Joan Marie Laurer was born on December 27, 1970 in Rochester, New York to parents Janet and Joe Laurer. She had two older siblings: Janet and Sonny. After her parents divorced when she was approximately four years old, Laurer had three different stepfathers and one stepmother. According to Laurer, her first stepfather threatened suicide at one point, and her biological father, who once accidentally stabbed her mother in the thigh with a bread knife, had a problem with alcohol.
 From 1973 to 1983, Joanie Laurer, her siblings, and her mom moved several times.
As a child, Laurer learned to play both the violin and cello. In seventh grade, Laurer was sexually kissed by a much older teacher who worked at her school
. At age thirteen, while attending Penfield High School, Laurer began purging after she ate. She left home at age sixteen after her mother tried to force her into a drug rehabilitation facility, instead going to live with her biological father. That same year, she began working out, and because her stomach muscles were so strong, she did not feel any pain when she developed an ovarian tumor. She finished her last year of high school in Spain. She attended the University of Tampa, graduating in 1992 with a major in Spanish Literature. During college, she was raped by two men after getting drunk at a party.
 During college, she also studied French and German; Laurer can converse in either language. She also was a member of the ROTC and a Resident Advisor of her dorm. She originally wanted to use her knowledge of foreign languages to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Drug Enforcement Administration. Subsequently, she joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to Guatemala.