In which I am hesitant to call it abuse.

In which I am hesitant to call it abuse.

This week is Spir­i­tu­al Abuse Aware­ness Week, a syn­chroblog host­ed by Hän­nah, Joy, and Shaney (along with Rachel and Elo­ra). Today we’re all link­ing up with Hän­nah, and I’m so thrilled that this is hap­pen­ing. And yet…

And yet.

I am so hes­i­tant to add my voice here. Sure­ly abuse is too strong a word for the things that have hap­pened in my life, I think to myself. No one meant any harm. Every­thing was done in love, every­thing was said in love. They didn’t know that they hurt me.

There is so much to my sto­ry — my life — that I feel unable to share. Or per­haps sim­ply unable to share at this time. So instead, I’d like to share the bits of my sto­ry that I’ve already shared, until I can find my voice to describe the rest.

Please under­stand that in each and every one of these instances, I believe with all my heart that the peo­ple involved intend­ed good for me. But as I am learn­ing, good inten­tions don’t always mean good actions. And in fact, some­times the peo­ple who mean the most good do the most dam­age.

All I can do is keep breath­ing:

For the past six years, I have most­ly lived in silence about this aspect of my life. Sev­er­al well-mean­ing men­tors and friends told me to get on with my life, to get over it, that it wasn’t a big deal (inci­den­tal­ly, after hear­ing so many friends recount sim­i­lar reac­tions to their abuse, I wrote “the prop­er response”). So I swal­lowed the pain and hid the reper­cus­sions as deeply as I could. I have been able to hide the pan­ic attacks and oth­er symp­toms of post-trau­mat­ic stress from just about every­one. I have lived with the night­mares, the flash­backs, the pain — silent­ly for six long, dif­fi­cult years.

The body I have:

I stopped eat­ing in the eighth grade.

Peo­ple com­pli­ment­ed me on how much weight I was los­ing, how much pret­ti­er I looked, how much bet­ter I was.

They didn’t know some­thing was wrong until I start­ed pass­ing out. And when my eat­ing dis­or­der final­ly came to light, it was large­ly seen as me going through a phase to be pop­u­lar or noticed, much like with my cut­ting and sui­cide attempts.

Because, you know, depres­sion and sui­cide and self-harm and eat­ing dis­or­ders are only a phase.

It didn’t mat­ter that I hat­ed my body. It didn’t mat­ter why I hat­ed my body. And some­times, I was encour­aged to hate my body, because fat peo­ple absolute­ly can­not have a rela­tion­ship with their body that doesn’t involve self-loathing and the per­pet­u­al impe­tus to hide as much of their body as pos­si­ble.

You shouldn’t go out in pub­lic with wet hair,” he told us. “It makes guys think of you…” He paused, clear­ly uncom­fort­able, then said in a qui­eter voice, “in the show­er.

We were at a Bible con­fer­ence, stay­ing in the col­lege & career cab­ins, stand­ing out­side and talk­ing. He and his friend were somber-faced, and me and my friends were uncom­fort­able yet eager. We were talk­ing about rela­tion­ships, and how guys and girls (why not men and women?) could “help each oth­er stay pure.” We learned that hav­ing wet hair was a stum­bling block, along with ever allow­ing any male to see us wear­ing paja­mas. Appar­ent­ly that makes men think of us in bed.

Why a show­er or a bed are inher­ent­ly sex­u­al places for a woman to be, I don’t know. Frankly, I think it’s quite telling about our cul­ture that those assump­tions could be con­sid­ered “log­i­cal” in the first place.

But I do know that dur­ing this hours-long con­ver­sa­tion, I kept adding things to my men­tal of list of Things To Do To Be A Good Chris­t­ian Girl — a list that was com­prised almost entire­ly of Things To Do To Be Pure, which looked a lot like Things To Do To Be Silent And Invis­i­ble.

