Dr. Scinta Comments on Obesity and Abuse
I would like to clarify the statistics published in the July 25 front-page article, “Linking Abuse to Obesity.” It should have stated that up to 75 percent of my morbidly obese female patients have been affected, not 75 percent of all of my female patients. Not all obese females are victims of abuse, and not all abuse victims are obese. Unfortunately, the correlation does exist with concerning frequency.
The first observation of a link between obesity and childhood sexual abuse was found in 1985, by Dr. Vincent Felitti during an interview of a successful weight loss patient who dropped out mid-program. The 55-year-old female revealed that the unwanted attention from her weight loss sparked the same feelings of fear and vulnerability that she felt as a childhood sexual abuse victim. Felitti spent the next 20 years publishing more than 30 papers on the subject, revealing a link in at least 1/10 of obese females and as high as three out of four morbidly obese women. These statistics have been repeatedly reproduced by other authors, with a recent prospective study showing that abused women were almost twice as likely to be obese as their non-abused female counterparts.
So, if this link has been known by the research community for over 25 years, why has it been hidden from the general public for so long? Perhaps we don’t want to admit that up to 1/3 of all women and 1/8 of all men have suffered sexual abuse in their childhood. It may be because their stories are so horrid and grim that we find them unpleasant and depressing. Or, as sadly displayed on the Syracuse.com blog site, it is much easier to shun or make fun of obese individuals than to feel compassion for them.
The intent of this article was to heighten awareness for victims and the general public, and to offer a starting point for a dialogue on the subject. It is possible that the morbidly obese female — the one you shake your head at — is hiding from her perpetrator and blocking her feelings from anyone who could potentially harm her again. The bullying on the playground, discrimination in the workplace and medical community, and prejudice in society as a whole have only increased her isolation. She is ashamed of her childhood and embarrassed by her physical appearance.
I am hopeful that some individuals who read the article were able to connect the dots in their lifelong struggle with body image and weight regain. Understanding the behavior behind the action is half of the battle. Eating to cope, protect, repel, function, numb — are all strategies that we form in childhood to survive. A time may come, however, when survival alone is not enough. Living life to its fullest also remains a valid option.
Thank you to my patients who shared their stories. They have lived through physical trauma and emotional anguish that many could never comprehend, and they miraculously emerged on the other side as successful professionals and mothers. They have admitted to the public their failures and imperfections. They are proud, unashamed, visible, empowered. They are to be admired.