Beautiful Lies: Sexual Abuse & Body Image


The Backdrop

One of my absolute favorite things about my work is getting to witness and hold space for clients’ awe-inspiring stories. It has forever changed the way I see strangers walking down the sidewalk, buying groceries, or getting coffee in the Starbucks line. Now, I like to see those people as walking miracles carrying remarkable stories, oftentimes stories that are overlooked or brushed aside.

Today’s story is a perfect example brought to you by one of the most courageous people I have ever met, Suzanna Hendricks. Suzanna is an Event Producer who was on staff close to 3 years with non-profit organization Invisible Children. She moved to Nashville to build an event production and experience design team for the common good called KAIO. in 2014 and recently relocated to Austin, TX to join the staff of the IF:Gathering team as the Development Manager.
As you can see, Suzanna does really cool stuff to effect change in our culture. Yet her greatest weapon is an unbelievably kind and generous heart coupled with a boldness to champion justice, truth, and love in every room she enters. Yep, she’s a badass.

She graciously offered to share her story today in order to shed light and hope on the stories that you might share: stories of sexual abuse, shame, and a resulting shattered body image. Shame is loudest in isolated and dark places. Today, my prayer is that Suzanna’s vulnerability and courage will start a conversation for those of us who feel trapped, silenced, and powerless in our stories of shame.  Let’s dive in.

A Lost Identity

A piece of my identity has always been rooted in shame for as long as I can remember. As people we all struggle with aspects of our identity. Yet as women, I believe we can walk through the world with an acute different standard and deep hidden pain. I’ve learned in this past decade of life that its when we expose to the light things either caused by or perpetrated in the dark, we are set free.

The women of my family are stunningly beautiful.  Beauty that both stills and draws people to them; a kind of rare magic filled with adventure and powerful energy. But our legacy read storylines of abuse, assault, rejection, abandonment, and my greatest one, shame.

Glimpses of Truth

As beautiful as my family is and as often as I have graciously been complimented for similar beauty, the truth is I never saw myself equally lovely.
Who me?

My first memory of being told I was beautiful was at age 14. It was artist Toby Mac who kindly looked at me in a receiving line post show and said, “God wants you to know that you are very beautiful.” I walked out of that building and my heart exploded with all sorts of joy. Beautiful! Me? Wow!

Thinking back after years of healing I wonder why I was 14 before my first memory of being told I was lovely or beautiful.

That truth about myself didn’t last very long. The greater narrative was that I was a victim of sexual abuse and a youth in painful transition with an absent father and younger siblings who were incredibly beautiful. They were called “Princesses” growing up; I was referred to as “Pumpkin”.
I don’t know the exact moment I lost a sense my identity of worth or equality, but go missing it did.

Body Shame

Ingrained in the expectation of perfection and stemming from both sides of my family, thin equals beautiful not healthy. Numbers on a scale were of the highest importance and beginning intros to most “hellos” during family time. It’s that type of narrative and mindset that leads many to eating disorders and self harm for not “measuring up”. I also grew up learning that our outward appearance if tended to well would draw in the attention of men, something to strive for: that feeling of being seen and adored.

Growing up I was always fuller figured. I hit puberty early, inheriting many noticeable family traits of my beautiful aunts on my fathers side, (aka a large chest). I quickly began feeling the unwanted attention of young and old men, immediately becoming uncomfortable with my body.

Those feelings of body shame were perpetuated deeply by own abuse, and later learning of nearly a decade of sexual abuse inflicted on my older sister by our father. There were other tales of violation: women close to me who were abused and stripped of power. Matched with the thoughtful concern of others as to my weight and opinions on what I should or should not be doing, my worthiness and feelings of shame eroded any truthfulness of my own value or beauty.

Reverse Psychology

I saw how beauty could cause both great celebration and harm so I subconsciously took an alternate route than most with those same emotions. Instead of working hard to meet the cultural and familial standard, I shut down the possibility of being harmed, or at least tried like hell to protect myself by decreasing my physical activity paying little attention to what I ate. Concurrently, I began to feel rather sickly but ignored it assuming I was being punished for my apathy. The scale rose and my self worth plummeted.

