We may also discover that sexual abuse helps to explain the high prevalence rates of eating disorders among women and may lend some insight into why we are starting to see more documentation of eating disorders among boys as we see the reports of sexual abuse for male children increasing. Culture alone cannot explain the phenomena of such high rates of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are prevalent among women who were sexually abused as children. They seem to have components of other symptoms such as obsessions, compulsions, avoidance of food, and anxiety, and they primarily include a distorted body image and feelings of body shame.For some women, eating disorders are related to the loss of control over their bodies during the sexual abuse and serve as a means of feeling in control of their bodies now. Eating disorders can also be indicative of the developmental stage and age at which the sexual abuse began. Women with anorexia and bulimia report that they were sexually abused either at the age of puberty or during puberty, when their bodies were beginning to develop and they felt a great deal of body shame from the abuse. By contrast, women with compulsive eating report that the sexual abuse occurred before the age of puberty; they used food for comfort.
Culture alone cannot explain the phenomena of such high rates of eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex, but what they all seem to have in common is the ability to distract women from the memories, sensations, and experience of the sexual abuse through starving, bingeing, purging, or exercising. They keep the focus on food, body image, weight, fat, calories, diets, miles, and other factors that women focus on during the course of an eating disorder. These disorders also have the ability to numb a woman from the overwhelming emotions resulting from the sexual abuse — especially loss of control, terror, and shame about her body. Women often have a combination of eating disorders in in their history. Some women are anorexic during one period of their life, bulimic during another, and compulsive eaters at yet another stage.