**Content warning: The following text describes sexual assault and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.**

I remember staring in the mirror, examining the painted face staring back at me. Pink lips, natural eyeshadow, black eyeliner, mascara, and soft blush. My parents said I looked beautiful, but the word made me feel nauseous as I held back tears and swallowed the pain away from my throat. My mind was screaming, yelling at me to rip the makeup off my face, but all I did was stand and stare. I was twelve at the time and I remember being afraid to be called “beautiful.”

When I was seven years old, my family and I went to an indoor water resort where I was sexually assaulted by an older boy, and whose sister attempted to drown my younger sister in the pool. We were able to escape before anything worse happened, but never spoke a word about it because it was unfathomable at the time.

I forgot about it for a while, until I hit sixth grade and all of my girl friends started wearing makeup and tight clothing to impress their crushes. Twelve–year–old me was confused and didn’t want to switch out my basketball shorts and ponytail for leggings and styled hair, but the social pressure from my friends and parents to “dress and act like a girl” eventually got to me.

I tried to be a “beautiful” girl that cared about how she looked, but I wasn’t ready to see her. Seeing her in the mirror made me want to cry and throw up. I didn’t want to see her because I was afraid to, because I thought being beautiful would bring her danger.

Fast forward to high school to the cool, tomboy me who still never spoke about what happened. I eventually learned how to do my own makeup because I had to for dance, but my nausea around makeup was replaced by a fear of touch. Any sort of touch made me flinch. I remember my body would go cold and stiff in a hug no matter if it was by an acquaintance, friend, sister, or other family member. At least I was able to get away with “not being the hugging-type.”

Although everyone kinda hates being at Penn at some point in their lives, one of the most unforgettable things I have learned since being here is that love works in mysterious ways, especially when you aren’t looking for it.

Somehow, my awkward and broken self got the courage to confess my feelings to one of my guy friends the end of my first semester at Penn. Normally, I play it really safe because of my past experiences, but I had a good feeling about him (although I also was so ready to get rejected). After studying and playing video games together almost everyday after classes ended, and swerving my first kiss with him at 3 a.m. and laughing out of nervousness for another half hour until I felt ready to kiss him for real, I asked him to date me the next semester.

Falling in love with my now-boyfriend and best friend of three years was actually very hard, but without those three years of laughter, tears, heartbreak, fights, friendship, and honesty, I wouldn’t have become the better version of myself you see today.

For one, being in a relationship meant I had to address my pent–up experiences and feelings that had already translated into the way I felt and behaved. Growing up as the older sister and having the role of the mediator in my family, I was always listening to others and setting my feelings aside to make sure those I cared about were happy. And when it came to my more traumatic experience, I got used to the ease of keeping things to myself. That way, no one had to worry about me and I could focus on taking care of everyone else. I started doing the same thing with my boyfriend, only he would ask me a lot about how I felt and what I wanted, but I never really knew how to respond. I tried to hide my feelings and default to what he wanted, but instead he would always give me a little push to be more vocal and tell me how much he cared about what I had to say until I said something.

Especially after our first summer apart, I realized how important communication was in any relationship. Not only did I speak my mind more often with him, but I also became more vocal about my thoughts and feelings to my family because my voice did matter. For instance, when my dad found out I had a boyfriend, he got mad at me and told me I had to break up with him because I didn’t ask for his permission. I was able to have the courage to tell my dad, “No,” for the first time. It was super scary but also empowering, and to this day, my dad always tells me that he’s glad I spoke up. My words made him realize how narrow-minded he had been about a lot of things, and after his divorce, he said he hoped he could find a love like mine.

Being in a relationship also taught me to be comfortable in my own skin. Freshman year, I was haphephobic, had cystic acne, gained 20 lbs, and never felt beautiful nor wanted to be called beautiful. Ever since we met through our dance team, my boyfriend and I had a natural connection. You could always find us in the corner of the studio laughing at Spongebob memes or watching clips of cartoons we both loved. We’d always compliment each other on our geeky pop culture shirts and talk about a new video game we were excited about. Since day one, he had always been someone I could rely on, someone who never failed to make me laugh or cheer me on while I danced, someone who listened to what I had to say, and was one of the few people I enjoying being with while I still felt like an outsider among the other dancers on the team. Because of our early connection and trust, hearing the words, “You’re beautiful,” from my dear friend during a time when I felt how I looked physically was at its worst was the first time I actually believed it.

Since then, I started learning to love the way I looked while also seeking to take care of myself better. I got more sleep, watched the foods that I ate, exercised, and started being more open to new clothing styles outside of my usual sweatpants and t-shirts look. After each semester of self-care with a side of reassurance from my boyfriend here and there, I realized that I only needed to look beautiful for myself under my own terms.

Today I can say I am a more loving person, especially around my family. That has been something I am most thankful to have learned from my boyfriend. My family never really told each other we loved each other—maybe I would read it on a birthday card a few times. Because I had grown into a more independent person that kept my feelings to myself, it was easy for me to leave home to go to Penn. But watching the way my boyfriend interacted with his family, how close they were, how often they called or texted each other, and how easy it was for them to tell each other, “I love you” before departing made me begin to miss my family and desire that same relationship with them. Especially after my parents' divorce, my whole family was split and became more distant from one another. But it also made us see how much we missed being together, and I took that as my opportunity to finally say “I love you” to my parents and my sister. Since then, we have become more open to talking to each other about our deepest feelings and fears, and not being afraid to burden the other with what we have to say.

After these 21 years of life, I can finally say that I am happy. Learning what it means to be loved for all of who I am gave me the strength to pick myself back up, and falling in love with someone gave me the courage to build a better, more loving me. I wouldn’t say it takes falling in love with a partner to learn how to love yourself, but all you need is someone, whether they’re in your family or a close friend or guardian, that sees the beauty and goodness in you among the imperfections you see, and takes the time to help you bring that out.

Campus Resources:

The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.

Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.

Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary and arrange for referrals and follow up.

Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.),A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.

Penn Violence Prevention: 3539 Locust Walk (Office Hours: 9 am – 5 pm), (215) 746-2642, Jessica Mertz (Director of Student Sexual Violence Prevention, Education)jmertz@upenn.edu, Read the Penn Violence Prevention resource guide. 

Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.

Public Safety Special Services: Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.

Penn Women's Center: 3643 Locust Walk (Office Hours 9:30 am – 5:30 pm Monday–Thursday, 9:30 am – 5 pm Friday), pwc@pbox.upenn.edu. PWC provides confidential crisis and options counseling.