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Why the Obesity Issue Might Be More Complex Than We Think
February 27, 2012 3:13 AM   Subscribe

The Link Between Adult Obesity and Childhood Trauma (Time magazine article) Felitti wondered if there was something similar barring weight loss in other patients — or causing obesity itself. In the late '80s, he began a systematic study of 286 obese people, and discovered that 50% had been sexually abused as children. That rate is more than 50% higher than the rate normally reported by women, and more than triple the average rate in men....
posted by The ____ of Justice (111 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
For the past several decades, the ACE study has recorded reports of negative childhood experiences in more than 17,000 patients. Adverse experiences include ongoing child neglect, living with one or no biological parent, having a mentally ill, incarcerated or drug-addicted parent, witnessing domestic violence, and sexual, physical or emotional abuse. The researchers then searched for correlations between these experiences and adult health and the risk of disease.

Come on. There's a correlation between poverty and obesity, and a correlation between poverty and neglect. Neither issue is confined to poverty, but both are more prevalent among the poor. Where do I apply for a grant? I'd like to buy a boat.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:23 AM on February 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


The author of the article is metafilter member maiasz
posted by blah blah blah at 3:30 AM on February 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


14% of men and 32% of women said they were molested at least once as children.

Before I say "wait...whaaaaaat?" can we at least define our terms?
posted by ShutterBun at 3:57 AM on February 27, 2012


Not surprising. Abuse had long lasting effects which science has only recently started to confirm. Hopefully this prompts new treatments.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:07 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Before I say "wait...whaaaaaat?" can we at least define our terms?

Yeah, I had the same reaction ShutterBun. Here is the paper from where those statistics are cited and the definitions:

The two sexual abuse items are: (1) “Before the age of 18, did anyone 5 or more years older than you ever kiss or touch you in a sexual way or have you touch them in a sexual way,” and (2) “Before the age of 18, did anyone less than 5 years older than you use physical force to kiss or touch you in a sexual way, or force you to touch them in a sexual way?”

That study was conducted on what the authors say is a "geographically stratified, random sample of 1,442 subjects from the United States".

With regard to the FPP research... of 286 obese people, and discovered that 50% had been sexually abused as children.

I don't know, but I am a bit dubious that for every two obese people I see, I should believe (on average) that one was sexually molested as a child. This would seem to add another layer of stigma. But I guess if the psychiatrists used statistics in their study it must be so.
posted by three blind mice at 4:23 AM on February 27, 2012


This would seem to add another layer of stigma.

Only if you choose to add it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:24 AM on February 27, 2012 [34 favorites]


So the obesity epidemic is a stress problem? Could be, I suppose.
posted by DU at 4:30 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Only if you choose to add it.

Obesity itself is rather hard to not observe. Can I choose to ignore the results of this research? Should I choose to ignore it?
posted by three blind mice at 4:32 AM on February 27, 2012


I don't know, but I am a bit dubious that for every two obese people I see, I should believe (on average) that one was sexually molested as a child. This would seem to add another layer of stigma.

Really? So instead of removing some of the stigma of obesity, because much of it is due to horrible experiences that happened as a child, and over which the person had no control, you ADD more stigma because not only is it shameful to be fat, it's also shameful to be an abuse survivor? If that isn't what you are saying, please clarify, because WHAT THE HELL?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 4:35 AM on February 27, 2012 [61 favorites]


The question is, three blind mice, why you'd choose to stigmatize survivors of sexual assault at all.
posted by lydhre at 4:35 AM on February 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


Can I choose to ignore the results of this research? Should I choose to ignore it?

The question, to me, is whether child abuse should be thought of as a stigma for the survivor. They should probably get medal for everyday they're not up in the bell tower randomly shooting at the society that failed them.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:37 AM on February 27, 2012 [24 favorites]


They should probably get medal for everyday they're not up in the bell tower randomly shooting at the society that failed them.

Telling someone "I'm impressed you're not shooting people from a bell tower, given what you've been through" might be interpreted as stigmatizing by that individual.
posted by ShutterBun at 4:41 AM on February 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


With regard to the FPP research... of 286 obese people, and discovered that 50% had been sexually abused as children.

I don't know, but I am a bit dubious that for every two obese people I see, I should believe (on average) that one was sexually molested as a child. This would seem to add another layer of stigma. But I guess if the psychiatrists used statistics in their study it must be so.


Given the small sample size, (which led Feletti to examine larger studies) the data you might want to look at is in the paragraph beneath that one:

experience — and eating disorders or obesity. A 2007 study of more than 11,000 California women found that those who had been abused as children were 27% more likely to be obese as adults, compared with those who had not, after adjusting for other factors. A 2009 study of more than 15,000 adolescents found that sexual abuse in childhood raised the risk of obesity 66% in males in adulthood. That study found no such effect in women, but did find a higher risk of eating disorders in sexually abused girls.

In any case I certainly don't see obesity as having added stigma if it is, indeed linked with childhood trauma, but perhaps a reminder to society that it's not simply a matter of "just eat less, exercise more" for certain people.

I would hope the data would cause us to be more empathetic, if anything.

Incidentally I posted this article because I thought it might be an interesting explanation why diets or exercise regimens may not work as a long term solution for some obese people, if unaccompanied by a mental health/therapy component.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 4:44 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Telling someone "I'm impressed you're not shooting people from a bell tower, given what you've been through" might be interpreted as stigmatizing by that individual.

In my experience, people respond well to acknowledgmentthat they've been through a trauma and are handling it, however difficult it may be.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:50 AM on February 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Well I think on average the people I know who have been really severely abused do have more problems with functioning-- in life-school-relationships-work etc.

We like to think that people will try their best to perform well at carrying out duties, attention to task, motivation, dedication. Trauma can really wack these things out in a person.

So when someone is struggling to perform at life and has an abuse history-- people tend to want to extend more of a benefit of doubt to the persons level of effort because they can pinpoint reasons the persons performance is not as good other than that the person is simply not trying.

So acknowledging that after severe abuse or trauma or childhood neglect and adversity, many human beings struggle to function as well accross many areas of functioning, is an act of compassion and honoring someones humanity and the effort they are putting forward that doesn't translate to the same kinds of success as it does for others.

______________________________

For people who only care about performance measures than any association a person may have with lowered performance is going to increase stigma of that person "They might not be as functional in relationships, work, managing home, school etc etc" and that is the only information important to them. A lot of people have this method of determining who a person is "people are what they do" meaning that anyone with impaired functioning is less valuable and should be avoided in the workplace and relationships- whether it's because the person with lower function isn't trying hard enough or their capacity to function has been impaired. Which means increasing avoidance of people with factors in their life known for reducing performance makes sense to people who have a strong aversion to lower performance.
posted by xarnop at 4:54 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The psychology is relatively straightforward: being abused or otherwise traumatized is painful, and food can be a numbing or comforting escape. Hence, abused children may turn to overeating, which causes obesity. Indeed, ACEs are also strongly linked with other types of unhealthy "self-medication": for instance, cigarette smoking (which accounts for the increased rate of emphysema among high ACE scorers) and drug abuse (having four or more ACEs increases the risk of injectable-drug use by a factor of 10). As Felitti puts it, "Being fat [or having other unhealthy behaviors] is not the problem. It's the solution."

The psychological effects often exacerbate health problems that the physiological stress response has already caused. High ACE scorers who do not overeat, smoke or take drugs still have high rates of obesity, heart disease, depression and diabetes. The mechanism for these risks appears to lie in the biology of the stress-response system and in the way environment affects a person's genetic activity.
This seems logical. Also, there are correlations between childhood sexual abuse and low self-esteem in adulthood, which can be a factor in obesity.
posted by zarq at 5:02 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've never had to deal with the particular trauma of abuse, but yeah, I've used food like a drug to try and ease other stresses. Same thing with beer.

I think some of our obesity issues can be linked to encouraging such high calorie stress relievers.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:04 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


As part of a multidisciplinary team in a children's hospital unit that investigates child sexual and physical abuse, I do forensic medical exams. Of course, cases that rise to the level of investigation had to be either reported or discovered, a small percentage of what actually happens. The majority of the perpetrators are someone that the child loves and trusts. Developmentally, the majority of the children are not able to draw sophisticated internal boundaries about appropriate expressions of love and trust. As the abuse against the child escalates, making use of this developmental lack of understanding, the child is essentially getting part of his or her development guided by abuse. Without intervention, the natural history of this abuse is devastating--even with intervention. There are a lot of factors at play, of course, that influence the child's launch into adulthood and safety, but being a victim of child abuse is as powerful a risk factor on the health, growth, and development of a person as other serious childhood disease.

