Saturday, May 11, 2013

Abercrombie & Fitch, rape, chastity, money, and weight

I've had jobs ever since I was young to teach me responsibility and earn a little money. Delivering free local newspapers while still in elementary school was a venture forced upon me that embarrassed me to no end. Babysitting for money became my next source of cash flow. And then when I turned 16 and got my first minimum wage job, I thought I had really made it. I was able to spend money on myself and get things I'd been denied up to that point by my penny-pinching parents.

Despite my mom's warnings to save my money and cautions that I would never have this much disposable income again in my life, I spent every dime I didn't donate to my church in the form of tithes.

And I liked it.

I thought spending money helped me fit in with my richer friends. I thought it helped me dress better, as I was able to start buying my own clothes versus wearing hand-me-downs and whatever my mom was willing to buy for me as my back-to-school outfit. Miller's Outpost and Clothestime and other trendy stores became some of my go-to places for shopping. I even started buying cookies from the snack cart between classes and supplementing my lunch money allowance when I went with my richer friends off-campus for subs, pasta, and other fast foods.

These spending habits followed me to college, where I was even more desperate to feel included after all my old high school friends and I were on different paths. I was so alone, and I just wanted to fit in. So from day one, I tried. Now Urban Outfitters and their $50 shirts and other clothes I couldn't afford became my personal "must haves." In fact, as I watched The Host in theaters some weeks ago, I spent part of the movie fixated on the fact that the weird mesh-y top the main character wore was IDENTICAL to one I had purchased at Urban Outfitters around 1999 or 2000. Talk about weird. I'm not even sure what I thought was cool about that top in the first place. But it was at Urban Outfitters, so it must have been cool.

Before I went to Italy in 2001, I bought a little pair of tennis shorts and a form-fitting t-shirt at Abercrombie and Fitch. In fact, I purchased the outfit while shopping with my would-be rapist. I was spending time that afternoon with him walking around the mall and getting some last-minute items for my 6-week study abroad program. He was a co-worker I was playing Good Samaritan for since he'd gotten intoxicated off Chili's margaritas and other miscellaneous alcoholic beverages that he started drinking with his lunch while eating in my assigned section of the restaurant (and I think I therefore felt at least partially responsible). I didn't want him behind the wheel, and taking him to the mall with me while I ran errands and he sobered up was the first of several suggestions he was willing to agree to.

The clothes were a poor choice not only because the shorts were shorter than anything I should have been wearing but also because they were ridiculously over-priced for what I was getting. A lot of those clothes I bought at stores like Abercrombie and Fitch just didn't last long before they started falling apart. But that didn't matter. I was buying a name brand. I was buying into the hype of what was "cool."

I was wearing that newly purchased outfit later that night when he picked me up and forcefully carried me to my bedroom where he raped me.

I got rid of that outfit. I haven't shopped at Abercrombie and Fitch since then. Perhaps the memories tied with that store were tainted for me, and definitely those tied with the shorts and shirt were. Then again, perhaps I stopped shopping there because I realized it just didn't matter any more.

I comfort-ate instead of addressing the rape and prolonged my healing process by refusing to acknowledge the significance of that event in my life. I am far from healed from it, but I am more self-aware, which is a start. I have learned that I became terribly self-loathing after the rape. I blamed myself instead of the perpetrator. I told myself if I wouldn't have served him alcohol, if I wouldn't have refused to let him drive his car home, if I wouldn't have gone shopping with him until he sobered up, if I wouldn't have let him into my home when he stopped by that evening and I was temporarily alone, if I wouldn't have worn that outfit or some other such drivel, that I somehow could have and should have prevented that rape from occurring.

In short, I was making myself responsible for his choices. I was making myself responsible for his actions. I was saying that at that moment in time, I became too attractive a prey for that predator to keep his hormones or need for power or whatever it was that drove him to act in check, and I was therefore at fault for whatever conspired.

I brought myself up on charges, found myself guilty, sentenced myself to endless suffering, and threw away the key without even a second thought. 

And yet, I never once laid the blame squarely or even mostly on him, where it belonged. Where it belongs.

