Sesali Bowen, author of Bad Fat Black Girl. Photo credit: Nailah Fumilayo Davis
Bad Fat Black Girl
(Amistad) author Sesali Bowen first spoke the words “trap feminism”
in 2012 while on a road trip with a friend. As the two women listened to the music, they discussed their relationship with the popularized form of Southern hip-hop that originated in Atlanta. Trap music has historically centered male rappers’ glorification of hustling in underground economies; Bowen explains that trap feminism makes space for women who have always had unique experiences trapping, too. “Trap feminism says that Black girls who have ever rocked bamboo earrings, dookie braids, Baby Phat, lace fronts, or those who have worked as hoes, scammers, call-center reps, at daycares, in retail, and those who sell waist trainers and mink lashes on Instagram are all worth the same dignity and respect we give Michelle Obama and Beyoncé,” Bowen writes.
In her book, Bowen delivers a timely analysis of trap feminism in pop culture following the resurgence and dominance of female rappers during “city girl summer” and “hot girl summer” in 2019. At the same time, the Chicago native offers a memoir, sharing her own experiences navigating poverty, body politics, her sexuality, the legal system, and sex work—all of which contributed to her establishing a trap feminism framework. A journalist and co-host of the Purse First
podcast on queer and female rappers, Bowen is a much-needed voice to contextualize the exciting direction where hip-hop is headed. Bitch spoke with the author about writing for Black women and ensuring trap culture no longer ignores or erases the stories of women and femmes.
When did you realize it was time to write this book?
It was always in the back of mind that one day I could possibly write a book. My old boss, Gabrielle Korn, the editor-in-chief at Nylon magazine when I worked there, had just announced that she had gotten a book deal. So I popped in and was like, “How did you do that?” She was like, “I can introduce you to my agent.” So I had an uncommon story in that I had my book agent first, and then I had a meeting with my literary agent, [who asked,] “Do you have any ideas which you might want to write about?” And I was like, hm, not exactly. But when I sat down with her, [I said] “Yeah, there is this idea called trap feminism that I have been interested in, and it’s perfect timing because we’re having this surge of female rappers.” This was back in 2019 when all this happened. We were talking about Black women in a different kind of way. It was “hot girl summer” and “city girl summer.” I had written about [trap feminism] for Feministing early on, but I didn’t want to write about it for any of the other outlets that I was working for because I didn’t want it to belong to them. I wanted it to be mine.
How did you approach defining trap feminism?
I tend to write for Black women. I know that many people will read my book, but I don’t write for a lot of people. One of the things I’ve always admired about [bell hooks’s] writing is how she is able to write about complex things in accessible language. What was important for me was that it felt accessible; I didn’t want to write a straightforward feminist text. But I wanted people to understand that this fits within the hip-hop feminist and Black feminist kind of pie. I think about my friends and cousins who didn’t go to college, and if they were to ask me, like what is trap feminism, how would I explain it to them?
Talk more about writing Black girls’ stories that come from an experience not adjacent to whiteness.
I think we have seen a lot of media that has relied on very derogatory, one-dimensional portrayals of Black people and Black women living in the hood and selling drugs, and sad, tragic stereotypes that I think a lot of Black people are tired of seeing. For a lot of creators who help create different representations of Blackness, the solution is to swing in the other direction. Like, let’s focus on Black excellence. Let’s focus on Black people who are educated and Black people who are successful and Black people who are wealthy. I think this essentially turned into the obsession with the process of Black people assimilating, essentially, as a marker of success. And I think that it was short-sighted because the solution to an overwhelming amount of stereotypes about Black people from the hood was not to completely erase Black people from the hood; it was actually to look deeper there.
That’s what my work seeks to do—to tell people there are a hundred different types of hood girls in the hood. Like you could have looked closer there and still come out with such an array of stories about Black resilience and Black beauty and Black excellence and creativity.
You wrote about the trauma you experienced because of fatphobia; namely that people—men in particular—weren’t accepting or empathetic toward you. How did it feel to reexamine these experiences through writing?
This book is one that I felt I needed to read when I was in my twenties and maybe even late teens, and so a lot of it is grappling with some of those experiences. I’ve done a lot more work around self-acceptance, and that aspect of it wasn’t as traumatic to write about. I’m a person who’s been writing about my body and about body image, body positivity, body politics on the internet for like damn near 10 years now. So I think that also helped; I think I’m just used to it. I’m used to people having troll comments on things I say or write because I’m usually writing for an outlet that has a comment section. I think I found that part pretty easy. What was harder to dig up were the things [that] I had not written about a lot. So, things around sexual assault and my sexuality, in general. Writing about my relationship with my mom was one of the more difficult things to write about, just because those were things I hadn’t written about in a while. So yeah, surprisingly, writing about my body and some of that trauma was really easy and cathartic. Also, I think Black people are expected to accept the abuse and the fatphobia that other people direct toward us, right, and we are so often told to be silent about it. It actually can feel very cathartic to kind of be honest about it, and to have that documented. Because like, if no one else is gonna see it, it at least feels good to see it for yourself.
