diva end up being elusive and aloof?  Nope.  Not a chance in hell.  Here’s what she told me…
ME:  How did you begin in the modeling industry?
VDA: I was emulating mainstream (straight size) work in my photos and it ended up getting me the jobs because my book was so different than what the other plus size girls had. And my style was more outrageous and more editorial than what mainstream plus girls had in their books. And that ended up resonating with Galliano and Gaultier and got me on my way.  
ME: That’s quite a story!  I started my blog a few years ago and you were one of the people I looked to for inspiration. I so appreciate that. 
VDA: Thanks…you know, I’m happy to have been around a long time.  It’s great to see it all evolve.  In the early days there was like only one magazine that was really fetishy–Dimensions. There was also BBW magazine, Radiance, and other more feminist underground, wheat germy magazines.  I remember I was dating a body builder at the time and in our mailbox would be Muscle Mania and then there would be BBW.  It was so funny.
ME: What changes do you see happening in the media now in terms of our acceptance of plus size women and who we can look up to?
VDA: I think the most amazing thing is that’s come from us.  It’s not like one day the media said, let’s let the fatties in.  I think we, especially as bloggers, saw there was nothing available and created our own movement. Then the media saw there was money to be made off it and thus they let one or two token people in. But I think we have a long way to go in diversifying media in general.  It’s very much a grassroots effort and I applaud all the women who have partaken in it.
VDA: The difficulty is there were bigger models back in the day, but now we have “plus models” with agencies who consider a size 10 plus size.  That can do womens’ heads in in a big way.  And yet, there are women like Fluvia, Denise, and Clementine who are getting in. But they are women who primarily have socially acceptable fat, with lots of tits and ass, versus an apple shaped woman, or women who don’t have such “pretty fat.”  It would be nice to see the plus size industry itself be accommodating to all different sorts of body shapes and all different sorts of ages.  I like to show in Vol Up 2 (her magazine) not just plus people, but older women, differently- abled women and different ethnicities.  More efforts need to be made to push diversity.
People sometimes talk about the health issue. They ask me if I am I promoting obesity. But they never talk about the psychological or sociological issues of how people feel about themselves.  It doesn’t really matter…There are women who are a size two who hate their bodies, and size 24 women who hate their bodies too.  There needs to be an across the board effort to help women. The more diversity we see within in media, the better able people will be able to accept themselves and love themselves.  My message is all about diversity.
ME:  What projects do you have in the pipeline?
VDA:  Mainly I’m trying to make Vol Up 2 work, which is an enormous effort because it’s me myself and I for the most part doing everything. I’m hoping to expand to add a little section called Vol Up 2 TV, where I’m interviewing the models who I’m shooting.  And doing music videos starring plus size women. I think readers would appreciate seeing people in motion.  I’m doing my best on my own to make it happen.  It’s a challenge.
ME: Thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I look forward to seeing what’s next for you.
After the interview, Velvet asked me to be a contributing writer for Vol Up 2.  I happily accepted. Keep your eyes peeled for my first article coming soon!  Below are some links to Velvet’s social media and website. Enjoy!

My Interview with Chenese Lewis

I met Chenese Lewis about a month ago at the POSH LA fashion event in Los Angeles.  I knew who she was immediately–who doesn’t? I passed her in the hallway just outside the main room.  She smiled at me and said, “I know you!  You’re a blogger right?  It’s so nice to finally meet you.” Then she gave a me big hug.   I was astounded she knew who I was and even more surprised at her genuine positivity.  I emailed her few weeks later to ask her for an interview, and she obliged. What I learned is that Ms. Lewis is a no nonsense southern belle with tons of ambition, a big message and an even bigger heart.  

ME:  You recently celebrated 5 years on the air with Plus Model Radio. How did the idea come about–how did it all start?  


CL:  Well I moved to LA to pursue a career in modeling and acting. But a couple of years after I got out here, somebody told me about hosting classes and maybe that was something I was interested in getting into to add to what I was already doing.  So I went to the class and I loved it and I was great at it.  And I was just looking for a way to practice my skills and find a platform for myself.  So I approached Maddy with Plus Model Magazine. I was already part of the magazine as the empowerment editor.  It was an easy sell.  They said they had been thinking about that since podcasts were getting more and more popular. They just didn’t know who was a going to do it. The very first episode had over a thousand listeners. So it was successful from day one.

ME:  That’s pretty amazing! On that note, what’s been your favorite interview so far?

CL: Hmmmm. That’s a tough one.  I really like when I interview someone I look up to.  I mostly interview people in the plus size community, but I also do interview celebrities.  So when I can interview a celebrity I’ve admired, that’s really exciting.  I’ve had the opportunity to interview Kimberly Locke from American Idol on the show.  Also Emme and Mia Tyler.  It was exciting that they were willing to do my podcast and second that I had the opportunity to use my platform to promote them as well. So it was a win win situation.

ME:  Let me ask you about Love Your Body day and NOW (National Organization for Women). How did that idea come about?  




