Anorexia And Sexual Abuse

By  | 

There is a compelling psychodynamic theory that makes the link between anorexia nervosa and sexual molestation in childhood. This is just one out of numerous causes. The idea is that especially in cases where a person was made to perform oral sex, he or she begins to put a tabu on food intake because it is consumed through the mouth. We will talk about some psychological components that support this idea.

First of all limiting food intake is a very visible way to feel a sense of control over your environment. You can count down to the last calorie how much food you have consumed over the day and even how many calories you have burned. This directly combats basic anxiety, which is the feeling of helplessness in a world perceived as hostile. Sexual molestation creates massive amounts of unbearable anxiety in a child. Often a trusted caregiver or at the least an adult who is supposed to be trusted commits these atrocities. It is an intimate act where one is supposed to derive pleasure yet it’s done in a backhanded, manipulative way where a power imbalance is exploited. These are contradictions that are extremely difficult for anyone to process, not to mention a child with limited knowledge and experience.

One answer is to start to believe that you are evil. In a way this solution makes sense because it allows you to take responsibility over an act over which you were completely powerless. If you are the evil one then it implies that you were to blame for what happened, which means that you were the chief mover.

One element common to eating food and sex is that they are both supposed to be highly pleasurable activities. Various neurotransmitters that make you feel great usually fire. So what happens when you start to associate something that feels great with something that feels wrong? In the case of sexual molestation the sensations of sex are pleasant yet the adult perpetrator is committing an evil act and the child always knows this on an unconscious level.

You can see the symbolic parallel for a person who swallows food and then feels pleasant sensations shortly thereafter. These sensations are probably thought to be evil and wrong because of the very fact that they feel good. Therefore limiting intake is a way to regain a sense of control and to try to change history by having everything happen on your terms.

For the people who fit this profile one of the keys to recovery is to fully move through the grief process, deal with lost innocence and betrayal, and most importantly to come to terms with having been powerless and in no way to blame for experiences of sexual abuse. It’s important to reprogram your brain with the knowledge that the feeling of pleasure is not in itself evil, and that the possibility exists to have pleasurable bodily experiences in a safe space with a trusted partner.

With this foundational belief in place the central issue is dealt with and limiting food intake will no longer be as important. Once you admit to yourself that you had no control, a strange shift happens where you start to feel more control over your present. This in turn lets you do away with the repressed feeling of anxiety that is manifested by the behavior of controlling your diet.