I spent some time looking for Felitti's original study after reading the Time Health article, but it hasn't appeared as a full-text available to me yet. I did want to share that leaders in this area of child's health have observed Felitti's connection for a long time. Gail Horner (director of a children's hospital SANE program and advocacy center), in her article for The Journal of Pediatric Health care in 2009 writes that:

The majority of children who are sexually abused will be moderately to severely symptomatic at some point in their life. Experiencing sexual abuse creates a feeling of powerlessness in the child and leaves the child with the perception of having little control over what happens (Dube et al., 2005). This lack of a sense of control acts as a stressor that has effects on the neurodevelopment of both male and female victims. Boys and girls cope differently with the stressor of sexual abuse. Girls are more likely to exhibit internalizing behaviors, such as depression and disordered eating (anorexia, bulimia, or obesity). Externalizing behaviors such as delinquency and heavy drinking are more likely exhibited by boys. Understanding the underlying feelings of powerlessness and loss of control experienced by children who are sexually abused helps in understanding the behaviors and consequences that some sexual abuse victims exhibit.

Her article goes on to urge pediatric providers who know their patient has been a victim of child abuse to monitor the child's health vigilantly for possibly sequelae. Very anecdotally, I observe that children who have been victims do present with complicated expressions of that abuse, including disordered eating and obesity. I am interested in reading Felitti's research as it seems that he is also investigating a potential pathophysiological root connected to stress/hormone response, but I wanted to comment because practitioners already practice in such a way that anticipates that children who have been victims of child abuse will experience health complications of that abuse. Child abuse is an extraordinarily powerful assault on a child's health and development.

As far as the media reporting in this case, and I am not a fan of how the media reports health research, I do think that it's important both to research and to how health care is delivered, to open lay dialogue about a deeply complicated pathophysiological process like what leads to obesity. If we could start to think about each other's personal health challenges as their own--that is, that each of us have should feel empowered to the expectation that our own understanding of our own challenges is actually powerful, the healthcare environment would benefit. This is a kind of paradigm shift--to wait to diagnose or to discover etiology until we have meaningful patient impressions, and to wait to socially label others until we understand how they are working to share their identity. Obviously, I don't have answers, but I think some of the questions even this media article asks are important.
posted by rumposinc at 5:19 AM on February 27, 2012 [57 favorites]


Makes sense; pack on the pounds so that you are no longer objectified and lusted after. The obese are among the most invisible members of society.
posted by Renoroc at 5:19 AM on February 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


I am a bit confused. Assuming that there is a causal link between childhood sexual abuse and obesity, and obesity rates are rising, does that mean that childhood sexual abuse is also rising, or is the ready availability of "obesity-favoring food" just raising the numbers across the board?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:21 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


See, I would think that a good portion of obese people gain the weight to hide their bodies (from themselves as well as others) and, whether or not they had been sexually abused or not, might feel themselves as sexually vulnerable and thus see ambiguous or even imagined interactions as abusive.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:21 AM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am a bit confused. Assuming that there is a causal link between childhood sexual abuse and obesity, and obesity rates are rising, does that mean that childhood sexual abuse is also rising, or is the ready availability of "obesity-favoring food" just raising the numbers across the board?
I think it mean that if you want to understand the world, you're going to have to be able to wrap your head around relatively complex systems of causality. If you really can't understand that there can be a causal link without something being the sole causal factor, then you should probably leave the thinking to other people.
posted by craichead at 5:25 AM on February 27, 2012 [16 favorites]


I am deeply suspicious of this. There is no childhood trauma in my background, but there is a tendency to overweight in my mother and grandmother and myself, with the usual diseases that pop up in late middle age. I am fighting this with diet and exercise and it is working.

Certainly anything that helps victims of child abuse is a good thing, but lets not go overboard in dismissing other causes of obesity in the general population.
posted by mermayd at 5:26 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]



I am a bit confused. Assuming that there is a causal link between childhood sexual abuse and obesity, and obesity rates are rising, does that mean that childhood sexual abuse is also rising, or is the ready availability of "obesity-favoring food" just raising the numbers across the board?


That there have been societal changes that make obesity more possible is impossible to ignore -- a hundred years ago we weren't all riding around in cars snacking on Doritos, right? But that's sort of an orthogonal issue to this FPP, which is about one (probably out of many) causal factors stemming from childhood. It's not saying that there is a 100 percent lock between abuse and obesity, nor that someone would magically become obese absent access to sufficient food. It is saying that certain kinds of trauma can have life-long impacts on health that play out in complicated ways, which makes total sense to me.
posted by Forktine at 5:29 AM on February 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Certainly anything that helps victims of child abuse is a good thing, but lets not go overboard in dismissing other causes of obesity in the general population.

No one has. Indeed what I find most fascinating about the linked article is what's going on the obese people who haven't been abused. I don't mean that negatively. If there's complex mental issues going on with abuse survivors, I'm curious to know what sort mental and physical things are occurring in the non-abused obese. It's amazing what pathways the human mind can take.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:32 AM on February 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm curious to know what sort mental and physical things are occurring in the non-abused obese.

I think as furiousxgeorge mentioned, food is used as a drug for many of us. I would be unsurprised if many obese people had an addiction to food about as strong if not stronger than most drug addictions.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 5:39 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sexual abuse is tragically difficult for anyone to deal with, let alone children. And as an adult, the abused can 'pass on' the psychological damage to the next generation, especially if left untreated. I wonder if any of the people in the study knew of their parents' childhood abuse, or recognized they were affected by it. That could account for some of the 'familial' obesity issues -- albeit the whole nature v. nurture argument makes it just one more piece of the puzzle.
posted by Surfurrus at 5:47 AM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am not trying to belittle what these people have suffered through. But I think it's safe to say that there are any number of triggers that can push someone to behave in an unhealthy manner.

furiousxgeorge said it quite well. What's important is to recognize that the behaviour exists and then work on doing something to change it.
posted by Fizz at 5:47 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am fighting this with diet and exercise and it is working.

For some people though fighting it with diet and exercise doesn't work, so they wanted to find out if there was some underlying cause that made it harder for some people. It turns out there is a certain underlying cause that makes a lot of things harder for some of the people who experience it, including obesity. That's useful information. It doesn't mean that all obese people were once abused or that all abused people become obese.
posted by bleep at 5:47 AM on February 27, 2012 [10 favorites]


In my experience, people respond well to acknowledgment that they've been through a trauma and are handling it, however difficult it may be.

I understand that, but acknowledgement does not necessarily mean having to declare them a high risk of psychopathic behaviour- I think you meant that it was remarkable that they don't feel or display more anger at society at large, but in general it is one of the nuisances of surviving something awful that you get a lot of unsolicited positive attention for stuff that wasn't a problem to you in the first place.

It's like: "You were mugged as a teenager, for your shoes? I'm impressed you are able to tie your own laces still!"
posted by Phalene at 5:51 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Makes sense; pack on the pounds so that you are no longer objectified and lusted after. The obese are among the most invisible members of society.

So fat people are never sexually assaulted? Actually, as plenty of survivors of assault will tell you, being fat does not make you safe. It may in fact make you more vulnerable in that you look like an easier target who is less likely to be believed. And because too many people think that being "ugly" is some sort of rape protection, they're sadly often right.

Rape is not about sexual attraction. It's about power.

Fat people get raped. Old people. Disabled people. Rape is caused by rapists, not by anyone's physical appearance.
posted by emjaybee at 5:57 AM on February 27, 2012 [18 favorites]


Indeed what I find most fascinating about the linked article is what's going on the obese people who haven't been abused. I don't mean that negatively. If there's complex mental issues going on with abuse survivors, I'm curious to know what sort mental and physical things are occurring in the non-abused obese. It's amazing what pathways the human mind can take.

If the psychology of how chronic stress from abuse translates into obesity is anything like accurate, then I can easily see how the same process can take place where there are other causes of chronic stress and helplessness. My mother's stories of being a lonely and unpopular child sent unwillingly to boarding school always involve recounting her habit of sneaking into the school kitchen to make herself sugar sandwiches every night, and this being one of the few pleasures left available in such a repressive and controlling environment.
posted by talitha_kumi at 6:03 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


You're abused, then food becomes a sedative for the feeling of emotional loss.
posted by Meatafoecure at 6:04 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


" What's important is to recognize that the behaviour exists and then work on doing something to change it."