Girlhood is an important theme here, too. What conversations would you like to see about how Black girls come into womanhood?
So much of what it means to be a woman is often tied to things that happened to our bodies or the way [that] other people are reading our bodies. This is especially true for single Black mothers, teenage girls, and sexually active Black women who aren’t married.
We are expected to be ashamed of our desires and our experiences, and that starts to be enforced from a very young age. “Don’t walk like this, don’t dress like this, don’t talk like this, don’t talk to any boys because, god forbid.” I never even felt like I had the freedom to say I had a crush on a boy. Going through a world where you have to have a first kiss or a first attraction or a first desire in secret and in silence and in shame like that is extremely damaging, and I think that’s the main thing I want to see changed around how we treat girls as they develop.
On top of that is figuring out ways to introduce the concept of pleasure into the lives of girls and women because we are expected to do almost everything at the behest of someone else. Whether it is to fulfill the expectations of our family, to meet the desires of men, it always comes so late in life that we are allowed to figure out things that we enjoy, how we can indulge those things, and why it’s okay to do so.
Tying this back to the music: Right now, we’re seeing female rappers who are vocal and explicit about what they need in relationships with men. I’ve had a theory that their popularity comes from women listeners with suppressed desires.
I write about this. Part of the reason [trap music is] so popular is it’s not always necessarily reflecting some widespread reality, but it does represent the aspirational views of a certain class of Black folks. So we are hearing more Black women talk about getting money from their lovers and cumming when they have sex because Black women are craving a life where those things are normal for them. Because the truth is, that’s not the reality for Black women. Because we are often not empowered to have a pleasure politic around our bodies. We are socialized to be prepared to have our bodies talked about and regulated by someone else. You are right on the money with that perspective on how people are taking in female rap because it is absolutely about things that we are not getting and being able to express what it might be like to receive help.
Some people say there is an overrepresentation of women who are sexual in hip-hop, asking if that damages Black women’s image and how they are viewed in society. I don’t think deeply about that, but what would you say to them?
I think people who have some type of fear about what a collective liberation and a sexual call for Black women looks like—what they’re not questioning is the harm that has come from Black women not having that. Because they don’t inherently see that as harmful. They don’t think it’s harmful that Black women don’t have a sexual politic around their bodies.
Book cover for Bad Fat Black Girl by Sesali Bowen
You also wrote about the body and shame around women getting plastic surgery, specifically Brazilian Butt Lifts, in the culture. Where does this shame come from?
Ultimately what intimidates people about women and beauty—and especially Black women’s beauty—it’s not actually about what women look like; it’s about how they relate to their beauty. And when women start to take too much control over their own narrative about what their body is worth, what it looks like, how they feel about it, that’s when people start getting uncomfortable. That’s why we have all these cultural expectations about women who get plastic surgery and how honest they need to be about it.
The way we are so body-positive when it comes to men and hip hop is wild to me. We exist in a world where Rick Ross is allowed to have a multi-million dollar career. I don’t want to hear shit about Lizzo wearing a goddamn swimsuit. I don’t want to hear shit about who got a BBL; I don’t want to hear who needs one. I don’t want to hear about whose titties are saggy and whose titties are not because we let these ugly ass men come in here any way that they are.
You center queer rappers in your work, and Lil Nas X is currently the biggest rapper right now. What are your thoughts on his emergence at this time?
I love it. My friend Amber says that Lil Nas X is being constantly protected by a gang of Black, queer aunties, and I agree with that, one hundred [percent]. Like, he is my nephew, and I will protect him at all cost. Lil Nas X coming out is important because, yeah, he’s a rapper, but I also think he’s followed the model of a lot of pop careers, so he understands pop culture and what it means to be a pop phenom more than just a hip-hop phenom. That’s doubly important because not only is he a queer person taking up space in hip-hop, but like, queer folks have allowed so many pop stars to have careers—they are such a huge fan base—and so to have that representation is super important. So many people thought Montero was going to be this turned-up album, and you listen to it, and he’s telling a sad story about rejection. To be able to do that with that platform is legendary to me.
In your book you also dive into your experiences as a sex worker. Some recent representations of sex work have popped up in recent movies like Jezebel, Zola, and Hustlers. What other stories need to be explored?
I think that they need to let sex workers tell their own stories. Part of the issue is that a lot of these stories about sex workers are not coming from sex workers, and that’s going to bite you in the ass all the time. There is so much that we can learn about the prison-industrial complex, race, gender, all of that. There is so much of that that we can learn from looking at sex workers because it’s those people that are most impacted by those systems that end up having to work in underground economies. We think that it’s a morality issue in terms of why that profession is looked down upon, but the truth is that it’s a profession mostly made up of this group that we already seek to strip of autonomy and dehumanize.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Bowen coined “trap feminism” in 2013, which was incorrect; The story also misspelled the name of Nylon editor-in-chief Gabrielle Korn. We have updated the story to correct these errors.