It was the summer of 2011 and I had just finished my first year of college. The year had been full of ups and downs—one of the ups being that I was the skinniest I had ever been, and the down being that I was trapped in the midst of an eating disorder I wasn’t aware I had yet. It wasn’t until I got home for summer break that I thought: How can I live the rest of my life like this? How did I get here? What went so wrong?
At least 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from an eating disorder, and this number may be higher since many people never acknowledge they have a problem, let alone seek formal treatment. The median age of onset for binge eating disorders is 21 years-old, and for anorexia and bulimia it’s 18 years-old, but women’s concerns about their bodies begin when they are girls as young as six.
While there are a number of risk factors for eating disorders, including our culture’s obsession with thinness, one factor is talked about less often and that is sexual violence.
“There is no one factor which leads to the development of an eating disorder,” says Laura Palumbo for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “but trauma is found to be a common thread.” Eating disorders, importantly, are not necessarily about being thin, Palumbo adds, but instead, “serve as coping mechanisms and ways to manage difficult feelings and experiences.”
The trauma from sexual violence can have a lasting impact on our relationship to our body—and it can make our body feel like it is not truly our own. For young women who experience sexual violence, which is one in four before the age of 18, trauma can pit us against our bodies for a lifetime. In many ways, our bodies become objects that either hurt, protect or elevate us. This means that eating disorders must be integrated into conversations about survivorship, requiring that the body positive and anti-rape movement work collaboratively.
In her memoir Hunger, author Roxane Gay describes how she used her body for protection following her assault. If she was larger, she thought, perhaps she could safeguard herself from further abuse. Gay draws a clear connection between her trauma and how she felt in her body.
I used my body to elevate myself in the wake of sexual harassment—to rise above the person I had been when it happened.
When I was in high school, the varsity football players concocted a game called the Fantasy Slut League, which turned hooking up into a sport in which varsity football players would draft girls to their “team” with the hope of gaining the most points through activities like make outs, hand jobs, blow jobs, sex and even getting a girl pregnant. It was an open secret in the community that lasted for years, and it continued to feed a widespread culture of sexual harassment in which girls were used as currency in exchange for manhood.
Within this culture, I grew to know myself. It was there where I lived and learned. My nickname “Fat Rack Rosen,” which jumped off the Fantasy Slut League Facebook page and into the halls, reminded me that my breasts were the best part about me. The message quickly became clear: My value rested in how my body looked and how it could be used by others for amusement and pleasure.
In my first year of college, I was determined to make myself untouchable from any kind of harassment—and I decided that the only way to achieve this was to be skinny, ergo beautiful. Instead of making myself throw up as a way to purge, I would work out, which I later learned is called Work Out Bulimia. For hours, five days a week, without fail, I would be at the gym. I held myself to a strict set of rules: no carbs, no sweets, no snacks between meals. It was my ritual to get up, weigh myself and examine every inch of my stomach in the mirror to determine if I was skinny and beautiful enough for the world that day. I never was.
Like Gay, my body became the battleground for the trauma I was fighting to heal. Sexual violence, in all its forms, influences the way survivors connect, feel and live in their body, which directly bonds anti-rape work to the body positive movement. The intersection of healing from trauma and recovering from eating disorders needs to be woven into both of these movements—broadening their ability to serve, and advocate on behalf of, all survivors.