At first glance, you wouldn't think that Kesha* and I have much in common, other than the fact we're twenty something women; she's a performer and I'm an academic; she's from the south and I'm from the north; she's famous and I'm your average Jane. Look a little closer and you see we've both been sexually assaulted and we've both recovered from serious eating disorders.
For context, Kesha, the pop artist previously known as Ke$ha, completed a residential therapy program for bulimia nervosa earlier this year. Three days ago, she went forth with a lawsuit against her former manager stating that he verbally and sexual abused her, and has stated her eating disorder is a result of his abuse.
If you had asked anyone to describe me pre-December 2012, they'll probably say something along the lines of, "loud," "feminist," "opinionated," "brightly dressed," and "force of nature." If you asked me how I'd describe myself, I might have tacked on independent, strong, and loyal. If you were to ask anyone that question again after that, you'd get a very different answer: subdued. If you had asked me, I would have said, "failure."
And that's because, in December of 2012, I was sexually assaulted.
My assailant was a trusted friend, who I'd brushed off previously, I was in what should have been a safe environment, and my assault completely devastated me. To an outsider it wasn't "that bad", it was something for me to "get over", to "put behind me." But to me, in that moment, I was stripped of my values, my power, my person. I was left powerless and terrified that I wasn’t in charge of my life, that I wasn't in control, and I remember vowing to never let myself feel that way again, no matter what the cost.
I began to restrict my eating, first cutting my already-normal portion sizes by twenty five percent, then fifty percent, and when that wasn't enough, I began cutting out food groups all together: grains and starches were the first to go, then fats, and, at my worst, I was substituting sugar free gelatin for fruit. It was great, I felt like I was in control, I was making the decisions and no one could tell me otherwise; however, it was not enough, and began to exercise excessively and compulsively.
You see, my assailant didn't just destroy my trust in my beliefs, but also how I saw myself. I began to dissociate from my body, until I saw my mind and body as two separate entities, and my mind blamed my body for the entire event. So I ran, metaphor not intended. I've always been a runner, but I took it to the extreme, running at least 6 miles a day, no matter the weather. Running was something I had to do, and I was a complete mess if I didn't.
While anyone on the outside of my life looking in should have thought there was something extremely wrong, I definitely could not. Whenever life felt a little too chaotic, my eating disorder showed me that I had control over my life, and whenever I felt like a failure, I could say that, even though I was completely exhausted, I'd run six miles. Of course, I didn't realize why I felt so out of control, like such a failure at the time, I only knew that I felt that my life was steady, and that made me happy.
Of course, life doesn't stay "perfect" for long. Six months after my assault, my friend Amanda caught on to the fact that something wasn't right, that I wasn't acting like myself. But it wasn't until I visited her that she actually saw how bad I was, and she gave me an ultimatum: I had to at least see a nutritionist, or else. It worked, and a month or so later, I started seeing a therapist.
After seven months of therapy for my eating disorder, I finally was able to start processing what caused it in the first place: my assault. Now, eight months after that revelation, I'm finally at a place where I can tell close friends that my eating disorder was caused by my assault.
Before I sought help for anorexia, I'd have said the hardest thing I ever had to do was decide where I was moving for graduate school. Before I recognized my assault for what it was, I'd have said the hardest thing I ever had to do, hands down was acknowledging my eating disorder. Right now, I couldn't say which was the hardest. I can say that coming out to people about my anorexia is definitely easier than coming out as a survivor of sexual assault.
Telling someone you have an eating disorder is never easy. Most people don't know how to respond and, thanks to mainstream media portrayal, think they're a disease of upper-middle class white girls who just want to be thin. "Why don't you just eat? you're being stupid" is a pretty standard response. Once you get used to that base line, it definitely gets easier.
Coming out as a survivor of sexual assault, that's a completely different can of worms. You never know how someone is going to react, and reactions range from empathy, to pity, to blame. For the most part they're awkward and infantilizing. Unfortunately, we live in a society that always blames the survivor, a society which re-victimizes us over and over, making us defend and prove our trauma. As a survivor, those feelings of powerlessness and helplessness are not ones you want to experience again, nor do you want to have your experiences trivialized, because then you start blaming yourself.
I haven't spoken up because I do fear that people will see me as weak and helpless, see me as a victim, despite the progress I have made, and how much I have overcome. But, as I said earlier, I'm just a Plain Jane, and Kesha is, well, Kesha, which means the intensity of any of her revelations is going to be turned up to eleven. When I read that Kesha had laid her cards out for the world to see, I didn't see a victim and I didn't see a weakling. I saw a role model.
I saw someone who had been to Hell and back and was still standing. I saw someone who was confident and strong and stands for what they believe in. I saw someone who has overcome a lot of the same challenges that I have, and that makes me see myself in a much better light than I have in a long while.
If Kesha can publicly come out, not only about her eating disorder, but also as a survivor of abuse and sexual assault, than I can write about how strong and how brave she is in my eyes. Telling the world you're in recovery from an eating disorder and that you're a survivor of sexual assault and abuse may not be for everyone, but it makes a statement to the rest of us that we are not alone; that we can make it to the other side; that we can not only survive, but also flourish and thrive.