Skills: Beauty Found, Beauty Lost, Defining Beauty
from Contributor: Mountain Selkie
Fifteen years ago, I was sexually assaulted by a boy that I had dated off and on throughout high school. On that humid summer night, my world-view seismically shifted and left my heart, mind, and soul in a schism that has taken years to begin to reconcile. Reflecting on the idea of beauty and what that means to me is something that has had my mind reeling for months- ever since Heidi first asked me to write an entry for the Reclaiming Beauty website. I know now that my understanding of beauty and what that means to me is intricately tied to the transformation, or perhaps, reclamation, of my heart and mind after that tragic experience.
That summer, I graduated high school and was excited about attending college in the fall. Growing up, I had been loved by, nurtured, and provided for by two loving parents and a large extended family. I was surrounded by friends and sweethearts. I had a very naïve concept of what it means to be beautiful, or even what beauty really meant- my view was one that was force-fed by mass-consumerism, teenage pop culture, and the fundamentalist, rigid Baptist Church that I attended throughout my childhood. Like most teenage girls of my generation, I thought beauty was primarily grounded in appearance and a specific attitude that required being sweet, shallow, superficial, and flirtatious. I wanted to be beautiful. In hindsight, and I now know now that I was. Stunning even. But at the time, I mostly thought that I was ugly- I hated my feet, my hair, my body, and my height. I hated that my eyes weren’t blue or green, just murky. I even hated my short pinky finger and my knees. Though I was athletic, trim and muscular, and wore a size 8, and that I was 5’8 and weighed a healthy 135 lbs, I thought I was fat and I would starve myself and binge and purge. I longed for that thin, lithe body that I was never genetically pre-determined to have, short of famine or complete malnourishment. However, the opposite sex still found me attractive. I didn’t go very long spans of time without having boyfriends, potential love interests, and crushes. Though I inwardly hated so much of myself and struggled with anxiety and depression, most people remember me as someone who was outgoing, friendly, goofy, and easy to be with, most of the time. My family might remember me during my teenage years differently and acknowledge the tough time I had growing into a person who feels deeply and struggled with most aspects of life. While my life wasn’t perfect and I had my personal struggles, I was blissfully ignorant of the potential tragic repercussions of being innocently beautiful. I was preoccupied with being “wanted” and “desired” and enjoyed the frequent attention that I received from boys, feeling like this gave me power and a sense of purpose.
All of this, of course, led up to the date rape. That night, I was so scared and afraid that I went into autopilot, never consenting and repeatedly saying “no,” and crying throughout the whole experience. I have blocked out aspects of the rape and cannot recall the penetration. I was horrified and I remember shutting down and withdrawing into myself. Even though I rejected him, I was also too afraid of what could happen if I fought him off of me. He was a track star and could have outrun me in a heartbeat. I learned after getting in the car with him that night that he was on some kind of drug and that he wasn’t himself. I feared for my safety, and submitted to his force so that it would be over and done with, retreating deep into myself in hopes that it was a bad dream.
That night, my childhood ended. Date rape is no way to lose your virginity, or your childhood. That time period is almost a black hole for me- but just as a rotting corpse eventually becomes amazing fertilizer, it played a huge role in the more sensitive, aware, and passionate person I have become. The very next day, though, the monster had the nerve to call me at my parents house and asked me if he could see me again. I screamed at him and told him to go to hell, but he kept saying that he was sorry, but he just couldn’t help himself- he said that “he wanted me so bad, that I was so beautiful, that he had to have me.” Shaking in fear and outrage as he said this to me while I was home alone, I screamed at him and told him that what he did was rape, and that if he ever wanted to see me again, he’d have to apologize to me in front of my father and let him beat him to an inch of his life. Those were the last words I ever said to him. I puked my guts out and smoked pot until I was oblivious, fighting the growing ongoing panic attack that was becoming my life.
And then, the anger, the self-loathing, and the shame really began to sink in. I truly believed him, that it had to be my fault- if I hadn’t been so beautiful, so friendly, so trusting… I really believed what he had said. I believed that it was my fault that he did what he did- it was what I had coming since I had teased him and rejected him and left him helpless. I was consumed with fear and anxiety. Only two weeks after this happened, I started college and left home, struggling to make sense out of this nightmare but also too afraid to tell anyone. For months, I told no one what had happened, not even my best friend. Coming home at night, sometimes I would see his car parked at the church that I would have to pass by to get my parents house, knowing he was waiting to see me again. My blood would curdle and I would want to scream- instead, I’d smoke pot in my room with the exhaust fan in the window and try to get over my fears. Six months later, there would still be calls to my parents’ house where no one would speak and I knew it was him. In fear of him being on the other end of a call, I wouldn’t even answer the phone unless I was specifically expecting to hear from someone. I was afraid that he would hurt me again, afraid that he hurt my family, and afraid that if I told my parents, I would have to get the police involved. If I told, I was sure that my family, friends, and the police would all confirm what I already believed: that it was my fault. I was so afraid of him, of myself, and this kind of thing happening again with someone else. I was paralyzed with fear- the only way to numb my pain was abusing any substance I could- pot, alcohol, snorting painkillers, and one time, even cocaine… but by far my most dangerous drug choice was food. Food provided not only a comfort, but also a vehicle that could drive me out of this body that I believed had seduced a rapist and had betrayed me. My own body, my femininity, my beauty could not be trusted – it could not be unleashed, lest something worse would happen. I could no longer trust my own self and was quietly imploding with debilitating panic attacks and spent nights sleeping in my closet or embracing reckless behaviors to take a break from myself.
