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Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Hidden Secret Behind Weight Loss Failure

“I’ll call her Anna. She believes her weight gain started when she was in the fourth grade. That was the year she moved into her stepfather’s house and he began sexually abusing her. She remembers it was then because she loved the little purple flowers on the wall paper in her new bedroom. She methodically would count the purple petals hoping he would stop touching her by the time she reached one hundred. When I saw her in my office some thirty years later, she was depressed, overweight and didn’t realize her obesity had anything to do with being sexually abused. It was only when she realized that her weight gain was her incredibly resourceful way of trying to protect herself, that she understood. She then could begin to set herself free.”

If you were sexually abused as a child, and have had difficulty releasing weight and keeping it off, you are not alone.  Your weight loss struggles have nothing to do with a lack of willpower. It has nothing to do with finding the right diet or exercise plan. It has nothing to do with “being lazy.” On a subconscious level, gaining excess weight was your solution to the fear of unwanted sexual advances. Compulsive overeating was the only way to self-soothe and self-nurture when no one was available for support. If this reflects your experience, here are three suggestions to help you release weight in a way that is emotionally safe and self-loving.

1)  Safety

Before beginning any weight loss plan, it is important that your current home environment is safe and secure. If you are in a difficult or abusive relationship, or in a strained family situation, deal with this first. Create for yourself an atmosphere of love and support. Before you can release excess weight, your inner child inside, and the adult that you are today, needs to feel safe.

2)  Support

Make sure you have at least one trusted friend or family member that you can talk to about the sexual abuse you experienced and how this may emerge for you as you begin to release weight. Give yourself the gift of professional help. It is not unusual to feel anxious as you start to lose weight because you are letting go of something that, on a deep level, has served to emotionally protect you. It may feel scary. A skilled therapist can help support you through this process and help you to manage overwhelming feelings that may emerge.

3)  Patience

Take your time.  Have patience and realize that this process isn’t just about releasing weight. It’s about releasing your fears and your pain. The longer it takes to release weight the more you can trust that an inner shift is happening. You need that time to transform your thinking and your beliefs so you can develop an emotional readiness to release weight.  And to feel safe. This reassures your inner child that the comfort and familiarity of  excess weight will not be taken away from her before she is ready. Having patience will help you adjust to small, incremental weight loss shifts and the feelings that go along with that. Your developing inner strength then becomes the foundation that will help you release weight with confidence and self-love.

Be gentle with yourself~

In love and peace,

34 Responses

  1. Tina

    Thank you for this blog. I was sexually abused by my brother. I don’t remember for how long, I just remember around when it stopped, around 6th grade. My mother was also quite physically and psychologically abusive. I’m 39, and just now realized that my weight gain started during the sexual abuse or just after it ended. Prior to this, I remember my childhood being fun, after the abuse started I became a different person. I had weightloss surgery, lost 140 pounds, was still over weight and have gained 50 of it back. I’ve seen therapists who keeping telling me to write my feelings down and bring them with me. It seems like they want to talk to the paper and not me.

    I was wondering if you could recommend 1 or more books to read on sexual abuse and weight gain.

    Thank you.

  2. Diane Petrella

    Dear Tina,

    Thank you for your comment and I’m glad you found my blog post useful. You certainly are not alone.

    I’m not aware of any books that discuss the connection between sexual abuse and weight loss, but I am writing about that in my newsletters. If you’re interested and would like to stay in touch, sign up for my newsletter via the link above and make sure you check off sexual abuse and weight loss.

    In the meantime, I hope you will consider speaking to a therapist again. Perhaps the people/person you saw before was just not a good match for you. Keep looking until you find someone with whom you feel comfortable. I hope you will give yourself this gift of support. Do keep in touch. Blessings to you, Diane

    1. Tina


      I couldn’t find the link you referenced allowing me to check off certain interests. “sign up for my newsletter via the link above and make sure you check off sexual abuse and weight loss.”

      I have signed up for the e-news letter but it didn’t give an option to check off interests.

      Can you point me in the right direction?

      1. Diane Petrella

        Hi Tina,
        Thanks for alerting me to that glitch in my system! I fixed it so there now is another box to check off for childhood sexual abuse. I tried to add that for you but I couldn’t find your email address in my newsletter system. If you’d like to email me directly at diane@dianepetrella.com I’ll make sure your email address is in my newsletter list. I haven’t as yet sent separate emails regarding weight release and sexual abuse but I intend to which is why I have a second sign-up box for those interested. Take good care, Diane

  3. Georgina

    I was sexually abused by 4 men that I can absolutely recall. I didn’t have a weight issue until my husband cheated on me and now I have struggled with weight gain and loss for 30 years and am currently 50 pounds overweight. I have joined Curves as they have a good exercise plan that makes sense. I wish all of the readers much success in treating themselves as the Goddess they are!

