Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim by Leah Vernon

Unashamed: Musings of a Fat, Black Muslim by Leah Vernon struck me with it’s wonderful cover. There is a fat woman on the front looking like a total boss, wearing clothes that people say fat women shouldn’t wear: form-fitting, bright colors, a tucked-in top. The identities she gives herself — fat, black, Muslim — are all potential places to unpack inside this memoir. I couldn’t wait!

Unfortunately, Vernon’s novel suffers from what a number of memoirs by people in their twenties and thirties suffer from: not enough time to reflect on a life and make deep observations. Each part of Vernon’s life felt separate, like she wasn’t writing about the connections that exist. We’re all a product of our childhoods, relationships, money situation, religion or lack thereof, and education, among other things. Vernon describes being raised in Detroit by a black Muslim mother who had many children, all of whom she home schooled, by different fathers. Often without meeting the man beforehand, the mother would bring someone home and say, “This is my new husband.” Vernon writes, “[My mother’s] mood swings, her constant need for control. Her wrath was something to be feared. We just knew when to lay low and abort missions. Those men wanted to challenge her. Change her. And she wasn’t having none of that.”

The author’s father didn’t include her in his second family, and she even had to take him to court for stealing from her. He hated that his daughter was Muslim and would harass her for her religion and weight. The descriptions of being raised Muslim by a stern mother, calling her father and hoping he would just take her to Cedar Point with his “other family,” were interesting and well written.

The frank discussion of when she chose to have sex and the consequences, and what she was thinking about Islam and sexual desires, were also interesting. Although she didn’t have to, Vernon tells some stories about her first sexual experiences that help readers see where shame started to gather in a new chapter of her life.

But there is a disconnect when Vernon starts screaming and throwing things at her young husband and me thinking back to her mother doing the same things to her husbands. Once the childhood sections are over, they don’t come back to shape the way Vernon sees herself as a married woman struggling to make a relationship work with a man who wants to dominate her and make her a submissive Muslim woman. Thus, I felt like I was reading a celebrity tell-all instead of something deeper, like “this happened, and then this, and this, and this.” Gabourey Sidibe’s memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, comes to mind.

I almost put Unashamed down and called it a day. “Unashamed” it says on the cover, but the book is overflowing with personal insults and deep body shame. At one point, I skimmed several pages, noting Vernon had chosen to pick apart her entire body, using horrible language at every chance. Even when she starts modeling, she refers to her body in degrading ways, attaching curse words and body parts. Is it possible to troll yourself? This is supposed to be the “unashamed” part of the book, the part in which Vernon writes that she started to not care what other people think, but she doesn’t know when that happened. It was gradual, she writes. I see almost no evidence.

Unashamed is so full of shame that I came away feeling betrayed, to be honest. Leah Vernon was so unkind to herself — downright vile in places — that I’m not sure where she sees body acceptance and love in her own journey. Perhaps more time to process the connections between experiences in her life and reflect on where body shame comes from and how body hatred and fat acceptance cannot coexist would have made this a stronger memoir. I purposefully included only one quote from Unashamed because most things I highlighted were degrading to Vernon, and, on a few occasions, other people.


  1. Oh no, it’s so frustrating when a book doesn’t do what it purports to on the cover, and even more so when the difference means spreading hurtful messages (like body shame). I always wonder about people who become interested in writing personal nonfiction at a fairly young age- it’s so hard to write about one’s own life without more distance from the subject, which must mean either having to wait to write what you want, hope for something interesting (unfortunately, usually disastrous) to happen to oneself, or wing it and hope you’ll catch someone’s attention before there’s a chance for proper reflection. Choosing memoir as a genre must require a lot of patience! Unfortunately it seems some don’t wait quite long enough.


  2. I have always found it odd when someone in their twenties/thirties writes a memoir because as you said, you haven’t had that much time to reflect. Unless you’ve lived through something absolutely crazy, maybe let life marinate a little before writing an autobiography.


    • When I read Jenny Lawson’s second memoir, Furiously Happy, I was surprised when she would sort of touch on something and then move on, but then she would write that when her husband read that section that she didn’t actually talk about anything, so then she would go into it deeper. That’s some meta-memoir right there, but it worked to make for a more effective book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a pity – this has such potential to be really interesting. I think I would find it difficult to read a book where someone is perpetuating the cycle of bad behaviour in unhappy marriages that they had grown up with, especially if they are not particularly analytical or distanced about it.

    In terms of people writing memoirs when they are younger, I just had a look at my memoir shelf on Goodreads and I have only read one memoir by someone in her thirties that I enjoyed – For Richer, For Poorer: A love affair with poker, by Victoria Coren. She was in her late thirties when she wrote it and I found it mostly delightful – but she had been writing columns and personal essays for a long time, so maybe her analytical and reflective skills were more finely honed.


    • It IS incredibly hard to read people who watched poor marriages get into one themselves. And it happens in the U.S. all the time. I think it’s something like a young girl sees an older guy as a method of escape from her mother and step-father’s terrible marriage, so she gets married, dreaming of a fairy tale ending, and gets the same thing she just left.


  4. You’re right, I can’t imagine writing a memoir at this age—everything just feels too raw and unprocessed! And the author sounds like there are a lot of issues she hasn’t completely come to terms or is at peace with yet, especially her internalized fatphobia. It’s too bad because the title and cover are so intriguing, and she just rocks that metallic purple blouse and yellow pants.


  5. Oh darn, I was so excited about this book. I love her outfit on the cover, that metallic purple shirt specifically-fabulous! It’s so disappointing when you read these books looking for positive fat figures and it’s so hard to actually find that within the pages. I’m not disappointed in the author tho, I’m disappointed in the fact that publishers aren’t looking for these stories, because they must be out there! I won’t lose hope 🙂


  6. How disappointing! Especially since she totally does look like a badass on the cover! It sounds like she still has a lot of trauma to process, and self-awareness to gain. I agree with you that she might just be too young to write a compelling memoir.


    • I think there are two groups of people who should avoid writing memoirs: 1) people who haven’t full processed what they’re writing about because it’s so near to their present, and 2) people who want to get their side of the story out in what feels like a he said/she said. #2 is one of the reasons I did not enjoy Joan Fontaine’s autobiography even though I love her as an actress!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s disappointing. I agree about most people writing memoirs too early. Unless you are focusing on one very specific section or event of your life (like you went to the moon), wait until you’re older. Even now in my mid-30s I view life events differently than I did in my 20s so I can only imagine how I’ll see them in another decade or two.


    • I just finished Jonathan Van Ness’s memoir, and he’s 33. I can see how hard he worked to reflect on and analyze his experiences, which really makes it more interesting to read that a lot of memoirs by younger authors.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. But real respect for a woman standing up for who she really is and not being afraid. Salute to her bravery. She is awesome and can decide for her own. No submissiveness all the time, baes!!!


    • But what does it mean when a woman leaves a man who shames her only to be alone and shame herself? Although fat shaming is pervasive and woven tightly into American culture, it was still a choice to write and keep all the sections in which she fat shames herself — even after drafting and editing.


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