Fat, Feminism, Health at Every Size, Self-Image

Resources on Body Image and Domestic Violence?

A reader who works with victims of domestic violence writes:

After speaking with my boss, she and I agree that FA and HAES could have a big role to play in our self-care initiatives. While economic issues and pure justified fear are the leading reasons women stay in violent relationships, self-esteem is way up there. I don’t think it is any coincidence that 80% (my estimate) of our clientele is fat and I’d say 100% have negative relationships with their bodies. I was hoping y’all might know of some work that’s been done that has tied the benefits of FA to recovering from or dealing with domestic violence? There are things concerning generic body image that I’ve found, but I’d like to be able to be more specific if at all possible. Any insight you could give would be much appreciated.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of anything to suggest. Shapelings, can you help?

33 thoughts on “Resources on Body Image and Domestic Violence?”

  1. First of all, what a GREAT IDEA!!! I am so glad your boss is on board. I don’t know of anything off the top of my head, but it makes perfect sense. Body hate is most definitely used as a weapon by abusers. I have an internet acquaintance who experienced this and was basically forced to have WLS.

    I would think there would be something, maybe not overtly fat studies, but something in the realm of domestic violence and the employment of body hate or weight-related abuse.

  2. I don’t know of any so I’m no help, but I was JUST thinking about this last night while laying in bed unable to sleep.

    I was trying to design a (fictional) study to look at the intersection of your relationship with your body and your relationships with others, specifically in regards to domestic violence.

    I would like to ask your readers to get out of my head, thank you.

  3. Body image is used as a weapon in abusive relationships. It’s one of the ways they beat you down to make you stay think:

    “You’re not pretty enough to be with anyone. Really you’re lucky I’m with you”

    “If you didn’t have those fat ass (insert body part), maybe I could get aroused by you”

    “Really no one wants a fat ass who talks back, so shut up bitch”

    I think there are studies out there that talk about this in a general aspect the breaking down of women to control them, however most women really internalize the weight comments as true, more so then any of the other name calling, because we’re taught that we are fat from TV from strangers whatever.

    Though it would be a good study

  4. It’s anecdata only, but all the women I know who were in abusive relationships were fat and/or had eating disorders while in them (if not beyond them as well). In other words, some were fat, some were fat and had eating disorders, some were thin or skinny and had eating disorders. They also generally came from abusive families and so weren’t mentally healthy to begin with.

  5. Wow. I have nothing of value to add, but OMG I LOVE THIS. What a fabulous way to use it. Could the questioner use themselves as the first pilot study? I’m sure that if they went looking around the movement they ought to find some researchers who would be willing to oversee a clinical trial, as it were, of adding in HAES and body acceptance to domestic abuse counseling.

  6. At my job we deal with domestic violence victims from time to time. One was a very fat woman, and her abusive husband was skinny. She actually did come right out and say that she stayed with this man because she felt with her looks, she couldn’t get anyone else. Although we tried to tell her that having a man is not the be-all and end-all of her life, and we tried to boost her extremely low self-esteem, she ended up leaving our program and went back to her abuser. We feared she would end up dead. This was over two years ago, and I hope she did leave him.

    Using weight and appearance as part of the abuse is one factor you really don’t hear about. Oh sometimes, it will be a topic on Maury or Dr. Phil for shock value, but it is something that needs to be addressed. Because in many cases, the victims aren’t fat at all but they are still told they are ugly, fat, no other man would want them, etc. To many women, that’s even worse than the violence.

  7. (delurk)
    Abusive or no, I think a lot of women, and fat women especially, stay in bad relationships because they’re convinced no-one else would have them.

    Even women who were raised in very supportive, loving families and who haven’t had any history of directly abusive relationships still do this.

    Desirability as a sex partner is directly tied into value as a human being for women. And since desirability is directly tied into conventional attractiveness, youth, femininity, passivity, etc., many women who don’t fit those qualities assume that they’re worthless, thus making them easy pickings for people who don’t want to bother being a decent person to the people they date.

    I had the confidence to leave a relationship with a guy who actually did physically attack me (among other charming behavior) but I had a hell of a time leaving a 7-year relationship with another guy who was chronically self-obsessed, was working out his mommy issues with me and who couldn’t hold down a job to save his life because I was so grateful that someone–anyone–wanted to be with me that I put up with his shit for that long.