It is so frustrating to me that I have spent so much time trying to read the research actually being done in these areas and people who aren't even reading any of the research make statements as if they know how these processes work. I'm all for debating accuracy, bias, and false assumptions in research. But that involves actually looking at the research.

"the behavior"

It's more than a behavior. If the entire stress and hormonal system is altered and is processing food DIFFERENTLY and metabolism is not working properly-- then the problem has nothing to do with eating behavior.

And yes differences in metabolism and bodily functions can be different weights while on the SAME diet. The SAD diet (standard American diet) is not good for anyone, and anyone whose body had a vulnerability is going to get into a condition of worse health from eating it--- plant polyphenols can help repair stress related damage to the bodies functioning and we are missing fresh vegetables in the average diet like crazy in addition to adding toxic gunk for the body to process.

Once the system starts collapsing and coping with a terrible diet on top of life stress everything gets all out of wack. "Just eat healthy" is so goddam hard when you are overwhelmed and exhausted and your body isn't working right. Cooking fresh vegetables/meats/food is so hard and so many many people are stressed and overworked and not getting to relax and cook and be social with people at home which *I think* used to be a more common social activity for most humans than it is now.

What's more-- our society EXPECTS people to stuff. Do you know what it takes to deal with the emotions of serious abuse and trauma? The crying the screaming? Do you know how long the sobbing can continue if you don't force it to stop? Do you think this world actually wants to support trauma surviviors in a way that witnesses all they have been through and how crippled those emotions can make a person to work and care for themselves?

We don't, we want them to stuff and keep working and shove medicines in their bodies to further stuff ad go to therapy once a week and keep funcitoning keepin funcitoning keep functioning no matter what, whatever you do don't actually fall apart under the emotions and NEED TO BE CARED FOR BY OTHERS.

Eat. Eat. People do this for our society because we demand it of them.
posted by xarnop at 6:08 AM on February 27, 2012 [26 favorites]


Which Felitti/Anda piece is the main one? If anyone is trying to get access to a piece of research identified by or related to this piece and can't, memail.
posted by cashman at 6:13 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am not trying to belittle what these people have suffered through. But I think it's safe to say that there are any number of triggers that can push someone to behave in an unhealthy manner.

Drug addiction is generally categorized as a condition with biological, psychological and social components. The particular configuration of those aetiological factors will vary from individual to individual.

It's hardly a novel insight to recognize that eating disorders probably has a similar aetiology. What would be interesting to know is whether the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse is higher in people with eating disorders than it is with other addiction-type behaviours.

I'd hazard a guess that it's true of people who engage in compulsive sexual activity that they aren't happy about. (The thing that people call sex addiction, and that others are somewhat sceptical about.)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:14 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Indeed what I find most fascinating about the linked article is what's going on the obese people who haven't been abused. I don't mean that negatively. If there's complex mental issues going on with abuse survivors, I'm curious to know what sort mental and physical things are occurring in the non-abused obese. It's amazing what pathways the human mind can take.

Sexual abuse is not the only form of abuse that is used on children.
posted by palomar at 6:14 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The article that I'm sure everyone jumping in with their dietary advice for the abused has read starts not with the observation that abuse survivors are obese, but that people in the Kaiser weight loss program he ran would get anxious and drop out after a certain level of success. These people aren't fat and can't lose weight, they've proven more than capable of dropping hundreds of pounds, and they are terrified of it.

Isn't that even a little more interesting than more fucking fat-shaming?
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:18 AM on February 27, 2012 [25 favorites]


Certainly anything that helps victims of child abuse is a good thing, but lets not go overboard in dismissing other causes of obesity in the general population.

It's not simply about "causes of obesity" for everyone - it's about what might cause some obese people to essentially not be able to lose weight, even when they're doing everything they can to do so.
posted by rtha at 6:33 AM on February 27, 2012


I am deeply suspicious of this. There is no childhood trauma in my background, but there is a tendency to overweight in my mother and grandmother and myself, with the usual diseases that pop up in late middle age.

I don't believe that anyone has argued that there can be only one cause at play. In fact, it's entirely reasonable to believe that there are many causes for adult obesity.
posted by oddman at 6:35 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think it's important to note that the study here was done in the late 1980s, when the obesity epidemic was probably really only just starting, and certainly hadn't become the statistically bizarre 1/3 of the population affected we see today, with another 1/3 of the population not obese but overweight.

Is it fair to extrapolate data from then and suggest that fully 1/6 to 1/3 of today's US adult population was sexually abused as a child? I think there are other factors which play into the current epidemic. Not saying that being abused as a child doesn't fuck you up in ways which may lead to obesity, but rather that the current population's problems probably can't be entirely traced back to this factor.
posted by hippybear at 6:35 AM on February 27, 2012


I don't believe that anyone has argued that there can be only one cause at play.

I think it's a framing issue. The point of the article is not "there is a link between obesity and child abuse" but "there is a link between child abuse and obesity." Which doesn't seem like a big deal, but, if you go into the article expecting "obesity may be caused by child abuse (among other factors)" you read it differently than if you are expecting "child abuse may lead to obesity (among other problems)." Given the responses above, I take it I am not the only person who went in with this conceptual framework in place.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:39 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


If I'm not mistaken, the rise in the rate of *childhood* obesity has been faster than the rate for the general population or adult population in the US over the last few years. There are clear causal explanations in rising inactivity and worsening diets. Childhood obesity strongly predisposes to adult obesity. But even so, clearly something is at work here among children in recent years. One could argue that our culture is abusing children across the board by allowing this to happen. But I'm dubious about the sexual abuse linkage being directly causal of morbidity for up to half of obese adults.

I think the real enemy is the video screen. And here I am looking at one and needing to lose 15 pounds.
posted by spitbull at 6:51 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"there is a link between obesity and child abuse" but "there is a link between child abuse and obesity."

Good point, and much more intuitively correct.
posted by spitbull at 6:53 AM on February 27, 2012


For all of you who wonder what you're supposed to make of this or take from it, I would posit that the most useful thing that can be taken away from this growing area of research is not that you're supposed to look at a large person and make a conclusion about what he or she is experiencing or has experienced, or that obesity has a single cause. It's precisely the opposite: It's getting people to understand that struggles with weight, particularly in large amounts, are a complicated damn mess of cause and effect that's terribly hard to iron out, no matter how much you want to.

All the things some of you are saying about eating as a soothing behavior, weight as a self-isolating thing, changes in availability of food, genetics, more sedentary lifestyles and the changing nature of work from moving around to sitting -- yes. Yes, yes, yes, it can be all those things, or some of them, or maybe it's none of them with some people, or it's something else. And then once it's an issue, it changes your body chemistry, it changes your outlook, it reinforces itself ... I mean, it's a complex mess, and it's really important to understand that when you look at someone, you have no idea how they got to the point they're at, whether it's the highest or lowest weight they've been at in the last week/month/year/lifetime, and you have no idea where they are in terms of that battle, if they're treating it as a battle. (Side note: The fact that there are people who snark at fat people at the gym is the most freaking illogical thing in the world. Please, don't ever do that, including behind their backs. It always strikes me as kind of uniquely awful.)

It's not a matter of unlocking the answer to either (1) what you're supposed to think of all these people or (2) what's going to be helpful to all of them. It's the mere fact of improving the quality of the discussion, throwing away forever the snide, simplistic, mean-spirited "the best exercise is pushing yourself away from the table, HAR HAR" business. It's getting away from "Sorry, but if you would just..." and "Sorry, but the simple truth is..." and "Sorry, but it's just math" and every other "Sorry, but" remark that has ever not helped anyone at all. Not just because the current level of discussion (in the world, not here) tends to be unkind and isolating and often brutally reinforces the feelings that are problematic in the first place to the point where you're lucky of people can scrape together enough concern for themselves to do anything at all, making it completely counterproductive, but because that level of discussion is based on assumptions that just don't hold up to scrutiny. And the biggest one is that something that's obviously complex is instead simple.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:56 AM on February 27, 2012 [55 favorites]


This is a two year old article, which may be complicating folks searched for the published study. I'm pretty sure that this is what the Time article was failing to reference. I've got a PDF of it and can email it to you, as well as any others you give me a citation for, if you memail me with an email address. You know, for the purposes of this academic discussion that we are currently having.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:58 AM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


"The author of the article is metafilter member maiasz"

Well, that's unfortunate because I cannot avoid expressing how this article exemplifies almost everything that is bad about contemporary science reporting to the general audience. It's a fucking terrible article that basically everyone should avoid reading because it's most likely to, on balance, result in a reduction of comprehension of the natural world, not an increase.

