Like sexual violence, all forms of disordered eating (such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder) can affect anyone at any age. Also like sexual harassment, assault, and abuse, it is critical to combat the stigma, silence, and shame around eating disorders by bringing these issues into the light, acknowledging they are widespread, and uplifting that no one should have to struggle alone. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we’re talking about the intersection of these two critical issues to help illuminate the reality that survivors of trauma including sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are more likely to struggle with eating disorders and other forms of disordered eating.
Why Is It Important?
Understanding the connection between sexual trauma and eating disorders is vital for those working with survivors of sexual assault and individuals recovering from an eating disorder. Offering meaningful support to survivors on their healing journey means seeing them as a whole person and understanding the many ways trauma impacts their daily lives. Similarly, treatment professionals in eating disorder recovery offer. Research finds trauma to be the single greatest factor in the perpetuation of harm and violence — be it sexual violence or disordered eating. Yet, it is still difficult for some to understand the connection between eating disorders and sexual violence. In honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, we’re shining a light on the intersection of these two critical issues
It is important to understand the connection between sexual violence and eating disorders if someone you know is a survivor or struggling with food, exercise, or body image. I’ts also important for service providers to understand this connection in more effective support to survivors as when they recognize and acknowledge how unwanted sexual experiences and trauma can play an underlying role in the development of an eating disorder. This understanding enables all of us to be more compassionate and supportive of those in our lives by recognizing that an eating disorder is never a choice. At times, there may be visible signs that someone in your life is struggling with an eating disorder, but many times, these behaviors may be hidden. Similarly, a friend or loved one may have disclosed to you their experiences as a survivor and asked for support, but many times, we don’t know the full extent of the struggles those in our lives are carrying. The first step to being able to offer meaningful support is by simply learning more about these issues.
Understanding Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are characterized by extreme attitudes and behaviors surrounding weight and food. For instance, those suffering from bulimia cycle with binges followed by compensatory purging behaviors such as vomiting, abusing laxatives, and over-exercising. Most prevalent are eating disorder behaviors which do not meet the official criteria of any specific condition where an individual struggles with a combination of food restriction, binging, purging, over-exercising, experiencing negative body image and low self-esteem, and having an unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating.
Eating disorders are complex struggles and, although they directly impact behaviors around eating and perceptions of the body, they are most often not directly about food or the desire to appear thinner. Rather, these behaviors serve as coping mechanisms and ways to manage difficult feelings and experiences. Just like sexual violence, eating disorders impact a person’s mental, emotional, and physical wellness. Similarly as with the shame of sexual violence, eating disorders are highly stigmatized and largely regarded to be a gendered issue when they affect all people, of all genders, of all social classes. According to research, “An estimated 10 million men and boys have a diagnosed eating disorder - about a third of all reported cases, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Yet because the condition is largely seen as a women’s health problem, men often struggle to find help.”
The Connection Between Eating Disorders and Sexual Violence
Statistics indicate that many of the challenges survivors face place them at greater risk for developing an eating disorder and its related symptoms. Specialists call this relationship between eating disorders and sexual trauma “comorbity”— which is the presence of two underlying factors which commonly pair together. Disordered eating is often developed as a coping mechanism as a result of sexual traumas such as rape, molestation, harassment, and other forms of abuse. In fact, research shows that about 30% of patients dealing with disordered eating have also experienced sexual abuse in childhood.
Many who experience sexual trauma may develop a sense of disconnection from their body, or a desire to be cut off from their body and the overwhelming emotions they are experiencing. This may come in the form of body shame, hatred, or the urge to self-harm. Many victims and survivors describe feeling a lack of control in the aftermath of their experience of abuse. Controlling behaviors around food and exercise may suppress difficult emotions and provide a temporary sense of control. In these ways and many others, an eating disorder creates distance from painful, uncomfortable feelings and seeks to numb or avoid them.
Although eating disorder thoughts and behaviors may be rooted in a desire to preserve and protect oneself, they cause further harm to the body, mind, spirit, and healing process. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Despite many underlying similarities, every survivor is impacted by sexual violence in their own way. People who have not experienced sexual trauma often underestimate the wide range of ways individuals are impacted in the short and long term. These include depression, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, chronic pain, substance use, and many other conditions.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to know there is hope. Treatment is available and recovery is possible. The National Eating Disorder Association provides tools for help finding treatment; a network for friends, family, and parents; and tools for screening if you need professional help.
More Resource Hubs
The Eating Disorder Resource Center provides help to people affected by eating disorders through phone, e-mail, and in-person guidance. This includes education, treatment options, resources, and more.
70 Resources to Support Eating Disorder Recovery has organized an array of help topics, including COVID-19 resources, signs and symptoms of eating disorders, understanding different types of eating disorders, treatment and recovery options, free and low-cost resources, where to find a dietitian, where to find mental health counselor or therapists, support groups for eating disorders, books about eating disorder recovery, how to help someone with an eating disorder, and hotlines for immediate help.
Eating Disorder Hope has categorized a list of resources specifically for anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.
Eating Recovery Center hosts a list of recommended websites to help those with eating disorders and their loved ones find trauma-informed online spaces.
Eating Disorder Therapy LA includes a recommended reading and resource lists to supplement therapy and facilitate the healing process.
National Eating Disorders Collaboration is a treasure trove of great informational and support resources — including a podcast, infographics, publication lists, and more.
The Eating Disorder Foundation showcases a rolodex list of organizations that offer support to those experiencing disordered eating.