The Effects of Sexual Assault on Body Image

Body image is how you feel about your physical self. Body image encompasses physical attributes visible to everyone, such as facial features and weight, as well as those features that are more private, such as sex organs. People with positive body image are comfortable with their bodies. They accept flaws and feel good about the total package. People with negative body image are dissatisfied with the way that they look. Negative body image is usually associated with feelings of inadequacy related to not measuring up to an ideal. People with poor body image may have a distorted perception of the way that they look or the way that others see them.

How Culture Impacts Body Image

We are already at a disadvantage when it comes to cultivating a positive body image. Historically, women especially have gone to extreme lengths to alter their bodies to meet society’s beauty ideals. For a millennium, the Chinese viewed tiny feet as the ultimate standard of beauty in women. Older women bound the feet of the female children in the family starting at an early age, often shaping the foot by breaking the four smaller toes and the arch. Children were crippled and put through agonizing pain. Women hobbled about and were unable to perform manual labor or stray far from the home. Those whose feet were never bound or whose feet still ended up too large were unlikely to find a suitable marriage. Men found the deformed feet highly erotic, and women encouraged the practice so that their daughters could marry comfortably. Foot binding is now considered an extreme form of body modification. However, body modification is practiced today in socially acceptable ways. We go to great lengths to live up to the ideals of beauty that are glorified in magazines, movies, and music videos. Many women fight to stay thin by purging or starving themselves. They get liposuction, breast implants, and Botox injections. Men search for penis enlargements and the cure for baldness. We continue to chase after that ideal, regardless of its practicality or attainability. The result is a society teeming with self-conscious individuals. Corporations stand at the ready to capitalize on our anxiety. In 2011, the top 100 beauty companies raked in a total of $195.36 billion internationally. Despite a troubled economy, the sale of skin care products in the U.S. increased by 14% and cosmetics by 9%. Americans underwent about 1.6 million cosmetic surgeries and 12.2 million non-surgical cosmetic procedures.

How Sexual Assault Impacts Body Image

We are already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to accepting and loving our bodies. Sexual assault complicates this problem even further. A survivor of abuse may hate her body because it aroused dangerous feelings in another person. Abusers often lead their victims to believe that they “wanted it,” especially if they notice a physical response to the abuse. The survivor may feel like the body cannot be trusted, or is disgusting, seductive, shameful, or dangerous. These feelings can manifest themselves in self-mutilation and sexual dysfunction. Eating disorders can also develop from an attempt to regain control of one’s life. Some survivors starve themselves, binge, or binge/purge as a means of coping with the trauma of the abuse. Other factors that may influence whether or not a survivor develops an eating disorder are low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Body changes that occur during puberty can also create feelings of inadequacy. One theory explaining how abuse impacts body image states that survivors of childhood abuse often endure harsh criticism from their abuser. Children are trained to believe that what adults tell them is the truth. The child then absorbs the attitude of the abuser and becomes his or her own worst critic.

Getting Help

If you have been sexually abused or assaulted and are now suffering from body image problems, you can find happiness through change. This is not done by altering the appearance, but by working through the emotional dysfunction at the root of the problem. Therapy can help you:

  • Recognize the difference between ideal, perceived, and actual body shapes
  • Challenge negative/irrational thoughts
  • Learn stress management techniques
  • Feel supported
  • Work through sexuality issues
  • Develop healthy coping techniques
  • Become more comfortable in your body
  • Appreciate your body for functions other than aesthetics

Altering your appearance is not the answer. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) has established guidelines on those who would be good and poor candidates for surgery. ASPS recommends against surgeries for people who expect procedures to “fix” them-for example, people in crisis who believe that their lives will revert to normal if they change their appearance. Doctors understand that changing the outside does not fix the wounds on the inside.

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