I mean, for god's sakes, it basically describes a Lamarckian idea of inheritance without explaining that the science shows no such thing. How much effort would it have taken to make it clear that when the author uses the word "inherited", he means "culturally inherited", given that the average reader, who knows fuck-all about genetics, will assume genetic inheritance?

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Then there's this hand-waving speculation about how this could be an evolved stress-response to a dietary deficit that is triggered by abuse. I'm not saying that this isn't a reasonable hypothesis. It is. But its tenuous in its individual parts, and connecting them together just makes the whole thing closer to BS than science. I have no doubt that the actual scientific work involving the investigation of this hypothesis is more credible. But, just as in the case of a lot of reporting about evolutionary psychology, what is already pretty marginal (though still reasonable) science gets reported in the general press as something that becomes far beyond that into just utter crap.

People doing science journalism shouldn't be reporting this stuff. To the degree to which they have any scientific training or related competence, they wouldn't be. But, instead, these are journalists with no real competence in the issues involved who are writing for an audience that wants to be entertained. Or, rather, they are working for publishers who want to sell to an audience who wants to be entertained and so we get "science" journalism that is all about the "golly gee, isn't that amazing?" factor rather than the "explain complicated subjects to people in a way that makes them more informed" factor.

rumposinc's comment has more real value in it than the entire linked article.

With regard to the main assertion in the article; personally, I'd like to see a longitudinal study of sexual abuse survivors identified (rigorously and reliably) as children. For a start. This kind of self-reporting of childhood abuse is problematic. It has a history of being problematic. I'm not saying that the studies that show this relationship are all wrong. Far from it. I'd just like to see them on firmer footing.

"14% of men and 32% of women said they were molested at least once as children."

..about that "whaaat?" reaction to that statistic: rates of sexual violence are much, much higher than most people believe.

I believe, based upon pretty firm foundations, that about half of all women are survivors of some form of sexual violence. Now, I think the rate of sexual violence committed against adult men is much, much lower. But I also think that the rate of sexual violence committed against boys is not much lower than it is against girls. However, I also know that the reporting rate is much lower. (And that's also very true with regard to reporting rates for adult males, too.) So there's even more uncertainty about the rate of sexual violence committed against boys, and men, than there is with the rate of sexual violence committed against girls and women.

So, taken together, that indicates to me that those rates above are in the ballpark, at least.

"I am a bit confused. Assuming that there is a causal link between childhood sexual abuse and obesity, and obesity rates are rising, does that mean that childhood sexual abuse is also rising..."

You're not the only person here who is confused about this. Let's put it in terms of something that we all understand pretty well. If, for example, we find that a lot of people who move away from New York move to California, does that mean that a growing population in California indicates a growing number of people who are moving away from New York? Of course not. People move to California from other places, too; not to mention that the population of California could be increasing independently of anyone moving there from somewhere else.

No, an increasing rate of obesity does not indicate an increasing rate of childhood sexual abuse. That is, unless childhood sexual abuse is the exclusive cause of obesity, which we all know isn't the case.

"Makes sense; pack on the pounds so that you are no longer objectified and lusted after. The obese are among the most invisible members of society."

This was already addressed emjaybee, but it's so important that it's worth repeating. It is absolutely not true that sexual violence, either rape or childhood sexual assault, is motivated primarily by sexual attraction. Sure,. sexual attraction is involved. When people say that rape is about violence and not sex, they're not saying that there's nothing sexual about rape. They're not even saying (if they are informed) that there's necessarily no component of sexual attraction/stimulation involved in rape, because there usually is. They're saying that it's pretty much never the primary component, and that it doesn't even need to be present at all. Sexual violence is called violence because it is first and foremost about power and control. Power and control can be highly sexualized, that's what BDSM is all about. It's not arbitrary or irrelevant that violence can be expressed in such a potent way via sexuality. But it's violence being expressed via sex, not sex being expressed via violence.

And what this means, in practice, is that people who commit sexual violence primarily choose their victims on the basis of vulnerability and opportunity, not sexual attractiveness.

Now, your point might be more reasonable formulated differently. That is, survivors of sexual violence often feel that what happened to them was about sex, and not about violence, and so, given that miscomprehension, it well may be the case that they would become alienated from their own sexual attractiveness as a result, and in some sense be making themselves less sexually attractive to others. Sadly, though, this is all based upon a miscomprehension and it won't make them any less vulnerable. Indeed, a lack of self-esteem and all related to that might do the opposite. As emjaybee points out, something that most folk don't know or understand is that the rates of sexual violence committed against what we would consider conventionally sexually unattractive people—the elderly, the badly disabled, etc.— are actually relatively higher, not lower, to the general population. I suppose one reason this isn't obvious to everyone is because the rates in general are so high, anyway.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:11 AM on February 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


when the author uses the word "inherited", he means "culturally inherited"

She.
posted by cashman at 7:14 AM on February 27, 2012


"I mean, for god's sakes, it basically describes a Lamarckian idea of inheritance without explaining that the science shows no such thing. How much effort would it have taken to make it clear that when the author uses the word "inherited", he means "culturally inherited", given that the average reader, who knows fuck-all about genetics, will assume genetic inheritance?"

I ask this sincerely... do you actually read current science research? What are you reading and may I look at it?

Have you actually read research into epigenetics?

Are you aware of what science disproved lamark and darwins early hypothesis that the body communicated adaptations in cellular functioning to the germline-- and how utterly crappy those studies "disproving" the theory actually were?
posted by xarnop at 7:17 AM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]



I am deeply suspicious of this. There is no childhood trauma in my background, but there is a tendency to overweight in my mother and grandmother and myself, with the usual diseases that pop up in late middle age. I am fighting this with diet and exercise and it is working.


No one said it was the sole cause of obesity. You are deeply suspicious of it because you cannot understand the basic logic involved. I suggest you reread it with a more open mind.

Certainly anything that helps victims of child abuse is a good thing, but lets not go overboard in dismissing other causes of obesity in the general population.

No one dismissed anything. Well, you are essentially handwaving away studies of how abuse hurts children by producing anecdotal evidence that doesn't actually contradict anything.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:49 AM on February 27, 2012 [9 favorites]



There are lots of early childhood traumas that aren't sexual abuse. The article mentioned any stressor, even when the child was still in the womb.

My Mom was pregnant with me in October of 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Can you imagine? She was 8 months pregnant and that was going on. Stressed? You bet.

My metabolic issues began when I was 7. I was tested (at Kaiser-Permanente) for everything under the sun. I still undergo all sorts of metabolic testing. Everyone agrees, my metabolism is a mess, but no one really knows what the cause is.

My sister, who has the same basic genetic material doesn't have the same issues that I have, nor does she have the same issues with weight-gain.

At the end of the day though, understanding it is one thing, what to do, that's quite another. I'll continue to watch what I eat, try to exercise and stay as healthy as possible. Perhaps additional study will uncover some more information that can help me maintain a healthy weight without having to starve myself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:16 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am a bit confused. Assuming that there is a causal link between childhood sexual abuse and obesity, and obesity rates are rising, does that mean that childhood sexual abuse is also rising, or is the ready availability of "obesity-favoring food" just raising the numbers across the board?

I suspect the latter. People don't tend to binge or otherwise eat for comfort things like steak, fish, eggs, veggies, or other "real foods," even though they are in many ways more satisfying. They binge on high-carb foods, i.e. "comfort foods." Many of those foods happen to be high-fat, but if you pay attention, you'll notice that while people will eat high-carb, low-fat foods as a drug, they rarely if ever use high-fat, low-carb foods that way. Carbs are the active ingredient, fat just makes it taste better. Fat (except trans fats) without carbs is harmless.

As high-carb snacks and even meals have flooded the country over the last few decades, people have been put into an environment where carbs are everywhere. This problem is compounded by the message that fat is bad for you, causing people to choose higher-carb versions of foods that are less satisfying and make them hungrier, and of course when they are hungrier, they are even more likely to binge, repeating the cycle.

This is good news for anybody struggling with an overeating problem because while you can't abstain from food, you can abstain from the kind of carbs that people have issues with. (Again, few people if any binge on broccoli -- you just can't get the rush from foods like that that you can from candy or pasta.)
posted by callmejay at 8:23 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Have you actually read research into epigenetics?"

Dude, you and I both know that epigenetics is not the same thing as lamarckianism. You know exactly what I meant when I wrote what you quoted. And you know that when the author of the article writes:
Studies have also found that consistently elevated levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, can lead to permanent damage in certain brain regions linked to depression.

