Essie Dennis is an author, artist, body positivity activist and all round fantastic person who all of us at Sancho's adore. In her conversation with Kalkidan, we learn more about her upcoming book 'Queer Body Power,' along with what LGBTQ+ History Month means to her and the life experiences that have helped shape her. Keep scrolling to read the full interview, and to shop Essie's Capsule Edit, featuring all her current favourite, most versatile pieces, here.
Kalkidan: Hi Essie, welcome to the conversation! You and I know each other, and it's such a joy to know you. I'm trying to think back to when we met...did we meet at the shop or did we meet before the shop?
Essie: I think it was at the shop. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but maybe I contacted you or you contacted me or something and I was doing maybe a blog or something for Sancho's and it was when you were in the little shop, not the big one. I think I only had 2,000 followers then, everything was so much smaller!
Kalkidan: And we did a photoshoot in our flat.
Essie: Oh, that was so good.
Kalkidan: I thought those pictures were so good. Back when I used to take pictures, I would think 'I am such a talented photographer,' but I took like six photos. You looked amazing though, you’ve got the most amazing bottom. I'm sure you won't mind my saying.
Essie: Thank you, I totally agree!
Kalkidan: And of course, you walked in our first Slow Fashion Show and modelled for the posters at Exeter Cathedral.
Essie: That was so much fun, too. I miss being able to come in to the shop. I remember it was such a nice experience coming in because I know you would style me and help me pick outfits, it was a fun thing to do while I was at Uni.
Kalkidan: I am glad to hear it. I started doing that because so many women would come in to the shop with a misguided sense of their bodies and would say things like: "Only this suits me" or "this wont work" and then you just realise at some point that so many people are just uncomfortable in their skin. So then I went the opposite way and I would encourage people to try on different outfits and look at themselves and appreciate they're gorgeous, you know.
Essie: I love that. That was one of my favourite things because you would often pick stuff out I wouldn’t pick for myself and even now when I am trying on Sancho's clothes for the shoot today I was just like, I wouldn’t pick this for myself, but now I cant stop thinking about it and I need to have it! *buys Jasmine Cardigan Their such nice quality pieces as well. How things feel to me is really important, especially because I have chronic pain, I have to have fabrics that feel good on my body, and your clothing always feels good.
Kalkidan: Thank you, I am so glad to hear it. This is exactly what we want Sancho's to be – a place where people can feel comfortable and find things they love, so to hear it back is wonderful. I don’t spend as much time in the shop as I used to, but just so you know, we have Aoife, who as our shop manager does a much better job of all that then me, so you should come in when you're next in Devon soon and experience that!
Essie: I definitely want to come down and have the experience once again.
Kalkidan: So, if you were introducing yourself to a new audience or you walked into a room or you had to do one of those dreaded things where you have to sit in a circle and say a little bit about yourself, what do you say?
Essie: I probably say I'm an author now, because that’s technically what I am now, which still fees bizarre for me to say, but I am a queer and body positive activist and author. Also an artist because I've got my art shop 'Queer In Colour' going now which is fantastic, and that’s pretty much it I suppose. I did used to be a plus size model but I've stopped doing that, so there's just been quite a long career even though I am quite young, it feels like a long career
Kalkidan: So there's been iterations of your career, but do you think there's some core themes?
Essie: Yes, body positivity and eating disorder recovery was definitely the start to everything, and then once I felt comfortable coming out, I could kind of merge the queer body positivity together which was really good. Once I did finally decide I was comfortable to come out online, it just opened up. I got so many messages from people and it just felt like it was the right space to talk about it and now with the book of course. Not that much has been written for body positivity specifically for queer people, so there was a good space there to talk about that and get a lot of other queer people in to discuss that topic, too. I think those are the main themes.
Kalkidan: Well thank you so much for that introduction. And just a little shout out to your art cos its really beautiful. I know you do a lot of astrological things which is cool.
