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Sarah Thompson, founder of Resilient Fat Goddess, writes about body positivity, body liberation, and fat liberation at the intersections of gender, sexuality, and eating disorders. 

Discovering My Sexuality as a Fat, Christian Teen

I write all of this, because it is my whole story. I cannot leave out my fatness. I cannot leave out my religion/spirituality. I cannot leave out the effect on my mental health. I am a whole person.

Content Warning: Mention of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation

I’m finalizing a presentation on the ways that sizeism and eating disorders, separately and together, intersect for trans and gender diverse folx. While researching scientific and community based articles, it really got me thinking about my experience as a kid (a lot research is focused on trans youth) coming of age while recognizing my sexuality was different than almost everyone I knew.

Growing up, I always had this constant, underlying feeling of being different. That I just did not fit in with all the typical kids. Now, I know this could have been because of any number of reasons. Almost every person I’ve heard tell their recovery story whether from alcohol or an eating disorder describes feeling this way.

I was the kid always being teased for being fat even though I was not. Please know there is absolutely nothing wrong being a fat kid. I just always look back at pictures and wonder how I got labeled as fat before I actually was fat. I struggled with math in elementary school. Today, I know I was struggling, because I had undiagnosed ADHD and auditory-verbal processing challenges.

I was the girl who always listened, followed the rules, and worked to have the approval and attention of my teachers, well, all adults really. This is part of why many girls go undiagnosed with ADHD.

Even though I did everything right, I don’t remember being that happy as a child unless I was reading, watching TV, or swimming. But I could usually put on a smile as I knew I needed to act like I was okay.  

My family attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) church in a suburb of Akron, Ohio beginning when I was in first grade. I usually describe it as a conservative evangelical Christian denomination to people who have never heard of CMA. This was somewhere I didn’t feel so out of place. I had friends who I loved and really enjoyed spending time with them.  I had Sunday school teachers, and eventually youth group sponsors (the term they used for leaders) that were reassuring and welcoming.

I enjoyed being a part of this community. I enjoyed the connection to a group of people, and to be able to have connection to the greater universe – what I now call spirituality. It was a place of refuge when life with my family was complicated. I got to sing in the youth choir, be a part of the drama team, start building skills as a leader, and give service where I could.

I really valued being a part of this community. That was until my last few years of high school when it got really complicated.

At a time when many people start dating and expressing their sexuality, I felt like it was either something to hide, something to be ashamed of, or something that was not for me. I think this was heavily influenced by being raised by (previously) Catholic parents, the culture around sexuality and sensuality in general in the Christian church, and sizeism.

By the time I hit junior high and high school, I was fat. I never saw larger bodied teenage girls (or women) in sitcoms, in romantic movies, commercials, magazines, or anywhere that expressed their sexuality. I didn’t have any idea that I got to be attracted to anyone. I didn’t think anyone would ever be attracted to me. I didn’t think anyone would love me, among the reasons why was my body size.

I was never all that interested in boys. When I was, it felt performative like it was what I was supposed to do. Hang up the JTT posters from Teen Beat on my wall. Ask the one boy (that you grew up with from the time you were a toddler) who you think will say yes to go to homecoming.

I never knew that same-sex couples existed until I was about 17-years old when a good friend came out to me about her girlfriend. This actually coincides with when Ellen came out on her sitcom. I started looking up the term homosexual in my bible. It was always disappointing, confusing, and disheartening to read what this book that I had loved and built my life around said about gays and lesbians.

I wish that there wasn’t this “moment.” The moment that most straight people ask about – “so when did you know you were a lesbian?” Because nobody ever asks – “so when did you know you were straight?” We do not get the chance to just be who we are. Many places in the country, children do not get to know that same-sex couples exist and it is more than okay to be attracted to people of the same-sex. Our culture still does not celebrate our existence like other cultures do. It’s why Pride is so significant for us.

I started knowing after my friend came out to me. It was all hypotheticals, and curiosity. My own internalized homophobia made me not want to know.

Many of us end up having this process of knowing and then coming out, though I absolutely cannot speak for every gay person. The coming out also never ends if dating or partners are a part of conversation with a new person, and whether you notice or not you are constantly meeting new people. Until I moved to Portland, Oregon, I constantly would wonder how someone would react when they discovered I wasn’t straight or when I had to correct their assumption that I was.

