Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Solace of Convention: Abuse, Beauty, and What Happened When I Left

This isn’t about an abusive relationship. This is about what happened next.

I decided to leave my boyfriend not because he had ever hurt me, but because I was turning 30. I mean, he had hurt me, but by the time I left him, it had been four years since he’d touched me with intent to harm. Our first year together was violent; eventually he was arrested for domestic assault, and he was one of the small percentage of men who go through a batterer intervention program and never harm their partner again. For the years that followed his arrest, I stayed with him because I needed to prove to myself that there was a reason I’d stayed in the first place. The relationship was never a good one, but by its end, it was tolerable. That is why I left.

More directly, I left because one day at age 29 as I was rising from a nap I literally heard a voice in my head say, “If you do not leave now, you will spend the rest of your life like this,” and while I had thought such things plenty of times, I had never heard it, never heard it with such finality and stark potency, and it was too true to be ignored. I spent a few weeks figuring out how I would do it in a way that would cause the least damage, and then I did it, and that is where this story begins.

*   *   *  

A few things happened around the time I decided to leave. First, I lost a lot of weight. Once I’d done that, I bought new clothes, clothes that were different from my normal jeans-and-hoodies gear that I had chosen because I didn’t like to wear anything that was designed to be looked at. I started wearing skirts and cute little dresses with cute little heels. I got a shorter, more daring haircut; with my diminished size I began to look nearly gamine. The increase in exercise made my skin glow. I discovered liquid eyeliner. “When did you become such a babe?” a coworker asked. “You’ve been an undercover hottie all this time,” said another. I would remember this as I’d go to the gym or plop down sums of money on clothes that had seemed unimaginable to me only months before.

You might think, as I did at the time, that my self-guided makeover was about rediscovering my self-worth. It was partly that, yes: When your “emergency contact” is the same person at whose hands you have suffered an emergency, your sense of self-worth isn’t exactly at its healthiest. It wasn’t difficult to see that my physical changes were announcing my renewal to the world.

But it wasn’t just change that drove me, nor even the satisfaction of looking good as I began to create a better life. This era wasn’t the first time that I’d felt pretty or had been called such. It was, however, the first time I felt like I “passed”—passed as someone who was blandly, conventionally, unremarkably pretty; passed as pretty without anyone having to look twice to make sure it was true.

When you’re in an abusive relationship, or at least when you are me in an abusive relationship, you don’t recognize how standard your story is. You think that you’re special. That he’s special, that he needs your help and that’s why you can’t leave; that you’re special for recognizing what a great gift you’ve been given, despite its dubious disguise. I never believed the cliche of “he hits me because he loves me,” but I came close: I stayed because I truly believed I alone was special enough to see through the abuse to see him, and us, for what was really there. It was an isolating belief—another characteristic of abuse, one I didn’t recognize at the time—but moreover, it was a combustible mixture of arrogance and piss-poor self-esteem, and one that made me feel unqualified to ever play the role of Just Another Person.

Upon exiting the relationship I’d finally recognized as anything but special, I wanted nothing more than to be unremarkable. Striving to be conventionally pretty was my way of re-entering the world of, well, convention. It was no accident that the first post-breakup date I accepted was with the most conventional man I’ve ever gone out with: a hockey-loving lawyer with a tribal armband tattoo who used the term “bro” without irony. It wasn’t that I thought his was a world I ultimately wanted to inhabit; it was that I needed to prove that the “special” men weren’t the only ones who would see me and want to see more. So I put on a pretty little dress with pretty little lingerie underneath, and I let him buy me dinner. I showed little of my inner self to him—I wasn’t ready for that, and I knew he wasn’t the one to show myself to anyway. But eagerly, and with every convention a pretty girl might use on a good-looking bro, I showed him the rest.

Beauty can be a tool. It can be a tool we use to tell the world we want to be a part of what’s going on; manipulating our appearance can be a tool we use to trumpet a part of ourselves that might otherwise go unseen. Beauty can be a way of participating.