And my qui­et pan­ic kept grow­ing and grow­ing, because I want­ed so des­per­ate­ly to not be a stum­bling block, but it was start­ing to sound like hav­ing long hair, breasts, and hips was stum­bling block enough. I thought of my out­ra­geous­ly curly hair that I kept long out of per­son­al reli­gious duty. I thought of my large and endowed body. And my heart sank.

*I* was a stum­bling block. *I* was impure — by sim­ple inescapable virtue of being unable to hide the body I had.

What were you wear­ing? Did you do any­thing…invit­ing?

I’m nev­er cer­tain what peo­ple are say­ing when they ask me these two ques­tions about being sex­u­al­ly assault­ed at the age of 18. Because it sounds like they’re ask­ing me if my assault is actu­al­ly my fault.

For the record, I was wear­ing a lime green high-necked T-shirt, a pair of men’s jeans that were bag­gy and shape­less, and a large trench coat that was equal­ly bag­gy and shape­less. Along with a pair of Vans. I was lit­er­al­ly cov­ered from col­lar bone to wrists to toes.

And no. I didn’t do any­thing invit­ing.

And it’s insult­ing that peo­ple think that sex­u­al assault is some­thing that can be invit­ed.

For years, those ques­tions have hurt. To be hon­est, they still hurt.

Because they seem to say, “Your body is temp­ta­tion that makes assault okay. Your body makes men do evil things. Your body is tox­ic. Your body is sin­ful.

And for years, I believed it.

Exis­ten­tial per­fec­tion, prob­lem­at­ic cul­tur­al sys­tems, and being okay:

A sub-cul­ture in which I spent most of my life that believes itself to ele­vate women to a high­er lev­el of respect and hon­or, but still teach­es that women “belong” to their hus­bands, are more eas­i­ly deceived, are weak­er, are unfit for lead­er­ship, are expect­ed to obey like chil­dren or ser­vants. If unmar­ried, these women must answer to their fathers, until they are “giv­en” to their hus­bands. To remain unmar­ried is seen as a sign of an unsub­mis­sive rebel­lious spir­it. They must be pure, they must be silent, they must be sweet, they must be kind, they must endure abuse with­out a word, they must nev­er “allow” them­selves to be in “com­pro­mis­ing” sit­u­a­tions, they must shoul­der the blame for the lust and desire and sex­u­al sins and even sex­u­al crimes of their broth­ers in the faith. None of this may be intend­ed, but too many of us have felt this weight, and it can­not be the yoke that is easy to bear, the bur­den that is light.

These cul­tures, these sys­tems of thought, are per­va­sive. Good peo­ple with good inten­tions per­pet­u­ate these sys­tems unknow­ing­ly with­out under­stand­ing the con­se­quences.

On stunt­ing emo­tions:

I wasn’t sup­posed to be hurt.

I keep com­ing back to that phrase when I engage my emo­tions. Sup­posed to.

I’m not sup­posed to hurt. I’m not sup­posed to cry. I’m not sup­posed to be angry. I’m not sup­posed to be afraid.
I’m sup­posed to be joy­ful. I’m sup­posed to smile. I’m sup­posed to be gen­tle and sub­mis­sive. I’m sup­posed to endure the race set before me.

It’s think­ing of phras­es like these that makes me see how con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tian­i­ty can be used to strip us of emo­tions, strip us of human­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly women. There are Bible vers­es to this day that I can­not hear with­out break­ing into a cold sweat and tremors and tears because of the way they were used against me, against my heart, against my soul. But just think­ing that makes me afraid.

Maybe the fear comes from the sup­posed tos. From the expec­ta­tion of per­fec­tion. From the belief that I have to do my best at all times, or else I am a moral fail­ure, eth­i­cal­ly des­ti­tute, unwor­thy of the emo­tion­al sup­port of any­one, untrust­wor­thy and unfaith­ful.

