My Story // Jessica Brandau Photography // Fiercely Feminine // Wisconsin Boudoir Photographer

I’ve sat down to write this post at least 30 times over the last year. I have 10 different drafts saved on my desktop, and every time I write it all out I just can’t *quite* force myself to hit post. When I started this year out I decided that my “theme word” for the year was ‘RENEW’…as soon it popped into my head and I started to meditate on it I knew that ultimately dedicating myself to this ‘renewal’ would involve opening myself up, being authentic, and laying it all on the table. Whether people love me or hate me for it…I couldn’t hide behind walls, tip toe around truths, and skirt around my whole story. SO, as I sit here with my glass of wine, I’m deciding to  completely disregard the 30 carefully articulated drafts, and instead opt to just wing it and see what the flip happens.😅 So bear with me, loves.

*Trigger warning* Some of these subjects are sensitive, and touch on violence and sexual assault. 

My name is Jess…and this is my story. The story of some of my biggest struggles in life, my absolute rock bottom, and how that all brought me to where I am today….one giant work in progress.😅 But honestly, a work in progress that is FINALLY able to accept myself for who I am, the skin that I am in, and how these experiences have shaped me. FINALLY able to embrace these experiences (hard as that may sometimes be), rather than hide from them, and FINALLY be able to lay them all out on the table and not feel an immense about of shame, regret, and anger over them. There is no easy way to jump into this convo…so I apologize in advance for the bluntness.

 

When I was 14 I was sexually assaulted by a friend. A “friend”. It was the 4th of July, 2 days before my 15th birthday. There was a group of us that had gone to my “friend’s” house to play video games. We were there for maybe 15 minutes when a couple of people from our group decided that they were going to find someone to buy us a bottle of liquor. The next thing I knew the room had cleared out and there were only 3 of us there. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but started to feel uneasy when the 3rd person left (my “friend” pretty much shoved him out the door and told him to go buy cigarettes), but I still thought it was “fine” since I was with a friend and truth be told I had a *slight* crush on him, and was kind of flattered he wanted to spend time with me. We talked for awhile, played a video game, and the next thing I knew he leaned in and kissed me (which was fine…I mean, I liked this dude, right?!) When he tried taking things further I told him no. He tried persuading me, and I reiterated my no. I told him I didn’t think I was ready to have sex (I hadn’t lost my virginity yet, and honestly didn’t know what to expect, how it even worked, or what a penis really even looked like (I guess you could say I grew up fairly sheltered. lol). The thought of having sex at that time was honestly something that hadn’t even crossed my mind yet. The next thing I remember is seeing the glint of a knife. He pushed the blade of it to my skin, ran it across my throat, and from my chin to my belly button. He pressed it into my skin harder until I said “ok, ok, please just put it away”.  I can still feel the blade on my skin, and can still see the glint of the knife in the darkness. I can still smell his cologne, and can still see the awful look in his eyes. After it was done I honestly don’t remember much at all. I felt numb. Dead. I know that eventually my other friends came back, and they all split a joint and shared the bottle of liquor that they had bought. I remember not feeling anything at all and not wanting to look at him.

It took a couple of weeks before I really started to realize what had even happened. I told my best friend that I “thought I maybe had had sex, but wasn’t sure because of the knife thing”. She blew it off and told me that  he was just “trying to be sexy”🥴🤦‍♀️ I’ve wished so many times that I could go back to that moment and really shed light onto what had happened. It blows my mind now to think that young girls can have so much shit shoved down their throats that they can skew and relate violence to “sexiness”.

After that I didn’t talk about it much at all. I never told my parents, and I only told 1 other friend quite awhile after the fact. Over the course of the next year there was so much inside of me that changed. I honestly felt like I was drowning, but I had no idea why. I couldn’t connect the dots. I went through a year and a half phase of not wanting to live, and not feeling alive, but also not necessarily wanting to die. I felt as though I was already dead inside. During this time I started turning to self harm. This is honestly the most painful part of “my story”, and the part that most people still don’t know about. It’s easy to accept the fact that somebody did you wrong and wanted to hurt you. It’s not easy to accept the fact that you wanted to hurt yourself. It’s heartbreaking. I still can’t explain why I started cutting, but looking back I think it gave me a sense of control, when I felt as though I had zero control over anything else in my life. It allowed me to feel SOMETHING, even if I was only feeling pain. When I look at photos of myself from this time period it is honestly crazy to me. I look hollow, empty, like I’m not even there. I started drinking and smoking pot during this time, and failed a good chunk of my Freshman year classes.

After a year and a half I snapped myself out of my “funk” (aka depression). I ended up dating a nice guy, and I was able to be extremely honest with him and open up to him about what had happened to me. It was a huge step, but I was still super self conscious about my body…particularly anywhere that that knife had touched (my neck and stomach), and even more self conscious about the scars on my upper legs from cutting. I was a size 3 and could never bring myself to wear a bikini, or shorts. I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin. The scars faded pretty quickly, but I felt as though they were still there. To make things even MORE uncomfortable during this time there was a teacher that had told my bf he should break up with me, he said I was “sloppy seconds” and he thought my boyfriend could do better. Honestly, those words cut much deeper than any knife ever could. It wasn’t even a teacher that I really even cared for all that much, but those words stuck like glue and stayed with me for YEARS.

