How Sexual Assault Affects Body Image and What To Do About It

Written by
Jacquelyn Buffo @ 8fit
Written by
Jacquelyn Buffo @ 8fit
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There are many factors that affect our body image or the way we all view or think about our bodies. Our childhood experiences, our current environment, social media depictions of what a body “should” look like and our own internal dialog are just a few of the unique details that can shape to whether we have a healthy or an unhealthy body image.

Modern researchers suspect that trauma can have an impact on body image, too, which is why some scientists are studying a potential link between sexual assault and body image.

Sexual Assault Statistics in the U.S.

Although sexual assault can be uncomfortable and downright hard to discuss, it is essential to do so. Thanks to the growth of the Me Too movement, the topic of sexual assault has never been more prevalent in modern society.

Maintaining an awareness of the signs of sexual abuse can be a key factor in prevention. Some common warning signs of sexual abuse include physical touch without consent, a justification for violence, intimidating or aggressive body language and anger management issues.

Sexual assault can affect anyone. Despite stereotypes, men are victims of sexual assault, as well as members of the LGBTQ community.  

Current adult statistics on sexual assault include:

  • Approximately 1 in 3 women experiences sexual assault involving physical contact throughout their lifetime.

  • Nearly 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of sexual violence.

  • Nearly 20 percent of women report being a victim of attempted or completed rape.

  • 1 in 38 men reports being a victim of attempted or completed rape.

Sexual assault happens to children at horrifying rates as well. Research indicates that:

  • 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old.

  • 30 percent of female rape occurs when the female is between 11–17 years old.

  • 27.8 percent of male rape victims report that their first rape occurred before they were 10 years old.

  • 12.3 percent of female rape victims were 10 years or younger at the time of their first rape.

Sexual assault can have a major impact on your emotional, mental, and physical health. As you know, your health is critical to your quality of life and problems in any one area can have a domino effect on other areas of your life, including your finances, employability, interpersonal skills and behavior.

The Effects of Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can have a devastating impact on your life. It is important to note that not everyone responds to it in the same way. Although researchers have found it difficult to identify and document the consequences of sexual assault, identifiable consequences include potential difficulty in the following areas:

Studies show that victims of childhood sexual abuse can experience long-term consequences including:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Self-blame

  • Sexual problems

  • Relationship problems

  • Eating disorders

  • Dissociation, a feeling of detachment from your surroundings, your emotions or your body

  • Shame

  • Guilt

  • Denial

  • Suicidal ideation

  • Self-destructive behaviors (self-harm, risky sexual encounters)

These symptoms also can be present in adult victims of sexual assault. However, studies indicate a stronger correlation between childhood sexual assault and the above outcomes.

How Does Sexual Assault Affect Body Image?

Feelings of powerlessness and helplessness are commonly experienced as a result of sexual assault. These feelings can lead to a hyperawareness of your physique and physical appearance

Some victims of sexual assault try to cope (and, at times, empower themselves) by following strict dietary regiments dictating the type and/or the number of calories they consume. They may also obsessively exercise and diet. It is important to remember that not everyone who engages in obsessive exercise and dieting has been sexually abused. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than six million morbidly obese and obese people likely have suffered some form of sexual, physical, or verbal abuse in their lifetime. Although it is uncertain how many of these six million individuals have suffered sexual assault, there is reason to believe that sexual abuse, especially during childhood, can lead to an increased risk of developing obesity in adulthood. This can be attributed to a couple of factors.

First, food can become a comfort or a way to self-medicate after you have been victimized. Food is a source of pleasure, and it also can serve as a source of comfort. We have all heard and used the term “comfort food” and for victims of sexual assault, this takes on a whole new, literal meaning. 

Food is also cheap and easily accessible, and it can have addictive properties that keep victims coming back for more. Combine that with an emotionally vulnerable state, and food becomes a common coping mechanism, though it may not always be a healthy one.

Second, victims of sexual assault may put on weight consciously or subconsciously as a way to make themselves less attractive to other people. After a sexual assault, the way you view sexual intercourse may change from a way to show affection toward someone you love and trust to an act that elicits fear, helplessness and powerlessness. 

To reduce your exposure to this act, you may intentionally or inadvertently gain weight to discourage sexual attraction from others. Some research suggests that obesity and weight gain are ways to de-sexualize yourself in an attempt to prevent negative experiences from happening again.

What You Can Do

If you are a victim of sexual assault, there is help available to you. If you are working through a negative body image, there are strategies that can help you develop a healthy body image and learn how to love your body. Remember that you are not alone and change is possible.

Other strategies to help improve your body image include:

  • Limit your time on social media websites and applications. Society’s portrayal of what a body “should” look like can cause feelings of insecurity and can lead to an unhealthy body image.

  • Try not to compare your body to others. Comparisons can deprive you of positive emotions, including joy, gratitude or happiness.

  • Develop a healthy exercise plan. Try to engage in activities that you enjoy and make a point to exercise at least three days a week.

  • Make healthy dietary choices by limiting sugar and processed food intake. Processed foods, sugar and carbohydrates may help you feel comforted in the short-term; however, in the long term, these foods can lead to negative emotions (guilt, regret) as well as fatigue and bloating.

  • Surround yourself with positive and supportive people.  They can include other survivors of sexual assault.

  • Identify 10 positive qualities you value in yourself and recite them daily.

  • Volunteer and find a hobby to act as healthy coping skills. Help distract your mind when you find yourself thinking negatively.

  • Practice self-care. Make it a point to do one pleasurable activity a day.

If you are a victim of sexual assault, The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has community crisis and resource centers across the United States. Talk to a trusted friend or licensed professional. A licensed professional can help you recover from your sexual assault and generate a healthy body image and sense of self.

Featured photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash

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