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.