This article uses strong language and makes references to sexual assault.
I remember vividly the first time I was catcalled.
I was 11 years old on a spring day, waiting on the stoop of our apartment building while my father rummaged inside for his inhaler.
I had a candy cane, leftover and perfectly preserved from Christmas, dangling out of my mouth.
At once, a man walked by. And over his shoulder, he casually tossed, “I wish you would suck me like that.”
In my pubescent naïveté, I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but I grasped the suggestiveness of it nevertheless. I knew I was being demeaned by how suddenly out of control and ashamed I felt.
Something about my behavior, I thought, had elicited this comment. Suddenly, I was hyperaware of my body and the reactions it could provoke from grown men. And I was scared.
More than 20 years later, I’m still being harassed on the street — from seemingly innocuous requests for my phone number to running commentary on my breasts and butt. I also have a history of emotional and sexual abuse, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence, which has left me with a lifetime of feeling treated as a thing.
Over time, this experience has deeply affected my own ability to feel comfortable in my body. So the fact that I eventually developed an eating disorder may be unsurprising.
Let me explain.
From the bind of beauty standards to the commonality of sexual violence, the risk of eating disorder development is everywhere. And this can be explained by what’s known as the objectification theory.
This is a framework that explores how womanhood is experienced in a sociocultural context that is sexually objectifying. It also provides us a glimpse into how mental health, including eating disorders, can be impacted by constant sexualization.
Below you’ll find three different ways sexual objectification and eating disorders interact, and one really important takeaway.
1. Beauty standards can lead to body obsession
Recently, after learning what I do for a living, a man who was driving me in a ride service told me that he doesn’t believe in beauty standards.
The beauty standard in the United States, and rapidly
around the world, is very narrow. Among other things, women are expected to be thin, white, young, traditionally feminine, able, middle-to-upper class, and straight.
“Because I’m not attracted to that,” he said.
“The model type.”
But beauty standards aren’t about what individuals, or even groups, find personally attractive. Instead, standards are about what we’re taught is ideal — “the model type” — whether we agree with that allure or not.
The beauty standard in the United States, and rapidly
Our bodies are thus judged, and punished, by these very rigid standards.
And the internalization of these messages — that we aren’t beautiful and therefore aren’t worthy of respect — can lead to body shame and therefore, eating disorder symptoms.
In fact, one study in 2011 found that the internalization of a person’s worth being defined by their attractiveness “plays an important role in the development of mental health issues in young women.” This includes disordered eating.
As mentioned earlier in this series, the common assumption that an obsession with feminine beauty and the associated drive for thinness creates eating disorders simply isn’t true. Instead, the reality is that it’s emotional pressure around beauty standards that triggers ill mental health.
2. Sexual harassment can trigger self-surveillance
Thinking back to how I felt when I was catcalled as a young girl: I immediately felt shameful, like I had done something to incite the comment.
As a result of repeatedly being made to feel this way, I began engaging in self-surveillance, a common experience among women.
The thought process goes: “If I can control my body, maybe you won’t be able to comment on it.”
The concept of self-surveillance is when a person becomes hyper-focused on their body, often to deflect external objectification. It can be as simple as looking at the ground when you walk by groups of men, so that they don’t attempt to get your attention, or not eating bananas in public (yes, that’s a thing).
It can also show up as eating disorder behavior in an attempt to safeguard against harassment.
Food behaviors such as dieting for weight loss to “disappear” or bingeing for weight gain to “conceal” are common. These are often subconscious coping mechanisms for women hoping to escape objectification.
The thought process goes: If I can control my body, maybe you won’t be able to comment on it.
Moreover, sexual harassment in and of itself may predict eating disorder symptoms.
This is true even in young people.
As one study found, body-based harassment (defined as objectifying comments toward a girl’s body) had a negative effect on 12- to 14-year-old girls’ eating patterns. Moreover, it may even contribute to eating disorder development.
The link? Self-surveillance.
Girls who experience sexual harassment are more likely to engage in this hyper-focus, which results in more disordered eating patterns.
3. Sexual violence can result in eating disorders as coping mechanisms
The definitions of sexual assault, rape, and abuse are sometimes murky for people — including survivors themselves.
Yet while these definitions differ legally state-to-state and even country-to-country, what these acts all have in common is that they can lead to eating disorder behavior, either as a conscious or subconscious coping mechanism.
Many women with eating disorders have had experiences with sexual violence in their past. In fact, rape survivors may be more likely than others to meet eating disorder diagnostic criteria.
One earlier study found that 53 percent of rape survivors experience eating disorders, when compared to just 6 percent of women with no history of sexual violence.
Moreover, in another older
Yet while sexual assault alone doesn’t affect a woman’s eating habits, the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that some experience might be the mediating factor — or rather what brings the eating disorder about.
In short, the reason why sexual violence can lead to eating disorders is likely down to the trauma it causes.
One study found that “PTSD symptoms fully mediated the effect of early adult sexual assault on disordered eating”
This doesn’t mean, however, that all sexual violence survivors will develop eating disorders or that all people with eating disorders have experienced sexual violence. But it does mean that folks who have experienced both are not alone.
Autonomy and consent are of utmost importance
When I interviewed women for my dissertation research on eating disorders and sexuality, they expressed many experiences with objectification: “It’s like [sexuality] never belongs to you,” one woman told me.
“I felt like I was just trying to navigate what other people dumped on me.”
It makes sense that eating disorders can be connected to sexual violence. They’re often understood as an extreme reclamation of control over one’s body, especially as an inadequate coping mechanism to deal with trauma.
It makes sense, too, then, that the solution for repairing relationships to sexuality in eating disorder recovery and ending sexual violence is the same: rebuilding a sense of personal autonomy and demanding that consent be respected.
After a lifetime of sexualization, it can be difficult to reclaim your body as your own, especially if an eating disorder has damaged your relationship to your body. But reconnecting your mind and body, and finding space to verbalize your needs (which you can find here, here, and here) can be powerful for helping you on the path to healing.
In the end, my participants explained to me that what helped them engage joyfully in their sexuality — even through the added pressures of their eating disorders — was having trusting relationships with people who respected their boundaries.
Touch became easier when they were given space to name their needs. And we should all have this opportunity.
And this brings the series on eating disorders and sexuality to a close. It’s my hope that if you take away anything from these past five discussions, it’s understanding the importance of:
- believing what people tell you about themselves
- respecting their bodily autonomy
- keeping your hands — and your comments — to yourself
- staying humble in the face of knowledge you do not have
- questioning your idea of “normal”
- creating the space for people to explore their sexuality safely, authentically, and happily