Recently, scientists have discovered that these changes can themselves be passed down from one generation to the next — a burgeoning new area of study called epigenetics. Such research may have significant and long-term implications for the prevention of obesity, addiction and other illnesses related to early life stress.
...the average reader will understand that to mean something that it doesn't.

At any rate, epigenetics is a field in its infancy and to go from the correlation of sexual abuse and epigenetic alteration of HPA function to transgenerational epigenetics involving sexual abuse of children is a tenuous connection and crap science even on its own terms. This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about that happens so often in EP.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:24 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are lots of early childhood traumas that aren't sexual abuse. The article mentioned any stressor, even when the child was still in the womb.

This. A thousand times this.

At age 56, I'm still trying to deal with seeing pictures of myself as the skinniest kid in my kindergarten class.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:38 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ivan-- so, just so I can understand where you're coming from, are you saying you are or aren't keeping up with the research into epigenetics? I would be more interested to hear your opinions on the actual research being done, that you are reading and dissecting, than a dismissal of the entire field on the basis it "sounds like ev pscyh har har silly". If you are reading a large portion of the actual research and you have concerns about the conclusions being made in those studies, I would be interested to hear them. And I mean that sincerely, my background is not strong in science so I wish more people with science backgrounds were reading a lot of this research and discussing it.

I think it would be more interesting to watch the field develop without assuming the whole thing is codswallop because it doesn't fit in with your preconcieved notions, but I respect that in order for people to alter their preconcieved notions it absolutely should require a large amount of demonstratable, repeatable research that is refuted and debated extensievely before altering current notions of natural selection and completely random mutation being the only methods by which phenotypes are altered.
posted by xarnop at 9:47 AM on February 27, 2012


The framing of this post is misleading. The study correlates Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) -- of which sexual abuse is just one of many -- with obesity.

This shouldn't really be surprising. To me, it is just evidence that poor eating habits tend to arise in lives that are disordered or chaotic in other ways.
posted by jayder at 9:50 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is absolutely not true that sexual violence, either rape or childhood sexual assault, is motivated primarily by sexual attraction

This is pretty commonly understood. But I don't think it's being suggested that an aggressor commits the act of sexual abuse because of sexual attraction. Rather, that the victim may be reacting to the abuse, rational or not, in a way which he/she perceives will make him/herself appear an unattractive object of sexual desire, and therefore an unattractive target for further abuse.
posted by 2N2222 at 10:09 AM on February 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I think there has been conventional wisdom for a long time that obesity is caused by childhood trauma, meaning a lot of empirical studies done by therapists, so I think that this study is a good way to solidify everything.

There are unfortunately a couple of bad conversations that have cropped up in this post that I wish would go away forever, because they detract from the better issue that childhood trauma may be a cause of obesity. Those bad conversations are (1) that childhood abuse is stigmatic; I think that Pater Alethias responded to that well; and (2) that kids get fat so that they won't get sexually abused, which is just wrong-headed.

The idea is that some people may be able to potentially solve their obesity by addressing childhood abuse, and it's a good thing. If a person is obese, and that person experienced significant trauma as a child, then maybe they can move toward being less obese by addressing their childhood trauma.

People get messed up by childhood traumas, including child abuse, and sexual abuse. Legitimately adding obesity to the list of ways people can get messed up by these things may be a step in the right direction.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:27 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's most difficult for me about all of this (the study and the resulting kerfuffle here on the Blue) is that it gives yet another avenue of "this isn't your fault!"
posted by kuanes at 10:31 AM on February 27, 2012


What's most difficult for me about all of this (the study and the resulting kerfuffle here on the Blue) is that it gives yet another avenue of "this isn't your fault!"

Well, it isn't. It's frustrating to be overweight and to not have any of the fun of eating my face off to be this way.

But I sure appreciate your chiming in to insist that fat people must have 100% control over their fatness.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:43 AM on February 27, 2012 [17 favorites]


kuanes: What's most difficult for me about all of this (the study and the resulting kerfuffle here on the Blue) is that it gives yet another avenue of "this isn't your fault!"

I quoted this and put it in the comment box because I was going to say something sarcastic about how ignorant and dismissive this kind of thinking is, but once I tried to write a response, I realized that I don't have the capacity for sarcasm about how ignorant and dismissive this kind of thinking is. I mean, I actually don't.

Unless I am wrong, what you are saying is "The worst part of all this is that it's possible some HURF DURF BUTTER EATERS might not be to blame for their obesity!"

Am I missing anything? Because if not, I'd like to know how you get to a place in your life where you think this way.
posted by tzikeh at 10:45 AM on February 27, 2012 [17 favorites]


What's most difficult for me about all of this (the study and the resulting kerfuffle here on the Blue) is that it gives yet another avenue of "this isn't your fault!"

I'm curious, why does that make "most difficult for you" and how does it make it difficult?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:48 AM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would be more interested to hear your opinions on the actual research being done, that you are reading and dissecting, than a dismissal of the entire field on the basis it 'sounds like ev pscyh har har silly'.

I would be more interested in engaging with you about this if a) you weren't being transparently insincere in claiming to want to hear my opinions, and b) you weren't egregiously misrepresenting what I write. In no fashion or form did I dismiss the entire field of epigenetics.

You want to bait me into a something where you can assert your credentialed authority so as to discredit my entire viewpoint on what we're arguing. I'm not going to play that game with you. You misrepesented what I wrote about lamarckianism and what the writer implied, you've misrepresented what I wrote specifically about supposed transgenerational heritability of epigenetic traits induced by childhood sexual abuse. This does not inspire any confidence that you're engaging in good faith.

Rather, it indicates that you felt provoked and saw an opportunity to assert your credentialed authority. It may well be that because of that perceived provocation, you're not willfully misreading me, but rather your comprehension of what I've written has been badly biased by a knee-jerk reaction. That's human, I've done the same thing on subjects on which I have great expertise. But until you're willing to make a good-faith effort to actually read what I wrote, any further discussion isn't going to be profitable.

And, honestly, even if you did, it still wouldn't be very profitable because what you'd most likely find is that we agree with each other about 98%.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:00 AM on February 27, 2012


"And I mean that sincerely, my background is not strong in science so I wish more people with science backgrounds were reading a lot of this research and discussing it."

Okay, I'm sorry I missed that bit. I guess I felt provoked, too, and so got ahead of myself.

I'm now a little worried that it might be that you're misunderstanding epigenetics. It seems like you may be thinking it overturns the Central Dogma somehow. But it doesn't. More to the point, you also seem to think that it overturns the consensus understanding of how natural selection works. It most emphatically does not. It's much more challenging to the traditional genetics of molecular biology (though not so much as to overturn the CD) than it is to evolutionary theory. To think otherwise is a completely unwarranted extension of its importance. As you say, it may develop over time into something that could be taken seriously in that context, but it sure as hell isn't that thing today.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:10 AM on February 27, 2012


kuanes:

I know this guy who was molested as a child. Anally raped, to be precise.

In his twenties, he turned into a bit of a fitness freak. Ran three to four times per week. Worked out six. He arrived at the point where he was a pretty attractive guy. Now, he was never a player or anything like that, so the female attention wasn't being brushed away like so many flies, but it had risen substantially.

It got to be kind of a thing for him. One time, he found himself amongst a group of close friends and a random group of young women at a bar, and he was invited back to a party shack —replete with hot tub— for a bit of fun. A particular young lady had taken quite a shine to him. He was instantly terrified. While he had his share of sexual experiences as a younger man in his late teens and early twenties, sex and physical intimacy became more of a bugaboo with each passing year. Female attention caused him more and more anxiety as he aged. With all of his friends' attention focused on him and how he would react to this young lady's adoring focus, he panicked. He couldn't imagine his ugliness and imperfect body and all his fears about touching and being touched being tested by someone so unknown to him (one-night stands were never really his thing, and he had been known to bail in his younger years on any situation that heated up too quickly for his tastes). He came up with any and every excuse to throw at his friends so that he wouldn't have to be put in that situation. When his friends failed to understand why he would walk away from such "easy pussy," he wriggled and when wriggling didn't work, he lashed out; made things uncomfortable and the whole thing went away.

Fairly soon after that, he found himself alone in an apartment with a very beautiful girl, and the same sort of weirdness bubbled to the surface. He awkwardly escaped again.

He started to consciously come to grips with his own sexual dysfunction. His fear began to overwhelm him. So did his weight. Over time. Subconsciously at first, consciously later.

