by Sophia Shiroff
What Does a Survivor Look Like?
I'm standing in front of my mirror, a pile of clothes at my feet. I look at my reflection and try to look in the mirror at all of me. I need to get ready for school, but I’ve been trying to figure out what to wear for ten minutes. I can’t stop thinking, What does a survivor look like?
There's a pair of loose, black sweatpants. I’m sitting in my school counselor’s office. That day I picked the loosest clothing I could find, sweatpants and a gray t-shirt. I don’t know why it was that day, but that was the day that I decided someone, anyone, needed to listen to me, care about me, and help me. I couldn’t deal with the shame and pain alone anymore. That day in her office I needed to cover. I wanted to disappear so that no one was able to look at me, at my body.
I pick up a pair of navy shorts. School was out and the summer sun baked my city. I was called to the police station for a forensic interview. That was the summer of nightmares, sleeping on the floor, curled up in a ball trying to hold myself together--maybe the smaller I was, the more okay I’d be. Navy shorts. I’d wanted to wear pants, but it was summer and all of my shorts felt too short. Google didn’t even know What am I supposed to wear to a forensic interview? I sat in the interview, a stranger to the girl wearing the navy shorts. Why didn’t I feel like myself? I was called back in the next day and couldn’t breathe, not only because I had to try and be okay for another day, to talk about the worst thing that had happened to me, but also because I still didn’t know what to wear. What is a victim supposed to look like?
The shorts fall from my hands, and I’m back in front of my mirror. A red dress, crumpled at my feet. A dressing room, a Homecoming dress. The lights are too bright, the walls too close, the customers too noisy. The dress brushes against my thighs perfectly. Clothes are supposed to fit me, and I’m not supposed to change to fit into clothes. But the dress is too pretty, and I have bags under my eyes. I don’t feel like a person who fits into these clothes. What does a survivor look like? It’s not the girl in the dressing room. I close my eyes and try to remember how to breathe. I’m back with a police officer asking, “What were you wearing?” I’m back in the clothes where I can’t say no, can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t think. Maybe my shorts were too short that day– I’m spiraling through self-blame. It’s my fault. I did something wrong.
I’m on the floor of my bedroom, clothes around me. I’m trying to remember the breathing exercise my therapist taught me, but I can’t remember how to even breathe. Clothes are just clothes. They’re just pieces of fabric. That's all. I breathe shakily and reach for a pair of jeans, pulling on a loose sweatshirt. I try to focus on my blue eyes, rimmed red from the tears rolling down my face. I grab my backpack and take another shaky breath. I’m what a survivor looks like. Even on the days when I feel like the world has knocked me back off my feet. I might feel like a victim– like I never survived anything and I want to disappear into the world around me. I’m a survivor because I still get up when the sun rises and pull on a pair of clothes. I look like a survivor, tears rolling down my cheeks, school backpack on my shoulders, just for the mere fact that I’m here. I’ve survived, outfit by outfit, breath to breath.