By: Tamara Ince
A naturally beautiful girl, she ate large portions not because she was hungry or too busy to plan a healthy meal. She was overweight not because she hated working out or was too lazy to fit in a workout. Instead, she consciously and subconsciously sought to gain weight as a protective shield. As a young child, an uncle, whom she trusted, sexually abused her. He brainwashed her into thinking that it was her fault. She, like many victims of childhood sexual abuse, used weight to build a barrier to protect herself from future abuse. Since society promotes thin as in, it suggests that if you are overweight then people will ignore you and your body. In a sense, the victim of abuse believes that obesity will reduce their sexuality and make them safer.
What is the correlation between becoming obese and having been sexually abused as a child? The answers vary from guilt to shame to a desire for comfort, protection, and safety. The trauma literally changes a person’s natural metabolism, brain biochemistry, and way of thinking as part of a human’s natural flight or fight response and ability to adapt. Studies have found that by 24 years of age, girls who were sexually abused were twice as likely to be obese than other girls. In another study, researchers conclusively found a link between lifetime obesity and sexual abuse, even after taking other variables, such as education, stress, age, and physical inactivity into account. Yet another study found that, as the number and severity of the sexual abuse went up, so did the risk for obesity. As anyone running an integrative practice is acutely aware, this is no surprise. Approximately 4O% of patients requesting weight loss help have histories of sexual abuse.
Whether the weight is an intentional barrier or result of subconscious actions, or both of these, healing requires looking at how trauma impacts a persons metabolism and biochemistry. Trauma can lead to development of metabolic syndrome. This is a cluster of conditions that cause high blood pressure that limits physical abilities, glucose intolerance that contributes to decreased energy levels, and increased retention of fats contributing to abdominal obesity. Multiple studies have looked at how sexual trauma slows a human’s metabolism, a woman’s estrogen production rate, and a person’s biochemical makeup. In fact research projects by Dr. Bremner and others have shown that sexual trauma causes lasting changes in the brain and increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses.
By contacting a nutritionist for a dietary assessment or primary care provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan; a victim of sexual abuse can overcome the negative impacts of their trauma. Additionally, many find comfort and health through sharing their experiences with a therapist or joining support groups. Victims are not alone; there is a multitude of welcoming support groups. Healing is possible.