    Even after I got out of that, it took me a few years to really accept the love and respect I got from the guy I started dating after that (whom I eventually married.) I just couldn’t believe that someone I liked treated me so well.

  8. I got into an emotionally abusive relationship in college, and described the situation to a subsequent bf thusly: “I hated myself and the way I looked, so I sought out a guy who hated me too. I shouldn’t have listened to what he said about me and my body, but he was just saying out loud what I was already thinking about myself.”
    The only way I was able to break the cycle was to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance–I’m actually quite bright and have talents no one else does, no matter what my weight. Fat rolls do not cancel out great musical ability, athletic ability, a kind heart, selflessness, etc. If those things have value, then I have value–and I don’t deserve to be treated like this! Baby steps yet giant leaps towards independence and self-acceptance…

  9. They also generally came from abusive families and so weren’t mentally healthy to begin with.

    Ehhhh A lot of women who get into abusive relationships and come non-abusive homes. Actually a lot of women, because falling into the cycle of abuse is easier then people realize, especially if you’ve never been in an abusive relationship

    But yes a lot of women are fat and/or have an eating disorder, when it occurs though isn’t universal, some develop it before hand and some after…

  10. I don’t know that there are things about this topic specifically, but there are studies about the effects of weight bias on fat folks. That might be a way to start, then link that to the studies you know of that involve self-esteem or general body esteem and domestic violence.

    I just did a quick Google and Chapter 11 in Weight Bias (book) is titled: “Social Consequences of Weight Bias by Partners, Friends, and Strangers.”

  11. I totally agree that there is a connection. Most fat women are constantly told, by everyone around them, that simply because they are fat they are also worthless. My ex husband, who was abusive, would bring up my body constantly. I felt like crap about myself, and for a long time, I believed that no one out there could love me the way I was. Luckily I was able to get out of that relationship, and now I feel pretty friggin awsome about myself, but I’m sure that there are a lot of women out there who aren’t so fortunate.

  12. i also work with victims of domestic violence for a living. I am not sure if its too much to generalize that most are overweight. i think they come in a wide range of body sizes. The only thing that makes them all the same is that they all have zero self-esteem. In all my my group and individual sessions I discuss self-esteem and positive body traits and loving the skin you are in. Its a hard concept for all of them.

  13. I can’t really help, but I’d also suggest that fat somewhat correlates with lower on the socio-economic heirarchy, as do certain sorts of outreach and contact activities.

    Certainly, all sorts of hate are used to wound in domestic violence, and fat is an easy target that no woman in our society hasn’t been heavily exposed to. So I don’t disagree this is a huge lever. I recognize it from my thin but dating buttheads days.

    However. I’d move gently into any realm where we suggest causation or any overmuch grouping of “fat” and “abused” for reasons of confounding wealth and culture. In part because this translates quickly into “Being abused? Lose weight!” in the way medicine is viewing fat these days. Always causal and reversable. But also because domestic abuse isn’t just a poor or fat or marginalized women’s thing, although for certain groups domestic abuse might be more visible.

  14. Perhaps look at work done regarding domestic violence in GLBTIQ communities, and rehabilitating the survivors thereof? It occurs to me that since the cultural male-female dynamics aren’t entirely at work and thus would probably hold a little less power than in heterosexual relationships, body-shaming, undermining self-esteem and self-worth, etc., would be a method commonly (heavily?) used, and survivors would need methods specifically tailored to that predominance, which could cross over into domestic violence work as a whole.

    I don’t know if I’m right, or if there is a lot of work being done on that issue at all, but it’s a thought, so there you go.

  15. Helping people leave domestic violence situations is great.

    Helping people with FA and body acceptance is also great.

    Generalising that 100% of people who have been in domestic violence situations have bad relationships with their body is not.

    Perhaps, though, your un-named reader didn’t mean that there is a causal link between being fat or having bad body image (not the same thing) and being in a violent relationship? Like fat people are more likely to put up with being bashed?

    Perhaps she simply meant that women who are in or have left domestic violence situations often have poor self esteem due to the physical, verbal and psychological abuse they have suffered?

    I hope it was the latter. Because the former would imply that, for all her good intentions, she was making judgements based on negative perceptions of her client’s size. .

