Only a handful of people can hold their own in the Octagon quite like MMA fighter Paige VanZant. Yet, the badass 24-year-old we all know has a past that many don't know: She seriously struggled to get through high school and even contemplated suicide after being severely bullied and raped when she was just 14 years old.
"Going through any kind of bullying at any age can be very damaging and emotionally unbearable," VanZant tells Shape. (Related: Your Brain On Bullying) "I still deal with some of the residual impacts in my daily life. I have learned to cope with the pain and worked on ways to move forward with my life."
VanZant, who is also a Reebok ambassador, detailed her experiences with bullying in her new memoir, Rise. "I hope that my book can impact people around the world and show how horribly bullying can affect someone's life," she says. "I hope to change bullies from the inside out and show victims that they are not alone."
While VanZant has been candid with her fans about being bullied, talking about her experience with sexual assault has never been easy for her. So much so that she almost didn't share her experience in her book.
Arm Update I unfortunately and sadly have to inform all of my fans who have been standing by my side that my arm surgery has failed. For whatever reason my bone still is totally broken in my arm and shows no sign of healing or progression. All that we can guess is that I went back to training too quickly and didn’t give my arm the proper time to heal without any motion. This is the downfall of athletes, pushing through pain when they should not. I will be going in for another more serious surgery next month where they will take bone fragments from my hip to fill the break and put another bigger plate in. I will take the time off to heal this go around. I will be back to the UFC and I will fight many more fights in the future. Send some prayers up for me for recovery. Thank you.
"I was working on my book for about two years, and during that time, the #MeToo movement came to light," she says. "Thanks to so many women's bravery, I didn't feel so alone in my journey and felt confident enough to share what had happened. I found so much comfort in knowing that there were others just like me. I am so proud of all these women coming forward and I hope our voices and stories change the future and make it easier for women to speak up."
The women of the #MeToo movement might have given VanZant the strength to share her story, but it was fighting that really helped her get through the most emotionally traumatizing parts of her life. "Finding fighting saved my life," she says. "I was in such a dark place after the trauma that I went through. It took a very long time for me to feel comfortable in any sort of position where attention was on me. I wanted to blend in as much as I could. Even at 15 years old, I would have panic attacks because I was too scared to walk into school alone." (Related: Real Stories of Women Who Were Sexually Harassed While Working Out)
It was during this time that VanZant's father encouraged her to try fighting—hoping that it would help empower her in some way. And in time, it did exactly that. "My father had to join the MMA gym for a month and go to every class with me until I felt comfortable there," VanZant says. "I slowly gained my confidence back and ended up on the stage that I am today. It took a long time, but I did eventually feel so much better and now I have no nerves walking into a room wondering what people are thinking about me." (There's a reason why supermodel Gisele Bündchen swears by MMA for a strong body and stress relief.)
Regardless of what you're going through, VanZant feels that learning to defend yourself, in whatever capacity, can be a huge source of empowerment. "Getting into a gym or a self-defense class, even if it isn't to learn how to actually fight people, will give you a huge amount of confidence in yourself and provide you with a positive group of people to be around," she says. (Here are a couple more reasons why you should give MMA a shot.)
Now, VanZant is using her platform to inspire women to find confidence and self-worth, even in the darkest of times. "I really hope that women, in particular, will read my book and listen to my story," she says. "Women struggle so much with self-esteem and confidence issues. And if you add bullying into the mix, life can get pretty dark. I just want people to know that they are not alone and there are ways to work on the sadness."
Major props to VanZant for finding the courage to share her story and inspire so many women in the process.