When I call Jessica Zollman (also known as jayzombie) from my cell phone, she cheerfully picks up and immediately comments on my area code. We realize we grew up in the same small town, a suburb of San Francisco, and even attended the same high school. These coincidences are always funny, particularly in this case because of how our hometown shaped her story—her life. It’s an affluent town and while there are vestiges of crunch, of hippies who might have migrated east after a trippy summer in the ‘60s, when I go back now, I’m more keenly aware of the yappy dogs in designer purses and overwhelming whiteness. We start talking about our town, and how something as seemingly meaningless as your area code can affect how you see your body, the friends you keep, the journey you take.
JZ: I was raised Jewish but I went to temple in a church. Our temple lost its lease when I was in 4th grade, which was probably rooted in anti-semitism. Several churches offered their sanctuaries for Friday night services and I went to Sunday school at an elementary school. In 5th grade, someone spray painted swastikas at the elementary school. Kids are smart and I knew my environment at that point was one of pure hatred. My grandma’s family escaped from Russia and came [to the U.S.] when she was so young and was always open and honest about anti-semitism and hate. She moved to a very Jewish suburb outside of Chicago and felt safe there, but I didn’t have that sense of community.
ML: That sounds awful; it’s never easy feeling like the outsider, especially as a kid when you know something’s off but might not fully, contextually understand it.
JZ: This sense of being attacked a very young age has always been a part of me. My mom is a single mom which is also very weird in Danville. In the early 90s, it was all about nuclear families: straight, white couples who stayed together no matter what. If that wasn’t you, that was weird. My mom was a widow and we were judged even though she had absolutely no control over my dad dying. Before he passed away, he asked my mom to raise me Jewish. It was rooted in something important to someone important to me. Then in the early 2000s, “don’t be a Jew” became a fun phrase for people to say. There were layers of pain when people said things like that to me.
ML: I definitely remember “don’t be a Jew,” and also, “that’s so gay.” I’m really glad we’ve moved past those phrases now.
JZ: Yeah, “that’s so gay” was so common. And in 7th grade, I came out as bissexual to my friends. They didn’t get it. I’d start dating a boy and they’d be like, oh, you’re straight again. I dated a very Christian guy for several years and I got into a huge argument with his family about gay marriage. They had excuses like, if a man and a man can get married, a man can marry a goat. After that argument, I was like, I can’t do this.
ML: I want to talk about how these experiences affected your sense of self. I know you told [Cora co-founder] Molly that some of this early discrimination is what prompted your tattoos.
JZ: Yeah, in addition to what we’ve talked about, I’m really curvy and I’ve always been curvy. So I’d be walking across the street and have some kid scream, ‘yo, can I buy you a thigh master?’ I had cellulite, but it’s part of my body and who I am. But I was insecure and I hated how much this person had honed in on what I hated about my body. Of course, I look at photos now and I’m like, oh my god, you were so skinny. Anyway, all of those things combined cumulated in me starting to get tattoos around the time I went to college.
I went to UCSB and my 20s felt like a way safer experience. I could now see that there are all kinds of people, a lot of my close friends were gay and I could find community outside of my small, close-minded town. So yeah, I started getting a shit ton of tattoos and had friends from Danville commenting, what are you doing to your body? As if they had ownership over it. It also made me realize that some of these “friends” were only friends because they thought maybe they could get with me.
ML: So the tattoos almost became a way of vetting authentic relationships?
JZ: Yeah, these “friends” were so concerned I was defiling my body but I felt like, if I’m going to find a partner, man or woman, forever, I need them to be OK with this. Getting tattoos was an experience that taught me these people who I trusted and considered to be on my team, weren’t. Part of it was also making myself unapproachable.
I had an experience with physical abuse and rape in high school. I recovered because I’m strong and thank god for therapy, but I needed to have ownership of my body and I needed to do it in a way that would protect me. The most obvious way to protect myself was to make sure I could reject a portion of the population who would not find me attractive. I love my tattoos and I’m proud of what they represent but at the same time, if I’m walking in downtown LA, I roll up my sleeves. Subconsciously, I make sure my tattoos are showing. For the most part, they reject guys who wouldn’t talk to someone with sleeves.
ML: What have all these experiences taught you about your body?
JZ: I feel more comfortable in my body. After marrying my husband, I think about my body more. He makes me feel beautiful but I do think for some reason that being with one person, I think I hid behind sexual promiscuity to feel good about myself. Now, with one person, I don’t have that crutch. I was trying to fill in insecurities and deep wounds from the loss of my father, the damage done to me by growing up in a community that rejected me. I have had to work really hard and be introspective. I’ve had to figure out the root of why my thighs make me want to cry. It’s a good thing. That’s why I’m attracted to monogamy and partnerships—without this bond and commitment, I’d run away from thinking about a lot of these things.
This interview has been edited and condensed.