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Weight and the Heavy Legacy of Trauma

Updated: Jan 21

t/w sexual abuse; trauma; suicide


My maternal grandmother grew up on a northern Pennsylvania farm. Her mother died shortly after delivering the youngest of her four brothers, when my grandma was six. She was born in 1927 and her childhood was the Great Depression and World War II, times of extreme rationing. She learned to never waste food, and my own childhood is filled with memories of helping her make homemade soups with the little dabs of leftovers she stored in the refrigerator each week.


People enjoy food. It connects us to each other and is a part of our community, and often it connects us to our ancestors and families long after they are gone.


For decades, researchers have searched for the reason beyond genetics that explains why some people are thin and some are fat. People, but especially women, have been offered pills, fad diets, and cabbage soup recipes all intended to help them shed unwanted pounds. Even as more and more evidence comes out that weight itself is not the only key to healthy living, the push to try the next great miracle weight-loss invention. The one thing often missed is the link between the body and the mind.

When the mind and spirit hurt, we try to numb that pain. Some do it with alcohol or narcotics, but others find comfort in food. As a society, we are surrounded with the message that if you had a bad day, it is okay to stop on the way home for a quick drink. We even invented a word for using food to numb our pain - Comfort Food - which in the United States often means 2500 calories at a favorite fast food or chain restaurant.


Unresolved trauma is often a contributor to how we treat our bodies. We are conditioned to overeat and then try the next fad diet - not to try therapy which can provide a pathway to healing and transformation. Our society shames people who are obese, not recognizing it as just one more way people learn to hide their pain. Stopping for that drink is acceptable. Eating an entire bag of chips in a closet is not. Yet, the trauma and unresolved pain behind both actions is often the same.


One of the warning signs of sexual abuse in minors is weight gain. Faced with a situation their bodies and minds cannot fully comprehend, many try to hide their body in order to deter the attacker who is touching them without consent. "Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is "three to four times more common in people with obesity who report a history of childhood sexual abuse. The effects of child sexual abuse (poor self-esteem, poor body image, impulsive behavior and drug abuse) are common predictors of the binge eating and obesity. That is, compulsive eating may be one way to manage the depression related to child sexual abuse." (https://www.obesityaction.org/resources/sexual-abuse-and-obesity-whats-the-link/)


Sexual abuse is not the only trigger. Bessel van der Kolk's writes; "Over the years our research team has repeatedly found that chronic emotional abuse and neglect can be just as devastating as physical abuse and sexual molestation." (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma).


My maternal grandparents both grew up in trauma that extended into early adulthood. My grandfather turned to alcohol and cigarettes, both before and after his time in World War II as a tail-gunner serving in the Pacific, and my grandmother turned to food. I was born to young grandparents (47 and 44), but neither of them had the gift of long, well-lived lives. My grandpa died when he was 64, and grandma followed a few years later when she was 65. Their unresolved trauma eventually contributed to the early end of their lives. They handed that down to my mother and her siblings, who in turn handed those patterns of harm and destruction down to my siblings, cousins, and me.


Looking back now at my childhood, I have come to accept the choices the younger me made to survive. I ran away from home the first time when I was a toddler, and tried to escape at least three more times before my eighteenth birthday. I am no longer the person who tried to end their life at fifteen. I am not the person that escaped an unhappy childhood with an unhappy first marriage. It took work to release that scared little person hiding within.


Few researchers have bothered to look into the links between body and mind through both lived and inherited trauma. When our minds and spirits hurt, we try to bury it, and for some that is through weight gain. The ups and downs of dieting become a pattern in our lives, while true healing through therapy allows our bodies to find rest at a weight that feels healthy. Dieting has no place in healthy living. It does nothing but hide trauma.


Two years ago, as I recovered from long Covid and C-PTSD, I made a commitment to myself to never diet again. I eat when hungry, deny myself nothing (except caffeine), and practice moderation. I started walking and moved to an environment where walking could happen 365 days of the year. Today, I walk 3-5 miles daily. I try to eat in a way that sustains the environment as much as my own body, eating a mix of fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, and fish. This change awakened my pallet. I enjoy food again. I am down five pants sizes and six shirt sizes.