How Do You Dress for Therapy as a Sexual Assault Survivor?
I grew up believing I had to look a certain way in order for my feelings to be taken seriously.
This Narrative Belongs To:
I’m staring into the void of my wardrobe, deciding what to wear. The task seems impossible. I’m overwhelmed by the juxtaposition between overtly feminine and lazily boyish, too much effort and not enough. I hold comfort in my left hand and composure in the right, weighing them up—on one side, baggy jumpers and velvet flares, and on the other, crisp cigarette trousers, a white shirt, French tuck. With all this fuss, you’d think I was going somewhere exciting (a date, perhaps), but no.
I’m dressing for therapy.
This shouldn’t have been new to me. I had my first round of therapy at 8 years old, where we explored my obsessive-compulsive disorder through art projects and sandboxes. I would visit my counselor on a Thursday afternoon in a little office at one end of my primary school, wearing my school uniform. But I don’t remember seeming self-conscious about my appearance back then.
It seems that the overthinking, indecisive tendencies towards fashion appeared later on. I started having therapy for my OCD again when I was 17, and I remember telling my new counselor how low I was feeling. She responded, “But you look well.” Maybe I would still have become anxious around dressing for therapy without her comment, but regardless, her disregard of my internal feelings in favor of my appearance did something to me. It was as if I realized that I had to look a certain way in order to have my sadness taken seriously. I was wearing a ’60s style mini skirt in a retro orange and white print and a black roll neck jumper (nothing fancy), and yet this level of effort had unlocked my therapist’s true thoughts: “This girl is dressed nicely so she must be fine.”
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I Often Conformed to Gendered, Formulaic Ideas of Fashion
Once I had this realization, dressing for therapy became much harder. As women, we are raised to view fashion as a seminal form of self-expression. As little girls, pink and fluffy magazines showed us what our favorite Disney stars were wearing and where we could buy affordable dupes. As teenagers, we watched hauls and unboxings of online orders on YouTube. Even now, my social media algorithm is full of this Mean Girls “get in loser we’re going shopping” mentality, played out by influencers who have cultivated an aesthetic via six-figure sponsorship deals with Fashion Nova.
Fashion is the currency in which our gender trades. If you dress well then people respect you. But suddenly, within the four walls of a therapist’s office, this was turned on its head, and the priority was to look as unpolished as possible.
Week by week, I used this knowledge to my advantage. When I was feeling lower than usual, I’d wear no makeup and all-black, ill-fitting clothes, but when I felt better, I’d make more effort, adding pops of color or nice jewelry. There was a formula to it, which I appreciated. If you wear X it’s because you feel like Y and will get a Z response.
But nothing could prepare me for the lack of rules when dressing for my most recent round of therapy. It had been difficult before, but throwing the mixed emotions of sexual assault into the fire made it even harder.
I Worried My Outfits Would Challenge My Appearance as a Victim
Due to the victim-blaming culture we live in, the automatic response to women being assaulted is, “What were you wearing?” This meant that when I attended therapy to discuss my trauma, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the connotations of my outfits. Would my therapist think I “deserved it” if I wore a skirt? Would she think I was “over it” if I wore jewelry? After all, putting effort into my appearance had previously been synonymous with not being taken seriously.
However, even the “safe” option I’d established with my last therapist—simple black clothing, a ponytail, minimal makeup—didn’t sit right with me. I was terrified that if I looked ugly then my new therapist would think, “Why would anyone want to assault you?” It’s an awful thought to admit out loud, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s worried about it. When society takes every step to make you doubt yourself and your story, the last thing you want is your therapist disbelieving you, too, because you don’t fit the mold of a victim.
When you’re being observed for 45 minutes every week, it feels natural to feel exposed. You can’t control your past or how you’ll present it to the stranger sitting in front of you, and you definitely can’t determine what they’ll ask or how you’ll respond in the moment. Out of this loss of power emerges the desire to control the one thing you can: your appearance.
But when I met my new therapist, she taught me that therapy should be a nonjudgemental space. “I’m here to make you feel better,” she said, “not to undermine your feelings based on how you look.” This made me realize that my overthinking was not only unproductive, but that ultimately, no one was looking at me through the critical lens through which I viewed myself. I’ve experienced enough trauma—why should I let something as insignificant as my clothes affect my mood? And that’s not to diminish the impact an outfit choice has, but to remind us that unpacking your internal emotions should take priority over how you’re externally presented.
It’s Important to Never Feel Judged by a Therapist for What You Wear
Some things I learned: If you feel insecure about your outfit, try to address your fear in your session. After all, where is the best place for honesty if not in a counselor's office? Or, if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, then consider shopping around until you find a therapist you don’t feel judged by. This may not be an option for everyone, but lots of programs offer the chance to transfer therapists within your first two to three sessions if you’re not getting along.
Maybe one day I will get my hands on one of those machines from Clueless that decides your outfit for you. Until then I’ll have to decide for myself every day. But clothes don’t have to be restrictive or judgmental—in fact, they can be liberating, exciting and fun. If fashion is our currency, then I might as well spend it in the way that makes me happiest and ignore the little voices in my mind that tell me otherwise. You deserve to feel well dressed, regardless of what you’ve been through.