Don't Look At Me - What's The Link Between Sexual Abuse And Obesity?

By Robyn McGee

Elizabeth started gaining weight in high school and laughs that "my big hips come from my dad's side because my mother is extremely small." Elizabeth, who never knew her father, regularly braves the dating scene but says she knows lots of overweight women who don't dare: Some sisters "hold on to extra weight as physical and psychological protection against a hostile world. The thinking goes like this: If I am fat already, I don't have to concern myself about going out and trying to find a man, because I already know that most men want thin women. So many women think, 'Oh my God, if I lost weight, someone might actually be attracted to me and I might have a relationship-and risk being rejected for some other reason.'"

Beyond the immediate issue of using your weight to avoid intimacy lurks another tragedy for some women. They turn to food to ease the painful memories of childhood sexual abuse. Sadly, young women and girls who've been molested,
often by a relative or close family friendsomeone they knew and trustedgrow up harboring the secret and the shame, attempting to bury them through various forms of addiction.

Yvette, an alcohol and drug counselor with a master's degree in psychology, has fought addiction demons much of her adult life. As a child, she lived next door to three older children who molested Yvette for years. She believes that nightmare contributed to her never ending battle with her weight.

Before her gastric bypass, Virginia, a single mother of four, spent years in therapy trying to come to terms with the fact that her biological father forced her to have sex with him throughout her teenage years. Even after weight loss surgery, memories still haunt Virginia to the point that to this day she cannot even speak her father's name.

Elizabeth says she too was molested as child, but she does not make the connection between childhood sexual abuse and obesity. "Yes, I was molested by a family member as child," Elizabeth reveals. "But that is not the reason I am overweight. I am overweight because it is in my genes to be fat, because I was thin as a child."

Robin Stone's book, No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse, is described as "an honest and illuminating look at the soul-shattering effects of sexual abuse." It lists eating disorders as one of the most common "psychological, emotional, and behavioral effects of sexual abuse."

Sex abuse experts say some victims of incest use overeating to escape inner turmoil and downplay their femininity, avoiding unwanted attention to their bodies by wearing baggy clothes or gaining too much weight.

According to literature published by Survivors of Incest Anonymous, "If we perceive obesity to be unattractive, and if we believe we were abused because we were attractive, we may overeat in a misguided attempt to defend ourselves from further sexual assault." Some large black women mistakenly believe that their size can protect them from physical assaults, including rape. This is not true. Any woman can be vulnerable to a date rape or other attack.

In his twenty-five years of treating obesity, Dr. Michael Myers, a weight loss specialist in Los Alamitos, California, concludes that 40 percent of his patients have been victims of childhood sexual abuse. "There is some experimental evidence that suggests increases in so-called 'stress hormones,' such as cortisol, that result from extreme psychological stress can induce the proliferation of fat cells and predispose sexual abuse victims to the development of obesity."

Myers began writing about this phenomenon decades ago, and more recently other sociologists and psychologists have published similar findings that address the link between sexual abuse and obesity. "It has been known for years that sexual abuse of women is associated with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa," says Dr Myers. "But now many of the physicians who treat obesity believe there also exists a strong correlation between sexual abuse and the onset of adult obesity."

In a sense, obesity protects a person from their sexuality since in Western culture obese people are not generally perceived as sexually desirable. Dr. Myers finds that survivors of sexual abuse have low self-esteem and severe problems with depression, often feeling that it was their fault they were sexually abused-"an emotional but totally illogical belief."

Dr. Susan Fellows, professor of sociology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, believes that if sexual abuse is not dealt with it can result in self-destructiveness in the form of "diseases", like drug and alcohol addiction, overeating, and suicide. Dr. Fellows has studied eating disorders and believes people who try to deal with the childhood trauma through therapy and attempt to change their lives often are sabotaged by their families and loved ones. This doesn't always happen deliberately, but any change in one family member "rocks the boat" for the others. "For example," she says, "for a man to say that he would prefer his partner dead rather than for her to lose weight is obviously an emotional and mental abuser ... the speaker is scared of losing some sort of power in the relationship."

Dr. Fellows believes "it is important that treatment for sexual abuse and obesity include recovery for the whole family or at least a few significant others." Eating disorders resulting in obesity are like drug abuse. They're public health problems, not moral failings. The solutions to both problems, according to Dr. Fellows, are health education and cultivation of self-esteem.   

Help is available for women who suffer from overeating and other disorders related to childhood sexual abuse. The Veterans Administration (VA) lists childhood sexual abuse (CSA) as a condition that can bring about "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD). Veterans and their families are eligible to receive treatment through educational classes available through a local VA center. Counseling through Sexaholics Anonymous and Survivors of Incest Anonymous is free; and groups, such as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, offer twenty-four-hour crisis intervention online and in person.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robyn McGee is an educator, author and is popular on the college speaking circuit. Robyn carries her message of loving yourself at any size or age to audiences across the country. Her book HUNGRY FOR MORE about women and weight issues was endorsed by ESSENCE magazine, playwright Eve Ensler and others.  "40 Plus" is an exceprt from  Robyn's latest book of the same name. []

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