CL:  The Love Your Body Day concept came about way before I even got involved. After I moved to Los Angeles and I was looking for ways to promote myself, somebody mentioned to me that NOW had this event.  So I did some research, went to the local chapter to join and it just so happened the Hollywood chapter, when they were brand new and forming, they were looking for people to take leadership roles to build the chapter. So I told them I was already doing things in the area of positive body image and empowering plus size women and that I wanted to be part of the Love Your Body Day initiative.  They were like, that’s great. Anything you want to do we support you.  So I created the event on my own and it went on for six years.  It grew bigger and bigger every year. I had celebrity hosts. I had fashion shows.  I don’t do it anymore, but Love Your Body Day still happens.


ME:  Who have been some of your idols in Hollywood?

CL:  I really look up to Oprah, as I’m sure everyone does.  She inspires me not only with her business sense, but as a philanthropist as well.  I love Queen Latifah as well and how she shaped her career as far as her size not being the forefront of her career.  Because I’m heavy into the plus size community but I also like to do mainstream things even more.  Because I’m plus size wherever I go.  It doesn’t have to be a plus size event or focus. I just want to be able to do business and have opportunities like everybody else.

ME:  Where do you see the future of plus size fashion in 5 years? We’ve already seen so many strides and have many more options than we did 5 or 10 years ago.  Where do you see it going?

CL:  I see it booming.  There are still parts of the market that are untapped.  There is still room for emerging designers.  You know it’s still room to grow and be in the forefront and be in mainstream magazines.  I think it’s going to continue to boom and continue to be a striving industry.  I would also love to see more plus size women in leading roles. On TV and movies and we’re starting to see that now with Melissa McCarthy in lead roles. And she’s opening the door for more to happen—for more opportunities with her success.  I’m an actor myself, so I’m always looking for projects and working on creating some as well.


ME:  You are an ambassador for BEDA (Binge Eating Disorder Association).  Why are you passionate about that?



CL:  Well, the exposure I got from Love Your Body Day was so massive that it exposed me to new people and a new audience.  I was my own PR person and I was able to get lots of press, especially in 2010 when I did the nude Love Your Body Day shoot with model Whitney Thompson. That skyrocketed and gave us international press. With the press coverage, one of the communities that discovered me was the eating disorder community.  I already had a relationship with the (NEDA) National Eating Disorders Associationand I wanted to do more with them, but I guess they already had spokeswomen in place so they didn’t have a fit for me.  So someone from the NEDA introduced me to the founder of BEDA (Binge Eating Disorder Association) and we immediately clicked. Not because I had the disorder, but just to be a positive role model. Prior to that I had no idea what binge eating was. I never had an eating disorder personally. One of the things that eating disorder stems from is lack of confidence and poor body image.  When I found out that binge eating is the most common eating disorder among plus size women, I was shocked because prior to this I didn’t know a plus size women could have an eating disorder because I have such a strong plus size following.  So this is actually something great to promote because it appeals to my demographic.





ME:  Were you always a really confident person and comfortable with your body image?

CL: Always!  I’m originally from Louisiana—I’m from the south so part of my environmentwas that they appreciate a fuller figure with the southern cuisine [she laughs].  I’m African-American so culturally we prefer a curvier more fuller shape. [And growing up] my parents didn’t belittle me because of my weight.  ou know at a young age my mom told me I was smart and beautiful and that if anyone had anything negative to say about me, to ignore them.  I remember her telling me that in elementary school, so it really impacted me.  I was very blessed to be in a situation and an environment where I didn’t think anything was wrong with me because I didn’t have negative feedback.  You only think something is wrong with you if somebody is telling you negative things.  But if you don’t have anything to question you don’t have those feelings.  So I never had those feelings.  I got positive feedback in school—I was popular.  I didn’t have negativity period.

ME:  You were blessed. I know so many women who didn’t have that. They had parents who would comfort them with food and then the next minute tell them they needed to be on a diet. Between that and the messages we see in the media it’s hard.  I really appreciate your story.
 
CL:  I know I’m very blessed.  Maybe that’s why I’m able to be such a good spokesperson for this area because I have so much confidence I have enough to share. 

ME:  Well, I love it!  I know you travel a lot. How do you balance your personal life and your career?

CL:  [She chuckles] It’s not really balance.  I’m still young, I’m not married and I don’t have any kids. So I feel this is the prime time for me to focus on my career.  I do want kids and a family in the future, but I’m only 33 years old. So I still have time. 



ME:  You have plenty of time. So, what do you have coming down the pipeline? What’s next for you?

CL:  Well I have some major stuff coming up but I can’t give it a way just yet.  But maybe in a couple of months.

ME:  Can you give us a tiny little hint?

CL:  Well it has something to do with television.  So I should have a super-duper major exciting announcement. But besides that I’m always traveling, hosting plus size events, being a part of the

plus size community. And now I’m getting into the natural hair too.  So that’s even more things added to my schedule.  You know I just love to interact with people.  I’m southern, so I never meet a stranger. I love to talk, shake hands and take pictures—just spread some positivity and love to everybody.  

ME:  And you do it beautifully.  Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.  I’m excited to write about you and to let people know what a positive role model you are.  Not just for plus size women, not just for Black women, but for all women.  So, thank you, thank you, thank you! 

To learn more about Chenese Lewis visit her at:

www.cheneselewis.com
www.plusmodelradio.com
facebook.com/CheneseLewis
@CheneseLewis on Twitter