All along the way in my early 20’s, no one ever asked if something was wrong or if I was depressed or ok. I don’t blame them, we’re conditioned to think that weight is a result of apathy, or laziness instead of digging around for potential pain below the surface. In defiance to the judgement, I’d drink the coke or added extra sugar to my coffee, subconsciously furthering my deteriorating health. Every time my weight was talked about or suggestions were made to “fix the problem”, a part of me died.
In hindsight, I think it was the only thing I felt in control of. Shame has low blows, and its onslaught of internal warring was constant.

Shame says
See, you’re not beautiful enough as your are.
They don’t mean it when they tell you that you’re beautiful.
That person is only attracted to you because of your personality
No one is ever going to want you this way, but at least they can’t hurt you.
You’re not in shape enough to take that adventure, or do that hike, or keep dancing.
If they aren’t attracted to you, Suzanna, they won’t hurt you. You’ll never be what they expect, why try?

Does your heart hurt reading those lines? Mine does too. Because those lies trapped me for so very long.

To stay safe, I let myself go. I let the feeling of failure become king.

Hustling for Acceptance

But, I found that if I loved people well, poured myself out in service or kindness, smiled brightly, and applied the makeup expertly, I was accepted regardless. So, early on I took that knowledge and worked myself into an exhausted sick mess. By my mid-twenties I barely recognized myself: overweight, puffy face/eyes, fatigued, depressed and so much more. It got so bad I could barely get out of bed to drag my sick body to the doctor. When I did, I learned that for close to 5+ years I’d been struggling with Hypothyroidism and had critically low levels on all fronts combined with other intense damage.

Light Shines Through

Within a few months of steady medication – I began to come back to life. It’s been nearly three years since that diagnosis and a long road of self evaluation and healing.

I’ve lived most of my life hiding from the potential that I actually was a beautiful woman; that I could be wanted. Because the lie whispered to me early on was that if I was wanted, or desired, that opened me up to a high chance of pain and abuse.

I learned to compensate by increasing my charm or finding ways to “wear my weight well”; trying to blend in.

Too Unsafe to Succeed

Looking back, it’s really astounding in the all of years of side look stares, comments, and judgements no one ever asked why?  They assumed it was because I didn’t care or that something was wrong with me, but the truth was I cared so much that I wouldn’t fight for it. Because at the root I felt rejected and unsafe; and there was no way in hell I was going to perpetuate that. The hardest truth of it all is that I did perpetuate it, but in a quite opposite sort of way.

I can’t even tell you how many times over the years I have walked into a room and looked for the best way to make sure I appeared to “fit in”. The best angle of a chair, or path of least resistance to a crowd, not sitting in between very slim people or obsessively checking my clothes to make sure I was “put together”. When I would catch someone’s judgmental stare I’d smile sweetly back, challenging them to judge me. It wasn’t until they’d turn their head that my eyes would lower and I’d let the pain flood my heart.

The Journey Out of Lies

The past five years have been a journey of emotional and spiritual healing, and now its time to reclaim the physical part of me. To find strength and health beyond what I’ve ever experienced. I am not putting pressure on myself through this season, but challenging myself to be braver, authentic, and honest.

We all have our battles; the lies that prevent us from living in freedom. This has been mine. This road may take awhile; the important ones usually do. Yet as you find the courage to start facing the giants and slay them with the truth of who you really are, you encounter new ones, but also a strength you didn’t know was there.

Power in Numbers

I am thankful for the amazing people that surrounded me in this season. They have spoken my worth, beauty, and strength over me, lifting me with their words to greater places of wholeness more than they could ever know.

If I’ve learned anything these last years as I’ve worked through a mountain of pain and depression is that having people and God in your court are game changing. I no longer accept judgement as fair or deserved treatment, or take words, even well intended ones, as truth if they cause harm.

It looks a hell of a lot of self compassion, and hard work.

So, to any of you who have been stripped of your true identity through sexual abuse and all it’s aftermath: reach out for support, keep being true and mindful of how you feel, be gracious to yourself, work hard at your wholeness, and treat yourself as you would your best friend.  Know that you are beautiful.
If you or a loved one is currently suffering from abuse of any kind, please reach out. You can do that completely confidentially here. You are not alone.