When something’s not okay: pon­der­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion & rela­tion­ship:

When an apol­o­gy is uttered, it’s my instinct to reply, “Oh, it’s okay,” with a dis­mis­sive wave of my hand and smile on my face to prove Just How Okay it is, all the while my inner mono­logue mut­ters, “No, it’s not okay, but I don’t know what else to say here and I don’t want to make it even more awk­ward and it shouldn’t mat­ter so much any­way.” Then, of course, there’s the big­ger and hard­er times that it comes up, like when short­ly after my assault I was chal­lenged that I hadn’t for­giv­en my attack­er yet.

You know, the word “for­give­ness” gets thrown around a lot in Chris­t­ian cir­cles.Par­tic­u­lar­ly at women. Par­tic­u­lar­ly at women when they notice injus­tice and dare to speak up about it (or even, like in my case, just con­fid­ing hurt in a friend). Eph­esians 4:32 or the Lord’s Prayer is whipped out before any­one can do any crit­i­cal think­ing, and the mantra “for­give one anoth­er as Christ has for­giv­en you” is recit­ed as a tool to silence, to shame, to force those with no pow­er into sub­mis­sion.

There’s quite a lot prob­lem­at­ic with that approach, and I’m a bit hes­i­tant to get into the prob­lems here. Suf­fice it to say that this def­i­n­i­tion of for­give­ness that I was taught implic­it­ly and explic­it­ly over the years told me that for­give­ness meant that I had to act like the offend­ing par­ty hadn’t offend­ed, that I had to be will­ing to rec­on­cile with them, just as Christ rec­on­ciled us to God. It taught me that my emo­tion­al, men­tal, and some­times even phys­i­cal well-being were dis­pos­able for the sake of keep­ing the peace, keep­ing appear­ances.

Of church, fem­i­nism, and safe­ty:

Church as I know it, as I have expe­ri­enced it — whether in a Ply­mouth Brethren chapel, inde­pen­dent fun­da­men­tal Bap­tist church, Pres­by­ter­ian gath­er­ing, or non-denom­i­na­tion­al con­tem­po­rary ser­vice — is not a safe place for me.

It is the church that told me that my intel­lect, writ­ing, teach­ing, and lead­ing abil­i­ties are not wel­come with­in its walls unless I am teach­ing those they con­sid­er less than men (i.e., oth­er women or chil­dren).

It is the church that told me that I had to remain silent, cov­ered and hid­den both in body and in spir­it.

It is the church that told me that my body is tox­ic poi­son to any and all men, to the point that I’ve heard it hint­ed that per­haps breast reduc­tion surgery could be in order for women endowed the way I am, to help broth­ers in Christ not stum­ble.

It is the church that told me to for­give my attack­er, use my sex­u­al assault as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to wit­ness to him, even rejoice in my assault because there are many who would give any­thing to suf­fer for the Lord the way I did.

It is the church that told me that per­fect love casts out fear, so if I am afraid then I am in sin for not accept­ing God’s per­fect love.

It is the church that told me that because I was not a vir­gin on my wed­ding night, that I am ruined for­ev­er, that my rela­tion­ship with my hus­band and even my rela­tion­ship with Christ will nev­er be whole or healthy.

It is the church that told me that my depres­sion is a sin against God, and that if I just trust­ed Him enough — put my hope in God — all of my anx­i­ety and depres­sion would dis­ap­pear.

Is it any won­der the church is not a safe place for me?

Safe­ty is a big thing for sur­vivors of all kinds of abuse. It’s a big deal when some­one con­fides their pain in anoth­er indi­vid­ual. And when that indi­vid­ual turns around time after time and clings to rules and reg­u­la­tions, idioms and clich­es, proverbs and para­bles, it inval­i­dates the expe­ri­ence and pain of the per­son who trust­ed them. It is a deep betray­al of trust. And when the Bible is used as a tool to shame peo­ple for their emo­tions, silence their pain, and brow-beat them back into line, all in the name of God…if that is not tak­ing His name in vain to hurt the least of these, I don’t know what it is.

I hope to be back on Wednes­day to dis­cuss things fur­ther, per­haps tie them togeth­er a lit­tle bet­ter so that they’re eas­i­er to under­stand — for me and for you.

Posted in Fat Girl,