Essie: Yes, I kind of mix body positivity themes with my Greek heritage. I didn’t used to care as much about my heritage as I do now, and I don’t know if it's as you get older you get more into it, but I've just been learning more and more about Greece and I like to keep that in my artwork as much as possible. Mainly because I hated being Greek when I was a kid, I used to pretend I wasn’t, so now I'm a grown up I like to include it and those pieces tend to do really well which is nice
Kalkidan: It's beautiful. I think I had a similar shame around being an immigrant, being an asylum seeker, being African when I was younger, but I definitely think you get to a point in your head where you realise that shame was contextual and was actually all of the white supremacy in a culture that drives you to think that about yourself. I definitely found in early adulthood I have become really interested in my background so yeah, that's been the journey for me. But thank you so much for your introduction. We are really excited that you're here talking to us to celebrate LGBTQ+ History month this year. Could you describe a little bit about the month and what tends to happen?
Essie: It's specifically about highlighting LGBTQ+ history which is something that can often get lost in discussions of big moments that have happened. You know, queer people have always been here, and often that’s another thing about re-contextualising history and going back and looking in to it. We have it a lot at the moment where you'll discover historical figures that were actually part of the LGBTQ+ community but it was hidden and things like that. So it is just about going back and learning just how much queer history that there is. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t learn anything about it at school, at all
Kalkidan: Not at all
Essie: I don’t think I learnt anything in any sort of education. That might have been a big reason as to why it took so long for me to come out. I didn’t really know what it meant to be part of a community because it just wasn’t talked about. I was in school during section 28, when it was illegal to talk about being part of the community. You weren’t allowed to mention it at all.
Kalkidan: Can u just describe in more detail, what was section 28?
Essie: Sure, section 28 was brought in my Margaret Thatcher and it meant that you were not allowed to "promote" homosexuality. It was illegal to talk about it in any schools, colleges, youth groups and other publicly owned spaces. It pretty much decimated any queer groups where people were being helped because you could be arrested for even talking about homosexuality, "promoting" it ended up meaning speaking about it any terms. So all the infrastructure that had been put in place for queer people to find a connection or support was gone. I was about at the end of primary/beginning of secondary when section 28 was repealed, but even though the law changed, there was still nothing there to work with. It took a really long time until people did start talking about it at schools again because you came from it being illegal and had to navigate how to bring it back into the conversation. So yes, it did mess up a lot of peoples education. I had queer people around me growing up you know, and now thinking back when I would talk about them in school, it would be like a strange reaction, like a silence, because before the repeal a teacher couldn’t react to it cos if they did they could be arrested.
Kalkidan: So there was no support system to understand yourself or understand the world or how to navigate it.
Essie: Yes, and you know not talking about it it doesn’t make people not queer, it just makes them end up repressing a lot and you don’t realise until you get older and begin to work through it.
Kalkidan: You know, there is a violence in not allowing people to express who they are, or understand who they are, or build communities around thier core characteristics.
Essie: If you have problems with being gay or bisexual or whatever and you need to go somewhere about it you couldn't. You could be experiencing violence at home or violence at school because of it and teachers are not allowed to help you with it. Section 28 is one of those things that I talk a little bit about in my book because I know a lot of teenagers are going to read it and might not know about it. It's in our living memory and a lot of us will have experienced that.
Kalkidan: Two decades, everybody living today, including those born after it was repealed will be affected by the impact it had on culture, norms, behaviours and resources. I think people who don’t have those experiences think that once something changes we belong in a new world, but we are dealing with all of the history here, and we need to deal with and process all of it and acknowledge before we can say things have progressed. To be honest, I am making an assumption there that things have progressed. How do you feel about how things have progressed as a queer person?
Essie: Things are different at schools now, however, now we are facing a similar issue with trans rights, Even the language that’s used, it's all the same as what was happening with section 28, so I am at this point concerned about what's gonna happen with trans rights. It's become pretty dire around here, in terms of allowing trans people to use whatever bathroom they want and things like that. So as much as it has progressed in certain ways, but I think we are going backwards with trans rights and its scary.
Kalkidan: So, you've written a book, 'Queer Body Power'. I'm so so proud of you, you've given so much information and education to people across your social media pages which is the primary way I learn from you, and I am so delighted that that’s now transforming into a physical, tangible book and I absolutely think that books are part of history. It's just really cool andI am just so excited for you, and the world actually, you know, to be introduced to your thoughts and perspectives.
Essie: Thank you, I'm so excited. It's funny I was just an English student when I met you, and now I am an author, it's crazy.
Kalkidan: And in less than 5 years which is really cool, so I'm assuming lots more books will come from you eventually?
