In a personal essay for Harper's Bazaar U.K., the 35-year-old actress revealed that the past year of quarantine, "has brought a fresh life perspective and prompted me to reflect upon the trauma I have been so scared to speak out about for many years."
Chief among them, the fact that she felt sexualized even as a young actress. "The truth is that sexuality has always been a component of my career," Barton wrote. "Don't get me wrong, I loved being an actress and my work on stage. I felt very grown-up, proud of my work and really committed myself to it, but I was still just a child."
The London-born, New York-raised actress made her onscreen acting debut at age 9 on a 1995 episode of All My Children. Her movie debut, Lawn Dogs, a fantasy drama that dealt with themes of child molestation, was released just two years later.
Barton wrote in her essay that "while the crew did everything to ensure that I wasn't exposed to the realities of what all that meant, when I did press for the film, it became clear that it was very mature content."
Two years later, the actress filmed the R-rated crime film Pups. In the movie, released when she was barely a teenager, her character wears a tank top, mini skirt and high boots, wields a handgun and sips from a beer bottle. The part also forced Barton to act out teen experiences generally dealt with in private.
"It was for Pups that I had my first kiss on screen and in real life, in front of an entire crew," Barton wrote. "My character had her first period in one scene, something I hadn't even experienced in life yet. The movie blew up in Asia, and I became a strange sex symbol over there. I was 13."
As a preteen, Barton also appeared in the films Notting Hill and The Sixth Sense. But her breakout role was as The O.C.'s Marissa Cooper.
Just 17 when the soapy teen drama premiered in 2003, "I was working extended hours on set, constantly pressured into meeting needs, demands and goals set by people twice my age or older. I never had the option to speak up for myself," she wrote. "Still to this day, after I found the courage to open up a conversation about my experiences on set as a young girl, I was shut down again right away and publicly referred to as a 'nightmare' to work with."
The actress also wrote that she felt like a "fraud" playing the privileged bad girl because she was a virgin in real life, while her character was "confident" and "fast and loose."
She began to worry, she continued, "that I couldn't play this character if I didn't hurry up and mature a little. Did I ever feel pressured to have sex with someone? Well, after being pursued by older men in their thirties, I eventually did the deed. I feel a little guilty because I let it happen. I felt so much pressure to have sex, not just from him, but society in general."
Some of her lowest points, though, came after her shocking exit from The O.C. in 2006. The star was arrested for driving under the influence in December 2007 and became a prime paparazzi target. The constant photographers and tabloid covers affected her so much, she recalled, that at one point, she didn't feel safe leaving her house, which led to a decline in her mental health.
"The constant feeling of being hunted affected me entirely. I had a few breakdowns," said Barton, who was hospitalized twice in the subsequent years. "What happened gave me PTSD. In the years afterwards, cameras would bother me; any noises that sounded like a shutter would give me a panic attack and make me extremely paranoid. I‘d have full blown panic attacks. I went to very dark places."
In 2017, after years of acting in small films and largely remaining out of the public eye, Barton found herself back in the spotlight when she filed a "revenge porn" lawsuit against an ex-boyfriend who filmed an explicit tape of her without her consent and was trying to sell the images. They later reached a settlement under which he agreed not to distribute the images and to turn them over to her. The case was filed months before the #MeToo movement, condemning sexual misconduct and exploitation, gained worldwide attention.
"It's extremely important to recognize the hope in this MeToo era," noted Barton. "I can't tell you how much I wish it had happened sooner, but at least the conversation about women's rights is now ongoing. Today there is more focus on encouraging girls to protect their own bodies and show them as they see fit from the outset."
Her hope is that the next group of actresses don't share her same experience. "The more we talk about what we've done to generations past, whether it be Britney Spears, who was so poorly treated by the press, or Natalie Portman talking about how she felt overly sexualized as a child, the sooner we can protect our young women and learn from our mistakes as a society," Barton wrote. "If my story can help even one young girl stand up for herself and not let the world tear them down."