Jess

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As a flirty, curvy girl from the evangelical south, I’m well versed at bumping into preconceived notions of how I should look, act and be. My journey has been one moving from restriction to openness—in my views and practices religiously, culturally and in my relationships. For a time, I soaked all the propaganda in like a sponge. I was a good church girl who compared herself to others and found myself wanting. I strove to be more devout, lose weight, and wear the right clothes.

While still a devout teen, I met my first love. He too was raised in an independent fundamental Baptist church. We met when I was a 220lbs, 13-year-old who had low self-worth. We grew as fast friends; relating with our troubled family backgrounds, me with abusive parents and him with a mom battling a chronic illness. I was there for him the day his mother died and he comforted me when I cried processing my dad’s violent manic episodes. I lost 70lbs the summer between middle school and high school and suddenly became more accepted and popular at school, reaffirming my preconception that appearance means more than substance. I dated around, but when my high school crush expressed interest, I melted. He accepted me, no matter my size and knowing my baggage. He gave me his class ring and we launched a serious romance instantly.  We both began to question all the rules forbidding sensual touch. He was the first person I felt comfortable testing my sexuality with (while still remaining pure little churchlings). Being risqué for us meant touching each other’s hands under a bible at a church service. It was then that I learned that kissing is my gateway touch. It makes me want more from whoever I’m with. With the pleasure of touching my high school love, came a wave of guilt. So much so, that I confessed what little making out we’d done to the pastor’s wife. She convinced me the only saintly action was to break both our hearts to keep from fouling my purity. And so, I broke up with him. I was shattered for years, wondering what could have been with that high school sweetheart of mine. I questioned whether I had really done the right thing but tried to console myself with piety and maintaining appearances. It wasn’t until I met my next serious partner that I really began wrestling with those demons.

I met who was to become life partner my senior year of high school, still reeling over the lack of closure with my first love. He was adorable, creative, and had quiet strength. Once we started kissing, the same urges surged in me as before. Both of us were taught that sex before marriage was a terrible sin, so we skirted the line.  Hormones raging, we tried the wide range of other fun besides penetrative sex, then felt guilty and limited our touch. As we began college, I started to go more extreme with my weight loss regimen and it ventured more into an eating disorder. I was strict with ever reducing calorie counting and lost a tremendous amount of weight. The more weight I lost, the more positive affirmation I received from my social circle. My life partner enjoyed me and my body at all sizes. He called out my self-deprecation and people pleasing. He encouraged me to find myself physically, emotionally and sexually. I decided to intentionally start to eat more, knowing I would likely gain back some of the weight I’d lost. I started to question all the doctrine fed to me in my youth. After 3 years, I viewed sex as a loving act of self-expression and connection. I went out and bought condoms and presented them to my partner in a red gift bag. I remember right after our first time, we looked at each other and wondered if we had really changed the world with this simple act?

It became our mission to try new things and  increase our sexual pleasure. Our shifted connection became apparent to my church community who observed our public interactions, judging them to be increasingly impure. A church leader asked us if we were “trying to stop”. Being honest, we told him we didn’t see anything wrong with what we were doing. The church expelled us from our responsibilities we had held for 3+ years. They thought this punishment would cause me to rethink my decisions. Instead, it had the opposite effect. I became more skeptical of the church’s values and more scrutinizing of their actions. I sloughed off people, philosophies and pain that didn’t fit me anymore. I struggled for years to find my identity and where I fit.  Professionally, I found my passion as a social justice activist, working in mental health, then affordable housing and now in reproductive justice.

After 10 years, my life partner and I became more aware of our queer identities. I realized my casual admiration of the female form was actually a deeper interest that socialization had restricted from forming.  I recognized my natural tendency to be an unabashed flirt. We researched alternative relationship structures and landed on poly. It fit most with our core value system of dignity, equality and autonomy. The opening up process was both terrifying and exhilarating. I noticed how my energy grew the more connections I fostered. I explored different aspects of myself. I saw what happened when I put my bubbly flirtations into the world and bounced off others’ energies. I also saw my deepest insecurities exposed when I saw my partners dating others and wondering whether I was enough. In my relationships, I now work to see the person first, identify if I want them in my life and then figure out together what that looks like. Bodily autonomy, consent and authentic expression have become pillars of my values around sex and relationships.

My wonderful partner, who gifted me this photoshoot, is an example of the surprises poly can bring. I responded to his flirtation online after a period of relationship loss and I wondered if I was enough for this sculpted adventurous dude. Two years later, I’ve witnessed, from his example, how poly can build intimate communities with intention. We’ve shared our souls and held each other tight in hard times. With his wife, I’ve developed a special kinship that I can’t quite fit into any of society’s categories. She’s my example for how to make new metamours feel welcome. She’s helped me explore my queerness and build my confidence to pursue sexual and romantic relationships no matter someone’s gender identity.

Five years after opening up, here I am, still very much connected to my life partner, and also full of deep connections I could never have imagined. I find joy having relationships I can’t quite characterize and seeing happiness and growth in those around me. I’m strong because of my choices and quirky self-determination as well as my diverse community of confidants, lovers, partners and friends who check my blind spots. When I sit in doubt, they remind me of my inner and outer beauty. My teenage self would be stunned by my unconventional life.

I hope, as you view these photos, you see a girl who has scars; but who has used them to reclaim herself. A girl who loves deeply and plays loudly. Someone who struggles but has found a community to help pick her back up. I consider the act of working to love my body as it changes and allowing others to express their attachment to me to be my own personal revolution.