    Being fat and having poor self esteem are not the same thing.

  16. Hmm, I’m tempted to say that correlation is not causation. I mean, I’m not sure you can say that it’s not a coincidence that 80% of your clients are fat and that 100% of them have poor self esteem. I’d posit that the size of your clients is a coincidence or rather is related to the percentage (proportion?) of the population that is fat, as opposed to concluding that fat women are abused more than thinner women.

    I think it’s not a coincidence that 100% of your clients of any size have poor self esteem (and actually, I’d hesitate to say 100%, as I don’t know these women) since they’re survivors of domestic violence.

    (Anecdotal story: a very thin friend of mine survived and left an abusive first husband who forced her to run mile after mile on the local track because she kept gaining a few pounds here and there even after he limited her food–turned out she was pregnant. And that was it for her, her time to get out.)

  17. Hmm, I’m tempted to say that correlation is not causation.

    Where is she suggesting causation? I’m really not sure why this thread took that turn. Correlation is exactly what she’s talking about — the correlations between negative body image and low self-esteem, and between low self-esteem and domestic violence. You don’t have to prove any causation there to believe it’s a good idea to help DV victims raise their self-esteem, and address body image issues as part of that program.

    As for the percentages, she says “my estimate” right there, and makes it clear that she’s talking about the women she works with, not DV victims in general. The fact that a very large percentage of the victims she sees are fat could have to do with geography, socioeconomic status, or other factors — but no one’s suggesting those numbers apply to the general population of DV victims, or that thin women can’t be abused. (Or that thin women don’t suffer from poor body image, for that matter. Note she says it’s all of her clients who seem to have negative relationships with their bodies, not just the fat ones.) She’s talking about the specific clients she works with.

    Given that in the general population over 80% of women wish they were thinner, it honestly would not surprise me to learn that damn near 100% of women who have very poor self-images — which women who have been abused usually do, because of the abuse — also have negative feelings about their bodies.

    As others have said (and as Tuppence’s anecdote supports) women of all sizes in abusive relationships often hear that they’re “too fat” and too ugly, because that’s a surefire way of keeping a woman believing that she’s too worthless to be loved by anyone better. Again, over 80% of women in general are already predisposed to believe they’re too fat. This culture sets us up to believe that A) a woman’s primary value is in her looks, and B) an ounce of fat is too much. So an abuser does not even have to work very hard to convince a woman she’s too fat and therefore worthless — which is why that’s such a common method of control in abusive relationships.

    Being fat and having poor self esteem are not the same thing.

    Well, no shit. I mean, I’m sorry to be snarky, Fatadelic, ’cause I’m a fan of yours, but can we please think about context here? Obviously, the entire purpose of this blog is to promote the message that fatness does not require low self-esteem. But we have not changed the world yet. The reality is that for the vast majority of western women, abused or no, fatness is correlated with poor body image and low self-esteem. Most people have still never heard of Fat Acceptance, and it’s almost impossible to grow up in American society, at least, without absorbing the message that fat makes you bad, bad, bad. And when we’re talking about fat women who already see themselves as basically worthless, who have had the message that they are worthless pounded into their heads by abusers — in some cases since childhood — it’s really not unreasonable to assume that those women probably aren’t happy with their bodies.

  18. Hey,
    I’m the e-mail writer. I really appreciate everyone’s comments. I just wanted to make clear that though I might have garbled it in my e-mail, I wasn’t trying to imply that fat automatically= in an abusive relationship or that fat automatically= low self-esteem. I am fat and do not fall into either of those categories. I was summarizing for time’s sake and may not have been as clear as I would have liked.

    DV victims come in all shapes, sizes, color, socio-economic and family backgrounds. However, the demographic we end up working with tends to either be fat, or simply think they are fat. And because of the abuse they have endured and just society’s messages in general they tend to have low self-esteem tied up in their body image. Or they have mentally seperated themselves from their body entirely as a survival mechanism. Either way I think that FA and HAES techniques could be very beneficial to the women we serve. Thanks again though, the thread has helped me find some direction.

