Abuse survivors and our bodies
Darrell Hammond, famed Saturday Night Live Comedian best known for his Bill Clinton impersonations, has a documentary film on Netflix entitled Cracked Up. This documentary chronicles the (shockingly violent) child abuse Darrell suffered at the hand of his mother while his (likely codependent, enabling) father failed to stop it. The documentary also delves into the effects of the abuse and the healing modalities that have helped Darrell. In that documentary, Author Dr. Besser Van Der Kolk describes that if you are someone who experienced child abuse you tend to “hate your body. You hate what happens to your body, so you’re more likely to become obese. You don’t care about yourself because nobody cares about you, so you don’t take care of yourself.”
Can you relate to this? I sure can. And I think this is largely attributable to the fact that many abuse survivors mistake correlation with causation when it comes to our bodies and abuse.
What does this even mean? Causation means that one thing causes another. Correlation means that one thing and another appear to be related in some way but one doesn’t cause the other.
As an example of how this can play out, I came from a family system where my father was a sociopathic, malignant narcissist and my mother an overt narcissist. My father had been husky growing up and thinness was seen as being critically important in my dad’s side of the family (even though genetics was not in their favor). My mom modeled in college and came from a naturally thin family. As with most narcissists, thinness and attractiveness was critically important to my parents. I believe my parents truly believed that if they had a daughter, she would take after my mom and inherit natural thinness from her side of the family. Of course, genetics don’t necessarily work like that, so I was a husky kid, just like my dad. My parents were absolutely fixated on my weight. I was weighed at least once a day and it was graphed. I was dieted from the age of seven or younger. My brother was given one thing to eat, me another. I was sent to school and bed hungry to make me lose weight. There were locks on the freezer doors to prevent me from eating. My weight was always the subject of discussion, even with strangers, the way weather would normally be. My weight was what my parents fought about most. And fights at my house were violent.
You see, there was a relationship between my body and the abuse, but I mistakenly believed that relationship was causational rather than correlational. My weight did not cause my abuse, my parent’s narcissism did.
How could this look in other examples? Believing certain body parts invited, and therefore caused, sexual abuse. Believing the body is not a safe place to be because when you are in the body you are physically, emotionally or sexually abused, etc. As Dr. Besser Van Der Kolk pointed out, hating one’s body due to what happens/ed to it makes for a higher likelihood of obesity (and immune illnesses, heart disease, drug use and violence with others).
It is therefore very important that you know on a very visceral level that what you experienced is not your body’s fault, your body just happened to be involved.
So what can you do? Follow this process to challenge and dismantle these misplaced causational beliefs.
- Define and write down your belief(s) about your body. Example: “My overweight body was the reason I was abused.”
- Rewrite it again from a correlation perspective rather than causation, exonerating your body from any blame and accurately identifying the cause. Example: “My parents abused me because they are narcissists who abuse by compulsion beyond their control. My weight just happened to be something they fixated on. It could have just as easily been something else.”
- Revisit your rewrite often. You can read it daily as a mantra or affirmation until it feels true inside your body.
Wishing you and your body the very best in your healing from your abusive upbringing.
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Writer and Coach
Azure Moyna is a writer and coach about issues relating to food, body, mental illness, familial dysfunction, societal treatment of overweight people and the healing journey. Azure is the author of her memoir, Fullness.