Dieting and Sexual Abuse – What’s The Link?

it’s a remarkable, and rather disturbing fact, that a prominent therapist in New York has declared that between 40 and 60% of the men and women who come to therapy for some kind of eating problem have been the subject of sexual or physical abuse.

And of course, what we find when we look at this is that anybody and everybody can be an abuser, and everybody and anybody can be  a victim.

The therapist in question mentions some common statements which people make in her practice during therapy: “it was my father, it was my father’s best friend, it was my brother, my mother’s boyfriend, it was my mother”.   And then we move into the statements they make almost as a consequence of the initial one: “and so I starved myself, and so I binge purge, and so I got fact, and so I started using laxatives….”

Now I’m not suggesting in any way shape or form that people who go on a diet like the Venus Factor are doing so because they have some kind of eating disorder, or because they have been sexually abused.

However…. surely it behoves us all to examine what possible effects sexual abuse might have on our eating habits, and just consider the possibility that what we do in adult life around looking attractive, or even looking unattractive (getting fat?), might possibly have an origin deep in our subconscious mind?

One survivor of sexual abuse speaks out

Of course sexual abuse has many different effects on different people, but the point about it is that it’s a deep violation of the boundaries of the self; a violation so profound that it blurs the experience of the inner sensations of hunger, fatigue, or sexuality. People are then left unable to identify what it is they’re feeling, and may turn to food to relieve a whole range of inner states of being that have in fact nothing to do with hunger.

In other words, in this interpretation, it’s uncertainty about inner perceptions that leads a person to focus on food as a way of soothing  a need that might have nothing whatsoever to do with food or hunger.

Indeed, survivors of sexual abuse may try very hard to make themselves fat, or indeed very thin, so that they desexualize themselves.

Other survivors adopt a different approach: they obsessively purge, starve, or diet so as to make the bodies appear, at least in their minds, “perfect”. And of course a perfect body means that they will be “in control”, and avoid the powerlessness of their experience as sexually abused victims.

Indeed one interpretation of weight gain is that men and women who are large and who have experienced sexual abuse, may be afraid to lose weight, simply because doing so will render them more childlike ( i.e. physically smaller).

And of course there is one great component which sexual abuse and eating disorders — otherwise known as emotional eating — have in common: secrecy. Children who are sexually abused may feel guilty about the sexual abuse they have experienced – perhaps because they somehow believe they could or should have prevented it happening, or perhaps because they were told or inferred that it occurred because of some defect in themselves.

In any event, the secret of the abuse is pushed deep into the subconscious,  and the person then anaesthetizes themselves by eating – or by not eating, as the case may be.

It’s also important to recognize that sexual abuse can go way beyond the overt sexual acts of intercourse or oral sex. Inappropriate touching, inappropriate talk, inappropriate reference to sexual activities or even making love in front of children — and no doubt many more acts besides — are all forms of sexual abuse, in that they invade the boundaries of the child.

Whatever your motivation for dieting, it’s important to understand that if you have been sexually abused, it’s entirely possible that memories of your abuse and your behaviour around eating are intimately associated and connected. One good place to start would be reading the work that is described here.

I also want to emphasize that I’m not suggesting that everybody who goes on a diet been sexually abused — clearly, that would be ridiculous.

However, there is one important fact here which we often overlook, and that is that dieting is almost an “assault” on such a fundamental aspect of our psychological being as humans — eating, which we need to do to survive — that it’s always worth considering what our motivation might be at a deeper level.

For example, some sexual abuse survivors feel very guilty because they actually enjoyed the sexual abuse — although it’s fair to say that in cases like this, sexual abuse is probably the only affection that a child ever received.

Certainly destructive or harmful eating patterns can be closely associated with an unhappy childhood, where food became not just a means of soothing internal impulses, but also possibly the only source of comfort that an individual received as they grew up.

If there is any truth in this whatsoever from you, then it might well be a good idea to investigate the possibility of doing some deeper therapeutic work on what lies behind you’re eating behaviour. Once again, let me emphasize the fact that I’m not suggesting that if you are using a diet plan like the Venus Factor that you’re necessarily a victim of sexual abuse, or indeed that you necessarily have any deeper issues around food. The only thing that I’m saying is that it’s a possibility worth examining.

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