When I ask people how they think trauma interacts with body size, I often hear statements like, “I’m really bad when it comes to eating my feelings,” or “I overindulge in comfort food.” These self-shaming messages echo the messages of conventional weight loss programs and books. First, something made you upset, and then the thing you did to take care of yourself afterward…well, you should feel upset about that, too. It’s pretty insidious.
However, the intersection of trauma and weight is far more complex. Trauma is often inflicted by and linked with forms of oppression, from sexism and misogyny to racism and classism. Instead of being encouraged to confront the oppression, we are shamed for being injured and then told we are injuring ourselves further if we happen to turn to food. This ignores the body’s wisdom and self-protective impulses.
My work with Isabella, which I share more extensively in my new book, You Can’t Judge a Body by Its Cover, illustrates a valuable example of what’s possible when we acknowledge the body’s response with a loving and curious approach.
Isabella began working with me in part because she had gained weight and was unhappy with her appearance and herself.
I asked, “Did you gain the weight during one specific period of time, or was gradual?” I asked because often, rapid weight gain is the body’s response to a specific traumatic occurrence.
“Actually, I did gain it rather quickly,” she answered. “About three years ago, I was at a weight that I liked, and then, I gained sixty-five pounds over the course of two months.”
“What was going on in your life at that time when this all started?”
Isabella thought for a moment, and then she began to tell me about how a man had befriended her on social media. Let’s call him Paul. He seemed trustworthy and kind, and they developed a friendship that she grew to appreciate. But then, all of a sudden, Paul’s behavior veered into deeply creepy territory. He started sending her sexually explicit messages, and when she rebuffed him, he continued. He even escalated the abuse by finding out her phone number and leaving her obscene voice mails.
That situation alone was traumatic enough on its own, but it also activated memories of an earlier sexual assault by a teacher when she was thirteen.
As she was telling me about this online harasser, she said, “By the way, as I’m talking about this, I notice my hands are getting numb and I feel dizzy.”
“Whoa, let’s slow down,” I said. “Are there other parts of you that aren’t numb? What’s it like in that part of your body?” I was thinking that maybe she was out of touch with the inner strength she needed to deal with that story.
“I don’t know,” Isabella said. “I’m getting really numb. I’m not really here anymore. I’m
not feeling so well.”
I said, “I hear you, you’re not doing so well. What would make you feel safer?”
I could see just hearing my question helped a little bit. I was showing her that I cared about her, and I valued her own wisdom about what she needed.
“Right now I feel a little bit less dizzy.”
“If you were to be really safe, what would you do?”
“I think I would go to my bed and go under the covers. That would feel safe.” Her psyche was saying, I need safety. Don’t try to get me to be strong. Don’t give me the message that I should be up to something. I’m over my head. I’m in a trauma zone.
“And what’s it like under the blankets?” I said, asking her about what she is imagining.
“Do you feel safe naked?”
“Would you like to put on some clothes?”
“Yes, I would.”
“What would you put on?”
“I’d put on my sweatpants and my sweatshirt…OK, that feels a little better.”
“What would feel even better?” I asked.
“I’d put on more sweatshirts and sweatpants.”
“I’d put on three sweatshirts,” she said.
“Okay. Imagine you could put on the three sweatshirts.” There was a pause.
“Oh, that feels a lot better,” she said.
I was blown away by that. She had been at a weight she was happy with. She made a new friend who gained her trust and then assaulted her with his sexually violent statements. This traumatized her. Her psyche responded by saying, “I would like be in bed, covered in a blanket. And I’d like to put on three sweatpants and three sweatshirts,” which she did in the form of weight gain. We discussed how her body is so intelligent that it said, “I need to have more around me. This is not a safe world. I think I’m going to put some layers on.”
As we talked about it more, she said, “By the way, I had no sense when I started gaining weight that had anything to do with that man and his behavior. I just thought I was gaining weight, and I was behaving badly because I was eating so much.”
Can you see how shame entered the picture? It’s a very specific shame. Not just “Oh, I’m eating and I shouldn’t be eating.” It’s the shame of “I shouldn’t be responding to violence in a self-protective way.” That shame was amplified by an internalized sexism that blames victims and shames them for their responses to male violence and objectification.
If, at the beginning of our conversation, I had proposed, “Why don’t you just lose some weight? I’ll help you,” then I’d be complicit with Isabella’s internalized shaming message of “There’s no reason to protect yourself by putting on layers.” That wouldn’t have been my intended message, but that’s what her psyche would have heard.
Because I was curious about whether it was a trauma story—because I asked her about how fast she gained weight, and what was going on at the time—I was able to see she was actually doing something very right, trying to protect herself, not wrong, as in “Gaining weight is bad, and you need to go on a diet.”
Her “diet” needed to take the form of a safe, supportive reckoning with her earlier sexual assault, as well as this re-injury inflicted by Paul. Taking her need for safety seriously, had to be part of her weight loss strategy. We needed to celebrate her body’s wisdom, and thank it for responding appropriately – an approach would dismantle the shame that was keeping her stuck, instead of doubling down on the injuries these men had inflicted on her.