My experience with body image: an ongoing journey as told by a victim of sexual violence 

By: Joy McBrien
**This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some readers.**
In high school, I was a leader.  I was student council president, class valedictorian and a competitive dancer, and it led to me feeling powerful, capable, and beautiful.

But then, as a senior in high school, I was raped for the first time. I didn’t tell anyone, which I highly discourage now, but rather spent two agonizing years alone with myself and my secret.  During those two years, I struggled through cycles of sexual violence, assaulted by people I had trusted, every instance making me more and more certain that my role in society was as a sexual object; I was something to be used, abused, and discarded. I was later diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the sexual trauma, which made a lot of sense to me, as anxiety and depression quickly became states of mind with which I was all too familiar.

I internalized that it was my fault–all of it.  There must be something that I was doing, some vibe or look that I was giving off, to cause these horrible things to keep happening to me.  I was convinced that I needed to change myself in order to stop the violence and start to heal.

As many women do, I figured my looks were the first thing that needed to change.  I cut off my long hair, dyed my blonde locks brown, traded shorts for loose-fitting jeans, and was almost never seen without a cozy flannel. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was trying to hide behind an image of someone I thought society would view as less attractive, and therefore make myself less susceptible to violence.

This worked for me for a little while. I flew under the radar, didn’t attend college parties, and made sure I had a boyfriend by my side to make me feel safe and cared for.  But, not surprisingly, it couldn’t work forever.  Because my appearance was never the reason I was being abused.  It didn’t matter what I looked like or how I dressed–ultimately, I was raped because my rapist was determined to make that happen. The second time, too.

So why am I sharing these intimate details of my life with you?  For two reasons.  Firstly, I’m convinced that one of the reasons that people continue to get away with sexual violence is because we are not talking about it enough.  And the reason that so many women who experience it continue to feel lonely, experience depression, and think themselves crazy is because we’re not talking to each other about it as often or openly as we should.  This was my experience–I don’t assume it is everyone’s, but I wanted to share it because of my second point:

I don’t care if you’re in a hot pink mini skirt or a men’s flannel, any violence enacted against you is not your fault. How you look or dress or carry yourself is not the problem, people who assault, hurt, and rape women are the problem. Changing your appearance may feel like the quickest solution and easiest way to stop the fear and pain, and if you need to take that route, then do, for as long as it takes. But I know from personal experience that those changes will only mask your pain for a little while. So I hope you’ll know and remember that, when you’re ready, you can begin the journey back to being the version of yourself that makes you the happiest, whatever that looks like. Because what happened to you didn’t happen because of how you are shaped or what you were wearing. It was absolutely 100% not your fault.

Now, 8 years since that nightmare of an evening in high school, I feel confident in myself again.  Like I have regained so much of the power that was stolen from me in that instance and the ones that followed. The support of family, friends, and therapists have definitely played a big role in this, understanding they appreciate me for who I am rather than what I look like.

They’ve also believed in me as I’ve pursued my passion for women’s rights.  I recognize that my current state of happiness was found while working through my healing with other women, most of whom live in developing countries across the world and have experienced much worse atrocities throughout their lives.  Over the last few years, I’ve worked to start my own social enterprise called Fair Anita, which exists to aid women who have been through similar situations and empower them through economic opportunity.  Together, we design and sell fair trade jewelry, clothing, and accessories–products that we feel good about, and our customers can too.  Now, I dress for me, and I dress for other women–making sure I’m wearing jewelry that’s supporting women around the world– and sometimes that’s paired with skinny jeans and heels, but it’s usually still with one of my flannels.  That’s me, unapologetically.

Now I work with thousands of women and watch as they become comfortable in their own skins, happy with their true selves. One women’s cooperative in Ethiopia consists of about 150 women living with HIV, AIDS, or fistula (a terrible condition that causes you to leak fluids like blood and urine). These women make awesome jewelry from recycled bullet casings—it’s one of my top-selling products. No longer are they defined by their HIV status, but instead by their ingeniousness as entrepreneurs and artists. Another woman from a cooperative in India told me, “The journey from being defined as a person of poverty to now being a renowned fair trade artist, it’s an incredible transformation.”

It’s taken a long time to realize it, but I know now that I define my identity. I can decide the person I want to be. I don’t have to change—I’m already pretty (and competent and capable and ready-for-this)! And I hope anyone who has been through sexual trauma will be able to uncover those realizations too, in time. There are people in your life who love you and are ready to support you; and if you need someone to talk to, I’ve got your back.

Post by Joy McBrien, CEO & Founder of Fair Anita, a social enterprise that’s all about investing in the power of women.  By selling affordable, artisan- made jewelry and accessories, Fair Anita provides fair trade jobs and economic opportunity to thousands of women around the world.  Post edited by Sally McGraw, creator of the blog Already Pretty, where this post was originally published.