Negative Body Image and Child Abuse History

Childhood Abuse, Negative Body Image and Overeating

Model poses as woman holding hand up to her mirror image
People with food addiction often feel they hate their bodies. West End 61 / Getty Images

You Are Not Alone

If you were abused or not properly cared for as a child, and you now struggle with overeating, you are not alone. Many others who suffered from childhood abuse and neglect have gone on to develop Binge Eating Disorder (BED), a problem with over-eating commonly known as a type of food addiction, in adulthood. Feeling and saying, "I hate my body" is extremely common, especially for people who were abused in childhood.

Your Feelings About Yourself

If you suffered from childhood abuse, and you struggle with over-eating, you may have developed overly negative feelings about yourself, also known as low self esteem. Problems with low self esteem are particularly common among people who were emotionally abused as children. It can be hard to believe this, as so many people put on a brave face to the world, but low self esteem can take its toll on people from all walks of life. Low self esteem affects many people, whether or not they were abused, and sometimes leads to or is made worse by overeating or other addictive behavior.

In fact, low self esteem is such a common problem that almost any counselor you see will be able to help you to overcome these negative feelings about yourself. Often, low self esteem is based on an unrealistic view of yourself, especially if you were abused or mistreated as a child. Counseling, whether it is specialist counseling for overeating or addiction, or regular counseling with a general counselor or psychologist, can help you see yourself in a more realistic light, so you can come to appreciate things that make you feel good about yourself.

Your Feelings About Your Body

It is not unusual for people, particularly women, to feel dissatisfied with their bodies these days. Many blame the fashion and diet industries for promoting unrealistic ideals of what people should look like. Even models are unable to live up to these impossible standards, needing designer clothing, excessive makeup, and clever camera and airbrushing techniques to achieve the fantasy of perfection we see in magazines.

Some binge eaters have particularly negative feelings about their own bodies, so much so that it can be a part of the problem. Research has also shown that binge eaters who were emotionally or sexually abused are particularly likely to be unhappy about their bodies, even more so than binge eaters whose childhoods were instead plagued by physical abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. And feeling bad about your body may actually be making your tendency to overeat worse.

As with low self esteem, body dissatisfaction is a problem that counselors and psychologists face with their clients on a daily basis, so reaching out for help will be met with understanding and support. Because your poor image of your body is based on unrealistic standards, a counselor or psychologist can help you recognize your own unique beauty, that is based on who you really are, not on clever tricks, make-up, or a perfectly proportioned or skinnier body.

Taking On the Voice of Your Abuser

Research has also helped uncover the reason why people who were emotionally or sexually abused generally have more depressive symptoms and greater body dissatisfaction, and more severe problems with binge eating.

It seems that self criticism is the crucial factor that drives some binge eaters to feel so negatively about their bodies.

One way of understanding this pattern is that people who were emotionally abused as children experienced harsh criticism from their abuser, which they then turned on themselves, becoming their own harshest critic. This happens whether or not depressive symptoms develop, although depressive symptoms may intensify the effect of self criticism on negative body image. People who were sexually abused often develop a negative body image due to being treated as sexual objects by their abusers, at a time when they were still developing an understanding of their own bodies.

Having treatment for sexual or emotional abuse can change the way you talk to yourself, so that you become your own best friend, rather than your own worst enemy. Writing your own affirmations is one way that you can begin to change the way you talk about yourself right away, and can have a lasting effect on the way your "talk" to yourself in your own head.

Does Childhood Abuse Cause Binge Eating?

We know that there is strong association between childhood abuse and binge eating disorders, as well as between childhood abuse and other eating disorders, addictions, and mental health problems. We even know that the type of abuse or neglect binge eaters experienced when they were children had a significant effect on their negative body image in adulthood. Nonetheless, this is not proof that childhood abuse causes these problems in later life.

Dr David Dunkley and his colleagues, who carried out a study with 170 overweight adults who wanted help with binge eating, and whose problems were not otherwise explained by a significant physical or mental disorder, showed the mechanism by which the link between childhood abuse and body dissatisfaction is facilitated by self criticism.

But although self criticism has a profound effect on negative body image, it is impossible to tell from this research whether child abuse actually causes self criticism, body dissatisfaction, or binge eating. The only way to find this out would be to track people over time, starting in childhood.

Sources

Dunkley, PhD, D., Masheb, PhD, R. & Grilo, PhD, C. "Childhood Maltreatment, Depressive Symptoms, and Body Dissatisfaction in Patients with Binge Eating Disorder: The Mediating Role of Self-Criticism." Int J Eat Disord 43:274–281. 2010.

Fairburn C., Doll H., Welch S., Hay P., Davies B. & O’Connor M. "Risk factors for binge eating disorder: A community-based, case-control study." Arch Gen Psychiatry 55:425–432. 1998.

Glassman, L., Weierich, M., Hooley, J., Deliberto, T. & Nock, M. "Child maltreatment, non-suicidal self-injury, and the mediating role of self-criticism." Behav Res Ther 45:2483–2490. 2007.

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