  4. Diane Petrella

    Thanks for posting, Georgina! I echo your encouragement to all for loving self-care and self-acceptance. Peace to you, Diane

  5. Daine

    I am struggling with my weight I lost 6 stone in 2000 and mostly kept it off but now i am in a relationship i am overeating because i am in a close relationship with a man i love but i have anger towards men.Iwas abused by Dad and a long succession of men and struggle with my body image.i hope by talking about it that it will help both myself and others.

  6. Diane Petrella

    Dear Diane,

    It takes a lot of courage to write about sexual abuse for the first time and I acknowledge your strength for doing so. (It’s easy to transpose letters anyway!)

    What you describe are common themes for people who have been sexually abused. I hope you have, or will seek out, professional support to help you emotionally recover from what you experienced. Others overcome these issues and, with support and appropriate professional help, you can, too.

    I wish you the best, Diane. Take good care of yourself.


  7. Kerryn

    Thanks Diane… I’ll read this a couple of times I think and will seek some professional guidance. I too only came to the realisation recently that my inability to loose weight was due to the abuse I have experienced in my childhood. I realised that I am hiding within the shell I have created, which is excellent at keeping me safe, but I have also created a burden of carrying it around.

    1. Diane Petrella

      Dear Kerryn,
      While a burden now, that shell once was your resourceful way of taking care of yourself. Take your time. As you feel stronger on the inside, the less you will need to hold onto that shell. I hope you seek out the support you need as you move forward in your journey. All best wishes to you, Diane

  8. Maria

    I was sexually abused by my sister when we were young.
    I have never told anybody because at times i feel disgusted with myself. I can’t say i blame her completely she came out a couple of years ago and told us my aunt used to molest her when we were younger. I think i was 3 so she had to be 4. its surprising how even being young so young i remember us goin into our grandmothers room and my sister being molested and at that time of course you don’t know whats happening. My aunt had to have been about 12 years old. For years I have felt so ashamed and dirty I started gaining weight about 9 years old I guess it happened because my sister then started to molest me. For years I felt so weird towards wearing dresses or looking good in an outfit. I’ve always lost about 15 to 20 pounds but of course eventually I gained them back. I haven’t worn a dress in about 12 years and a month ago I wore one and that feeling just kept coming back that shame that filthy feeling. I want to become healthy and stop going towards junk food. Please give me some advice. Should I be mad with my sister or what do I need to do. This is the first time I have admitted this thank you for your website.

    1. Diane Petrella

      Dear Maria,

      You’re right, a young child doesn’t really understand what is happening when they are sexually abused or witnessing someone else being abused. The feelings you describe are not unusual for someone who experienced what you went through.

      I can’t offer you specific advice without knowing you, so I hope you will consider seeking out professional guidance. You ask if you should be mad at your sister. I can’t answer that for you specifically, but I want you to know that it is normal to have mixed emotions towards a close, and loved, family member who has been abusive. Please seek out counseling for yourself so you have someone to help you sort out the many mixed emotions I imagine you have. And also to help you with the feelings you describe regarding your body image and the shame you sometimes feel.

      It takes courage to write for the first time what you shared. That courage inside of you will help you move through this. I wish you all the best, Maria. Blessings, Diane

      1. Maria

        Thanks Diane I honestly thought you wouldn’t answer but thank you for taking time for me . I will take your advice because i am tired of feeling this way. Its time to move on and become a happier person.

        1. admin

          Hi Maria,
          I’m glad you will consider counseling. It’s important to have support to help you in this process.
          I wish you all the best.
          Warm wishes,

  9. Diane Ryan

    Hi Diane thank you for your articles. I love them. I have done a lot of work on releasing the pain of the sexual abuse and so on but I still struggle with the weight. Yes indeed as one of your articles say I am afraid to loose the weight. The indulgences are my friends (how weird is that) and I feel that I will be lost and lonely without my weight. Again that seems strange to me although that is the truth of the matter. I guess I feel I will feel vulnerable with the weight gone.
    At the same time I loathe myself for he excess weight that I have on my body my abdomen especially.
    Thank you for your inspiring articles.

    1. Diane Petrella

      Dear Diane,

      You’re very welcome! I’m so glad you find my articles inspiring and thank you for your feedback.

      Yes, fear is often underneath the difficulties experienced by those who struggle with their weight. And it’s not weird at all what you said about indulgences being your friend.

      At the same time, I hope you will begin to discover other ways to indulge and comfort yourself. Ways that will help you feel more uplifted in the long run. The fact you already have done a lot of work on releasing the pain of the sexual abuse is such an important step. I hope you continue seeking out that kind of support as you move forward in your weight release journey.

      I hope my articles continue to offer you inspiration. Thanks again for your comments and I wish you well.


  10. Donna

    I’m so glad that I was sent one of your newsletters by a friend of mine. I was sexually abused from about 5 yrs old until I was 16 by my father. I have been overweight all of my life – some years worse than others but I’ve been able to maintain a range of 150 – 165 lbs. But I’ve been gaining about 2 lbs a week in the past 4 months and after reading your blog, I now realize that I’m “preparing” myself for my son’s upcoming wedding in which my father will be attending. My inner child is definitely not feeling safe and I have to change that. Thank you so much for writing about this!

