What It's Like To Be Plus Inside Refinery29

Photo: Shonda Harper/Soul Force.
I’ve been plus-sized for pretty much my entire life. As an infant I was nicknamed Buddha Baby — because I was plush and I didn’t have much hair. And it’s one thing to see bodies like mine represented in media, it’s another to hear stories that reflect my experiences. The latter has become so much more important. Even with the blossoming of stars like Chrissy Metz, Gabourey Sidibe, and many of the women on Orange Is The New Black, there is still a void that needs to be filled with more nuanced conversations about what it’s like to be plus. Being fat has always intersected with every other facet of my life, from the personal to the professional. Refinery29 is the first place I’ve worked where bodies like mine have been part of the conversation about our company values — something I never would have guessed before I started working here.
This time last year, I was looking for freelance writing opportunities after being laid off. When I got an unexpected email about interviewing for an open spot at R29, I was excited. Like many of you, R29 was one of my favorite sites for female-friendly content. I thought my voice could be useful here and yes, I had bills to pay. But that excitement quickly turned to anxiety when I remembered all of the other things I supposedly knew about the site. It was, and is, a serious hub for fashion and style. Clearly I’ve watched the Devil Wears Prada one too many times because it actually crossed my mind that if I didn’t fit into the office fashion-wise, I would be ruled out as a candidate. I quickly ran through a mental catalog of every piece of clothing I owned to figure out which outfit I should wear for the interview. I texted selfies to my friends, who helped me select my look. We settled on something I liked — a burgundy jumper on top of a white blouse, with my signature wheat Timberland boots — and braced myself for the interview.
A year later, I don’t think I need to spell out that it went well. While waiting in the reception area Tia Mowry walked by and actually said hi to me. The entire day was a win. Yet I can’t pretend that, in spite of all the effort I put into my outfit, I wasn’t riddled with insecurity and anxiety as I walked through the office. Our Entertainment Director — my future boss Molly Stout — did not walk, she glided towards me to shake my hand. She has long blonde hair and was wearing a flowy skirt with the perfect chunky heels. I saw another woman hurry by in green pants, a cropped graphic tee, and booties, a winning combination that seemed effortless. Fishnets peeked through ripped jeans. Leather jackets were everywhere. Even the women who weren’t strutting around in heels had obviously nurtured a unique personal style. I left the interview feeling confident about my employment chances, but panicking about how my body would fit into this place — and how in the hell I was going to figure out what to wear every day.

A post shared by Sesali B. (@badfatblackgirl) on

Here’s something you need to know about me. I am not on the inconspicuous end of the plus-sized spectrum. Because 67% of women in America are over a size 14, those within a couple of sizes of that norm don’t necessarily stand out in a crowd — unless, perhaps, it’s a crowd of models and/or actresses. These women can typically still find clothing at straight size stores and don’t have to covertly ask a flight attendant for a seat belt extender when they board a plane. I am not one of those women. I wear a true size 26 or 3x (and not the Forever21 interpretation of a 3x either), nor was I born with the hourglass figure that many people value. I don’t even bother to venture beyond the accessories at a store that doesn’t have a designated plus-sized section. I have back fat that makes my waistline a negotiation in a lot clothing, and I’m 5’ 8. Shopping for clothes is rarely easy or fun for me, mainly because my options are limited.
You can imagine that it felt like the odds were stacked against me when I started in this colorful new place where most of the women paraded around in cute booties and straight-sized mini skirts. There are definitely other plus women at R29. I made sure to visually seek them out as I was taken on a tour of the office. But we are not the majority here. And I can’t help but wonder if this is because so many other women have avoided careers in media because they, too, have internalized the superficial tropes in Devil Wears Prada or the aesthetic of Carrie Bradshaw’s life as a writer on Sex And The City. I can’t say I blame them. But I’m glad that I can report that not every women’s media outlet is the same. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for a company committed to turning the narrative that skinny is the only right way to exist on its head.
R29’s promise to honor women of all sizes became clear to me pretty early on after I started. Very quickly, I was being asked to appear in front of the camera for various videos we produced. My personality and voice has always been more important than my looks. From interviewing celebrities on Facebook Live to trying beauty hacks for Snapchat, I feel just as much a “face” of R29 as anyone else. I’m even the star of one of our in-house stock photoshoots, wherein I pretend to do all kinds of drugs. It’s mainly close-ups of my hands rolling and lighting fake joints, but it was really cool to stand in as the default for a change, instead of some thin person with white skin.

A post shared by Sesali B. (@badfatblackgirl) on

Learning about our 67% and Take Back the Beach initiatives and the launch of the 67% Project last year, I felt reassured that I would never read a piece that shamed bodies like mine. We strictly forbid plus bodies from being used or talked about as a spectacle, a source of disgust, or a problem that needs solving. And for the most part, those values have trickled down to the staff. In fact, a group of us collectively make up the 67% advisory board, responsible for guiding coverage and conversations about body inclusivity plus-acceptance across R29’s channels. We’re committed.
To be fair, I’ve had to have a few assertive conversations about which chairs are suitable for me to use when I’m on camera. Specifically, R29 has a special affinity for rickety director’s chairs that make me feel uneasy and squeeze my thighs in all the wrong ways, so I avoid them at all costs. And I still regret the one time I didn’t speak up when a video producer had me wear a “one-sizes-fits-all” jacket for a video. I’m almost positive that my look and limited mobility in the ill-fitting garment is part of the reason why the video went unused. Good riddance. These experiences are a reminder of why the stories of the 67% are so important. Negotiating seating arrangements and generic apparel are integral parts of what it means to be plus, but there aren’t nearly enough platforms elevating those experiences. People can’t be better, more empathetic allies if the only representations they see are caricatured.
At the end of the day, I have to say that working at Refinery29 with both this brain and body has been pretty lit. And as for my fashion fears? A couple months into my role it was clear that I had the same creative freedom with my wardrobe that everyone else does. I never doubted my style outside our walls, so once I resolved to wear the things that make me feel comfortable, I fit right in inside R29. And that is the lesson that has been waiting for me at the other end of many an anxious journey into self-doubt. Leaning into the things that make you feel great — in my case it was strong writing skills a classic streetwear boot — will always garner better results, in every area of your life.
Related Video:

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series