As years went on, my appetite for self-destruction with drugs and alcohol waned. I was gaining weight and feeling safer with a barrier of what I perceived as undesirability. I still believed that my body could not be trusted- it had betrayed me, “asking for it” and could not be trusted, but I was getting wiser and stronger. I desperately tried to rewrite the story of my sexuality – I thought that maybe I just needed good sexual experiences to erase the rape. Sex with friends and partners still required alcohol to prevent me from crying throughout sex, and it didn’t help. It only added to my sadness. My body, my sexuality, my power… it all became a weapon that I used against myself and I was secretly imploding. I punished myself with sex I didn’t want and food that I couldn’t stop eating, booze I sometimes couldn’t stop drinking, or pot that I sometimes couldn’t stop smoking, and of course, with whatever other weapon available to reek havoc on myself that was available at the moment.
There were times that I thought I could put it all behind me and just chalk that night up to just “being all in my head,” and lying to myself, saying that “maybe it didn’t really happen,” and all sorts of other self-destructing thoughts that denied my desperation and my need to make sense of this so I could heal. I began talking about it, even as early as six months after it happened, but mostly with a detachment that created a false illusion that I was “strong” and a “survivor.” I never really allowed myself to feel anything but disgust with myself, often masked with bitter humor and more and more weight gain.
Then, at some point, I decided that I would really have to be fat, if I was ever going to trust someone I wanted to spend my life with. That way, I would know that he loved me for who I was and not what I looked like. Becoming “real,” like a velveteen rabbit, somehow became an obsession for me in this process. I believed that I could not be beautiful and real at the same time. Maybe I still don’t, deep down. But I got this idea that I would be “real” no matter what it takes and I would love fiercely and boldly. No matter what. A velveteen rabbit for life.
My weight still increased, but my heart opened back up. Most of my college years were misspent with ill-suited relationships and friendships that were, for the most part, not genuine and short-lived. I poured my heart into my pets, a few sacred friendships, and into my studies in hopes that I would be a head and a heart that could transcend a body. During graduate school, I met a man who would later become my husband – a man with his own hardships and struggles who had a tough time with loving himself and being vulnerable to others. He, too, had a fun-loving spirit who wanted to be loved and cherished, and after a long tenuous courtship, he was willing to try again with me. Finally, I had a relationship with a man who understood me. A man that would appreciate a healthier-bodied partner, but decided to love me for who I am, who I was, and who I will be. This love healed many of those broken parts of myself, but the healing didn’t entirely come from the love that came from him – primarily, it was the love that I felt, that I made, that came from within me that has done the healing. Being loved so well has allowed me to begin to love myself as well.
Fifteen years later, I could say that I have transcended- that the wrinkles and the grey hairs that keep emerging and the pounds that I have yet to shed have all helped me realize that real beauty comes from within. I have learned that beauty is truly about “being real,” or at least about striving to be real even when it hurts and doesn’t appear to be the wisest or most self-preserving way to live. To me, choosing to be present and remain with an open heart in this life requires that one tries to embody the life of that dear little velveteen rabbit from my favorite childhood story – knowing that only loving and believing in yourself that you are worth it can make you real. These days, I believe that true beauty comes from an inner power that can be so fierce it can shoot love lasers out of your eyes and make your enemies quake in their boots. I am no longer vulnerable or worried about him hurting me. Well, most of the time. Often, I dream about having a conversation with him that involves him asking for my forgiveness and me granting it, knowing that I would likely have a much less-meaningful life if it hadn’t happened. Sometimes, I feel sorry for myself and believe I missed out on having the reckless fun in my youth that can only be shared by the innocent. But mostly, I pity the guy – he has to live with what he did to me and other women that I have learned about in later years. I, too, have to live with it, but it has given me a rich opportunity to become real through pain and sadness. Regardless, I have learned that true beauty has so very little to do with what you look like, but everything to do with what you exude. Beauty is, at the core, an inner power that is rooted in a sense of justice, that is compelled by love, and driven by an understanding that we are all connected. That beauty comes from being real.
“What is REAL?” asked the Velveteen Rabbit one day… “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When [someone] loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real