It's an hour and a half before the launch reading of my book "WWJD and Other Poems," and I'm standing in the bedroom I share with my fiancée, staring at two potential outfits displayed on our bed. I'm choosing between fancy and hillbilly-chic: blue and black metallic chevron pants complimented with a black t-shirt and shiny oxford shoes, or jeans with a white t-shirt and cardigan accented by tan boots. I text photos to a couple of friends to get their input. One suggests I pair the light grey cardigan with the chevron pants because even though it won’t match, it also won’t clash. She also assures me I look fantastic with makeup on (I rarely wear it) and says, You’re gonna rock! As I pull off the jeans and turn to the chevron pants, I’m annoyed with myself. It’s time to get my words out there, and I can’t even decide what I’m going to wear.
The queer, educated woman in me feels sick to know that’s what I’m worried about, but the rural, working-class woman’s voice overrules everything: you have to look presentable. And it’s not that I don’t look presentable. As an academic, my closet is built around business casual—khaki pants and black slacks, sweaters and collared blouses—but looking presentable centers around how those clothes fit my body.
I’ve understood from a young age that first and foremost, I should be thin. This is complicated by the fact that I’ve never been thin and I’ve always been a tomboy. As a child, looking thin meant wearing clothes that hid the size of my body. There was a lot of draping. As a teen, I clung to jeans and t-shirts because I had grown up with running commentary about my body, my size. Anything feminine might accentuate the wrong curves of my stomach and thighs, or, even worse, the right curves of my breasts and hips. Since there are only so many ways to hide a body like mine, I need to look presentable. Looking presentable is the runner-up to looking thin. Looking presentable means hiding the most shameful parts of me.
I was born small, but by the time I was in kindergarten, I was bigger than the other kids. I was taller and rounder. If I couldn’t fit in physically, I could at least try to find a place to belong in other ways. I did everything I could: I took dance/gymnastics and played sports; joined the academic team, the band, student council, youth group and Fellowship of Christian Athletes—all the things a successful teenager was supposed to do. I never felt like I belonged.
My size was part of it; my queerness was another. In grade school, I traded my almost-to-the-butt hair for a pixie cut. Pixie sounds cute and feminine, but I looked like a boy. I played with dolls, but I also played sports. I was big and tough, but cried at home because some boy bullied me about my weight. My father told me to jack his jaws. My mother told me I needed to eat less and move more. At every other turn someone was telling me what I could and couldn’t do and how to behave like a proper girl.
When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a teacher because that was the only reference point I had for success. I couldn’t picture myself being anything else because I couldn’t picture myself as an adult at all. In my Appalachian hometown, there was very little economic opportunity. The main employer in the county was the school board, the uniform factory, and the low security prison (the latter two would close by the time I finished graduate school). Teachers were often a safe haven for me because they fed my mind. I was eager to learn, and I admired the teachers who put in extra time to challenge me. The environment couldn’t be counted on to provide. Coal mining was gone, and my father was at one point a logger but the timber business dried up. Even oil would only last so long. Teaching, though, provided a good salary, health insurance, and state retirement, which meant health insurance when you were old.
I knew there was little opportunity for me at home, and I was more than ready to leave and stay gone by the time I graduated high school. At the same time, I couldn’t figure out how to exist anywhere else. I didn’t think I was worthy of doing anything besides the expected or even living anywhere else until I was at the very least thin.
I ended up bending to the working class idea of success and accepted the first full-time teaching position I was offered because it provided a salary, health insurance and retirement. The job was located one county away from where I grew up. I put all of my time and energy into teaching. One semester I taught eight classes, but I did what I had always done: I ignored the parts of me that were screaming for help.
Somewhere around year three or four of teaching, I left Appalachia and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, a city that offered, among other things, a larger LGBTQ community. I was desperate to live a life outside of shame. At the same time, I remained afraid of thwarting the working-class view of success I grew up with. I couldn’t resign from my job. Lexington was about as far away as I could move and still be close enough to the mountains to continue to teach at the community college.
Distance meant healing from my experiences with trauma and reckoning with my sexuality. The result of all my efforts: I came out and started dating women; I cut toxic relationships from my life. It wasn’t enough. When you’re fat and queer like me, you prove your worth by doing; by getting a good job and doing everything you can to keep it. This measure of success nearly killed me. Do. Do. Do. Work. Work. Work. Be thin. Be thin. Be thin. Always be working to lose weight.
All of the doing is literally exhausting, and it finally caught up with me. I spent a month of summer break going from the couch to the pool at my apartment. I couldn’t even swim; all I could manage was to walk in the shallow end and read under the umbrellas. I know — it sounds nice, doesn’t it? But I was tired in a way I didn’t know was possible. My body and my mind weren’t just telling me to slow down; they were doing it for me. The one thing that month allowed me to do was reset and make the decision to cut back at work and think about what I really wanted out of my life.
I refocused on teaching and my writing. I finished the book I’d been trying for six years to write. A friend and I started talking about opening a bookshop. I started to enjoy teaching again. My book was accepted for publication. When the press told me the publication date, I felt a little disappointed because it seemed so far off, but my next thought was, Oh, you can lose weight by then. Because only thin people deserve to have books published. I was awarded statewide and national grants to support my writing. I was promoted. I started dating again. I met a woman, a librarian, and on our first date, I made her laugh and thought that smile is gonna be trouble. I did all of these things while fat.
And then, the community college where I taught told me that, due to budget cuts, they were not renewing my teaching contract.
Since then, I’ve had to work to feel like my success is not defined by my occupation. Nor is my worth defined by the size of my retirement account or my pants. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that. I’ve had more than one conversation with my mother where afterwards I’ve declared I won’t talk about my job search with her any more because I don’t have the time or energy to process her fear of my unemployment. There are days when I don’t know how I’m going to get through this, and on those days I have focused on two things right in front of me: my writing, and the people who love me. I am successful because I love and am loved. I am fat, and I am loved. I am successful because no matter what happens in my life — with my job or otherwise — I keep writing.
The voice that tells me I have to look "presentable" for my readings would also say the fat me deserves the losses and struggles I’ve experienced, and that maybe the losses keep occurring because I don’t deserve success. It says, None of this was supposed to happen until I was thin. And yet here I am: fat, queer, unemployed, published, and engaged.
My book launch was full of poetry, bourbon, cake, and people who love and support me. I finally decided to wear the chevron pants because royal blue is my favorite color. I texted my fiancée to tell her of my decision and she replied, I like the jeans. My response: Oh well. I’m already dressed.