Written by: Anonymous
Content Warning: Types of VAWG, Self-Harm
If you weren’t already aware, Mental Health Awareness Week is an annual event created by the Mental Health Foundation in order to raise awareness around the diverse subject of, you guessed it, mental health. This year it’s taking place from Monday 13th May – Sunday 19th May and the theme is body image. As we’re a feminist organisation working to end violence against women & girls, we thought we’d publish something around body image for survivors of VAWG. One of our Experts by Experience shares some of her thoughts below.
As well as working with survivors, many people who work in the VAWG sector are also survivors ourselves, and I’m one of them. I’ve managed to survive child abuse, domestic abuse and rape, and I’m proud to say that as much as these experiences will always affect me as they have left me with a lot of ongoing negative symptoms, I do finally feel like I’m thriving rather than just surviving, as the support I’ve received from vital frontline services has enabled me to manage those symptoms and move forward enough to begin a career which now contributes to helping others like me.
As not only a woman, but also a person of colour and a lesbian, I have always been accutely aware of the difference imposed onto my body by the society I live in, and this cannot be divorced from the experience of VAWG which not only marginalises but directly attacks the physical form and the psychological relationship the mind has to it. Just from the top of my head I can think of numerous examples of how my experience of VAWG has affected my experience of and feelings about my body:
- During the darkest and most triggering moments of my mental health experience, I have dissociated (for me this feels like I’m physically and mentally detached from reality, completely numb and everything feels surreal). Dissociation is a trauma response which works as a form of coping mechanism for your brain – when it gets overloaded with horrible or upsetting stimuli, it just disconnects in order to distance itself from what’s happening. Dissociation doesn’t just happen at the time a trauma is being inflicted, it can also take place when something reminds you of that memory and triggers the response, and it’s relevant to body image because it’s about the relationship your mind has with your physical form.
- When dissociating, I have self-harmed just in order to feel something again. This is not only incredibly damaging and dangerous to the body in the moment, but also results in self-harm scars which are inevitably very visible. Self-harm scars have made me very self-conscious about my body. Like many others who have self-harmed, I have often covered my body up in otherwise unnecessary ways just so people don’t notice and ask me what’s going on (these conversations can be triggering in themselves).
- Speaking of covering up, after my rape I really never wanted my body to be sexualised ever again. Even though in my logical mind I know that it doesn’t matter what you wear because street harassment and assault happens regardless, I still didn’t want anybody to see me – especially men. This was easy in winter when everyone covers up and stays inside, but warmer weather can be a real struggle for those who want to hide themselves, especially as street harassment such as cat calling seems to become more frequent. During this time I would often end up wearing clothing that really was not suitable for the temperature and causing myself a lot of discomfort or just not going out at all in order to avoid that discomfort completely.
- As well as self-harming, I also developed a skin-picking disorder as a stress/anxiety response. If you haven’t heard of it, skin picking disorder is exactly what it sounds like – excessive picking of your skin to the point that you damage it e.g. tearing the skin, drawing blood, creating scarring. In my case it became extreme enough that parts of my body are now covered in scabs and scars which added a third layer to how I felt about people seeing me.
Although in my right mind as a body positive and intersectional feminist I know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having what mainstream society views as ‘imperfections’ in terms of beauty standards, it’s not actually those beauty standards which have made me want to hide. It’s the fact that my body and my relationship to it is an intimate thing that has suffered deeply when shared with others, and due to this I’ve developed coping mechanisms such as covering it up in a desperate attempt to ‘reclaim’ and protect it (and by extension, myself). It is because the physical, visible scars relate to a mental, invisible trauma which I want to keep private, and when people notice scars they want to ask you about them. Funnily enough, I actually don’t want to be asked invasive questions about aspects of my appearance which exist because of the horrible trauma that has been inflicted onto my body. I’d like to get on with my day without thinking about it.
Another area in which VAWG has deeply affected my body image, and one which is spoken about not nearly enough, is my sexuality. The only information I’ve managed to find on sexuality and surviving during my personal recovery journey is The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse*. This was somewhat helpful but not completely relatable for someone who doesn’t have a partner, isn’t heterosexual, and finds the idea of going near anyone at all post-trauma completely horrifying. Even though the counselling sessions I had access to were truly great and life-changing in every other way, I felt there was still a huge and empty gap when it came to my wanting help with sex and sexuality.
It’s incredibly strange to me that in the VAWG sector we speak so much about harrowing non-consensual experiences but hardly at all about the survivor need to recover ourselves as healthy sexual beings. There is so little information out there which addresses this, I’ve felt like I was lost in a dark tunnel for most of my recovery, as even sex-positive online platforms seem to focus on the idea that you need a partner in order to be sexual. How does that work when your biggest fear is intimacy with others? My personal answer has been putting in the work to get to know and feel comfortable with my own body, rather than someone else’s.
The biggest help for me in terms of this has been self-pleasure (something I think sex-positive blogs should cover a lot more). When you’re alone there doesn’t need to be any pressure, you don’t need to be on display for anyone else and you can just give yourself time to think about what it is you individually want and need. But it’s not just that. Even things as basic as hygiene (showering, bathing) and physical maintenance (sorting my hair or nails out) or finding clothes that help me feel more comfortable in public while also making me feel that I look good have helped me find myself as a sexual being again, as they’ve helped me create new and refreshing feelings about my body.
As I’ve slowly explored myself and my body more and more alone, I’ve branched out into trying slightly more scary things like going for a massage – scary because someone else is touching me and also possibly seeing parts of my body, but also a great space to practise consent, communicate comfort levels and allow my body to experience the feeling of touch again without there being any sexual element whatsoever. I’ve also had similar experiences in spas, where my body isn’t the only one on display, there are other women around and you’re either in a room full of steam where people can’t see you, or covered up in a robe – this has also been a great help in experiencing my own body again in non-sexual, relaxing ways, around other people.
In terms of my sexuality, I’ve experimented with things like going on dating apps just to be in that space again – not pushing myself into matching or speaking to anyone, but just giving myself the time to think about the fact that my dating life isn’t completely over and that I can easily get back out there again when I’m ready. Just making a profile, thinking about which pictures of myself I’d prefer, what I’d say about myself, seeing profiles of other people and finding them attractive, all of it has helped me imagine myself in dating situations without actually needing to be in them.
The idea that you need to be with someone in order to have a sexuality also relates to queerness and coming out of the closet – for some reason many people assume that to know you’re truly queer you need to have had some form of sexual experience. This isn’t true! For example, consuming queer media has been a huge asset in not only getting to know and understand my queerness growing up, but in my healing as a grown gay woman whose traumas were inflicted at the hands of men.
There are many ways in which survivors can explore and get to know our bodies again (without feeling the need to put ourselves in potentially dangerous or triggering situations that we might not be ready for). What I’ve talked about here is just some of my experience and of course, these are things that I specifically felt I could do as an individual at various times over the space of a few years – everybody’s journey and comfort level is different! The point is, if you’ve suffered from VAWG that doesn’t mean there’s no light at the end of the tunnel or that you’ll never be able to connect with your body again. As people who have been victimised literally because of the bodies we are in, we owe it to ourselves to love and look after them – as Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.
*If you know of any other resources in this area, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this blog and require help, please click here.