When I was nine years old, I dressed exclusively in Spider-Man clothing from the boys’ department. By 13, I had carefully constructed a convincing argument that Lindsay Lohan wasn’t “hot,” she was “cool.” At 15, while all my friends were drooling over boys and tweaking at the thought of sex—I was busy filling sketchbooks with pencil drawings of the Spice Girls. The signs were all there; I knew I was different, but I had no idea why.
When I was 22, I realized my attraction to women wasn’t just emotional but was also sexual. It ruined me; I questioned every female friendship I’ve ever had, every glance we exchanged, and what it all meant. Worst of all, I felt like a dirty cop. For a decade, I was a mole, the inside man, watching my friends change, exchanging secret sexcapades, and comparing progress in boob size. But I wasn’t on their side. No, I was a double agent. I felt creepy and dishonest, a deeply sad thing to feel in response to natural impulses. Unfortunately, that deep-seated angst doesn’t just evaporate, and today, I still struggle with it. Whether it’s a sexual partner, stranger, or celebrity—whenever I want to stare, touch, or admire a woman from a distance, I feel dirty. After years of suppressing my queerness, my Pavlovian response to the bare female body (even my own) is to look away.
I shamed myself into a hole so deep that I not only struggled to admire other women, but I struggled to embrace my own shape.
The repressive culture of my conservative hometown revealed itself to me at a young age. I didn’t know why, but I knew with complete certainty that it wasn’t okay to be gay, and I had to do everything in my power to convince people I wasn’t. As teenagers, my friends and I called each other “lesbian” as a joke, shaming each other for everything from staring at a pool party to pointing to Rihanna in a magazine and saying, “Wow.” Something abysmal and subconscious told me to distance myself from the word “lesbian” as much as was physically possible.
So I got to work. When girls were changing in the locker room, I looked at the floor. There was nothing to look at—the female body meant nothing to me! When my best friend Tori asked if her nipple shape was weird, I glanced for a split second and assured her I wouldn’t know what “normal” was—I hadn’t seen many boobs. It’s not like I was locking myself in my family’s computer room to google boobs or anything! (I was.)
There were things I knew to definitively avoid, things that were textbook lesbian: lingering eyes on bikini bodies, stanning Joan Jett, claiming Channing Tatum was “overrated,” watching the Brittany and Santana Glee duets so often that my eyes bled. Seriously, I didn’t do any of these things. Fuck Joan Jett—nobody ever liked her anyway! (I did.) My whole life, I was training for the Olympic sport of Pretending Women Were Unattractive, and I failed. I didn’t even make the team.
My life post–coming out didn’t exactly get instantly easier. My first lesbian dalliances were terrifying and messy—a friendship without boundaries, an unconsummated romantic obsession, an obsessive consummated friendship… But when I came out, I wiped the slate clean. I immediately told everyone I was close with, so as not to feel like I was hiding something. I wanted “out” and I wanted it now. I called Tori crying. I told my parents lackadaisically over Thai food. My sister laughed and said, “You’d never go down on a girl” like it was some party dare. And I agreed—that sounded disgusting, or so I had trained myself to believe.
But once I admitted it to myself, it was no big. I started speaking as openly about dating women as I had about dating men. If I saw Rihanna on Instagram and thought Wow, I said, “Wow.” But, unsurprisingly, malicious thoughts tickled the back of my brain: Is any of this really okay? Is it weird to admit all these things? Can I say “pussy” out loud?
Honestly, I don’t think it was fully okay. I think some of my closest friends were shell-shocked, and so was I. While I felt bold and brave with every exclamation of sexual desire, fear contracted in my gut. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being disappointed in myself—I lost the Olympic games. And it only got worse, because then I started having actual sex with women.
The first time I slept with a woman was comical. Every insecurity I had spent years burying came gushing to the surface, manifesting in truly ignominious ways. I was paralyzed with fear, petrified that I was finally allowed to touch a boob—not just allowed, invited. She had to physically take my hand and place it on her naked body like a peace offering—“Jill, this is okay.” My body and mind were embattled. An admittedly hot girl (is that okay to say?) wanted to have sex with me (which is normal, right?), and both of us were going to mush our bodies together in a way that set my whole body ablaze with desire (but not in a gay way!).
After that first sexual encounter, I left beaming, but I was also mad at myself. I couldn’t believe I prevented myself from doing this fun, natural, beautiful thing that I clearly had always wanted to do. I couldn’t believe I was so scared of this—of her body, of mine. As long as I’ve existed in human form, I’ve looked in the mirror, poking, prodding, examining and critiquing every square inch of my skin. I’ve never fully loved my body, because loving my own body meant loving the female form more generally—which isn’t true for every woman, but for queer women, maybe it is. I couldn’t look my own nipple in the eye until my mid-20s. I shamed myself into a hole so deep that I not only struggled to admire other women, but I struggled to embrace my own shape. I’ve never been able to say, “My ass rocks,” or “The way my hips curve is sort of magical.” I didn’t want to admit that because it was a slippery slope to further admissions.
The female form is inexplicably brilliant and beautiful. It comes in so many shapes, sizes, and colors with different marks, scars, stretches, imperfections, and unwanted hairs—and it’s lovely.
But I think it’s time to finally say out loud—I have great boobs. Like conventionally, objectively good boobs like the ones you see in movies. Sometimes I can’t believe I get to have my own boobs. And they’re mine, and I get to touch them and hold them stare at them and push them against other people’s boobs if I want to—and I do. I really, really want to. And yet, all of this is still so hard to say.
I wish I could go back to all the small moments I forced myself to glaze over. I want to look at myself in the mirror when my body started to change and feel the excitement of becoming a woman. I want to go back and Facebook-stalk the girlfriend of the guy I “liked” and know what romantic obsession felt like at 14. I wish I could go back to that concert in New York City where my college friend kissed me, and I pushed her away in faux-repulsion. I want to watch a girl undress in front of me and feel every flicker of desire course through my blood without a drop of self-loathing to ruin the moment.
Even though the dust has settled in my life as a gay woman, it’s easy to let myself spiral—am I being weird? Just checking in with everyone—are we, collectively, as a group, okay with me being attracted to women? Is lesbianism, at its core, disgusting? Should I join the Westboro Baptist Church?
But I make the conscious effort not to spiral. Sometimes, mid-intercourse, I smirk like I’ve snuck out of my childhood bedroom and think This is so crazy. I can’t believe I get to do this. But I correct myself: Of course I want to do this. The female form is inexplicably brilliant and beautiful. It comes in so many shapes, sizes, and colors with different marks, scars, stretches, imperfections and unwanted hairs—and it’s lovely. I love being attracted to women. Every queer person deals with self-acceptance every single day. It’s tireless and painstaking and never-ending. But queer or straight, there’s something deeply sad and fucked up about the way women are raised to squash any appreciation of the female body.
It’s okay to say boobs are awesome, and we should say it all the time. Boobs are so, so cool. I want to stand on the top of the Empire State Building and yell into the void, “I love boobs!” (Is that weird? Am I being weird?)
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.
Want to read more stories like this? Next, check out "Why Having a Beauty Icon Was So Important for My Femme Lesbian Identity."