Trigger warning: discussions of rape and sexual assault ...
The topic of 'body love' is an emotional one for me, one I have struggled with at times. I now know I need body love because surviving rape should make me proud of my body, not ashamed of it.
So many women feel ashamed of their bodies and seem surprised that I've learned to love my body.
My goal is to equip survivors and co-survivors (those who love someone who's survived rape) with the tools necessary to love their bodies.
My wish is to inspire those who can't imagine loving their bodies again (or even for the first time) to take the first steps.
My high school boyfriend raped me in June of 1991, a time when date rape hadn't been defined by the law leaving me with little recourse. He held me down by the throat and raped me because I had ended our relationship, making him angry.
The hours that followed were critical as I curled up in my best friend's arms and cried. She held me and let me know I wasn't alone. I'm not sure what possessed her to make me say out loud that I'd been raped but in doing so she set me on my survivor's journey.
My journey began when I admitted I had been raped. In saying the words for the first time, I began to realise this was something that someone else did to me, not something I had done to myself. It didn't make it better instantly. If anything, it was the opposite.
Saying it out loud made it real, made it something I couldn't deny and in the hours, days, and even years to follow there were several times I wanted to deny it had ever happened. I wondered if it would go away if I just ignored it or if it would be something I would forget. Denial lets the pain, fear, self-loathing, and sadness build until it can no longer be denied.
For me, speaking out about my rape was the best thing I could have done for myself. The journey to loving my body came one day at a time; it's been a journey with more setbacks than I can count. I have had really good days and really bad ones.
It's been the most frustrating and most rewarding experience I could ever imagine. I look at women who haven't been raped and wonder what it would be like not to bare the survivor cross. Then I remind myself that everyone's surviving something.
Make no mistake, learning to love your body after sexual assault is not for the faint of heart - it is a life-long project. Being open about the assault has made the journey easier but there are other things I do to keep myself healthy and loving my body.
Here are some things I have learnt:
BE NICE TO YOURSELF
It's so easy to hate your body and yourself after sexual assault and yet we should really be proud of ourselves for surviving. I don't know anyone who didn't fear for their life during rape, so be nice to your body and yourself. You did exactly what you were supposed to in your situation, YOU SURVIVED. Celebrate that victory. It's bigger than you think.
CONTROL THE MESSAGE
Often it's the little things that trigger negativity. For me, it's hearing a pop song that my rapist was a huge fan of. When I hear it I automatically associate it with being assaulted. So I change the channel when it comes on the radio. It sounds so simple but taking control in these little ways can make the world of difference.
Remember when I said I look at women who haven't been raped and wonder what life would be like? I began to love myself when I stopped doing that. When I stopped assuming these women had perfect lives and instead started focusing on what my body does for me and what it's capable of, that's when things began to change.
Having sex after assault can be one of the most terrifying experiences a survivor faces but a healthy sex life is important in showing yourself love and respect. Be very selective about your partner and make sure (s)he understands what's happened to you and will respect the boundaries you set.
Also, learning to pleasure yourself in a way that's kind, loving, and safe is healing and can be one of the best ways for you to love your body again. Explore it within the boundaries of what feels safe for you. Loving your body is an ongoing journey for all women (and a lot of men) even those who haven't been raped.
Sadly, body love isn't a path well travelled but it is certainly a trip worth taking. Just remember to be kind and patient on your journey. The best is yet to come.
For 24 hour help call LIFELINE, 0800 543 354.
Writer, Career Coach, advocate for women, and speaker Michelle Merritt is the Chick-in-Charge of Merrfeld Resumes and Coaching, and founder of Merrfeld. Merrfeld.com, was created to serve and give to the world in a way that encourages, promotes, and enables people to be total rock stars. Michelle speaks on a variety of topics from surviving and thriving after sexual assault to building your professional network and career of your dreams.
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