Anorexia and Abuse

Abuse can take many forms, among them: battering, sexual assault, and emotional harm. Some argue that hurtful words to a child (e.g., “You’re so stupid”) can leave deeper scars than any fist or belt. But one thing is for sure: all these experiences have profound psychological impacts that last years— or even a lifetime. Many victims, most of whom are female, develop eating disorders.

The Something Fishy Website notes a “definite correlation” between abuse and eating disorders.Rader Programs reports that over 80 percent of its patients “have had some type of abusive experience.” Colleen Thompson of the Mirror-Mirror Website observes that obtaining an exact percentage is difficult because many abuse victims repress memories or consciously choose to keep their trauma secret. In any case, the relationship between abuse and eating disorders is strong.

Rader’s website explains that anorexia may develop out of a victim’s unconscious desire to lose her sexuality by reverting to a childlike state without developed breasts, hips, or buttocks. Similarly, Mirror-Mirror notes that the binger may stuff to suppress painful emotions, while a purger may vomit to release pent-up feelings.

According to Rader, an abused girl or woman has suffered the ultimate loss of control. By turning to anorexia, she is attempting to gain control of her life by controlling one of the few things she can: her weight. The effort, of course, is doomed to failure. It is, however, the very understandable response of a person who has survived extreme psychological and/or physical assault. Rader notes that she usually feels inadequate, insecure, and distrustful of others.

Something-Fishy describes anorexia as a defense mechanism. Some abuse victims focus on food to distract themselves from emotional pain. Others think that if they were only thinner, they wouldn’t be abused. The sexually abused may think that if they are emaciated, their tormentors will find them unattractive and lose interest in them, according to Something-Fishy. Conversely, a battered woman may think that being ultra-thin will make her more attractive and prevent beatings. Either way, the logic is faulty because abusers are primarily driven by desire for power and control, not sex. Thus, changes in a victim’s appearance will not protect her.

Most importantly, the survivor must understand that she is not to blame. Good looks or personality cannot prevent or end the violence. Only after she has extricated herself, or has been removed from the harmful environment, can the healing begin.

The Mirror-Mirror site cogently observes that the best way to overcome this pain is for the survivor to be treated in a safe, supportive atmosphere by a qualified therapist she likes and trusts. The site warns that when abuse victims who have blocked memories begin remembering their experiences, they may have nightmares, panic attacks, crying fits, or angry outbursts. The unearthing of these terrifying moments may cause a sharp increase in the severity of the eating disorder, according to Mirror-Mirror. At this time, it is crucial for the survivor to be under the care of a competent and sensitive professional.

As a man, I realize my limitations in understanding the horrors experienced by a rape victim or a battered woman. Perhaps the words of eating disordered women who have undergone these experiences can offer more comfort and hope. The Mirror-Mirror Website has a brief, inspirational writing by abuse survivor Michelle Comeau. A short resource list follows.