Hiding in Plain Sight: Obesity and Childhood Trauma

You might believe that obese people are weak because they give in to their base indulgences. While you might think you understand obesity, you may be wrong.


Obesity is much more complicated than someone deciding to overeat. Instead, it involves many risk factors, and one of the largest is experiencing abuse or neglect in childhood that is unresolved in adulthood.


This article will tackle the touchy subject of obesity, how it affects your health, and why it exists. No shame is intended here; I am just telling you what and why people become and remain obese.


What is Obesity?



Being overweight and obese is abnormal or excessive fat accumulation, and this build-up is a significant health hazard. You are considered overweight if your body mass index is over 25; if it is over 30, you are considered obese.


The body mass index (BMI) is when the body mass of someone is divided by the square of the body height. The BMI is then expressed in units of kg/m2 derived from mass in kilograms and height in meters.


Obesity results from ingesting more calories than are burned by exercise and activities usually associated with daily life. To burn one calorie of fat, one must consume 3500 calories. You will gain weight if you eat more than 3500 in a week over what your body requires.


ACEs Study and the Obesity Link to Trauma


In 1985, Doctor Vincent Feliti noticed that 50% of severely obese people who attended his weight loss program dropped out. Upon investigation, Dr. Felitti was shocked to see that many of his clients who had dropped out were losing weight when they left the program.


Upon following up with the people who had dropped out, he found that a large majority (55%) had experienced some form of childhood trauma. Many of the people he questioned were women, and Dr. Felitti found that they believed that their size protected them from predators. From Dr. Felitti’s observations and reports, the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) study was born.


In 1995, the CDC-Kaiser Permanente began to study how adverse childhood experiences affect people’s lives. The ACE study is one of the most extensive investigations into the effects of childhood abuse and neglect and how it affects adults who experienced it.


From 1995-1997, the ACE study collected data processing over 17,000 HMO members from Southern California who were getting yearly physical exams. The subjects were asked to complete a survey about their childhood experiences and found a direct correlation between ACEs and obesity.


The Link Between Childhood Sexual Abuse and Obesity in Adulthood


Patrick, Marion; Three Sad Children; Bethlem Museum of the Mind


While extreme obesity is relatively rare, the association between childhood trauma and being an obese adult is well-documented. The Centers for Disease Control in the United States reports that approximately one in six and one in four girls are sexually assaulted before age eighteen.


The sheer number of adults who were abused as children and now live with obesity is staggering.


Binge eating disorder (BED) is six times more common in people with obesity and up to four times more common in people who were sexually abused as a kid. The extreme effects of childhood sexual abuse, poor self-esteem, impulsive behavior, drug use, and poor body image are common in the obese.


Eating and being obese are two widespread and compulsive ways to manage depression and sexual abuse history.


Obesity as a Self-Defeating Defense Mechanism


There can be no doubt that obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Unfortunately, this also means that sexual abuse is rampant here too. One can see how obesity is a defense mechanism that seemingly keeps others away, especially anyone who might feel romantic feelings.


Intimacy is greatly feared among the obese as many people feel they must defend themselves against the world even though the abuse happened decades ago. That statement is not meant to minimize the horrendousness of what happened, just an explanation of what is happening now that you are an adult.


No fad diets, wonder machines, or surgeries will completely address obesity in adults. No matter how much liposuction you have or how many times you go under bariatric surgery, the underlying fear remains.


Addressing the Emotional Aspect of Obesity



There are no quick fixes to obesity. Healing from the effects of childhood trauma is the only way to make you feel safe enough to quit overeating. To feel safe enough inevitably requires therapy to change the fundamental way you look at yourself and to deal with the substantial stress and emotional turmoil you feel from your childhood sexual abuse.


A study by Woszidlo in 2012 found that people diagnosed with obesity who express their stressful feeling were more able to lower the negative impact that overwhelming emotions had on their lives.


There are many other ways to defeat obesity, including the following short list that is not all-inclusive.


Keep a journal to track what you eat and your eating habits. Writing down the feelings linked to your eating habits, including the amount and type of foods consumed, can give you the big picture of your eating triggers.


Connect with someone else who understands your dilemma and has a similar background. It is vitally important to some to use the buddy system when losing weight; you need emotional support to get you to your goal.


Join a support group. This option does not work for many people as they may feel intimidated and afraid to expose their stories to others. But, if you can join a support group, you might find that you can deal with the emotions coming out of your pores more efficiently and with more success.


Ending Our Time Together


Obesity after childhood sexual abuse is a topic near to my heart as I am obese. The sexual abuse I endured as a child has haunted me all my life, and now I am ready to give up that defense mechanism.


Yes, I am still afraid of intimacy, but that is no reason to continue to jeopardize my health as I can now say the word NO if I wish to anyone who advances in their feelings for me.


Your obesity, like mine, is not your fault. You were put in a circumstance that no one should ever be forced to be in. Someone, probably a family member, sexually abused you, told you that you would never be loved by anyone, and scared you so much that you turned your back on self-care to hide in plain sight.


To some, your body may seem the enemy because it responded to what the perpetrator was doing to you. I’m here to tell you that as a child, you had no way of escape and that you have a human body that is made to respond to that type of stimuli. You had no choice.


You are not ugly; you are not to blame; you are a victim of someone else’s criminal lust.


However, now that the danger has passed, you are now in control, and it is up to you to gain control over your eating. Take the time to learn to love who you are, your body and all. Leave the shame behind and embark on a new adventure leading to good health. I know I am.


Anything less is to allow our abusers to win and keep control over us forever.


“If you celebrate your differentness, the world will, too. It believes exactly what you tell it—through the words you use to describe yourself, the actions you take to care for yourself, and the choices you make to express yourself. Tell the world you are a one-of-a-kind creation who came here to experience wonder and spread joy. Expect to be accommodated.” – Victoria Moran,




Diabetes, T. L. (2020). Obesity-related stigma—hiding in plain sight. The Lancet. Diabetes & Endocrinology8(5), 349.


Faden, J., Leonard, D., O’Reardon, J., & Hanson, R. (2013). Obesity as a defense mechanism. International Journal of Surgery Case Reports4(1), 127-129.


Noll, J. G., Zeller, M. H., Trickett, P. K., & Putnam, F. W. (2007). Obesity risk for female victims of childhood sexual abuse: a prospective study. Pediatrics120(1), e61-e67. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/120/1/e61/70539/Obesity-Risk-for-Female-Victims-of-Childhood?autologincheck=redirected


Smith, H. A., Markovic, N., Danielson, M. E., Matthews, A., Youk, A., Talbott, E. O, & Hughes, T. (2010). Sexual abuse, sexual orientation, and obesity in women. Journal of Women’s Health19(8), 1525-1532.


Wiss, D. A., & Brewerton, T. D. (2020). Adverse childhood experiences and adult obesity: a systematic review of plausible mechanisms and meta-analysis of cross-sectional studies. Physiology & Behavior223, 112964.


Woszidlo A, Asbury MB. The Use of Problem-and Emotion-Focused Strategies on Weight Watchers.com Message Boards. Ohio Communication Journal. 2012; 50:83-105.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *