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The first time someone called me fat, I was eight years old.
“You’re so fat,” my stepbrother said. “You don’t even think about if we’d want some of those raspberries. Just eat, eat, eat.”
This was only the first time. As I hit puberty at ten, my body began to develop, pushing breasts from my chest and hips to a width I didn’t share with the lanky, athletic girls of my small hometown, those who called me things like moose and cow. I saw myself as revolting, but the first time an adult hit on me, I was thirteen. Waiting outside the library for it to open, I could feel his eyes on my body, short and full with the change from child to adult.
“That jacket looks nice on you,” he said. “You go to school here? Maybe we can go out sometime. I’m a great study partner.” The door to the library rattled with the librarian’s key, interrupting his questions as I ran inside where I hid behind the stacks and hoped he wouldn’t find me. This was just the beginning. To my classmates, to my family, to myself? I was a fat girl, too big for the clothes in the children’s section, forced to wear bras that strapped down the flesh that stretched my skin in bright tiger’s stripes. But to adult men who saw my body, not my age? I was worth having, a curvy girl whose body could hold unknown potential. I didn’t understand what they wanted, but I knew I was afraid.
As I aged, I learned what the stares sought: to know the curve of my breast, the heft of my behind. I couldn’t see myself in terms of beauty, but men thought me a triumph, a gift from above that could only lead to pleasure. In response, I taught younger students about abstinence, refused my boyfriend any access below my waist, and only begrudgingly let him touch my breasts. I wore a “True Love Waits” ring my mother gave me and planned to keep my virginity for my husband, a person I couldn’t imagine existed. I felt the ring was an armor, a way of keeping the people who wanted my body at a distance, a visible signal that I wasn’t available.
When I left my small Oregon town for college, I moved more than two thousand miles away, to a small city in Appalachia where I was a part of an elite scholarship program. This sudden immersion into a new, adult world was jarring; I was totally unprepared and inexperienced with the drinking, drugs, and freedom that accompanied campus. I dove into the radio station as sanctuary, the cafeteria as comfort, and emerged from my first year of college without my virginity, with a drinking problem, and an extra fifty pounds that found no home on my five foot, three inch form.
Suddenly, I was everything I hated, “True Love Waits” ring buried in a jewelry box in my closet. Why had I disposed of these beliefs so deeply influential to who I wanted to be? Simply put, to belong. My virginity had been a weight around my neck, a fact that kept me separated from my friends, labeled me different. When my older friend introduced me to a boy who was also a virgin, I thought I had found the answer. I chose to give mine to him as a way of closing the gap between myself and the women I had started to idolize. After he dumped me three weeks later, the day after he raped me while blackout drunk (coincidentally, my birthday), I started to drink and eat even more.
At my heaviest, I topped the scales at 215. It would take me three years to lose the weight, to return to my body’s comfortable size and through it, I dissolved my scholarship in a vat of vodka, smoked pot daily, and battered my body with a variety of abusive partners, men who would rape me or use me for a night or two. I was repeating what I learned from my first sexual partner over and over again. In what was supposed to be my final semester of college, I discovered that I would not graduate because of a single class missing in my transcript. In a fury informed by my constant drinking, I chose to drop out, to put distance between myself and the failures I felt I had earned through trauma and an inability to care for myself.
At the time, I was living with a woman I’ll call Julie*, an Appalachian stripper who had moved in at the beginning of my downfall. She was working at the best strip club in town when we met and convinced me to give the job a shot. I went in the week before my twenty-second birthday, only to discover the lack of coordination that kept me from dance floors in clubs should have kept me off the strip pole. In the back rooms, though, I found a rhythm during lap dances, a time when I could talk to the men who wanted my skin and convince them that three dances just wasn’t enough.
I left after less than a week, then worked minimum wage food service. Shortly after this, I met a woman named Brittany* through Julie. She was a Madame, a woman who ran a prostitution ring. As I wondered how I would find the rest of that month’s rent, Julie counted her hundreds of dollars, made in a single weekend over three calls. Eventually, she asked if I was interested in joining.
I was terrified by the thought. I knew nothing but what I had been told through the years, that whores were the worst kind of women, those without options. But… I was broke. I was counting together change for a pack of cigarettes, relying on the help of friends to get myself out of the hell I knew too well. If I could make enough money to survive, why not try?
