Everyone’s path to body confidence takes different twists and turns. For some, it’s finding a community of like-minded people—for others, it’s flooding their Instagram feeds with plus-size bodies and body-positive advocates. For Vanessa Friedman, the Community Editor of Autostraddle, her journey was intrinsically connected to coming out as queer. Keep reading for Vanessa’s story.
I’m at a queer adult summer camp in Ojai, California, wearing a black-and-silver sparkly bikini, teaching a room full of fellow queers how to take a selfie. It’s not that anyone in the room doesn’t know how to hold their phone in front of their faces and click a button, of course, but this workshop—titled “The Sexiest Selfie”—is about more than that. I’m co-teaching with two other staff members and we are committed to helping campers learn about their best light and their best angles, how fun it can be to try hundreds of different poses in the privacy of your own bedroom, and most of all: the life-changing magic of finding oneself desirable.
I did not always find myself desirable. The path to not only accepting my body but rejoicing in it has been long and unpredictable—and it is never-ending. As my body continues to grow and change and shift throughout the days and weeks and years, many mornings, I wake up and find that I have to commit to loving my body all over again. But one thing I know for certain: Coming out as queer and learning to love my fat body are linked for me, tied up in the same space in my heart, forever intertwined.
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As a kid, I wanted to be like all the other girls I knew. Which, in my world, meant that I wanted to be very small and I wanted boys to like me. Would I have realized I was queer sooner if, while growing up, I’d had more queer role models around me? Probably! Would I have learned to love my fat body sooner if, while growing up, I’d had more fat women around me? Also probably! Is it a coincidence that coming out led me to loving my body? I strongly believe it is not. Learning how to love myself—my whole self—started with my queer identity.
I didn’t know I was queer until I met Emily. Looking back on my life now, it is easy to spot the crushes on girls and deep feelings I had for my friends that surpassed friendship in my childhood and teen years, but as I was living my life, my queerness did not jump out at me. Rather, I discovered it as it happened in real time—I was 20, I wanted to kiss Emily, we were kissing, my whole world opened up wide.
It wasn’t quite that easy, of course. I wanted Emily to love me and she did not. I wanted my friends and family and community to suddenly accept the queer identity that I was only just starting to understand myself and they did not. I wanted to immediately know myself—to allow myself to stop second-guessing my authenticity, to stop berating myself for not being queer enough, to make space for who I actually am instead of the shame of who I thought I was supposed to be—but I did not.
Things changed, both slowly and quickly. Eventually, Emily would become my friend. Eventually, the people around me would accept my queerness. Eventually, I would accept that I can never fully know myself, but that doesn’t mean I have to stop trying. Being queer gave me the gift of understanding that the self is not static, that we are always shifting and growing and changing and learning and creating new narratives. Coming out as queer gave me space to reject the things I had been told to want and learn how to tell new stories.
I don’t want to say that when I came out as queer I immediately unlearned my own internalized fatphobia and started both loving my body and fighting as a fat activist because that’s not how it happened at all. The story of loving my fat body takes a longer arc than discovering my queerness. One night, Emily kissed me and everything in my brain, my heart, my interior exploded and I was never the same. That’s one version of my coming out story, and it’s true.
I do not have that single-line version of the story about accepting my body. This tale is not as neat, not as pointed. It’s happened in fits and starts—the parts make up a whole.
Here’s one story: It’s June 2014 and I’m skinny dipping with friends at the local swimming hole. I look around and realize I’m the only one still wearing a bathing suit bottom. I want to cover myself and feel embarrassed about the stretch marks on my hips. I’m shaven entirely bare—underarms, legs, bikini line. I still think I should be small. I look around at the naked bodies in the water and realize every single one is covered in hair. I realize I’m not thinking about stretch marks or smoothness on my friends’ bodies—I’m just thinking how gorgeous they all are. I am suddenly self-conscious of my self-consciousness. I go home and throw out my razor—I never shave again.
Here’s another story: I’m late to the queer dance party because I can’t figure out what to wear. I’m fatter than I have ever been and none of my clothes fit and I’m nervous about my belly. Everything shows off my belly and I feel certain I should hide it, pretend it does not exist. I’m learning to love my body, but somehow loving my belly is too hard today. When I arrive at the party, I am immediately floored by a tall femme babe towering over the crowd in a skintight neon green dress—her belly is highlighted by the spandex and the color and she is radiant. I do some gentle math in my head—if this babe can wear a dress that highlights her belly and look amazing, maybe I can too? Maybe the secret to getting right with my bod isn’t to hide it after all? Maybe queer dance parties are a place I can try out embracing my fat.
Here’s one more: I’m 30 years old and I haven’t picked up a fashion magazine in almost a decade. My Instagram feed is filled with fat babes getting their whole damn lives. I work as Community Editor for a queer publication that amplifies the voices of fat people and allows us to tell our own stories. My friends and I send each other selfies and compliment each other’s bodies and remind each other that we’re hot, that we’re valid, that we’re worthy. I wake up every morning and I look in the mirror and I tell myself that I’m desirable. To the world at large, sure, yes, but more importantly—most importantly—to myself. I touch my fat body as I gaze into the mirror and I let myself feel desire, I let myself feel desired.
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At “The Sexiest Selfie” workshop at queer adult summer camp, we are about to move on from the presentation to the hands-on portion of the activity. Before we break and allow our new selfie experts to go capture themselves and bask in their glory, the three of us teaching the class offer our own manifesto about the magic of selfies.
“When we make space to look at ourselves, spend time with ourselves, photograph ourselves, and decide to enjoy what we see when we see ourselves, we are literally changing the narrative of what the world tells us is beautiful,” I tell the group. It’s earnest and it’s overambitious and it’s certainly not an overnight magic cure, but I believe it.
It’s not that being queer magically made me feel good about my fat body. It’s not that the queer community is free of fatphobia. It’s not that my experience as a small-fat white person is the overarching experience of everyone in queer community. It’s just that for me, the act of coming out as queer gave me permission to want something different than the narrative I had been told to enact. For me, coming out as queer was the beginning of a brand-new story. And in this new story, my desires as a queer person and my desirability as a fat queer person are not only acceptable, they are celebratory. In this new story, I am entirely myself, and I am proud.
Writer, Photographer & Body-Positive Advocate