**CW – This post discusses sexual abuse**
I remember the exact moment I started hating my stomach. I was 16 and it was hot and humid. My mom was at work and I was alone with my stepfather. My sister and her friend were outside playing. His hands were on me again. He said, “I can’t help myself, your little tummy is so flat and cute. You do this to me”.
He wasn’t the first man to violate me and he wouldn’t be the last. I had a very difficult childhood. I didn’t escape the cycle of abuse until I met my now-husband at 22. The one thing that every single one of them had in common was how they tied what they did to me to my body. By just existing around them I caused them to molest and rape me, it was me, it was my body.
This was internalized at a very young age but I didn’t concretely feel it until that day, it was like a lightning strike, “Maybe I can make this stop if I can just stop being me.” From that moment on, even though it wasn’t quite a conscious process, I was actively self-destructing.
I was an extremely thin child and adolescent, so much so that my high school cheerleading coach put me on a high carb diet to try and put on some weight. I was extremely active and healthy. By the time I was 20, I weighed over 200 pounds and was diagnosed with PCOS.
My own experience made me wonder if there was a legitimate connection between sexual abuse and weight gain/health issues.
The Science of Sexual Abuse and Weight Gain
Several studies show that there is a definite link between sexual abuse and weight gain. In fact, one study shows that people who experience sexual abuse were 40-60% more likely to have a BMI that was greater than 35 (Gabert, et al. 2013).
There are several reasons that this might be the case. One of those is that gaining weight is like covering your body in a protective shield. If you make yourself unattractive maybe the abuse will stop, maybe they won’t notice you. This isn’t necessarily a conscious decision. I never once sat down and decided I was going to get fat and unhealthy. In fact, the more weight I gained, the more depressed I got.
Another reason is a common one for many people, emotional eating. Food operates to numb pain, anger, fear any strong uncomfortable emotion. Survivors of sexual abuse and trauma have a lot of those and food is a common coping mechanism.
Finally, sexual abuse is a common trigger for developing eating disorders. The trauma of sexual abuse is so disorienting that it can literally take away a person’s sense of self. This can cause internal sensations that we all feel to become confused, things like tiredness, sexual arousal, and hunger can be mixed up and so food is used to placate all of them (Tartakovsky, 2019).
The Fallacy of Standard Weight Loss Advice When Dealing With Sexual Abuse and Weight Gain
Now that we know sexual abuse and trauma can lead to weight gain what can be done about it? Unfortunately, without a thorough understanding of sexual trauma, any type of weight loss program or advice runs the risk of further truamatizing the victim.
I tried to lose weight, I joined Weight Watchers, Nutri-System, BeachBody, and ordered so many workout videos. I did the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, the cabbage soup diet. Once, I ate cantaloupe and cottage cheese for every meal. I would lose weight, sometimes a lot of weight.
Then I would hit a wall. Someone would compliment me, I would see myself in a mirror and realize I was becoming smaller, and panic would set in. I didn’t understand exactly what was happening or why but every single time I would start sabotaging myself.
I would go grocery shopping and buy 5 candy bars and literally eat all of them before I left the parking lot. Before long, I was off of the diet and back to my previous weight, or even higher.
Researching, I consulted doctors, personal trainers, and friends. “Calories in/Calories out”, “You must not want it enough”, “Just move your body”, “It’s just a question of willpower.” Every time I failed I ended up feeling more defeated more powerless and gaining more and more weight.
The reason that the standard weight loss advice may not work is that it focuses on “How To” but it needs to focus on “Why”. Instead of assuming the person doesn’t understand how to lose weight, we need to look at why they gained in the first place. If unresolved trauma is involved, weight loss isn’t the first thing to focus on if it’s going to be successful.
Moving Forward From Sexual Abuse & Finding Success
There are definite ways to move forward and find success in weight loss as a survivor of sexual abuse. It took me so many years to be able to do it so it’s important to me to share what I’ve found and hopefully save others some of that time and pain.