My first call was in the first apartment I had been able to rent by myself. Brittany waited downstairs in her car while a short man came to my door. He was a regular, I would find out, a man who always wanted to see the new workers. He entered my apartment, the living room with a queen-sized air mattress, and placed three one-hundred dollar bills on my dresser. He asked me to undress slowly, as he sat down on my chair in the corner. My hands shook as I looped my thumb under the strap of my dress, bringing it down over my shoulder. I pulled my dress down, releasing the breasts that had for so long been cumbersome, now turned essential. I revealed the patch of hair that grew between my legs, the puff of fat that protected my vulva, and the man fell to his knees, almost in prayer. When he touched me, laying me gently down on the air mattress, I imagined his hands were someone else’s, and, once he had entered my body, sheathed in a latex condom, it took less than five minutes for him to reach his pinnacle. He gave me a kiss after we both dressed, then bounded down my stairs.
I looked at myself in the full length mirror that stood next to my doorway and felt like my body was precious, saw it as beautiful, worthwhile, for the first time… ever. I was able to see myself with accuracy – I wasn’t fat. I wasn’t thin, but my body was beautiful, the full hips and breasts that had so haunted my youth now became something marvelous. My face was pretty, healthy, and bright. My skin was smooth and soft. My waist was a tight curve that I had never been able to call slender but now I could see was something to love, a place where a hand fit perfectly.
Over the course of the next three months, I would meet men and women on calls across Appalachia, making between $150 and $1000 per visit. I felt that my body was something worth being close to, leaving each person happier than when I found them, giving myself an independence that I had never known. I gained a few pounds back over the summer, filling out the indents in my stomach that framed my abs, but I didn’t hate myself for it.
As I started my final year of college again, I left Brittany the Madame and Julie in their jobs, went back to minimum wage work and a reliance on student loans. I didn’t want to leave the calls, the money, the confidence behind, but to get the diploma I had spent four years pursuing, I had to fit my life to a predictable schedule. A year later, I would end up returning to sex work after finishing my degree, once I moved to Las Vegas. My work as an escort, though, had given me the confidence in my body to become a webcam performer. I made hundreds of dollars a week performing live sex acts on the internet. Though I had gained back twenty pounds of the weight I had lost, I still saw myself with the same kindness and respect that I had developed as an escort.
Less than a year passed before I left Las Vegas and the abusive partners who shared my home. I went back to Oregon to heal and dissect where I had been and where I came from. When I shared with my friends and family what I had done, there was a fear that I had put myself in dangerous situations. I tried to explain to them how I had changed for the better, what the work had given me. With time, they understood how I had shifted in seeing myself – my body was beautiful, always had been, but I could finally stand by that reality. I loved the way my form had provided both confidence and sustenance for my life.
It’s been more than three years since my primary source of income came from my body. Since then I’ve gotten married, started graduate school and professional writing, and gotten sober. The distance of time has given me perspective on just how transformative sex work was for me; without the confidence it gave, I wouldn’t have seen myself as worthy of my husband. I wouldn’t have thought I had a story to tell, enough to earn a graduate degree in writing. I wouldn’t have accepted that weight changes and bodies will shift, but the beauty I have within and without will always remain.
You might be wondering, why would I share this story with Gurl readers? Is this inappropriate to share with teens? Should we really be talking about sex work with an age group that can’t legally consent to sexual relationships? My answer is yes, for a few reasons. First and foremost, the rights and protections of sex workers are so important in the current state of feminism. If we’re having conversations with teen girls about the rights and privileges afforded to them and how that is a part of feminism, it’s important to expose the challenges that face all women, particularly those so often silenced.
Second, Gurl.com was instrumental in the development of my sexuality and understanding of my body and feminism as a teen. It was the only place that didn’t shy away from talking about clitorises, about masturbation, about healthy bodies and minds. I don’t think that sex work is something that anyone under the age of consent should consider, but I don’t think either that the conversation of sex workers rights is something we should hide from teens. Sex work is never going to be an option for all people – but it was a life-saving tool for me. I don’t share my story to encourage others to become sex workers, but to shine a light on the reality that faces those that enter the field.
*Names have been changed.
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