Over the years and after I graduated I tried my best to just shove what had happened to the side and to not really think about it. Every so often it would pop into my memory, or come up at the weirdest time. Prime example: When I had my firstborn baby my husband’s sisters and my mom were in the room with me. At one point they had me stand up and they removed my hospital gown and I remember panicking and thinking “oh shit! Oh no! My legs! They can see them!” YOU GUYS…I HAD JUST GIVEN BIRTH TO MY BABY…I didn’t even have visible scars anymore…and THAT is what I was thinking about. How f*cked up IS THAT? 🤯 Eventually I “came out” about the rape. My family knows, I’ve talked to my teenage daughters about it…after I opened up about it I felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. It really was the first step towards self acceptance.

Fast forward  14 years or so, and as we all know- life happens. My marriage had never been a walk in the park, but we were going through a particularly rough patch and I ended up buying a house and moving out (spoiler alert: we ended up working things out eventually and didn’t actually get divorced). But it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, and one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had to have with my kids. We had been separated for a couple of months when I was having one particularly rough night and all of the sudden ALLLLL of the feelings started coming back. Here I was, 33, on my way to divorce. A giant hot fucking mess. 5 kids. Couldn’t get my shit together if I tried. My soon-to-be ex-husband was moving on and seemed happy as a clam with the whole situation and I started to feel like I was spiraling out of control again. I mean, I WAS “sloppy seconds” after all, right? Looking back now I HATE that I let that phrase stick with me for that long. For nearly TWO DECADES. And not only did it stick with me…I let it DEFINE me. I felt it all the way to my core. Seriously ridiculous.

I’m extremely blessed that I had a really great friend to talk to through that entire night. It was enough to distract me and lift me up from the suffocating shittiness that seemed to be falling down all around me. We chatted about life, and zombies, and waffles, and every other “weird” conversation topic you can think of. I woke up the next morning feeling like a weight had shifted. I wasn’t “sloppy seconds”, and I didn’t deserve to be labeled as such. I’ve often wondered since then if I hadn’t had anyone to talk to that night if I would have started to spiral back into depression. I really do believe that God puts people into our lives when we need them the most, and that there is no such thing as coincidence. We definitely cross paths and connect for a reason.

Fast forward 24 hours and my kids are with their dad, I’m binge watching New Girl and drinking a bottle of wine, when I see an ad pop up on my fb feed to “model” for a photographer friend of mine that has her own boudoir business. I’m tipsy, so I sent her an email and told her I’d take her up on it. The next morning I woke up hungover AF…remembered what I’d done…FREAKED the hell out…I don’t even really wear SHORTS, remember? WTF was I thinking signing up for a LINGERIE shoot?! And I didn’t even have a husband anymore! I didn’t even OWN any freaking lingerie. WTF WAS I DOING?!?! I still honestly don’t know why I kept the appointment…probably solely because I would have felt like an ass if I just didn’t show up after I committed to it…but it was the most nerve wracking thing I’d ever done. I almost turned around twice on my way to the appointment. BUT, I can honestly tell you that the moment I stepped into that studio was life changing for me. I was nervous as hell the entire time, and I had NEVER loved a photo of myself before that day…but I left my friend’s studio and cried the entire way home. (Happy tears 😉)

I tell all of my clients this, and I seriously cannot preach it enough- A BOUDOIR SESSION IS THE BIGGEST SELF CONFIDENCE BOOST that you can ever get. You WILL walk out feeling like a freaking QUEEN. When I say life changing it’s no joke. I KNOW that I am not the same person that I was before my shoot. I am finally **FINALLY** comfortable in my own skin. I can wear SHORTS NOW😱. Last summer I bought a freakin swimming suit (and actually wore it!)

I cannot even put into words how these sessions change your self perception. They honestly allow you to see yourself AS YOU ACTUALLY ARE. As the rest of the world sees you. And when you’re feeling more confident it allows your INNER BEAUTY to shine through as well. I swear they are straight up magic sometimes. ❤️

So, not to make this any lengthier than it already is😅 BUT I decided to really push myself out of my comfort zone this last month, as part of my journey to ‘renewal in 2021!’ I decided I needed to book ANOTHER session with my boudoir photographer/friend, and this time when I walked into her studio I said “last time I was here I told you I hated my butt/upper thighs, and stomach…and we deleted all of those pics. This time I want you to focus on them.”  Terrifying, right?!

 

I left 2020 the heaviest that I have ever been (5 lbs away from my 9 month pregnancy weight, to be exact😬) And instead of letting that eat away at me I decided to embrace it. I am not only TOLERATING my body…my stomach, my thighs, and my scars. After this last shoot I am LOVING it. And loving it well. As one of my clients so gracefully stated after seeing her own photos, “I am beautifully and wholly ME.” And I cannot think of a phrase that I agree with more. ❤️