- Deal with your trauma – You need therapy. Trauma from sexual abuse isn’t something you can deal with on your own, it’s insidious. I thought I’d moved on and had a good life, a wonderful family, a career, I was fine. Unfortunately, I was sick and unhealthy, always in pain. I had to go through therapy to get to a place where I could move forward and heal physically too. It wasn’t just to lose weight, I wanted to be healthy so I can be around a long time for my family.
- Make a plan and find an accountability partner – This was a huge help for me. I actually wrote out my plan, I included when I was going to therapy, when I was working out, and what my weekly menu was. I had a good friend who knew about my past and I felt comfortable with, check-in with me daily. We used Snapchat so I could send her pics easily of what was going on.
- Manage your social media feeds – I found this one especially important when I was just starting out. Do not be afraid to use those Mute and Block buttons! This isn’t a journey about looking good in a bikini. You need to heal from intense trauma and become healthier, stronger, and take back the power your abuser tried to steal. You don’t need to be barraged by constant images of people telling you if you’re overweight it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough. Those things don’t apply to you. You are a survivor and you are strong and this is going to be hard work, surround yourself with what feels good, and inspires you.
- Find a safe place to chronicle your journey – This was so helpful for me. It doesn’t have to be public, no one has to see it but you if you don’t want them to but it is incredibly empowering to see where you’ve come from and how far you’ve gone. It also gives you amazing motivation to keep going when it gets really hard, and it will get hard. I have a Facebook group of ladies that I feel safe with.
- Be careful finding supports in online groups – I’m a huge proponent of finding whatever you need to support yourself; however, it can be really triggering sometimes in online support groups. I joined several on Facebook when I started for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and I left all of them without ever actually sharing anything. There was doxxing, incredibly offensive material, people there for inappropriate reasons. It was just too much for me. If you find a group that fits you, awesome. Just be aware that you don’t have to stay and if anything makes you uncomfortable, leave.
- Understand that this journey is about healing and whole-body and mind health, not about just weight-loss and being thin – This is such an important point to me. I run a health and wellness site and I lost a lot of weight but my focus isn’t on weight loss, it’s on health. I was really sick, in constant pain, and I couldn’t be with my child the way I wanted to be. My plan was successful in order to have the life I wanted, not because I wanted to look good in jeans. Your motivation has to be a healthy one for your journey to be really successful. It’s totally fine to want to look great in jeans, btw, that just shouldn’t be your main focus. <3
Resources For Survivors of Sexual Abuse
I hope that you have found this article on sexual abuse and weight gain helpful. I am going to provide some resources for survivors of sexual abuse. Even if the abuse happened decades ago, you can still reach out to these organizations. Trauma is something that can impact you for a lifetime and there is absolutely nothing wrong with reaching out for help at any time.
If you need someone to talk to who’s been through it, although who is not at all an expert in anything, please feel free to contact me at anytime. I am an open, non-judgemental ear. <3
The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline – 800-656-4673 for the United States.
The Anti-Violence Project – 212-714-1141 – AVP is the largest anti-LGBTQ violence organization in the United States.
AARDVARC – Protection for people in the UK who are victims of stalking, sexual assault & rape, hate crimes, harassment, domestic violence, cyber-bullying, and antisocial behavior.
Stop It Now – Resources and support for adults who experienced sexual abuse as children.
National Sexual Violence Resource Center – For survivors of sexual violence in the US.
Gabert, D., Majumdar, S., Sharma, A., Rueda-Clausen, C., Klarenbach, S., Birch, D., Karmali, S., McCargar, L., Fassbender, K., and Padwal, R.. (June 23, 2013). Prevalence and Predictors of Self-Reported Sexual Abuse in Severely Obese Patients in a Population-Based Bariatric Program. Journal of Obesity. v.2013 article ID 374050. Retrieved from: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jobe/2013/374050/ on July 29, 2020.
Tartakovsky, M., M.S. (March, 16, 2019). Wearing Your Weight As Armor. Retrieved From:https://psychcentral.com/blog/wearing-your-weight-as-armor/ on July 29, 2020.