Why Fat Women Are Believed Less When They're Assaulted, According To Research

Anyone can get assaulted, no matter their size.

plus size woman looking sad while dining alone fornStudio | Shutterstock

The first time I experienced sexual harassment by a man, I hadn't yet hit double digits. I developed early and started wearing bras before any of the other girls in my elementary school (yes, you read that right, elementary school).

One boy in my class was developing at the same rate I was, or at least, that's what his mustache seemed to indicate, and one day he grabbed the back of my bra and snapped it. It stung, both physically and emotionally.


It wasn't the first time I felt ashamed of my body, and it wouldn't be the last, but it was my first memory of a man operating under the assumption that because I am female, my body is as good as his to do with as he pleases.

RELATED: How Being Sexually Harassed At 15 Completely Changed My View Of The World

In this case, he wanted to use my body as a punchline, but that didn't make the revelation any less momentous. I understood then and there that my body is something to be both ashamed of and vigilant over.

As I started developing, I also started getting fat. There were dieticians. There were fraught meetings with my pediatrician. At one of these appointments, the doctor — a woman — sent my mom out of the room and earnestly asked me, "Don't you want boys to like you?"


I didn't know how to tell her about the boy snapping my bra. I didn't know how to tell her about the other kid in my class who pushed me into the bathroom and kissed me hard enough to make my teeth sore and my mouth bleed because he "wanted to see what it was like."

So I just sort of listened and nodded and promised to mind my caloric intake.

There is a lot of research out there about women, obesity, and sexual assault. In particular, there has been a considerable amount of analysis related to the link between women who experience sexual abuse and obesity.

The thinking around this in the medical and psychological community seems to be that when sexual assault survivors add a physical layer of fat between themselves and the rest of the world, it can feel like a form of protection.


And the trouble with this thinking is something any woman who has been fat for most of her whole life can probably tell you: There is no "protection" to be gained when a woman gains weight.

Eating feels like comfort. Eating feels safe, and it feels pleasurable. But that wall of "protection," that fat, might as well be a bright neon sign that says, "Kick me."

Anyone can be raped. A man can be raped. A child can be raped. A woman can be raped. Anyone of any gender, age, size, and shape can be assaulted or harassed.

That said, young women survive sexual assault, harassment, and rape (both attempted and "completed" — what a word) at a higher rate than any people in any other demographic category.


According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network):

  • 82 percent of all juvenile rape victims are female and 90 percent of adult rape victims are female.
  • Females between the ages of 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
  • Women between the ages 18-24 who are college students are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence, while women of the same age who are not enrolled in college are four times more likely.

RELATED: What It's Really Like To Be The Spouse Of A Sex Abuse Victim

And it may surprise you to learn this, but most rapists do not distinguish between fat women, thin women, beautiful women, plain women, or any other descriptive factor that magazines may lead you to believe matters in relation to a woman's sexual "desirability" in the world-at-large.

Being fat may prevent you from becoming a high-fashion model or a major movie star, but you know what it won't prevent? Rape, assault, or harassment.


These things have nothing to do with how traditionally beautiful or traditionally thin you are. A woman can be attacked or harassed sexually no matter what she looks like. If she's ugly, she's supposed to feel grateful. If she's beautiful, it's her fault for putting herself in that position. 

No matter how you slice it, every woman could be victimized and in many respects, if you're a woman who has been trained by society that you shouldn't think much of your looks, you might actually be more likely to be targeted. 

One major study exploring the way non-verbal cues attract assailants asked offenders to view security footage showing pedestrians out and about on a busy street at night, then asked them which women would make the best targets. They picked heavier women every time.

Assault and rape often have to do with anger, control, and sadism. To a predator, someone walking hunched over with their eyes cast down, not meeting anyone's gaze, arms crossed, and wearing big clothing is a prime target because everything about them shrieks of their vulnerability, their insecurity, and the perception that they will be the ones most likely to submit.


So for certain assailants, fat women are exactly the people they are looking for. And once the violent episode ends, things don't get any easier.

There is a phenomenon known as "secondary victimization" which sometimes takes place when a woman reports being attacked to authorities. Being put in a position where she must be interrogated can make some survivors feel as though they are living out their assault all over again.

According to one study, fat women experience a compounded sense of second victimization because fat people are less likely to be viewed as honest or trustworthy.

RELATED: My Friend Was Sexually Assaulted In My Bed: When 'No' Means Nothing


There's something critical here that I want to address: There has been a lot of research done about women who "become" fat after being abused, women who "use" fat as a way of protecting themselves from further harm. I've addressed that here today. 

But there's not a lot of recent research about how rape and sexual assault affect fat women today, a fact that seems awfully convenient.

We're more than willing to put money into studies about what has already made a person fat because being fat is a problem, being fat isn't acceptable. But researching anything to do with things that happen to women who are already fat? Not a lot there.

Is this because fat women are even less visible than average-sized women? Or is it the even sad reality that rape and sexual assault of women are so pervasive that breaking it down according to things like size is as arbitrary as breaking it down by eye color, hair color, and favorite flavor of ice cream?


The research is there underlining the sad reality that rape, assault, and harassment can and do happen to everybody.

Being fat and female sucks. You can't eat a cookie on the street without fear of censure. You can't hide your body without calling attention to your body. You can't report your rape without even MORE fear than the average person that you won't be believed.

The numbers about how many victims of rape are also fat just aren't there for us to access, and that shouldn't surprise anyone. Ours is not a society where fat people are viewed as people; they are viewed as problems to be solved. If a fat woman is raped, it isn't the rape that's the problem, it's the fact that she was fat, to begin with.


In a way, I'm relieved the numbers aren't there because it gives jerks one less thing to harp at fat women about.

It's funny how when a woman is wearing a mini-skirt most of us know to be outraged when someone says she was "asking for it." I simply wonder just how many people would be as outraged if her size was pointed at as a valid reason for violating her sexually. 

Sexual abuse is very common.

RAINN reports that every 73 seconds, an American is a victim of sexual violence. Females are far more likely to be abused and assaulted, and 90% of victims who are adults are women. This is especially prevalent among women who also happen to be college students, which makes their risk three times greater.


Anyone affected by sexual assault can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline, a safe, confidential service.

Contact The Hotline or call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member.

RELATED: Here's Why It's Hard To Recognize Sexual Assault In The Workplace

Rebecca Jane Stokes is an editor, freelance writer, former Senior Staff Writer for YourTango, and the former Senior Editor of Pop Culture at Newsweek. Her bylines have appeared in Fatherly, Gizmodo, Yahoo Life, Jezebel, Apartment Therapy, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, SheKnows, and many others.