I know that he has undertaken a fitness regimen to recapture his once well-muscled and fit body probably 100 times in the last twelve years. He always fails. He's pretty obese now. He wonders if he's gained the weight and cannot force himself to lose it because of how afraid of intimacy he is. He wonders if he's not sabotaging himself so he won't have to confront his own weirdness and inability to deal with sex.

But then another part of him wonders if he's not just making excuses for his own laziness. Maybe he's fat —not because he wants to ward off female interest — but because he's lazy and incapable of change. He's not sure.

But one thing he's not interested in is whether or not things are being made difficult for you because studies such as this one might give him "yet another avenue" for believing that "'this isn't [his] fault.'"
posted by samizdat at 11:16 AM on February 27, 2012 [18 favorites]


There are unfortunately a couple of bad conversations that have cropped up in this post that I wish would go away forever, because they detract from the better issue that childhood trauma may be a cause of obesity. Those bad conversations are (1) that childhood abuse is stigmatic; I think that Pater Alethias responded to that well; and (2) that kids get fat so that they won't get sexually abused, which is just wrong-headed.

I don't understand the knee-jerk response to three blind mice on the "stigma" point. Of course abuse is stigmatic. "Stigma" does not mean "you did something wrong and you should be ashamed." It means scar, or mark, or wound. There are a lot of reasons why abuse survivors would not want others to know they were abused, would not want people to know of their psychic wound or the cause of it, and this is a stigma. Even if the reactions they're wary of are completely ignorant, such as "she's screwed up mentally because she was abused as a child," "I don't want to get involved with her because she's probably got sexual issues arising from her abuse," or "she's fat because she has had a horrible childhood," these things are potentially shaming because they could lead people to draw conclusions about a person's mental state or depict them as "unfortunate" in a world where being fortunate is viewed having fate smile upon you. The unfortunate are to some extent regarded as alien. So yes, it is stigmatizing, despite the fact that these people are not responsible for their abuse.
posted by jayder at 11:35 AM on February 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's a problem because you are looking at it backwards if you see the abuse/obesity correlation as a stigma issue. If you're looking at it as "Obese people must have endured child abuse, so they carry the stigma of child abuse" versus "As an obese person seeking treatment, consider whether or not you have previous instances of child abuse and if those affect your state as an obese person."

Whether or not abuse is a stigma is beside the point. If a person has been abused as a child and it is affecting their adult well-being, it probably should be addressed, preferably in private. I don't see the stigma of childhood abuse as anything more than a red herring here.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:58 AM on February 27, 2012


It means scar, or mark, or wound.

It means "a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation." People are objecting to the negative connotation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:59 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


'Stigma' does not mean 'you did something wrong and you should be ashamed.'

Yes it does. You're insisting on a very narrow usage of the word that doesn't, in fact, represent how it is commonly used today nor especially how it's used in this thread. People are using stigma to mean social stigma, which is unambiguously negative. Also, I suspect that you're relying upon what you think is the etymology of the word—that it "originally" meant merely an identifying mark; and you possibly are assuming this because stimgata in the context of Christianity isn't, you probably think, negative. But, in fact, the actual etyomology of the term, its meaning in greek, στίγμα, when in the context of a person, is of a brand used to mark criminals.

Being a survivor of sexual abuse has been stigmatized in the past. That's less true today, just as it's also less true about rape survivors and, in general, all survivors of sexual violence. But, for example, it's still deeply true of male survivors of adult sexual violence committed against them by other males. Which is why people make cruel jokes about prison rape—it's not just the violence itself that people think the victim deserves, but more importantly, the stigmatization and subsequent constant humiliation.

Twenty-two years ago, when my (then) spouse publicly talked about being an incest survivor, this was very uncommon and it made a lot of people uncomfortable. A lot of people assumed that she was nuts to stigmatize herself like that. But, you know, that was the whole point of her talking about it so freely in public1. She talked about it with people she knew, she talked about it in radio interviews. I talked about it. Our whole attitude toward it, and mine still is, that demonstrating that it's not something that should have a stigma attached to it helps eliminate the stigma attached to it. And I think a lot of people have been doing this for the last twenty-two years. It's not like it was her original idea. The stigma has been notably diminished.

But it's also not the case that the social stigma has been entirely eliminated, and this is especially true with regard to various particular demographics. Like, for example, older people.

So, anyway, I think a distinction should be made between implying that surviving sexual abuse should be socially stigmatized, and that it is (to some degree) socially stigmatized regardless of whether it should be. I think some people will hear what's intended as the latter as being the former.

How much an individual survivor's belief that they are socially stigmatized by their experience plays a role in, for example, being obese is not really something I want to speculate about because I think it's pretty obvious that this will wildly vary across individuals. It's reasonable to assume that some survivors will feel this way about themselves. And it's reasonable that some of those people will then sublimate that in some way to their dietary habits. Beyond that, is a whole lot of wild speculation.

It's sort of like samizdat's story about his friend. It's certainly true that some survivors of childhood sexual violence become frightened of sexual intimacy and/or extremely alienated from their sexuality. However, it's also true that some survivors of childhood sexual violence become hypersexualized and even what we might characterize as "addicted" to sexual intimacy. It's a huge mistake to assume that one or the other is the normal experience for all survivors of childhood sexual assault. One thing that's a more safe (but not totally safe) assumption is that they will have an unconventional relationship with their own sexuality and with sexual intimacy with others, and that it may be pathological. But, really, you should be careful about that, too.

1. Well, arguably it also served a personal therapeutic purpose. But, interestingly, that wasn't anything she and I ever discussed. And, personally, I think that the personal therapeutic purpose was more served by her talking about it with me and other close friends and family, not so much in radio interviews. That was more activist type work, an extension of the work she did as a rape crisis advocate, among other things.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:09 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ivan-- the reason I'm curious is that I spend a lot of time reading research in epigenetics, as an interested party, and I find that many conclusions about epigentic alterations being communicated to the germline quite common. I'm just curious how much of the research you're actually reading in order to dismiss these possibilities as entirely unscientific, because in my biology classes at school every time I've asked a teacher to tell me about what they actually know of the research in epigenetics ther eventual respond that that is not their field and they don't know much about it but that they are certain soft inheritance is not possible anyway because "scientists just know that"

Which is why I really wanted to know if you're reading all the research about inheritance and epigenetics in order to have the conclusions that you do.
posted by xarnop at 12:11 PM on February 27, 2012


I think it mean that if you want to understand the world, you're going to have to be able to wrap your head around relatively complex systems of causality. If you really can't understand that there can be a causal link without something being the sole causal factor, then you should probably leave the thinking to other people.

posted by craichead at 5:25 AM on February 27 [14 favorites]


Why the hell did fourteen people 'favorite' a sneering, derisive comment directed towards an innocent question? The asker may not have had the most thorough understanding of the issue, but dang this kind of response is not needed.
posted by weinbot at 12:16 PM on February 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


In general I hear a lot of people say it's perfectly reasonable to avoid anyone whose behavior or functioning you don't like. If it can be determined that abuse survivors tend to have a hard time with certain areas of life then that increases the desire of people around them to put them on the "avoid" list because people with problems are not so fun to be around and of course, we should demand that human beings be fit and healthy and fun to be around in order to be part of our lives.

Which means all of us who are struggling flounder in isolation and try to support each other but it's all a mess. I feel like there is no way to get a sense of community, where people actually help each other for reasons other than being paid. I feel like human beings have times where they need help with chores and cooking and caring for children and that our society is so isolationist and avoidant of anyone in need that we are making a lot of people sick. Ifeel like people need community and that so many of us are just cut off and floundering. I just wish I could change this. I wish I wasn't floundering so much that all I can do is keep reading science and hope that eventually we find proof that supporting each other in more human ways with daily life and social support is good for human health and it's missing from the lives of so many people.
posted by xarnop at 12:18 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


I suspect that you're relying upon what you think is the etymology of the word—that it "originally" meant merely an identifying mark; and you possibly are assuming this because stimgata in the context of Christianity isn't, you probably think, negative. But, in fact, the actual etyomology of the term, its meaning in greek, στίγμα, when in the context of a person, is of a brand used to mark criminals.

Why are you speculating about what I'm assuming? Your assumptions don't illuminate anything about my comment.

With your pompous, phony display of erudition, you are avoiding the real point I was making, which is that being marked as "abused" or "unfortunate" is stigmatizing. Maybe not for your ex wife, but by and large, being a victim particularly of such an intimate and mentally scarring form of abuse is stigmatizing.
posted by jayder at 12:28 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


"With your pompous, phony display of erudition...:"

I actually know (or, rather, learned but have since mostly forgotten) classic Greek in college. So, you know, you might want to avoid that whole making accusations of "phony erudition" thing.