To be clear, I don’t think adhering to the conventions of beauty is the way most of us become our most beautiful. Our spark and passion will forever trump our perfectly whitened smiles or disciplined waistlines. But for me, beauty became a tool to let myself begin to believe that I was worth being seen. When I was recovering from a life of apprehension—after years of longing for even a single day when the first thought that entered my mind in the morning would have nothing to do with him, after years of exhausting my every resource to try to convince my family and friends and boss and above all myself that I could handle it—the stream of assurance I got from looking pretty in an everyday, pedestrian, stock-photo, conventional sort of way was a lifeline. I let the slow drip of looking unremarkably pretty sustain me while I began the real work of rebuilding. Beauty—or rather, giving myself the tools of banal, run-of-the-mill, utterly ordinary prettiness—allowed me to reconstruct a part of myself that had gone mute for years. And then, I constructed another, and another, and another.

*   *   *

During the time I was dating the bro, I also became involved with a man with whom I formed a poor romantic match but, as it turns out, an excellent friendship. We stayed in touch after we stopped dating, but I hadn’t seen him again until last year, when I happened to be visiting the city he now calls home. I was backpacking, and the clothes I wore reflected that—jeans, layered T-shirts, a grungy hoodie, worn not out of a desire to avoid anyone’s gaze but for comfort and practicality.

I mentioned what a relief it was to not be wearing high heels. He eyed me evenly. “The little dresses you wore when we were seeing each other—they weren’t you,” he said. He sensed my recoil and amended: “You pulled them off, no worries. You looked good. But even though I hadn’t ever seen you wear anything else, I could tell it wasn’ It wasn’t the you I knew.” In part, he was right. The cute little dresses, the high heels, the smart haircut: In embracing that part of myself to the exclusion of all other styles, I was still reacting to a desperately unhappy time of my life. I wore red nail polish because my ex hated it; I wore heels because he liked me so much in sneakers. I wore dresses because, for the first time in years, I truly wanted to be seen. It had been fine for me to embrace a conventionally feminine look to alter my baseline of how I wanted to present myself to the world. And I didn’t need that baseline any longer.

Yet what stands out to me now about that exchange isn’t the message, but his words, It wasn’t the you I knew. Abuse had swallowed me to the point where I could no longer detect my own identity—but he, and other people I was wise enough to trust, could. We form our self-image not only from ourselves, but from those around us. When you are in the fog of abuse, the chaos and torment that occupies the abuser’s inner life becomes your own. When you leave, that fog is replaced with what and who is around you: the man who said It wasn’t the you I knew; the friend who raised her glass “to the beginning of you” when I told her I’d left; the running partner who, years later, would become a partner in other ways as well. Even the tattooed-armband “bro” was an imprint of my desire to be utterly cliché for a while before turning my head toward what might actually make me special. Each gave me what beauty did—a sense of normality. But they also took me beyond the limits of what conventional prettiness could ever do. They reflected back not only what I knew of myself, but what they knew of me. They were my mirror.

I don’t recommend that any of us form our mirror entirely from others; that’s part of what lands some of us in an abusive relationship to begin with. But when you are beginning to rebuild a bombed-out identity, you need something beside you other than just your naked soul. The people around me were part of that. Beauty was another.

The mirror of plebian prettiness is a precarious one. It’s not built for the long haul, and it is easily shattered. There are a million ways my unintentional strategy could have been disastrous. But people who are recovering from difficult situations are often told to draw from their “inner strength”—good advice that forgets that sometimes, every gram of inner strength is going toward just holding yourself together. And with abuse, which is known for its powers of erasing the victim’s identity, the concept of “inner strength” is particularly questionable: You can’t draw from inner strength when you feel like nothing is there. I needed to draw from outer strength; I needed a routine that would help me reconstruct. I eventually got to reconstructing the inside. But I needed the framework first.

Attention to one’s appearance cannot be the end point of becoming our richest selves. But for some—for me—it can be a beginning.


October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and this post is part of the Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog roundup at Anytime Yoga. If you are in an abusive partnership—whether you’re being abused, abusing your partner, or both—tell someone. You can begin by clicking here or calling 800-799-SAFE.


  1. This is incredible, Autumn. Thank you for thinking this through in writing this way! Observing convention isn't all about shallow conformity. There are deep reasons for it sometime.

  2. Wow, there's so much here! A lot to digest, but I just want to say how much I love this and how, once again, I'm in awe of the bravery of your writing.

  3. Autumn, you surprise and amaze me. I hadn't seen your "I Can Handle It" post until now.

  4. I really like how you create this relationship between beauty and banality. I actually think that's incredibly empowering, that appearance can provide us with agency just by letting us feel like everyone else.
    amazing post.

