The Scary Ways Sexual Harassment & Abuse Can Trigger Women's Eating Disorders

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sexual harassment and eating disorders

Multiple studies have found a relationship between sexual harassment or abuse and eating disorders. Sexual objectification  treating someone as an object to be judged and used  is one of the most dehumanizing acts that an individual can experience.

Sexual objectification is correlated with body shame, and body shame is correlated with greater tendencies toward disordered eating.

Join me in my office with Katie, a sixteen-year-old female suffering from anorexia nervosa. She talked about how last year had been full of loss and change for her. Her older sister, who was her best friend, left for college and she felt lost without her.

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They planned to talk every day on the phone but as the year went by, her sister became so busy that they were only able to talk twice a week. Her father was promoted and the family had to move to another state. She had to change schools, would no longer have the support of her friends, or be part of the high school soccer team.

As treatment progressed, Katie told me she wanted to tell me something, but she didn’t want me to tell anyone or something bad would happen to her.

She cried when she described the sexual harassment and abuse she experienced with her soccer coach over the past year. He would tell her how beautiful she was and would brush up against her body, which made her uncomfortable.

She worried she was being too sensitive and misreading him. He had always supported her in school and on the soccer field. She had gained some weight, her body matured, and he began to tell her she was no longer a girl but a woman.

When she met with him at the end of the school year to say goodbye, since she was moving, he asked her to perform oral sex on him, among other requests. She was shocked and scared.

He told her, “You've been flirting with me since you became a member of the team,” essentially telling her that she had invited his advances. She froze and then cried.

He said, “You shouldn’t have ever made the soccer team, you aren’t that good of an athlete. I worked hard to help you be a better player.”

She got up and as she was leaving he said, “If you tell anyone what happened in this meeting, something bad will happen to you.”

She was devastated, scared, and afraid to tell her parents. She became anxious, began to have headaches, withdraw from others, restrict her food, and compulsively exercise.

She hated her body because she believed it aroused dangerous feelings in another person.

She was ashamed of herself and thought her body was out of control and could not be trusted.

I told her the shame belonged to her soccer coach, not her. I explained that he sexually harassed her and tried to molest her. There was nothing “bad” about her body, but her soccer coach did something bad to her. She did nothing wrong, and it was important that she understand that.

He was responsible for his predatory behavior toward her.

As therapy progressed, I learned that Katie’s anorexia and striving to be perfect (i.e., thin) became a ritual of self-purification that provided her with the hope that if she lost enough weight, she would be safe and this would never happen to her again.

From birth, children develop feelings of personal mastery by gaining control of their bodies. From the time they are ready to reach out, grab things, crawl, walk, ride a bicycle, and so on, an important feedback loop exists between control of the body and self-esteem.

Katie was attempting to regain control of herself through anorexia. Reestablishing control became associated with needing no one and isolating herself on what she called her “anorexia island,” becoming a self-contained system in which she would never be betrayed or vulnerable again.

The exact mechanism for why trauma can play a role in the development of an eating disorder is unclear. We know that abuse affects the brain and nervous system, and this may make it difficult for individuals to regulate their emotions. The obsession with thinness may be used to repress or numb bad feelings or memories. Binging on food may temporarily bring feelings of comfort and safety to an anxious person.

Like any type of trauma, sexual abuse or harassment affects individuals in different ways.

Not every victim develops an eating disorder, though, after treating many women who have been through this type of trauma, many experience increased weight/body shape concerns and some form of disordered eating. These kinds of reactions don’t only happen to minors, but can happen to anyone who is dealing with sexual abuse and harassment.

After Katie regained the weight she lost, treatment addressed the effects of the sexual harassment on her body image, self-image, and mood. Katie was courageous and worked through many complicated feelings about herself and others.

The time for change is now. No young girl should end up feeling that they are not enough, they are "dirty," disgusting, and can only regain control of their bodies by losing weight or having no fat on their bodies to be safe in the world.

Sexual harassment is disempowering, and not only do some victims end up anxious or depressed, but it can also lead to body hatred and eating disorders.

As more and more women have come forward about the sexual harassment they have experienced, it is clear that things need to change and that victims should not have to carry the burden or blame for what was done to them.

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Ann Kearney-Cooke is a psychologist in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the mother of four adult children. She is a distinguished scholar at Columbia University and a New York Times bestselling author. Catch up with her on LinkedIn.