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Posture of the Abused Child

When I was little, my dad used to laugh at my shoulder blades. He said they stuck out like a couple of chicken wings, but by the time I finished high-school, my back was rounded, my wings were gone.

Along with year after year of teenage girls, I was emotionally and sexually abused by teachers in the Quest program at Prince of Wales school in Vancouver. Our teachers disguised their abuse under the cloak of an outdoor education program that was all about health, wilderness travel, hugs and massages. Not understanding, as a naïve fifteen year old that I was meant to submit to sexual advances from my teachers, I resisted and thereby became a target of humiliation. While the girls that did the teachers’ bidding got rewards, probably the best one being ‘exemption from shaming,’ I was not so lucky.

They made fun of my body commenting on it in sexually humiliating ways. They would punish the whole group of kids on the trip if I didn’t let my hair down or didn’t go for one on one photo sessions with one of the teachers. And they commented about me when I was pressured along with other sixteen year old boys and girls to swim with them naked while on a month long canoe trip in the Yukon far from our parents. It’s amazing to me now just how much control a teacher has over a kid.

I look back at them as a middle-aged woman and I am filled with scorn, but as a child? They were so powerful.

They made fun of presentations I gave by throwing food at me. It’s quite something as a teenager to speak up in front of the class, but to speak up while the teacher publicly humiliates you is a whole other experience. I was punished that particular time for having missed a day or two of school because I was on a trip with my family. I realize now that time away from their mind-games was a big risk that we might actually speak to our parents, tell them what was happening. They needed us with them as much as possible in order to exert full control.

I always shake my head when adults are shocked and amazed that kids don’t report abuse. Anyone who has ever been abused knows the impossibility of speaking up. I saw a psychologist for several years in my early twenties and then attended a therapy group with two psychiatrists while at grad school. My issues were eating disorder and cutting. It’s absolutely amazing to me when I look back that I never told the psychologist or the psychiatrists I was emotionally and sexually abused by my teachers. It’s like I didn’t know it. For a long time, it was a hazy out of body experience. I now know that it’s the only way I survived it. I retreated into a safe place that required not remembering in any kind of clear or detailed way what happened. I made myself almost convinced that it happened to someone else. And it worked, because although I am scarred, and I lost a great deal over the course of my life from being abused, I did survive.
Sometimes I imagine confronting the teachers. I’d like to tell them in violent terms that what they did to me and so many other kids was sick. I want them to know that taking the trust a student places in a teacher and perverting it, is disgusting.

But when I was a teenager, I believed a good portion of the time that they were mentors, that they cared about me, that they could show me things. My body began to revolt against this lie first, but it’s taken a long time for my mind to come clear.

Last year, I started working with a personal trainer. The first issue he addressed was my posture, but it wasn’t a single session problem to fix. It’s being almost a year and I’m still working on my posture. I have to consciously pull my shoulders back and raise my head. The trainer will say “be proud” or “don’t be timid.” These words of encouragement make me feel a little like crying because the girl I once was stopped holding her head high. She stopped being proud and instead, became afraid, timid, hunching over hoping not to be targeted either for sexual contact she didn’t desire or scenes of public humiliation that eroded her self-esteem.

The trainer has shown me in the mirror on multiple occasions the way in which my natural stance is rounded shoulders, my head held down. My muscles are all in disarray. While I lack muscle strength that would naturally keep me erect---my shoulders in line with my ears---my upper trapezius muscles are so overused they are shortened and tight. The painful remedy requires hundreds and hundreds of repetitions so that my back straightening muscles---rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, lower trapezius---become stronger. I must also stretch my upper “traps” everyday so that they relax enough to allow me to work the other muscles. It’s frustrating and when I do the stretch, the muscles are so tight it feels as if they will snap.
I have next to no muscle memory in my back as it’s used to functioning as a cowardly shell, protective and hunched. My shoulders are not aligned, strong and supple. Instead, they are more like muscular armour. As a teenager, I knew I was in danger and my body still holds those traumatic memories. But now, I want to stand tall and so I go to the gym and trust my personal trainer that I can indeed get better and build confidence in how I present myself to the outside world.

Joe Navarro, author of Louder than Words and What Every Body is Saying, writes about the eloquence of shoulders and the way in which they can convey the whole spectrum from curiosity to depression.

As a teacher, parents ask me what to watch for in their teenage children, what signs might indicate that something’s wrong since adolescents are well-known for being quiet and withdrawn. I think it’s not a bad idea to watch their posture and worry if they aren’t standing head up, shoulders back in a stance of confidence and trust.

My wings have been clipped and that can never be repaired. My teachers in the Quest program did not give me the education promised; instead, they hurt me. But they also underestimated me. It took me a long time, but I’m doing the most dangerous thing for them. I’m speaking up. I’m speaking up on behalf of myself and every child out there who is being manipulated by an adult, feels confused and is starting to float away from a healthy, natural bond with their body and mind. I wish I could grab those kids by the shoulders and tell them to speak up: “tell your parents, tell your grandparents, tell your coach. Tell other teachers or the principal or anyone who will step in and protect you.”

Every time I speak up and write about those teachers who abused me, my shoulders move back and my head rises.

No more flight.

It’s a fighting stance.

Dr. Jennifer Fraser's picture
Bullying Expert

With a PhD in Comparative Literature, Fraser is a passionate educator, researcher and writer. Her most recent book, Teaching Bullies, is an exploration of what happens when the teacher or coach is the bully. Drawing on psychology, psychiatry, sports journalism and neuroscience, she argues that bullying done by adults—namely emotional abuse—does such significant harm it should join sexual and physical abuse in criminal code.  Her new book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom, is available now!