  19. I work with the unnamed reader, and I also think it’s significant to point out for the sake of conversation that the women to whom she refers are residents of our safehouse. Though we don’t typically refer to it this way, it is basically a homeless shelter for women (in an Urban, Southern, heavily African-American community) who have no other place to go once they leave the abusive relationship. Therefore there are a lot of other issues in play such as poverty, lack of a social/familial network, etc. We have women of all sizes seeking our services, but it is noteworthy for us that a majority of the women residing in our safehouse are fat. We spend a lot of time working with women on self esteem and health body image generally, but because there is such a high percentage of fat women in this population, we wanted to incorporate a FA piece into our programming because we think that it will be beneficial to a good number of these women.

  20. we wanted to incorporate a FA piece into our programming because we think that it will be beneficial to a good number of these women.

    Let me just reiterate that I think this is a terrific idea, and I’m thrilled that you’re doing it.

  21. @rachelgbd: Crap, I’m sorry! The comment I should’ve made first before I got caught up in semantics is about what kateharding said above. This is an awesome idea and I wish I had any actual answer to your question of sources and information. It’s easy for someone to say that you’re not ugly/fat/worthless but so often words from a counselor or friend are just that, words. The idea that there’s a whole movement of body acceptance and self love is really powerful and I’m hoping you can harness that for your shelter.

    @kateharding: Ow, my poor seat. but sometimes a good swift kick reminds me to pull my head away from the trees and take a better look at the forest.

  22. @KH & Rachelgbd. Yes, I apologize, too. Yo was not making correlative links and that’s clear, and I think FA is a great idea *everywhere*.

  23. I have no training or studies or anything proven to offer; but perhaps some posters of classic art or, given that your clients are African American, African art showing larger women as attractive and capable would help? If your safe house has computer access, you could also visit adipositivity and discuss positive images of fat women?

    I also really enjoy a series of mysteries about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which is set in Botswana and has a “traditionally built” heroine, who is clever, kind, and generous; but no fool. They are some of my favorite feel-good books to read because they are basically optimistic and present a fat woman as competent and successful.

    And, since the LW is fat and confident and in a loving relationship; I suspect that she is a good example herself. Give the women a reason to identify with her and they’ll believe they too are just as worthwhile.

    Exposing people to the idea of HAES is a good thing, along with critiquing society’s messages that thin is good. Simply giving these women some information about how fat is not a moral failing, and that they can trust their own bodies would seem to me to be empowering and possibly help them realize their own value. Being able to trust that your body knows it needs food is parallel to trusting your own heart that you need comfort, not abuse. I’m not stating this quite clearly, I hope it’s understandable.

    I’ve heard of a couple studies that help verify that HAES is a good thing, but I don’t know the links offhand. There’s one that shows that people who are divided into a dieting group versus a HAES group has the HAES group having better medical outcomes and better stick-with-it-ness than the dieting group. The other was only partly HAES, but studied teens taught that exercise was a good thing and how to critique the skinny images in fashion mags compared to teens left alone. The ones taught HAES as a group ended up thinner (less dieting), fewer eating disorders(less dieting), and better self-esteem. Good science is showing that HAES has positive outcomes, where dieting is pretty useless. I think these could be useful.

    Best of luck, abuse and its consequences are awful things.

  24. This i quite interesting for me, because I have too been in a emotionally abusive relationship while I was fat, and where my probably biggest reason to stay with him was that that I felt no other man wanted me because of my body.

    Since then I’ve realised I’m a lesbian, and this have given me some additional perspectives on this. One thing is that a woman has come to believe that she is undesirable, another thing is that she feels she has to be physically (sp?) attractive no matter the cost to her life and her mental self. It’s not only her body-image that is taken hostage in abusive relationships; it’s the very idea of her worth as a human being. The lesson is that if she’s not in relationship with a man, she practically a waste and disposable. Therefore she will stay with a man who is hurting be, because she is too afraid to be a ‘failure’.

    Maybe it would be interesting to take a look in the abused womans socio-economic position in society. My experience is that a lot of upper-middle class women can choose the ‘single life’ while this is not an opportunity for a lot of financialluy poor women. And we all know that obesity rates is closely linked to poverty rates.

    Just a thought.

  25. Oh I’m sorry about the misspelling and grammatical errors. English isn’t my native language and I’m still struggling to get it right.

  26. Most people have still never heard of Fat Acceptance, and it’s almost impossible to grow up in American society, at least, without absorbing the messagethat fat makes you bad, bad, bad.

