Sexual Abuse and Body Image

Contributor: Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Coordinator at Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope

bird-692162_640Sadly, sexual abuse and trauma is a reality that many individuals face and struggle with in their lifetime. According to the American Psychological Association, sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats against, or taking advantage of victims who may not be able to give consent1.

Sexual abuse can happen to women and men regardless of age, background, ethnicity, culture, or socioeconomic status. Sexual abuse can occur by a partner, a known family member, relative, friend or complete stranger.

The Severe Impact of Sexual Abuse

Acts of sexual abuse are a direct defilement of a victim’s body and create intense distress, suffering, and grief. Because of the severity of this trauma, a person who has suffered with sexual abuse may feel uncertain about how to process the intense emotions that often result from the defiled acts that have been performed against them.

Sexual abuse can cause a victim to feel disgusted with his or her own body. Other such feelings that a victim may experience as a result of sexual abuse include repulsiveness and hatred towards himself or herself as well as towards the perpetrator.

Why It’s So Difficult to Escape Abuse

walking-386718_640Because of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse against a person’s physical and emotional being, a victim may be manipulated toward thinking that the defilement against them was somehow their fault or that they are to blame for the mishap and chaos that they are suddenly experiencing.

Research has demonstrated that victims of sexual abuse and trauma experience a more complex symptom pattern, including increased negativity towards their body, compared with persons who have undergone non-sexual trauma or no trauma2.

A victim of sexual abuse may also develop a mental disorder, which results from the trauma they have experienced, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, an eating disorder, severe anxiety, depression or other mood disorders. Poor or negative body image may co-occur with any of these mental illnesses.

Addressing the Complex Needs of Abuse Victims

Since individuals who have experienced sexual trauma suffer from a more complicated pattern of symptoms compared to those individuals with nonsexual trauma, treatment must also be multifaceted to address these complex concerns. This includes treatment methods that help a victim of sexual abuse and trauma heal from a negative perception of their own body.

In order to effectively heal from sexual trauma and subsequent negative body image, professional treatment is often needed. Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of trauma-oriented psychotherapy, which focuses on relieving trauma-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

Psychosomatic reintegration can also be helpful in overcoming sexual abuse and alleviating symptoms associated with sexual abuse and trauma2. A person who has suffered with sexual abuse may find peace with their own body by seeking out body-oriented forms of psychotherapy, which can help increase their body acceptance and restore a balance between bodily experience and self2.

Healing and Restoring Your Life

walking-299218_640If you or a loved one has been a victim of sexual abuse, it is important to know that you can find healing and restoration in your own life. Knowing that you were not at fault from the wrong that has been done against you is also important.

It can be difficult to make sense of the trauma that you have experienced or to know how to pick up the pieces of a life that now seems disheveled. However broken and beyond repair you may feel or seem, know that there is help and hope for healing – step by step, one day at a time, you can get there.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Sexual abuse can be an extremely difficult trauma to overcome and heal from. If you or someone you love has had the opportunity to heal and recover from sexual trauma, what resources and tools were helpful to you in your journey? What encouragement might you offer to others who have found themselves in a similar type of situation?


  1. American Psychological Association, “Sexual Abuse”, Accessed 24 June 2015
  2. Iadep Foundation, “Trauma’s Effect on Body Image: Sexual Trauma can lead to more negative body image, especially among women.” Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review July/August 2012 Volume 21, Number 4. Accessed 24 June 2015

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 7th, 2015
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