    1. Diane Petrella

      Dear Donna,

      I’m glad my newsletter helped you make this connection. It certainly is understandable that your “inner child” would be feeling unsafe. I sense the strength behind your comment, “I have to change that” and I trust you will!

      I hope that this awareness helps you better manage your feelings, connect with your inner strength and release old fears so that you can comfortably enjoy this special time of your son’s marriage.

      All best wishes to you~


      1. Diane Ryan

        Hi all as a survivor of child sexual abuse I can say that I am doing everything healthy that I can to clear this out of my life.
        Last year I availed the services of a councillor we did Trauma Clearing which is a type of clearing where the survivor describes and actually re lives as far as possible going back to the time and place and recalls everything in as vivid detail as possible of the events of the abuse that has the most charge i.e. most pain most shock etc. The episodes of abuse that has the most charge were reviewed until there was no or little charge left.

        It is not to be entered into by the faint of heart but I was so tired of the big emotional spiritual boulder on my chest from the sexual abuse that I went for it. I cried buckets of tears. But the thing is that I had never cried before. The shock and pain from the abuse was still in my body, mind and spirit.

        Going through the Trauma clearing process was the best thing I could have done for myself.

        I am still a work in progress there is much more to clear out of my being like normal things like deaths of pets and relatives as well as other childhood situations that I could not respond to in a healthy way to due to lack of a sympathic adults. I am feeling so much better in general. I really hope we all will clear as much of the reminants of abuse from our body minds and spirits as we can. It will make us stronger and we will be able to let the fat go.

        Love you all

        1. admin

          Dear Diane,

          Thank you for your email and staying in contact. While I’m not familiar with the exact trauma clearing process you went through, that type of therapy can be incredibly profound and powerful. I’m so glad to hear it was so healing for you.

          You make a very good point about releasing the remnants of abuse “to let the fat go.” As “weight” is released from the mind, it is released from the body.

          Thank you so much for instilling hope and inspiring others by sharing your process and progress.

          Sending you warm thoughts.

          Love and Peace,

  11. HC

    I just found your website. I’m a survivor of my brother molesting me from 3rd grade until 9th when he joined the Navy to “get away from” me. I started putting on weight after when a guy gave me a necklace. Attention from a male sent me into a tailspin.

    I’m now 48 and in process of getting divorced from 17 yr marriage. I have been getting progressively fatter all my life, up to 195 in Oct. Then I joined a weightloss group online and lost 20 lbs by the end of Dec and felt strong and motivated. I served papers in late Dec 2011, broke my finger after falling in Jan, and slipped into a bad depression. I am now 185 and even more depressed.

    Trouble is I’m now looking to move into my own life, I find myself bingeing. I feel that I’m not worthy of a new life, new job, new love due to my weight. How can I stop this behavior. Years of therapy has opened my eyes to what I’m doing, but that knowledge just doesn’t sink into my psyche where the abused child lives.

    1. Diane

      Dear HC,

      Thank you for sharing your story. I hear your pain. Please don’t give up on therapy. Keep searching for the right person to work with, someone you feel comfortable and safe with. Someone who will help you heal and comfort the abused child within. Psychology Today (www.psychologytoday.com) has a therapist finder link where you can find someone in your local area. Perhaps that will help.

      I wish you much peace and serenity.

      Much love,

  12. Diane Ryan

    Hi Diane

    Another thing that I found helpful to me as I go on my journey to health and healing from the sexual abuse. It seems at one point I was hung up with trying to figure out ‘why my abuser abused me.’ ‘What made him do it to me?’ ‘Why me?’ ‘ What was he thinking etc.’
    After awhile I realized that this kind of questions were getting me no where and I vowed to myself God, goddess and the universe that I would be putting all of my energy into healing myself and not spend one second in trying to figure my abuser out.

    The abusers issue was his issue not mind.{He died when I was 17 years old} I feel trying to figure out what was in my abusers head was an exercise in futility. It wasted my precious time and my good energy that is much better spent on doing healing work on myself. I vow to heal to do whatever it takes to get this behind me and asking the universe to lead me to those who can help me heal.
    Not everyone is qualified to help sexual abuse survivors to heal. I have been to some really poor therapists. So caution is advised when seeking therapists. Oh the other hand I do advise that there are those who can help. The main thing is not to be discouraged. If you find you are stagnating and not healing ask yourself; “what can I do today, tomorrow and the next day to further my healing process??”

    Love and blessings to all.

  13. Pam

    I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.
    Even writing a comment here sends a chill down my spine. But now, I feel at peace with the knowledge that I am not alone.
    Thank you for your hopeful words!

    1. Diane

      Dear Pam, You’re very welcome. No, you are certainly not alone. I send you warm thoughts of healing and love. Blessings, Diane

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