How Beauty Helped Me Deal With Religious Trauma

by Mariah Carrillo

As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community, coping with religious trauma has been an ongoing process for me since I left the church seven years ago. Throughout this experience, fashion and beauty rituals have offered me tools to heal and become more present in myself. Using beauty routines to help with anxiety is not a new concept, but I think it can be especially helpful for individuals with religious trauma syndrome, because it can allow us to return to our bodies and develop a sense of trust in ourselves.

For those unfamiliar with the term, religious trauma syndrome, or RTS, is a concept formulated by Dr. Marlene Winell in response to the symptoms she observed in individuals who had left oppressive religious traditions. After leaving their home congregations, the British Association For Behavioral And Cognitive Psychotherapies reports, many RTS sufferers have difficulty adapting to the outside world and suffer depression and anxiety as they work to combat negative belief structures.

For me, leaving my church was a deeply painful event — one that left me depressed and confused, without a supportive community to turn to. After years of trying to subjugate myself to a broken ideological structure, finding my way back to myself was a difficult process. Through it all, though, personal style became a form of magic I could use to cut myself free of my past. Via experimentation and ritual, fashion and beauty allowed me to discover a new sense of agency and manage trauma in a healthier way. Here's how.

1. De-Stigmatizing Pleasure

In many ways, my experience with fundamentalism led me to be suspicious of pleasure. I was taught that my human desires were deceitful and potentially dangerous, and this made me suspicious of any pursuit that might be deemed "vain" or selfish. Exploring beauty and fashion gave me the chance to begin discovering the things that made me feel good, from lipstick to lingerie.

I learned that it was alright to do things for no other reason than to make myself happy; no permission necessary. Sometimes, this looked like investing in good skincare that made me feel like I was treasuring my body instead of ignoring it. Other times, it was as simple as lining my eyes with glitter for the pure joy of adding a little sparkle to my day. The individual action was less important than the fact that these little rituals reminded me that I didn't have to do anything to earn the right to be happy.

2. Reclaiming My Body

The toxic mix of body shame and sexism in my religious community taught me very early on that, as a woman, my body was always suspect. I was constantly told to carefully cover myself, lest my body cause my spiritual brothers to sin. While mainstream culture is deeply steeped in victim-blaming rhetoric that makes women responsible for men's actions against their bodies, in fundamentalist Christianity, I experienced the zenith of this ideology, with spiritual leaders comparing women's bodies to mine fields or animal traps.

Reclaiming my right to wear short shorts or a low-cut top without shame was a slow process. Reading Jessica Valenti's book The Purity Myth helped me realize that my body isn't somehow wrong by virtue of being female. I don't owe anyone an apology or explanation for the way I choose to present myself, and I am not responsible for the reactions of others. My body is my own.

3. Providing A Routine

One way in which religion can be very comforting is in the structure and stability it often provides. In the church, my life followed a predictable routine of morning and evening prayer, Sunday services, and weekly fellowship meetings. Without this structure, I felt lost, without a clear way of addressing my spiritual and emotional needs.

Learning to take care of myself outside of my faith community required that I replace my constant devotional practices with more self-care centered activities, like exercise and a morning beauty routine. The soothing familiarity of smoothing moisturizer onto my skin or swiping on a layer of lipgloss made me feel more grounded, and taught me to take care of my own needs instead of looking to an outside authority to provide for me.

4. Exploring My Preferences

Growing up, I was taught to always look to authority rather than my own desires or intuition for guidance. This lead to me constantly feeling unsure of myself, always searching for someone to validate or guide my decisions. Makeup and beauty provided me with a safe place to experiment and find my own preferences on a small scale. While bigger choices, like where to live or who to love, still seemed utterly unmanageable, trying out eyeshadow shades in the privacy of my own room offered me an opportunity to begin getting to know myself without an intermediary.

For the first time, I began to ask myself what I liked and how I wanted to feel. By starting small, I was able to gradually build some trust in myself, which encouraged me to make other, larger decisions with greater confidence.

5. Soothing Anxiety And Stress

I have always dealt with anxiety and depression to some extent, but my worst points were definitely the periods directly preceding and following my leaving the church. The emotional upheaval of losing everything I had believed in shook me to my core, and I needed every available tool to help me come to terms with the changes that accompanied this decision.

I developed little rituals to help me feel sane and safe, like wearing favorite jewelry pieces as protective talismans when I felt especially anxious, or spraying on a beloved perfume when I needed to be surrounded by my own little cloud of comfort. Practicing makeup tutorials and techniques provided a meditative distraction from the thoughts swirling around inside my head, and helped me feel grounded in my body when all I wanted to do was shut down.

6. Breaking The Rules

During the same period that I was extricating myself from Christianity, I was also discovering the world of fat acceptance and body positivity. I was reading books like Hot And Heavy and Lessons From The Fat-O-Sphere like my life depended on it, learning new strategies for loving myself in a hostile world. As I developed the courage to begin breaking fashion rules, this new confidence also gave me the strength to start rebelling against other forms of oppression in my life.

Fat acceptance taught me to ask why, and to flex my critical thinking "muscles," instead of unthinkingly obeying societal restrictions. Fashion victories like trying on a sexy, plus size bathing suit were freeing on more than one front. While I was claiming my right to be visible and celebrate my body, I was also learning the practice of relying on my own authority and demanding space for myself to grow and change.

7. Opening Up Space For Change

Overall, the biggest gift that my style rituals have given me on my journey away from fundamentalism is a sense of space and possibility. Coming from a place that was very circumscribed and rigid has made the simple act of choosing an outfit or trying a new hair color feel like a revolutionary act.

Inexpensive beauty products allowed me to try out many different versions of myself without a significant emotional or financial risk, and taught me to look at myself from a new perspective. Learning to embrace and show off my body, no matter its shape or size, has taught me to combat the oppressive, sexist ideologies that told me to hide and control myself at all costs.

I used to base my happiness on whether or not I had an answer or rule for every situation. Exploring the worlds of beauty and fashion has taught me that there are no fixed rules or boundaries. I am always in the act of becoming, and self-expression is one way to work through these changes with grace and style.

Images: Mariah Carrillo (7)