  5. I really liked this.

    I feel like I can relate even though my ex's haven't been physically, only emotionally, abusive/controlling.

    I think that changing yourself is a very subversive and freeing thing to do when your physical image has been objectified and molded by another person for so long.

    I did the same thing, going glam and girly after a breakup, and I for me it was a way of reclaiming those parts of my identity that my ex didn't like and felt threatened by. In addition I deliberately tried to look "conventional" for a change, in order to communicate to the world that from now on I expect my boyfriends/husbands to treat me conventionally "right".

    Sadly, unconventional-looking people are sometimes targeted by abusers as more likely to put up with convoluted excuses for them behaving badly.

    Anyway, thanks, I appreciated and was helped by your perspective.

  6. Darlene, thank you. That's exactly what I was hoping to get at: We often brush aside conformity as something for losers or cowards, not seeing the strength it can sometimes provide. I don't recommend mindless conformity, of course, but it can be a lifeline when we need it.

    Raz, thank you. Both for saying that and for being one of the people who helped nurture my writing early on.

    Rebekah, thank you. I try to keep this blog laser-focused on beauty so I only had a single quiet little link to it before; I'm glad you found it, if it illuminated something for you.

    Tori, thank you for the prompt. I wouldn't have done it otherwise.

    f6fdaefa, thank you--I'm so glad to know that people are understanding my intent here. The everyday can indeed be an act of agency, and I think we forget that.

    Karen Iris, you know, I hadn't thought of it as subversion but I think in some ways it was. I had indeed felt, as you put it, molded by him--conformity actually was my was of breaking out of that mold. I'm glad you're out of your damaging relationships, and glad you found your way here.

  7. This is really powerful - I admire you for writing such an intelligent article.

  8. This was such an incredible view of not just abuse but everything it does to a person's sense of identity and self-worth, the things that truly classify it as "abuse." Thank you for sharing.

  9. Autumn, this is such a wonderful post. Our paths to wholeness have been so different, but there are so many commonalities. I particularly loved the part at the end about "inner strength," how sometimes you have to turn to external sources of strength to get yourself back together. I think it's too much to expect that any of us can heal on our own from trauma, and I wonder how much of that is related to our cultural mythology that kind of mandates we all be self-sufficient little islands unto ourselves, instead of recognizing that so much of who we are is dependent on our relationships with those around us, and that consequently there is only so much we can expect "inner strength" to do.

    And yes, I hear you on believing that your situation was somehow different and special, and how that leaves you feeling completely isolated and stuck. I was certain that I could help my abuser heal from the things that had been done to him, but the truth is, my presence KEPT him from dealing with his issues. As long as I was around, I was always his out, his excuse for his behavior. I didn't realize just how very textbook our situation was.

    It's been very liberating for me to let go of the idea that I am somehow special, and that I am very ordinary in most ways. My belief that I was special and extraordinary has caused me more pain that it's been worth.

    Thanks again for writing such a beautiful, thought-provoking post.

  10. Deeply moving. Thank you for writing it.

  11. I am so glad to have read this post. Thank you for sharing is all I can say.

  12. Imogen, Johannah, Startled Octopus--thank you. I'm glad to "meet" you.

    Caitlin, I thought of you several times as I was writing that part about "inner strength," because of what you shared about running--that having something that was both outside yourself and an essential part of yourself helped you heal. My beauty-as-healing backfired on me in certain ways (but that's a different post) but the idea was similar. And yes, it can indeed be liberating to realize that we're not special--rather, that our specialness lies in something untouchable, not our ability to "understand."

    Courtney, thank you for reading. I'm glad to be able to put it out there.

  13. Thanks for posting such a brave and inspiring piece.

  14. Green of Eye, thank you for reading. I'm glad it's inspiring--

  15. I thought I had already commented on this! Autumn, this is a really beautiful piece. You have such a unique perspective on this link between abuse and appearance that needs to be voiced It's so honest and real- I admire your bravery in posting it enormously. Thank you for doing so.

  16. I remember being in that same situation after a divorce - I made myself look like a doll - men were responding - and at the same time it made me feel both powerful and gagged/bound.

  17. Blackdogramona, that's certainly a flipside I didn't get into here. I wouldn't say I felt gagged, but I did feel like my change brought a certain role to my life that I hadn't played before (and haven't since). In any case, thank you for reading.