The Body Image Struggle of a Rape Survivor

My mother was always on a diet: I remember her special kitchen cabinet of what smelled and looked like rabbit food to me. Low-fat rice cakes, reduced-fat peanut butter, canned tuna that she would eat with celery and low-fat miracle whip, always avoiding breads and pastries at all costs. If she lost a few pounds, she would reward herself dessert, the dish she wanted all along,  and with eyes dancing with joy and masked in society’s guilt she would say, “I’m being so bad right now.” To my mother, experiencing pleasure, especially with food, was not something she could afford much of if she was going to fit into the physical mold of what a woman was expected to be in society. 


And she was so beautiful: long legs, a tiny waist, wide hips and cheekbones for days. I heard many times throughout my childhood that she was like a brunette Princess Diana: her beauty was the kind that you didn’t just see, you felt it. As such, I wanted to do everything just like her. I wanted to be slender like her, I wanted perfect skin, straight teeth, and gleaming chestnut hair whose strands shone extra bright on sunny days. 


My mother’s lipstick would trace the straw of her diet Cokes: zero calories, she would remind me, so it doesn’t count. I couldn’t wait to wear lipstick like her and I couldn’t wait to enter the fold of feminine women the world so admired. To me, dieting was just as feminine as having a treasure trove of lipsticks on your vanity dressing table. 


I wanted to be just like her. I also wanted to be so pretty, that everyone would like me. Because for me, if everybody liked me, I wouldn’t be abused. 

I’m not sure when exactly I grew to believe that the more beautiful I was, the more people would like me. Maybe it was from all the tabloid magazines my mother would read with me, maybe it was all of the popular girls in school. I’m not sure where that idea originated, but when I was a teenager being brutally abused, starved, tortured, and publicly humiliated by my father’s wife as he watched on in silent agreement that I deserved black eyes from her, that I deserved for her to choke me beyond breathing, but I began to believe that if I was more beautiful, he would care. If I was prettier, he would have stopped her as she stripped me naked of my clothes late one winter night and made me watch as she placed my entire wardrobe in a burn barrel and set it on fire. If I was prettier, he would save me from her brutality. I just wasn’t pretty enough.


When puberty hit, I began to look exactly like my mother. My hips widened, my legs lengthened, my backside filled out and my breasts swelled out in such a way that our silhouettes were identical. Because I so strikingly resembled the mother of my father’s children, my father’s wife became even more jealous and more abusive, and I was a young girl who kept telling herself that I still wasn’t beautiful enough. For the last year before my 18th birthday, my father's wife was only allowing me to eat one potato per meal, and in rebellion, I would throw up every potato I was ever given. I would scrounge through her pantry late at night, looking for things to eat (that weren’t potatoes) so that she wouldn’t miss them. I would throw that food up, too. In a world where I had no control, this was the one thing I had control over, and in turn, I was “dieting” just like my mother. In my young mind, I was finding ways to make myself prettier so that someday, maybe someone would love me. 


I escaped my heinous childhood by joining the military. I thought to myself, if I could just get away from this torturous world, I could start over. I would be the kindest, prettiest, most loving and respectful young sailor, and everyone would love me. I would provide for myself with my military service, and I will never allow anyone abusive to ever near my orbit again. 

Except that no one had ever taught me what self-love was. I believed that as long as I was beautiful, people would love and respect me. I continued throwing up my food when I overate, always keeping my composure in stressful moments, only to binge and purge in privacy if I ever needed to express feelings of being out of control: an exercise of catharsis. 


Then my first sexual assault happened. I never in my life expected that someone would force themselves on me, and I never thought they would say that due to my cheerful nature and striking features, that I clearly wanted that kind of attention. But because I had been abused all of my life, I thought for sure that this was just my own failure in being good enough: otherwise, I would have been more valued, right? 


Then I fell in love with another sailor.  A year later, I married my ex-husband in a San Diego courthouse ceremony that to us, felt desperately romantic. We were old enough to make decisions but too young to understand them. As our military service continued, these two young sailors from troubled homes lacked the ability to understand how our childhood traumas were compounding with our military ones. He began to beat me as hard as he was hitting the bottle. I thought that it was my fault: I wasn’t enough. I continued to binge and purge until I became pregnant: a pregnancy that my ex-husband threatened to kill me over if I didn’t terminate. That abortion changed my life forever, but I still believed that every heartbreak leading up to this point was because I just wasn’t good enough, wasn’t pretty enough, wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t feminine enough...I just wasn’t enough.


I was sexually assaulted several times throughout my military service, and each time it was swept under the rug. I believed people when they said it was my fault. I believed people when they said I wasn’t enough. 


After a lifetime of abuse and an 8-year career of military service and subsequent sexual trauma, I left the military, praying that if I was pretty enough, that I could re-establish a life for myself in California. My first stop? Beauty school. 


As my career with a world-renown hair care company advanced, I believed it was only because I wouldn't rest until I was the prettiest, the smartest, the hardest-working, the best employee...if I failed, it was because I wasn’t enough as a human. As a survival tactic, it was important to me that I always be the prettiest girl in the room: this would make me safe. 


The binging and purging weren’t enough after the years: I started starving myself too. I needed to be perfect and would do whatever it took. I started experimenting with cocaine, partly for appetite suppression, partly because it turned my stress into heightened productivity: I coupled cocaine with cigarettes, and I never felt the pangs of hunger. The drugs turned my anxiety to life-threatening levels of suicidal ideation, homelessness, and unsafe situations: it took me years to understand that my self-hate and perfectionism as a means to protect myself were killing my brain and putting me at risk at extreme rates.


Most people would say that I’m beautiful: it’s taken me a very long time to believe them. Most of my life, I’ve believed I’m not enough. Most of my life, I’ve believed that I needed to be thinner, that my curves were not beautiful at all, that the only purpose curves served was to elicit attention from predators. The bigger my butt is, the more likely it will be that I will be raped. My twisted, unhealthy thought processes had me believing that if I was wearing a tight dress with my waist-to-hip ratio on display, that I was asking to be fondled on the street without my consent. Any time things like that would happen, I believed it was because I was failing: I needed to be a better woman. 

Last fall I had a severe PTSD episode as I darkly fantasized about how to end my life. I had it all planned out, and that’s when I realized I needed to check myself into inpatient care, at which point I shared with the staff my story: abuse, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, unhealthy relationships, substance abuse, self-harm...Putting all of these words together was undeniably life-changing for me: I had severe problems, and I needed help. 


I learned a lot during that 90-day trauma recovery program, or Wellness Retreat, as I grew to call it. Nobody ever taught me how to love myself, so I learned all of the incredible ways to do that. 

My greatest lesson? I deserve a life that includes a lot of love, and my physical appearance is not a determining factor regarding my worth on this planet. I’m learning that because of my looks, people will be drawn to me: what they think about my appearance has nothing to do with my worth, though, and I can’t control how they feel. I’m learning that my curves are nothing to be ashamed of, and certainly not meant to be suppressed with an eating disorder, an eating disorder whose vice grip I have loosened from my mind. I’ve admittedly gained some weight since I’ve stopped throwing up all of my meals, and when I see those extra pounds in the mirror, I see a woman who’s adding the padding of self-love as a soft armor. 


Lately, when I look in the mirror, I see a glow I’ve never seen before. And it’s because I’m no longer concerned about what others think when they see me, but instead that I love who I see in the mirror, and better yet: I love what is shining from the inside. I am free of abuse now: whether from others or self-inflicted, because I’ve learned how to love myself first. 


And these days, you can tell ya girl ain’t missin’ no meals.