In 1975 I was ten years old. Jaws was the number one movie. I was not yet a tween and a movie about people on vacation getting eaten by sharks scared the crap out of me. I was still afraid of the dark, afraid of the door in my bedroom that led to the attic. Afraid of monsters under my bed.
I wore my hair long, just like Susan Dey, who played Lori Partridge in the Partridge Family. Just like my sister June wore her hair. June was eleven, one year and five days older than me. “Irish twins,” my mother always said. June had a mature-beyond-her-years look. I did not. June was poised and reserved. Her smile was sly, like the Mona Lisa. My smile revealed prominent bucked teeth with a gap in the middle. I still sucked my thumb at night.
My mother bought two of everything for June and me. Clothes especially. Matching tops and bottoms. Matching coats and shoes. Matching dresses. And in 1975, we both received a printed polyester dress—the sexy dress. I didn’t know what sexy meant when I was ten. I didn’t refer to this dress as the sexy dress back then. I only knew that when I put that dress on I felt different somehow. I felt confident. Feminine.
The cool rayon fabric slid over my skin as I moved around in the dress. It made me feel alive. Until I wore that dress I only knew my body by way of cuts and scrapes. By way of laying on my stomach and touching the back of my head with my toes. By way of races that ended in brush burns. Barefoot freeze tag games on the back lawn that ended in cut feet. Riding bikes, swimming and running through the woods. My body was all function. Utilitarian. Strong. Fast. Flexible.
For the first time I felt a hint of magic in my body. Like the scent of a lilac bush as you walk by. For a moment it overtakes you and you feel in your gut that there is mystery at work. Something bigger than you. Something like God. Because only God could create something that was so magnificent that it didn't really have a name, but took your breath away. Catching a glimpse of that magic was the moment I realized that I was different than my brother. Different from the other boys I had grown up playing with. I was more than function. I was form. Soft. Sensual. I was a girl. Like the fragrance of lilac, but it came from inside of me. There for a moment, then gone.
It was a summer dress. Meant to be worn next to bare skin. I wore it as often as I could. I was still a kid so the dress tickled my skin as I jumped around with all the energy of a ten year old. And I luxuriated in feeling my body come alive. I was intrigued with this new feeling of femininity.
But quickly there came another feeling associate with my dress.
At ten years old the sexy dress introduced me to the first whiff of true femininity. At ten years old I was also introduced to something more sinister. When I wore the sexy dress I embraced the feeling of being alive and in my body. The magic feeling. The feeling of being a girl. But quickly I learned that this feeling came with conditions.
I tried to run away but was pulled back. Forced to stay put.
“Oh Suzanne, you are so sexy,” he moaned into my ear. His hands sliding up my thighs and under my dress. Unable to escape I told myself, “this is what happens when I wear this dress.”
At ten years old I connected wearing the sexy dress to being molested, and I understood it as my fault. My responsibility. After all, June wore her dress yet she wasn’t grabbed and stroked and breathed on. It was me. I brought it on myself because I felt too good about myself. I felt connected with my body in a new way. Those magical feelings that I discovered were dangerous, because they invited this.
I stopped wearing the sexy dress. I balled it up and threw it in the corner of my closet.
Children are not the cause of their abuse. But children are ingenious and will work hard to figure out what they are doing to bring about abuse. I had determined that it was in part, the sexy dress. But more than that, it was my confidence. It was feeling good about being feminine.
I snuffed out parts of myself as a matter of protection and self preservation. I tried to forget about the magic feelings. To push them as far away from me as I could. To fit myself in a box that did not include any girl-ness. As I grew into a teenager, I snuffed more parts of myself. This continued as I became a woman. So many parts of me got tucked away and forgotten about, just like the sexy dress.
But it wasn’t the dress. It wasn’t my new emergent feelings as a ten year old girl. It wasn't feeling confident or feminine or connected to my body. It wasn’t anything to do with me at all.
As little girls growing into women we can spend our whole lives trying to figure out what we did to cause the harmful or traumatic experiences in our lives.
What was I wearing?
How did this happen again?!
We blame ourselves. Then change ourselves. Over and over. By the time we are adults we eventually decide that this is just the way it goes. If someone—especially someone in a position of power abuses, assaults or exploits us, we tell ourselves it must have been something we said, or something we did, or some way that we just were. Because if we could just figure it out, we can make it stop.
But a lifetime of self blame and a constant erosion of who we are can have dire consequences. When we reject parts of our ten or eight or twelve or fifteen or twenty two year old and older selves we are rejecting our true and authentic selves. And when we do this we look to others to tell us who we are. What we must do. This makes us vulnerable. We believe what others tell us. Abusers can spot this vulnerability a mile away.
By the time we are adult women we stop trying to figure out the solution. We become compliant. Silent. We tell our selves that this is our duty. The duty of being a woman.
But we venture back into our closet corners, collect up the pieces of ourselves that we once knew but left behind, and reclaim them fully. We can do the healing work of separating our traumas and abuses from feeling responsible for them. We can recognize that it wasn’t our responsibility then, and it’s not our fault now. We can stand in our full expression of who we are and hold a firm boundary: I am not an invitation. My authentic expression is not bound with obligation. My worth is not conditional.
We deserve to fully live in our own bodies and to love every physical, emotional and spiritual piece of who we are. We can feel good about ourselves, our bodies and our sexuality just because it makes us feel alive and whole.
We can love ourselves and be free.
Suzanne Jones is the author of There is Nothing to Fix: Becoming Whole Through Radical Self-Acceptance