Leah Vernon isn’t the average fashion blogger: She’s fat, Black, Muslim, and unapologetically critical of a fashion industry that still insists on excluding people like her. Vernon speaks truth to power on her Instagram account (@lvernon2000), in her new book, Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim, and in this raw, honest interview.
What was the process like for writing the book? How did you move past any hesitancy you had and really lay it all out on the page?
I wrote a couple of essays for a class during my master’s program for fiction. I didn’t want anything to do with nonfiction and I didn’t want to write about my life. Then, about five years ago, one of my professors, a white guy who’s been in nonfiction for 30 years, said, “Leah, your stories are so refreshing. I’ve been in this industry for decades and never seen anything that’s refreshing. I would bet my whole career that you will get into memoir.”
A couple years later, I got divorced, which turned my whole world upside down. I didn’t have anything and had to start over again while I was on the rise as a social-media [influencer]. I had two master’s degrees, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I was angry when I was writing this book. I was mad as fuck. I didn’t have a lot [then], so writing was the only way I could [keep myself calm]. [I decided to] put all that on the page. I angrily wrote and cried every single day because each story brought back memories that I didn’t want to relive. I wrote the whole book in three months, and then I sat on it for a year because I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know anybody who wanted to fuck with it because I had three novels prior to [this book] that nobody wanted. I told myself that if I won any type of grant or God sent me any type of money, I would look for an agent for this book. After winning the Gilda Snowden Emerging Artist Award [in 2017], I had 10 agents asking to represent me [within] 24 hours.
It is difficult being vulnerable online. How do you create boundaries?
Prior to the book being released, I told my followers that they’d only be getting a [sliver] of my real life. A lot of them understood, and thanked me for sharing [at all]. I write in a way that [gives] the essence of the story without giving away too many details. That’s how I protect myself. I have boundaries, and I’ve set them with my followers. I let them know that there are certain topics that are off-limits. I share what I think will help others, and I only share what I’m comfortable sharing. I wasn’t comfortable sharing the abortion story. My family and friends just found out recently; I’ve kept that secret for a decade, so that was uncomfortable for me to write and share. But I knew I had to [share the story] because this book is coming out and there are [bills that aim to ban] of abortion.
Confidence comes from inside first: There’s no amount of makeup or body shapers [that will] make you feel like the baddest bitch in the room.
You write, “With these stories, I want you to learn. Heal. Think outside the box. Disengage from groupthink.” How do you disengage from groupthink?
I’m attached to all these intersections: I’m a Muslim. I’m Black. I’m fat. I don’t want to be the poster child for anything, [but] unfortunately, my career has been tokenized. [When I’m on] panels or on sets, I’m [often] the only one. When you see someone in a campaign who’s trans, dark-skinned, or fat, then [that person has] checked off a box. You automatically become the token. My story is very much my own. Is my story universal? Sure. We all have had issues and [don’t feel] comfortable enough to tell the truth.
I was homeschooled, so that added to me living in a bubble. When I got into college, I was very judgmental. [I would tell] my friends who smoked weed, “Only losers smoke weed.” I was super judgmental and religious. That all went to shit! I learned so much more about who I was from other people and different situations that were beyond me. That opened the door for me. I’m relearning or unlearning toxic behaviors that a lot of us learned growing up. You have to be willing to know and understand different people.
What are the biggest misconceptions that people have about the concept of modesty, especially as it relates to Muslim women?
Modesty is mostly focused on women. Judaism, Christianity, and [other religions who believe in] modesty always focus on women. You never see a guy and say, “I see the shape of [your] package or balls. Sir, you’re not practicing modesty.” A lot of times, misogyny and religion go hand in hand, so whoever is in power gets to make the rules. In Islam, only women have to abide by these set rules about modesty.
Right now, there’s a debate in the Muslim community about whether or not women should wear hijabs. The hijab is a cloth that covers a person’s hair, ears, or neck, but someone tried to argue that the hijab is not a piece of cloth. Yes, it has religious bearing, but you’re not less than if you don’t wear a hijab. Hijab is a sign of modesty for Muslim women, but some Muslim women decide not to [wear it]. Does that make them less than another woman who chooses to wear the hijab?
Just because a Muslim woman covers her entire body doesn’t mean she’s necessarily religious. They [could] be out in these streets at nights, and you would never know. Another woman who [wears] jeans, a tank top, and no hijab might be super holy. She might make her prayer five times a day and eat halal. Muslim women are complex. I want this book to show that there’s a spectrum of Muslim women instead of using these same old tropes about what a Muslim woman should [look like].
How can people, especially women, get more comfortable with dressing the bodies they have instead of following style “rules?”
I use fashion as a way to express myself. I’ve always dressed odd. I would put the most random shit [together]. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel, but I did get caught up in some of those articles [about] what plus-size women [should] wear to elongate their bodies, hide their tummies, or minimize shoulder width. Once I stepped outside the box, thin women—or what I like to call straight thighs—and fat women [beat me down]. I call it fat-on-fat crime. [There were] comments like, “Fat people always want attention. That’s why they wear these colorful things” or “Fat people shouldn’t wear A, B, C, D.”
Unfortunately, people don’t want you to be great. They don’t have the same courage, so they do everything in their power to keep you at their level. Confidence comes from inside first: There’s no amount of makeup or body shapers [that will] make you feel like the baddest bitch in the room. When I walk into the room. I have my shoulders back. The whole room is my runway, and I own everyone in it. I’m no longer going to hide in the shadows because I’m a fat Black woman and a Muslim. Practice how you enter a room.
You go in about the kind of Muslim woman, especially on Instagram, but also in media, who get elevated. Why do you think that media is so dedicated to presenting this one-dimensional image of Muslim women? How can media be more intentional about who we spotlight?
It all goes back to systematic racism. When I’m detailing the perfect hijab influencer, entrepreneur, or artist, it’s always a white-passing, 5’2”, size four Muslim. We try to cater to individuals who don’t try to cater to us, so we bend, sway, and change our beliefs, values, and culture so that we can make money or so that we can get a seat at the table. There’s so much anti-Blackness going on all levels in a lot of religions, so we get this type of girl speaks for everybody.
So many dark-skinned or Black Muslims who [say], “Thank you for being visible and present because I never see myself.” That’s messed up. Muslims come from so many different cultures: There are queer Muslims, African American Muslims, Indian Muslims, and Middle Eastern Muslims. [Still], we pick Muslims [from] America or Europe. [Media should] searching [for], working with, and collaborating with hijabis who aren’t white-passing.