I wish that homosexuality was treated as “normal” and talked about when I was a kid. Maybe if it had, I wouldn’t have felt the need to hide my sexuality until I was 21. Maybe if it had, I wouldn’t have had a higher risk of developing an eating disorder or substance use disoder. Maybe if it had, I wouldn’t have hated myself for being attracted to women. Maybe if it had, I wouldn’t have thought I was destined to go to hell for the “sin” of being gay. Maybe if it had, I wouldn’t have felt the need to hide, so that I wasn’t rejected by my church community - the one place I had felt welcome. Maybe if it had, I wouldn’t have lived with hiding who I was from my family because I couldn’t bear to find out their reaction. Maybe if it had, I wouldn’t have been angry at God who made me gay, but also apparently condemned homosexuality (yea, wrestling with that one as a Christian teen was fun) and lost my sense of connection to the universe.

I wish that I was allowed to have sexuality as a fat teen.

I wish sexuality was something that was normal to express as a teenager even as a Christian.

When I was 16-years old, my chronic dieting and exercise turned into an eating disorder. My eating disorder morphed and shifted between restriction, over exercise, purging, and binging over the years with many weight fluctuations along the way. My depression and anxiety worsened. My thoughts of being better off dead than alive increased.

I do wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t had to deal with the constant pressure of sizeism, homophobia, and lack of family support. I no longer regret the way things went, that gets me nowhere. I do not blame my family. They were doing their best. And the wondering still happens.

Even though I didn’t come out to my family until I was 21, it didn’t change the fact that I was attracted to women and hiding it. It didn’t change what my religion told me. It didn’t change how much it stung to hear classmates sling slurs at my friend and her girlfriend. It didn’t change how much fear I had about my church community rejecting and judging me. It didn’t change how much fear I had that my family would reject and judge me in the name of God.

I started drinking the day I turned 21 for the next 13 months I used it to cope until I quit drinking and got sober through AA. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened right before and the year after I came out.

About a month after I turned 21, I decided to finally come out to my family because I needed to move back home, and I was afraid my parents would kick me out if they ended up finding out after I moved in. I was going to college full-time, working two jobs, and working for my college newspaper and magazine. I wasn’t able to juggle it all. I needed a break, and my parents were all I had.

My mom responded with really intense anger even though she was not surprised at all. She reminded me of the bible said, and told me it’s not how I was raised. I left it up to my mom to tell my dad. They eventually decided I could move home while trying to get me to agree to attend the single’s group at the CMA church which I had stopped attending soon after graduation.  

I moved in because I did not have other options. My mom continued to try to get to me to attend the single’s group and Sunday morning service every week. I never went and eventually she stopped trying after several months.

After that we just ignored my sexuality until years later after I broke up with my first girlfriend. In many ways, it became normal and “easier” to not speak about who I was dating or who I found attractive.

Until I noticed how much I hid who I was after spending time with my family. Until I noticed how uncomfortable and angry that made me. Until I noticed how I did not get to be a whole human with my family while my brothers and sister did. Until I noticed how much emotional work it took to be around them.

There is so much more to this story with my family. My parents were able to get to a place of acceptance and walk me down the aisle when I got married. They were welcoming to my partner and her children at family get-togethers and addressed cards to all of us (this is a privilege that most straight people know they have.) Then I got divorced. Now, we are back to not speaking about my dating life, and the lack of interest, even if I bring it up it, leaves me with the sense that they cannot deal with it.

_____________

After doing much work on becoming neutral about my body, healing my eating disorder, and learning what embodiment is, I feel like I have words for how the violence of stigma and discrimination have affected me. It disrupted my capacity for embodiment. To be attacked for the size of my body and my sexuality left me hating the body that I had to be in every day.

How does one be in a body they hate? How does one be in body that others reject and hate?

How does a teenager or young adult grow, thrive, and not internalize family and/or religious rejection?  

No wonder why I always felt the need to escape my body, my feelings, my mind by using food and alcohol. Of course.

It really was the wisest thing at the time. It gave me a way to cope.

It gave me a way to survive.

No wonder why rates of alcohol use, suicide, and eating disorders are higher in the LGBTQ+ population.

I write all of this, because it is my whole story. I cannot leave out my fatness. I cannot leave out my religion/spirituality. I cannot leave out the effect on my mental health. I am a whole person. I cannot just speak about my queerness (I now use this term to describe my sexuality.) even when the purpose is to tell how the stigma and discrimination that I faced as a lesbian teen put me at a higher risk for an eating disorder and how I didn’t have the protectiveness of community and family support.

It is all connected.


 

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