As to your repeated argument, it's incoherent. You are trying to simultaneously assert that because society thinks this way, it's stigmatizing. Which is fine, I partly agree with you. But then you also seem to be asserting that it's necessarily the case that society thinks this way, then you allow that my ex-wife might not have been stigmatized. Which, by your reckoning, shouldn't be possible, since it's not up to her, but society. And then you seem to put it back into the individual's court by talking about the "intimate and mentally scarring nature" of what was done to them.

All in all, it seems like you're trying to have it both ways, where both ways end up being that stigmatization of being a survivor of childhood sexual violence is necessary and basically universal. Which is bullshit and rightly objected to here by numerous people.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:04 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was abused my entire childhood. Food was a weapon that my abuser used against me, literally forcing foods I didn't want down my throat until I threw up, or denying me food when I was hungry. I was not allowed to touch food in the pantry or fridge and if I was caught doing so I was beaten severely.

As an adult I use food as a drug. I don't drink or do drugs, but food is what I turn to when the anxiety I have lived with my entire life gets out of control. At one point I weighed over 425 pounds. I am happy to say I went on anti-anxiety medication and have dropped all the way down to 320 pounds over a the last couple of years. It is a continual struggle and I often wonder what it is like not having these issues.
posted by UseyurBrain at 2:09 PM on February 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


It's sad this discussion has so many unpleasant derails, because the original post is interesting, and I could certainly feel tempted to look up the original research one day.
I was a sad under-nourished and stressed out child who has grown up to be an adult with weight-issues (periods of semi-anoretic behavior and underweight, and periods of overweight). My personal feeling is that there is some sort of connection, and I don't feel stigmatized by that connection. There was no sexual abuse in my childhood, but lots of other shit.
I feel a huge obligation to change this pattern, and make sure my kids are happy, and eat well. (They are both considerably taller than their parents, but slender and in good shape. So something must be OK).
And BTW, my addiction is entirely for fatty foods. Carbohydrates give me headaches. But I do binge on broccoli sometimes. If it is soaked in butter or good olive oil.
In my good periods, where I am neither starving/training myself like crazy nor eating a ton of pork, I can live almost entirely from nice unhealthy stuff like eggs and risotto and foie gras, and not put on or lose any weight. And then something triggers something, and I find myself going to one or the other bad end of the scales. I really wish I could identify those triggers.

In other words - I don't read this article as simplistic, I read it as an indication that there is some research going on which might help me. But I do see some of the comments as terribly simplistic.
posted by mumimor at 2:22 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am a bit confused. Assuming that there is a causal link between childhood sexual abuse and obesity, and obesity rates are rising, does that mean that childhood sexual abuse is also rising, or is the ready availability of "obesity-favoring food" just raising the numbers across the board?
Well CLEARLY High fructose corn syrup turns people into child molesters. That's just logic.

---
It is absolutely not true that sexual violence, either rape or childhood sexual assault, is motivated primarily by sexual attraction
This is pretty commonly understood. But I don't think it's being suggested that an aggressor commits the act of sexual abuse because of sexual attraction. Rather, that the victim may be reacting to the abuse, rational or not, in a way which he/she perceives will make him/herself appear an unattractive object of sexual desire, and therefore an unattractive target for further abuse.
Well, if someone did have traumatic experience with sex, they may be bothered by any kind of sexual attention, like flirting and being hit on. Getting fat will reduce that kind of attention, samizdat gave an example of that.

---
Have you actually read research into epigenetics?

Are you aware of what science disproved lamark and darwins early hypothesis that the body communicated adaptations in cellular functioning to the germline-- and how utterly crappy those studies "disproving" the theory actually were?
People read way more into epigenetics then is actually there. There seem to be a handful of traits that may be epigenetic. Obesity may actually be one of them. But this whole idea that it "proves lamark right" or whatever nonsense, it's completely ridiculous.
Ivan-- the reason I'm curious is that I spend a lot of time reading research in epigenetics, as an interested party, and I find that many conclusions about epigentic alterations being communicated to the germline quite common.
Reading the actual research papers, or popular science articles about it? Because there's a big difference.
My sister, who has the same basic genetic material doesn't have the same issues that I have, nor does she have the same issues with weight-gain.
It's not true that your siblings will have the same basic genetic makeup. Remember, each parent carries two different copies of the genome, and you end up with two 'remixes' of those two copies. There can be a ton of variation between siblings. Things like fraternal twins of different races happen. Not that maternal stress won't play a roll in the child's health.


---
Really? So instead of removing some of the stigma of obesity, because much of it is due to horrible experiences that happened as a child, and over which the person had no control, you ADD more stigma because not only is it shameful to be fat, it's also shameful to be an abuse survivor? If that isn't what you are saying, please clarify, because WHAT THE HELL?
You don't think there's a stigma associated with being an abuse survivor? It's not like people can 'chose' what stigmas other people associate with something.
Telling someone "I'm impressed you're not shooting people from a bell tower, given what you've been through" might be interpreted as stigmatizing by that individual.
Right exactly. If you assume that these people have some kind of mental problems, then that's a stigma, whether or not you think they 'earned' it is a stigma. Would you want to hire someone who you thought required incredible effort not to go on a shooting spree? Or date someone like that? Even if you're just making the assumption that they have PTSD or struggle with depression -- that still seems like a 'stigma' to me.
In my experience, people respond well to acknowledgmentthat they've been through a trauma and are handling it, however difficult it may be.
Well, maybe they would really rather just have people think that they are 'normal', especially if it's something that they don't think traumatized them. Maybe you talk to people who are abuse survivors all the time and never tell anyone about it. The stats in this article are that 50% of obese women and 25% of normal sized women were abused as children.

The question used in the study is whether or not there was ever a single instance of 'touching in a sexual way' with someone fire years older them. It's such a broad question, it could be a single instance of someone patting them on the butt inappropriately. That's certainly not good but I don't think it would cause lifelong trauma.

And if it wasn't traumatic, then why would you want people assuming you were traumatized and had psychological issues that they need to 'handle' as a result?

Again the question is not whether or not you, the enlightened mefites, would come to these conclusions but rather whether or not the 'average' person would think these things. As in, the average person who writes youtube comments.
All in all, it seems like you're trying to have it both ways, where both ways end up being that stigmatization of being a survivor of childhood sexual violence is necessary and basically universal. Which is bullshit and rightly objected to here by numerous people.
What you're arguing about is the precise definition of 'stigmatized'. But that's not the issue at all. The issue is whether or not people are going to think 'bad' things about you, meaning things you would prefer they not think if they thought you were an abuse victim. It seems pretty obvious that the answer is yes. People will assume you're depressed, that you're one step away from going on a shooting spree, that you will have sexual dysfunction, and so on. Okay maybe the word "stigma" doesn't perfectly capture that if you restrict the definition to 'a mark of shame' because you think that people shouldn't be ashamed of those things. But clearly lots of people are ashamed of those things.

But it seems like you're confusing 'moral' judgments about how the world or society should be with making judgments about how the world actually is.

I'm certainly not saying It's "bad" to be an abuse survivor. But rather I'm saying that people are going to make judgments about you if they think that you are. Most of those judgments are not going to be good. People are using the term 'stigma' to refer to this phenomenon. Maybe there is a better word, but arguing about which definition of the word is correct is entirely beside the point.
posted by delmoi at 2:56 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, maybe they would really rather just have people think that they are 'normal', especially if it's something that they don't think traumatized them.

Maybe you should recall that I wrote "In my experience.." for a reason and consider that in actual conversations, the statement has not been seen in the light you're conjecturing.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:02 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


The person I described in my first post wasn't a friend. It was me. Sorry for the subterfuge, but not really.

Not that my mark of approval has anything to do with how other victims of sexual abuse would view them, but what jayder and delmoi wrote feels right-on to me. Arguing about the correct word does indeed feel entirely beside the point. In the world in which I live, people knowing my past definitely leads to them drawing conclusions about me that are not good and that I cannot shed.

No matter how much speaking out I might do about the truth of childhood sexual abuse, I do not see those stigmas fading any time during my life.