Then I attended a Gestalt therapy group. The group leader asked for volunteers to be "worked on." As I sat among the roomful of strangers casting curious looks at each other and trying to guess the next volunteer, I nervously raised my hand before I could talk myself out of it. I had no idea what I was going to say. I was asked what I wanted to be "worked on" for that evening. Unsure myself what the plan was from here, I opened my mouth, and the story of the rape and my guilt came tumbling out through rivers of tears. Surely, here, I would be strung up from the rafters for all to spit upon.

Instead, I was assigned the task to face the males in the group, one at a time, and repeat to each one while looking him in the eyes that I was not responsible for my rapist's actions and the rape wasn't my fault. I cannot describe how incredibly difficult it was to look into the faces of these strangers and give voice to words I did not believe to be true.

In fact, if I must confess, sometimes I still don't believe them to be true. I have struggled to figure out just why. And I believe this is partially because of the church lessons on virtue (apparently synonymous with chastity) and modesty that were taught and the messages received by me as a result of those lessons: namely, the primary responsibility for the sexual interactions between a male and a female fall on the shoulders, cleavage, thighs or other arousing anatomy of the female. I was therefore taught indirectly that what it means to be a girl is to supposedly have power to take away someone's agency with how I look, if I am not dressed modestly enough. Yes, only that extra fabric stands between a boy and his agency. However, at 21 years old, I was still trying to figure out who I was. I knew I wanted to be and was supposed to be beautiful and attractive to men. But I was left to figure out on my own what exactly that vague yet cryptic message meant. I knew that the confusing and erroneous societal ideas of what beautiful and attractive should look like at any given moment were often not in line with what I figured to be okay and not okay from my religious teachings. I had a slew of conflicting messages coming my way, and I was desperate to sort them out for myself.

One thing I did know after my rape was that I didn't want to attract that kind of attention again. I needed to get rid of my prettiness. I didn't think I really had to worry about how desirable I was as a person, because my worth was gone. I was destroyed by this action. But sexual predators were still out there, lurking somewhere. I didn't want to be prey anymore. I hid myself away. I coped terribly. I developed a binge eating disorder that plagues me to this day. I covered my emotions up with food, mistaking the satisfaction of a pleasurable eating experience with contentment. I assured myself I was fine when that was far from the truth.

And yet, someone occasionally was attracted to me anyway. One by one, I pushed suitors away, sure they would leave when they saw the whole truth of the ugliness that was me behind the mirage I was sure they must have been seeing. Finally, when I was brave enough to share my story with someone who had the ability to turn and run and break my heart from doing so, he stayed. I was lucky that way.

Still, I have those thoughts. And I now also have the unfortunate negative consequences of my reluctance to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and its impact on my life. Sometimes I push people away, sure they'll leave once they know the real me. And some gladly clock out and turn tail at the first push. Some leave on their own accord. Precious are those who know the whole truth and have still stayed. For it is they who I believe really know ME.

THIS is how those messages hurt me. They hurt me as much as, if not more than, the rape itself. I am trash. I am ugly. I am worthless. Those are my new messages now.

But I'm fighting against the messages. I am fighting against the lies. I know we all have the ability to change our thoughts, to change our beliefs (even those that are so erroneous and damaging which we stubbornly cling to anyway), and to change our actions.

Of course, as a student of human behavior, I realize we can greatly influence the actions of others. I think this is the other reason why I continue to hold myself responsible for my rape at times. I know that how we interact with others affects how they in turn interact with us. And not all these interactions are verbal, physical, or even in person. Advertisers know this. Politicians know this. Great salespeople know this.

Abercrombie and Fitch knows this. And they think their marketing and selections will work in their favor. Perhaps some people will buy their clothes more now that they know the CEO has spoken out against anyone size XL or larger. Perhaps they will believe the brand is more "exclusive" than some other alternatives, thinking supporting it will include them in the ranks of the "cool" and "popular" and "thin" crowd. Perhaps not. I know that I don't have the choice right now, so it's easy to say I will never wear their clothes again. But the strong part of me who is writing this knows I won't.

It's not because of my rape, either. I'm just not interested in immodest clothing anymore. I'm not interested in spending hard-earned money on clothing that isn't more durable. I'm not interested in supporting brands that tell you that you have to be a certain way or you have no worth. I've had enough of those lies for a lifetime.