I’ve always felt different from other women. Growing up I didn’t have many female friends. The girls I did become close with were, as I describe them, the kinds of girlfriends who call each other “dude.” In middle school and high school I strived to revel in my otherness, shouting (figuratively, desperately), “ I’m a tomboy! I like punk music! I’m one of the only black people at my school! ” When I went to college I shrouded myself with other unique identifiers. I loosely adopted Buddhism, developed a serious yoga practice, got several tattoos, and went vegetarian .
Being vegetarian became the cornerstone of my identity.
Following a vegetarian diet was easy for me. It was a conversation starter, it was a political statement, and it was an invisibility cloak. Giving up meat was an easy way to maintain my slim figure; something I hadn’t had to think about when I was practicing daily for the high school dance team. It was something to take my mind off of my depression , which, despite being treated with medication, completely crippled me during the winter and whenever I was in a relationship.
In the middle of my sophomore year at Ohio State University, I noticed this girl.
I’d see her everywhere, it seemed. We made eye contact as we passed each other walking across the quad between classes and eating Lucky Charms on opposite sides of the residence hall cafeteria, but we never spoke. I still don’t know who she is—the only thing I remember about her is that she had shoulder-length dark hair—but when I look back on my diary entries around this time, it was clear she awakened my same-sex attraction:
“ Women are magnetic. They have this mysterious and hypnotic nature about them, some sort of sorcery…A woman is as the water. Sea-smooth waves, curving like a wake. And it be not an ocean without a little salt .” —Personal diary entry, April 15, 2008
That year I tried, timidly, to come out to my mom and best friend. They responded with a measure of skepticism—after all, I’d only dated men until then. It’s not the response you hope for when you entrust someone with a secret. Being a people-pleaser, I adopted their doubt as my own and went back into the closet, quietly identifying as bisexual but dating only men because “that’s what you do.”
After that, I went from vegetarianism to veganism—if I couldn’t control my sexuality, I could at least control my diet.
I was running from myself. Because the basic need to eat is woven throughout each day, carefully curating what I consumed according to the tenets of veganism made me feel like my life was in order even when my mental health was not. I was using veganism as a distraction device—a challenge—instead of a positive lifestyle change, and because of that I never learned how to eat intuitively. When, years later, veganism hadn’t “cured” my struggles with body image and depression, I decided to try bodybuilding to get the physique I wanted and thereby become happy, finally.
The classic bodybuilding diet consists of lean meat, eggs, rice, and oatmeal, a clear departure from my past of plant-based eating. I felt some guilt about abandoning the diet and philosophy I had ascribed to for eight years, but the structure of the new program felt comfortable. I resigned myself to the fact that food was no longer for enjoyment; it was for fuel. I loved the attention I got from other people: They gawked at my newly muscular upper body, questioned my pill chest full of vitamins and supplements, and admired my ability to eschew donuts at the office in favor of reheated cod and green beans.
Forcing myself to eat the same meals every day and bullying my body to grow provided a masochistic sense of satisfaction—one that seemingly paid off when I achieved International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) professional status in 2015, my second year competing. That kind of rapid success is unheard of in the bodybuilding industry, and I should have been prouder of myself than I was. Instead, I was still terribly depressed and in and out of relationships that made my self-loathing worse.
Last winter I reached my all-time low. I was in a relationship with a man who was exactly the type of person my family would want me to be with—successful, stable, handsome—and I was about to begin training for my second pro bodybuilding show. But none of it was fun. I couldn’t get out of bed; I was cripplingly depressed. I made an appointment with a doctor to have my depression medication dosage increased, but I couldn’t get in for another month. In the meantime, I began to prepare for my upcoming competition, but I still wanted to start feeling better. So, I started to dig.
I downloaded an app that let me chat with a “listener” about my feelings, a different one with guided meditations, and still another that allowed me to track my feelings daily and view the trends as a line graph. At the beginning of the yoga class I started taking each week, I’d set my intention for the class: “Be happier.” In trying to remember how exactly to be happy, I romanticized my past, thinking that reclaiming veganism was the answer. I got into green smoothies, traded chicken for tofu, and lost myself in aspirational vegan lifestyle YouTube channels like those of Ellen Fisher and Kate Flowers . Eating vegan again—fueling my body with whole foods straight from the earth—was exhilarating. I felt healthier in a sense, just as I had the first time I went vegan ten years prior. But because I was only immersing myself in a vegan diet as a form of self-control again, I ultimately still felt like an empty shell.
One day my boyfriend and I got in our weekly fight about me avoiding intimacy. I’d slunk off to cry and snuggle my cat, and when he found me he said, “I don’t understand why you can show love to your cat like that, but not to me.” At first I was indignant, but he was right. I was avoiding intimacy with him, thinking there must be something wrong with me for not wanting to be close to him. I’d made all those sudden changes in my life—the meds, the yoga, the veganism—to try to fix myself when the real problem was that I thought I needed fixing. I stood in the shower that night sobbing, with the words “I’m gay” repeating over and over in my mind like a twisted mantra.
Over the next month, I came out to myself again and again, floating through my daily activities with a new lens of queerness. “I’m gay,” I’d think as I cooked breakfast, scooped the cat box, or did Sun Salutations. I came out to my mom next, then my closest friends, and finally, excruciatingly, to my boyfriend. “I know why I’ve been acting the way I have,” I sputtered through tears, “It’s because I’m gay.”
Dealing with the aftermath of that discussion was one of the most difficult things I’ve done. I moved all my belongings out of a home I’d made with someone, intending to marry him. I broke his heart in the process. I drew flow charts to ensure I was absolutely, positively gay and not just situationally depressed. I sought refuge in the words and company of other women who had also come out late in life, and knowing I wasn’t alone allowed me to release the shame I felt for my decade of denial. I worked on respecting my body and finding a balance between eating for fun and eating for fuel. Yes, coming out was hard. But sitting here today as an out lesbian, my depression has almost completely subsided. I finally feel free.
And if you’re wondering, I still drink a green smoothie every day, lift weights, and do yoga, but I also eat pepperoni pizza when I feel like it. And best of all, now I kiss girls.
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