I was cackling halfway through reading the title of this book – and it escalated from there.
Every fat person has experienced the panic that comes from an occasion that calls for a bathing suit. That’s why #VERYFAT #VERYBRAVE: The Fat Girl’s Guide to Being #Brave and Not a Dejected, Melancholy, Down-in-the-Dumps Weeping Fat Girl in a Bikini is for anyone who has struggled with body image, but especially for fat and/or Black women.
If you’ve ever exposed or drawn attention to a bit of your own soft flesh, you know exactly what Nicole Byer (Nailed It, Why Won’t You Date Me?) means when she hashtags VERYBRAVE. I’m a fat woman who spends a greater-than-average amount of time naked, either as a life drawing model or performing onstage, and most people’s reaction when they find out is “You’re so brave, I could never do that!” A fellow fat friend of mine has a penchant for sequins, and every time she wears something sparkly in public, a stranger inevitably stops to tell her how “brave” she is for daring to wear something so noticeable.
It’s hard not to read that as a thinly-veiled neg – “You’re supposed to be ashamed of your body, yet here you are, existing in it. How very #brave of you.” Intellectually, I know it’s more complicated than that – we live in a white supremacist, patriarchal society that actively fuels and profits from our insecurities – but sometimes it’s hard to forgive a world that treats your body as a punchline or a cautionary tale.
Byer tears into this notion with her trademark blunt hilarity in a way that focuses on the systemic issues. It is brave to be comfortable in your body, especially as a Black woman, and she channels her rage towards the industries and systems that teach us we’ll never be good enough rather than towards the people struggling alongside us. She knows that making peace with yourself is a journey, not a destination, and her compassion is an inspiration to us all.
Byer shares her own journey, from swimming in her clothes as a kid (#notbrave) to posing in bikinis all over town in a frenetic week-long photo shoot (#sobrave). She offers hilarious tips and tricks for dealing with the haters, whether that’s the voice in your head or the one shouting at you on the street. Sometimes, laughter really is the best medicine.
The book delves into some heavy stuff around diet culture and fat shaming, but in a manner that is both sensitive and humorous. While predominantly a memoir of her personal experience as a Black woman, Byer makes an effort to be inclusive and acknowledge that her experience isn’t universal. It’s a tough balance to strike, especially in comedy, but she nailed it (pun intended) and the overall effect is a brilliant example of how punching up doesn’t mean you can’t still write a book that should come with a ‘pee before reading’ warning.
The best part isn’t even the story or the jokes (although they’re great!) – it’s the photos of Nicole showing off her incredible collection of more than one hundred bikinis. They are glorious in and of themselves, but combined with Byer’s captions exploring and making light of her greatest fears about her body, they are a masterpiece.
In her memoir Shrill, Lindy West’s (excellent!) advice for getting more comfortable with diverse bodies boiled down to “look at pictures of fat people until they’re just pictures of people.” Most people start by following body positivity activists and plus-sized models on Instagram. But if you’re in a hurry, then Nicole Byer has gifted us a crash course in loving the body you’re in, just as it is. The way she revels in her body and the things it can do, instead of faulting it for what it can’t, is utterly joyous and inspiring.
This book belongs on your coffee table, as a collage surrounding your mirror or as fabric for a fabulous bikini of your own (free merch idea for you, Nicole!) so you can revisit its lessons every day. It’s rare to look at a fashion spread and feel better about yourself, but #VERYFAT #VERYBRAVE left me feeling very #blessed.
So next time I want to cry about some throwaway tweet about how terribly funny it is that we’re all going to get fat in isolation, as though the worst thing that could happen during a pandemic is to end up looking like me, I’m going to put on a bikini and dance because I, too, am #VERYBRAVE.
To quote Byer, “The world can be cruel, so why not at least be nice to yourself?” Cheers to that.