Essie: I hope so, it was definitely enjoyable to write and dig deep into things that maybe I hadn’t properly talked about before, so I am very excited for people to read it and also for something tangible to exist.
Kalkidan: So tell us about 'Queer Body Power.' What's the book about?
Essie: It's about how queer people relate to their bodies. I wanted to do something specifically for queer people, because they actually have the highest rates of eating disorders, higher than heterosexual people, and there's a lot of research out there that I felt hadn’t been bought together. The reasons for queer people not eating or struggling with their bodies can be very different for the community. Obviously my experiences are very specific ones, so I bought in other people from different backgrounds to talk about their experiences with their bodies so it wasn’t just me. It also goes through my experiences not only with eating disorders but my experiences with homelessness, fashion and gender. I've tried to fill the book as much as possible but make it accessible enough that young people can read it in the hope that they can feel content in their bodies.
Kalkidan: Amazing, what a powerful way to share you own stories and experiences. Do you feel a book like this can help younger people navigate the world and how to make sense of it while seeing themselves more clearly?
Essie: I think just the part of putting on a page what I was feeling and what I experience feels like the most powerful thing you can do sometimes. A few people who have reviewed from advanced copies have said they didn’t realise something they were dealing with was until they read it. I think the book is even for people who aren’t queer. I think there's a lot of relatable elements, especially eating disorders. I want people to be able to read it and know their not alone in these things. I think a lot of people will look at me on social media and think that everything's fine when actually two and a half years ago, I had no where to live and rely on the kindness of people giving me their sofas for about three months. I didn’t brush my hair for about a month, and had two pairs of underwear, going around trying to find places to wash them. Homelessness is a really big issue for the LGBTQ+ community and I wanted them to know I do understand that experience and I am not just someone who makes everything look fine and happy on social media you know.
Kalkidan: So can you tell us about the relationship between the LGBTQ+ experience and homelessness?
Essie: One of the main things is a lot of people can end up in violent or abusive situations or they aren’t accepted by their family, particularly LGBTQ+ youth. That’s why such a high proportion end up homeless at some point in their life, as well as a struggle with being able to get jobs, which is particularly difficult for trans people. As much as yo think you are protected, people can find any reason to not give you a job, that’s something me and my partner have definitely experienced with housing. There's a lot of reasons why its particularly difficult to get set up and that's why so many LGBTQ+ people can also end up in situations with substance abuse and really difficult mental health issues, which they don’t necessarily get help with, especially if they're out on the street or hidden homeless like I was – where you have sofas to live on but no actual home, you can end up not getting support. If you don’t have a permanent residence it can make it really difficult to get healthcare, especially if your trans, and it sort of snowballs, and that’s something people who haven’t experienced homelessness just don’t get. I remember having to somehow put together an outfit to go to a job interview but I had no clothes that actually looked appropriate for a job interview/ I don't think I was eating very well, I was very sick, I wasn't sleeping, and I was extremely stressed. It's very difficult to get yourself out of that. I found I disassociated from my body entirely, I think I managed not to brush my hair for about a month and then I looked in a mirror and took it in. I ended up cutting off all my hair, knowing I needed to try and make myself look better. But I had total disassociated from my body at that point.
Kalkidan: Can you tell me how you went from that to the position where you could find security, write the book and be able to interpret the experience back to people?
Essie: I had a part time job at the time I was working at a bookshop, making about £400 a month which wasn’t enough to get anywhere, and I basically ended up relying on the kindness of people who really didn’t know me. After a few months of really struggling I was basically offered a room for a bit to sit and find myself a job. And that’s the issue for a lot of people is that they don’t have that support, I was extremely lucky with the support of people who are queer and who genuinely didn’t really know me at the time. I couldn’t believe the kindness. I did manage to find a job eventually and then moved to London without that much money. It was the March when the pandemic hit, two days before lockdown, I had just moved in with my partner. I eventually was made redundant and on the week that happened I ended up getting my book deal. During the pandemic I wrote a proposal and sent it out thinking "what's the worst that could happen - publishers could say no," but they didn’t say no, they said yes! I decided because of that redundancy, which was very scary for me because I had experience of not having a home or money, that I would try and go freelance with art and social media. I ended up finding an agent, who is great and she works through everything with me and things just somehow got better!