    Agreed. The FA / BA message is good for everyone to hear.

    And when we’re talking about fat women who already see themselves as basically worthless, who have had the message that they are worthless pounded into their heads by abusers — in some cases since childhood — it’s really not unreasonable to assume that those women probably aren’t happy with their bodies.

    Kate, my original unease was with the statement:
    ‘I don’t think it is any coincidence that 80% (my estimate) of our clientele is fat’. Not a coincidence? Why exactly?

    Which, I am sure you will agree, is an entirely different kettle of fish to Amber’s clarification a little later on:
    We have women of all sizes seeking our services, but it is noteworthy for us that a majority of the women residing in our safehouse are fat.

    You can see the difference, yes?

    Slightly off topic, I understand that for someone who hasn’t lived through domestic violence, it is incomprehensible why women stay as long as they do. Nevertheless, women who have been in violent relationships have serious fucking survival skills, developed out of necessity. They deserve respect for that fact alone.

    While abuse causes self-doubt and PTS, the fact that these women have extracted themselves from the abuse, that they were able to draw the line, say the final ‘no more’ and LEAVE shows that they had a core sense of their own worth (‘I am worth saving, I am worth more than this’).

    Gah. Like I said. Taking it personally.

  27. I think research into this subject would not only be interesting, but could potentially be of some use when it comes to understanding the mentality of domestic violence victims. I’ve been trying to look up information which correlates body image issues, like weight, with domestic violence, and I was surprised to find such little information on the subject.

    Regarding comments made about “fat” women having lower self esteems and skinny people having image delusions of being “fat” I don’t know if this can be asserted as fact. I know plenty of fuller figure women with healthy self esteems, just like I know skinny women who are constantly ridiculed for being thin. From what I have found thus far, many of these women actually resent being small and wish they were larger. This is most likely due to the fact that female sexual characteristics, or femininity, is often associated with women who have more meat on their bones.

  28. I have suffered from PCOS for 42 years, and am currently disabled and a survivor of DV who counsels other survivors. (My website is linked to my name above)

    Body Image has a LOT to do with DV — men use women’s “fear of fat” or, as in my case — PCOS related weight (I have only been ‘fat’ about 10 of my 51 years on the planet – NONE of it from being out of control with food! All of it from medication for my disability). Many abusers are porn addicts and porn feeds the perfect women’s body mindset along with TV, advertising, and the rise of the cosmetic surgery industry. Here’s an internet note I personally recieved from an ex who was stalking me online and has continued to play victim (a typical abuser move – called “Projection”) when his wife found out he was cheating or trying to cheat with a number of other women. (Don’t worry I had said NO to him! probably why he was angry…;) )

    …”You got him to agree to meet up with you.

    “When he did meet up with you, to his horror, he saw that his ex-girlfriend from college had ballooned into a 275 lb fat pig with poor hygiene and he didn’t want to bang you. He politely excused himself by saying he couldn’t do this to his wife.

    You then began stalking him and his family, driving by his house, sending letters to his wife, his parents, his in-laws, his rabbi, the police, anyone with whom you thought you could slander his good name. His poor wife was left with no choice but to report you to the police after you threatened to harm her children.

    Sound familiar porkchop?”

    Of course, being disabled there was no way I could have done any of these things I was accused of doing here. Don’t worry, I have a C&D out on this person and the police are well informed of his stalking and outright threats made against me… but its just an example of how abusive persons try to hurt women like me by throwing their weight in their faces like a weapon.

    For example, in the U.K. they rarely want to treat the “morbidly obese” for anything but a gastric bypass. “Better dead than fat” is the watch-phrase. (no thought to maybe your weight being something that has ZERO to do with food!)

    Of course the stress & cortisol of the severe trauma & PTSD caused by ANY abuse (verbal, emotional, mental, financial, spiritual – and physical) causes weight gain too. I personally had a marriage counselor say to me that my husband would “love me again” if I “just lost some weight.” Despite reems of reports telling this ‘counselor’ that my weight was medically caused it was all she could see. She looked right past my exes BLATANT verbal, emotional & sexual abuse. All she saw was my extra 60 lbs.

    This is one of the best articles I have seen on the subject:


    Other than that there are scant resources for body image & domestic violence issues though I continue to look!

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