LUST FOR LIFE The year I was 16, I wore nothing but thrift shop vintage lingerie. As outerwear. I'd layer two slips or two half-slips on top of each other so they wouldn't be quite as see-through and clomp around in impossibly high heels. I bought my actual underwear from the Victoria's Secret at the mall when they had their blowout sales. There and at places like Forever 21 — flashy, clubby, and cheap.
I tell you these details because it's important, naming the places I picked up armor and fetish. Because it felt like armor and it felt like fetish — in all senses of the word. Sexual but mythic and protective in proportion, too. That lacy magenta push-up demi-bra, the one that was just a little too tight, the one that was always uncomfortable. But I'd wear it anyway because I understood the importance of armor. Of having something that would protect me if bad shit went down.
The refrain from my mother — and from the more prudish crowd at my school, the tough homophobic boys in my neighborhood, the cat-calling older men at the Mission BART Station who didn't realize how young I was — was that if you wear clothes like that, you are asking for it. You're putting yourself in danger.
But didn't any of them realize that this was my way of staying out of danger? I felt so much more powerful in those impossible heels, tits pushed up and out, cleavage for days, fishnets encasing my thighs, tight leather boots hugging my calves. I felt so much more powerful and able to fight if any shit went down.
I get that kids are sexualized young in this culture, especially girls. That's creepy, and I'm not saying it's okay. When Abercrombie & Fitch sold thongs to preteens, it disgusted me. Toddler beauty pageants scare the hell out of me.
But whenever people get moralistic and concerned about teenage girls' slutty outfits, about how sexual teens are these days — I cringe. Because I was that girl who got into screaming fights with her mother about fishnets and cleavage and dresses that were too tight. And I want us to actually talk to that girl without screaming at her. To see how she feels about what she's wearing. To see if she's doing it solely to impress people, or if she's doing it to go along with the crowd, but she really hates it. Or if she's doing it because it's a way to claim power in a world that hates sexuality and hates femininity.
I was a queer chubby girl wearing sexy clothes trying to learn how to love herself in a viciously fatphobic, sexist, homophobic world. Honestly? Cobbling together a wardrobe of vintage lingerie was one of the ways I coped. I spent a lot of time figuring out what clothes worked for my body. Like most fat people, I had to figure it out on my own.
There is no cultural road map for being fat and sexual. We're taught that the two are at odds with each other. I have lost count of how many times I have heard people say — in person, on the Internet, in print media — that fat people should not go out in clothes that are tight or revealing or provocative. That the very sight of our flesh — and in particular, the sight of our sexual bodies — is cause for disgust, even for violence. I wonder sometimes if people would have reacted as strongly to my outfits as a teenager if I'd been a size 2 or 4 instead of a size 12 or 14. How much of it was fear of young people being sexual? How much of it was fear of fat people being sexual?
I was speaking at a reproductive justice conference a while back, on a panel called something vague and cutting-edge like "The Politics of Sexuality." I was supposed to be talking about my work in the porn industry as a fat queer woman — what I like and don't like about doing porn. But the panel moderator opened the session by referring to Andrea Dworkin and Catherine McKinnon (who are famously anti-porn) as "sex-radical feminists." My eyes about bugged outta my head.
It all went downhill from there. Women in the audience started disclosing their rape fantasies during the Q&A: "Why do we like this? Are we fucked up?" It was like group therapy and second-wave feminist sex guilt were getting together to have a really terrible party. By the end of it, I was bowled over and exhausted.
And then a pretty young fat girl — white, maybe 19 or 20, kinda punky, with wire-rimmed glasses and fine blonde hair with an orange streak — walked up to me as I gathered my things. She had tears in her eyes.
"I've ..." She had to gulp, she was that choked up. "I've never... Gina, you're the first fat person I've ever heard talk about being comfortable with your body and comfortable with sex. I really want to be there, and I'm not yet. What do I do?"
I was floored. I almost started crying too. I hugged her. I told her she was beautiful. I scribbled down some websites and some book titles. And then I hugged her — again — and told her she was beautiful — again. I felt like I could not say that enough times.
I wish I'd had time to tell her my story — how wearing clothes as armor and fetish helped and healed, and got me to where I am now. If that girl wants to wear nothing but vintage lingerie for a year? For the rest of her life? More power to her.
Gina de Vries is a San Francisco-based writer, sex worker, activist, and writing instructor. Hear all about her at www.ginadevries.com . Hot for Lust for Life? It's our new sex column, stay tuned.