Kalkidan: Well that is just amazing and I think the world is lucky to have the book and more opportunities to understand the queer experience. Something that deeply frustrate me is that navigating societies inequalities and all of these horrible prejudices that people hold have such real consequences to peoples lives. Living your life while experiencing the discrimination, whether it's overt or subvert or can't be aligned to one person. We think there are safety nets but they're not equally distributed and I feel like I have so many friends who have to do so much more just to get live their lives and it really makes me angry. I just deal with a lot of anger around that, and who wants to be angry all the time?
Essie: I totally understand that anger that’s welling up. We constantly hearing about injustice and it's just so unfair, but sometimes you just think, "what do I do?" I want to be able to do something, but it just exhausting, which I am sure you understand as well. You end up having to use so much of your energy just to feel like "I am a human being, please can I get some kind of support?"
Kalkidan: I'm interested in how you navigate your social presence in that context. You're have a huge Instagram and tik tok following, and there's so much work that goes in to maintaining and sustaining those platforms. I always struggle with how to take the stuff that I am experiencing and what to share and from where I'm sitting it seems like you share so much about your life, how do you choose what you audience sees and how does it affect you?
Essie: I think over the years I have had a strange relationship with social media. When I first started I could share whatever I wanted, but when it became a job I felt a little bit shaky about what I should share and how deeply. cos like oh what do I share now am I supposed to not go into the deep stuff, Ultimately I decided you know, fuck that, but you do get to a point where you think, if this is my job, and I have this huge responsibility and following, I have to be careful. But I still try to go back to the fact that it is my personal social media, I exist as a person, and as much as people think I should or shouldn’t post certain things, I just share what feels right to me. I don’t necessarily share everything. It's funny because I am actually quite a private person and there's a lot that people don’t know. If I share anything to do with trauma, I have to be mindful of and knowhow I word it and know that I have overcome it or am in a good place for it. I don't want to trigger anyone else's trauma, particularly around eating disorders. When I do discuss my experiences of when I was really sick, I try not to post too many pictures of me when I was particularly small, as I know that would be triggering for people and might be for me too, I don’t know, I don’t look at them. There's just certain decisions I have to make so I am being responsible and not retraumatising anybody. I do think very deeply about what I put on social media, and I also try to post things that are more fun and positive. Not everything has to be deep. Sometimes people want to see a plus size person put on an outfit because they're a plus size person and they want some inspiration. Not every post has to be the most important thing in the world, because it is just social media and you are still connecting with people, and you're still allowed to have fun.
Kalkidan: Thank you for communicating your story. I can't wait to get in to your book! I've skimmed enough to know I love your style and that I am going to learn a lot from someone I love and respect. Is it available for pre-order?
Essie: Thank you, I really hope you like it. I can't believe people are reading it. And yes, you can pre order it at all the usual places you would get books, but also on my publishers website JKP. I always encourage going to indies and getting them to pre order, that's always good in my book!
Kalkidan: Well for any Exeter/Devon readers, we recommend our local Book Bag! So Essie, we’ve come to the end, there's so much more I could ask you but perhaps we can do this again soon. But for now let's take it out with a quick fire round...I always think they're fun so...
Kalkidan: What's your favourite song?
Essie: Oh my gosh, what's my favourite song? The only thing coming to my mind is Disney songs right now, that's so embarrassing. The first song that came to my head was Hercules, and now I'm thinking no no no you have to have something cooler than that. What's my most listened to on Spotify? Space Girl, I love Space Girl by Frances Forever... I will listen to that on repeat, it's a queer love song and I enjoy it. .
Kalkidan: What do you do for self care?
Essie: I play video games. I'm a hardcore gamer.
Kalkidan: What's your favourite go-to snack?
Essie: A really bougie coffee, like a latte with lots of stuff in it, or hot chocolate.
Kalkidan: Thank you so much Essie. Thank you so much for the work you are doing with Sancho's this month. Everybody go buy Queer Body Power and follow Essie on Instagram and tik tok @khal_essie! Thanks again for joining us, Essie.
We hope you've enjoyed this informative chat between Kalkidan and Essie and learnt something new. We fully recommend picking up her book which is released on the 21st March and available for pre-order now!
Thanks for reading!
Written by Roberta Juxon-Keen