Why Survivors of Abuse (Including Oprah) Often Struggle with Their Weight

September 14, 2018

Alexandra, Blog, Eating Disorders, Trauma/Abuse

Oprah is an icon in our culture. We know her on a first-name basis and it would be hard to find someone in the US who isn’t familiar with her or the empire she’s created. Sadly, Oprah is almost as well known for her yo-yo struggles with her weight. Whether through the media criticizing her weight gain or her celebrating weight loss. It would be easy to dismiss this as the symptom of a superficial and overly critical media. After all, who can forget the fat-shaming magazine covers of Jessica Simpson, Tyra Banks or Jennifer Love Hewitt that were all over the place a few years ago?.

I do think our media puts way too much emphasis on celebrities’ weight and appearance. Yet as a therapist I also know that Oprah is a survivor of childhood sexual and physical abuse and that survivors of abuse whether physical, sexual or emotional often struggle with their weight.. Survivors often have trouble with yo-yoing weight or not being able to stay at their bodies’ natural set-point weight.

As a survivor of abuse there are several factors that may impact Oprah’s weight struggle. If you are also a survivor of abuse these symptoms may resonate with you.

A sense of being disembodied or not “in your body” . This may lead to the desire to have a larger/heavier body to feel grounded

Many individuals who have been abused experience what is called “dissociation”. This is something our bodies do to protect us when we have been abused. While we are being abused we “check out”. Some survivors describe feeling as though they were floating above their body while others cannot remember any details of their abuse.  This is a feeling of being out of your body and many survivors of abuse describe feeling like a “walking head”. While your brain and body dissociated to protect you while you were being abused, continuing to dissociate in the present can make you feel disconnected, out of body or unsafe. You may eat to experience the feeling of being grounded through extreme fullness. Or you may have a desire to have a larger/heavier body so that you can feel you are more present or grounded in your body.

 

-A fear of being attractive to others because of unwanted sexual attention that was received in the past

Oprah has identified feeling more comfortable with ‘a little extra weight’. I imagine she is referring to emotional comfort. Many survivors of abuse fear losing weight because they are afraid of receiving unwanted sexual attention. Many survivors also believe that being over-weight can provide protection against unwanted attention. If you are a survivor of sexual abuse you may be afraid that if you lose weight you will be victim of abuse or assault again. Please know that you can learn to protect yourself and keep yourself safe even without extra weight.

 

-Seeking Comfort or Safety from Food

As a survivor of abuse, you may experience “hypervigilance” which essentially means you feel jumpy and on-edge most of the time. This can lead to not feeling physically or emotionally safe. To comfort yourself you may seek solace in food which feels safe. This can lead to patterns of over-eating or eating for emotional comfort. It can be difficult to begin developing ways to feel safe or comforted that don’t involve food. Yet working with a therapist or seeking support from a support group can help you find new ways to cope and feel safe.

-Not feeling connected to your body which can make it hard to sense when you are hungry or full

The dissociation (out of body feelings) that happens because of abuse not only makes us feel out of body, it can also impact our ability to sense when we are hungry or full. If we feel unsafe in or body or disconnected from it we may only feel extreme fullness or extreme hunger. This may lead to over-eating or skipping meals. Not being able to identify your hunger/fullness cues can make it extremely difficult to achieve your natural, healthy weight. This often results in the type of yo-yo weight loss that Oprah has publicly struggled with over the years.

If you are a survivor of abuse and any of these symptoms resonated with you, please know it is possible to heal. Developing healthy new ways to ground and feel present in your body can help you feel safe and aware of your hunger/fullness cues and therapies such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) can help resolve traumatic memories and return your feelings of personal safety. Wherever you are at in your healing know that you can heal; you survived your abuse using all the tools you had at the time and when you are ready new tools are available for you.

by Alex House