It sucks, but I must come to grips with it.
posted by samizdat at 3:05 PM on February 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I've been through the stigma thing with anorexia, because it's been known for a while that it's linked with sexual abuse. And in my experience, stigma or, I don't know, weirdness about that is an issue for recovering anorexics, whether they're survivors of abuse or not. But I don't think it's a good reason not to pursue that line of research. I don't think you can withhold truths like that just because they can cause stigma or discomfort.
Why the hell did fourteen people 'favorite' a sneering, derisive comment directed towards an innocent question?
I took that more as a "gotcha" than an innocent question, because it's the first thing people bring up, always, in metafilter fat discussions whenever anyone points out, for instance, that some people are predisposed to be fatter than others. It's a very common tactic of the fat-shaming brigade here. But if it was an innocent question, I apologize for being snide.
posted by craichead at 3:11 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Samizdat, thanks for your courage.
Back in the day, actually in one of the few periods where I was just normal and healthy (when it comes to weight), a lot of people of different ages would gather in my house every weekend. And in the beginning there would be this competition about who had the worst childhood and jada jada, because everyone in the group had suffered childhood trauma. Then after a while, we figured out it was boring. If we wanted to change our lives, we'd have to stop blaming someone else and do it for ourselves, and we set out doing that. And for me, as stated, that was a healthy period in my life. For all of us, it was a very creative and productive time. So something was really valuable about that approach.
But today, looking at how everyone is doing, we will all have to admit that it only worked for a while.
Today I think it needs to be a combination. Yes, we have to stop blaming our parents and/or abusers and/or society, and take responsibility for our own lives. But in real life, we also need some sort of support system which can help us stay on track.
posted by mumimor at 3:37 PM on February 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


"No matter how much speaking out I might do about the truth of childhood sexual abuse, I do not see those stigmas fading any time during my life."

But it has faded during my life. I've seen this happen.

Incidentally, before I continue, the whole thing about definitions is because jayder brought up a particular, cherry-picked definition of stigma in order to make an assertion about what social stigma is. Regardless of whether social stigma is that thing or not, the definition he chose didn't apply in the first place. And, more to the point, what he was trying to do actually undermined his argument because it turns out that stigma is, in fact, a mark that is understood to represent the external manifestation an internal quality. And it's a negative quality, that's unambiguous (except in the case of stigmata). This is why social stigma is understood in the technical sense as it is understood. While social stigma is dependent upon what people believe is bad, it's the case that what they believe is bad is bad. It's not as if the people who perpetuate the stigma are saying, oh, I know that we all think this is bad only because we all think this is bad, I know it's not essentially bad. Quite the contrary, they all believe it's bad because they believe that it's essentially bad, and that's why they think that everyone else necessarily must believe this, too.

And this is why publicly opposing this consensus is actually pretty powerful. Because if everyone doesn't seem to agree that it's bad, then that undermines the implicit argument that everyone must believe that it's bad because it actually is bad.

Anyway, I'm not arguing that social stigma isn't something that's created out of what society thinks about something, true or false. It is. And I'm certainly not arguing that it doesn't exist. It does.

If you read what jayder wrote carefully, you can see that he equivocates about how this social opinion comes to exist. He is arguing that to some large degree, this social opinion comes to exist because of the nature of the experience. And that's not true. It's confusing the "nature" of the experience with how that experience is deeply influenced by how society understands it. There is no similar stigma associated with being mugged as there is being raped. People like jayder want to say that this is because rape is inherently different from being mugged, but that's begging the question. It's assuming what it's attempting to prove. There's no reason that there couldn't be any more stigma attached to rape as there is to mugging or other violent assault. But for that to come to pass, enough people have to not accept that rape is qualitatively special.

There's no reason for childhood sexual violence to have any more stigma attached to it than does other childhood sexual violence. It's wrong to say that they are qualitatively distinct in a way that makes stigma inevitable for one but not the others.

None of this is a claim that stigma against survivors of sexual assault doesn't exist. Of course it exists. To say otherwise would be stupid.

But, yes, again, I can tell you authoritatively as someone with both personal and institutional experience with these issues that, in fact, the stigma associated with surviving sexual violence has lessened over the last thirty years.

If you would like to hope to be able to live without that stigma, then you are wrong to think that such hope is unrealistic.

Now, to be absolutely clear, this is not in any way an assertion that what's best for you is to be publicly open about this and live as if there were no such stigma. That is fundamentally something that each individual survivor should decide only for themselves. No one—no one, no matter who it is, has any place making that decision for them nor telling them what decision they should make and I hope that I haven't given the impression that I am advising one way or another but, if so, I apologize.

However, it's true that social stigma is something that actually matters precisely in its intersection between the individual and society. Specifically, its ability to attach itself to an individual. And individuals don't have to allow the stigma to attach.

One way to prevent this is to do as you do, and that's not reveal the thing about yourself to others by which it could attach itself. But another way is to actively refuse that it be attached to you. Again, I don't want to give the impression of making claims about which is better or worse for an individual person, least of all you. But it is true that many people have found it more fundamentally empowering and "defusing" of the stigma within themselves to actively refuse the attachment of stigma than they previously found by avoiding it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 4:00 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm talking about studies like this which show that early life stress alters the paternal germline of future offspring.

"Overall, these data support the existence of a sensitive period of early gestation when epigenetic programming of the male germline can occur, permitting transmission of specific phenotypes into subsequent generations."

You know, stuff like that.

Just saying I see this in conclusions of a lot of research but, usually the effects of prenatal restraint stress is assumed to cause affects to the fetus which can affect the adult biological functioning which can affect the fetal development of the following developing infant.

mumimor-- I don't think talking about things really fixes these kinds of biological alterations. That said if cognition and brain development has been affected then "taking responsability" for ones own self might not be as possible for everyone depending on the amount of damage they may have experienced. I certainly agree everyone should attempt to take responsability for as much as they possibly can-- but if a persons ability to function has been severely impaired there may be need for practical supports with functioning that currently we have no or very little model of providing.

Typical if meds, therapy, and bootstrap determiniation doesn't result in a person being capable of caring for themselves they just wind up homeless and everyone says it's their own fault "Take responsability!"

Having worked with homeless young adults, a huge portion being trauma survivors, foster alumni, or mentally or emotionally impaired people--- I really don't think all people who attempt to "take responsability" for their own lives wind up having the same results. Certainly there is variation in effort to "take responsability" which plays a role in success, but I also think many people who are putting forth their best effort to "take responsability" can not measure in the normal functioning range in a number of crucial parameters of functioning.

I also think stating that child abuse and neglect (of any kind) along with any sort of poor environmental variable--- can impair human functioning: is NOT a statement that all humans are affected by such variables in a linear pattern. Positive variables such as having a meaningful mentor or peer group, access to positive activities, ability to succeed in school-- these can all change how abuse or neglect are experienced.

Saying abuse harms many people is like saying car wrecks can cause terrible and potentially life destroying damage in people. Yes some people get in a car wreck and turn out fine, and some have various amounts of damage. To say car wrecks can cause horrible damage in people is not to define how any one specific person will be affected by that experience. But to tell a person who was physically damaged in a car accident and cant care for themselves and needs help to "take responsability" because other people were caoable of doing so-- also misses variations in how people can be impaired by circumpstances. Telling someone who legs aren't working that if they try hard enough they can walk because other survivors made themselves is not accurate for every person.
posted by xarnop at 4:02 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


xarnop, I agree. I'd written a much longer post about how someone from our group died, and others are homeless, but I lost the post. "Pulling yourself together" is not at all possible for everyone, even if they really, really want to succeed.
I think it was really valuable back then that we had found each other and were self-empowering. But from a societal point of view, if the bottom 60% of us were to be successfully integrated in society, it would have been a good idea to monitor and coach us, just once every three months. Remember, every single person in our group including lacked basic life skills, because our childhoods were lost. And society had access, because some of us were having babies.
If you hate socialism and the mothering state, just remember that a huge part of this group have never found a decent job, are not giving their children a safe upbringing, and are a huge burden on the health-care system. Investing one social worker four times a year for five years could have saved millions over a lifetime.
I have a nice job and have been able to give my kids a comfortable life. But for some of my friends, that is a distant vision. Childhood abuse is a life-long handicap.

Basic life skills could include cooking, child care, cleaning, laundry, paying bills, avoiding stupid fights; the list is endless, and includes plenty of things "normal" people seem to know from an early age.
posted by mumimor at 4:27 PM on February 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe you should recall that I wrote "In my experience.." for a reason and consider that in actual conversations, the statement has not been seen in the light you're conjecturing.

In my other comment I wrote "Maybe you talk to people who are abuse survivors all the time and never tell anyone about it." Now I realize that's kind of ambiguously worded but what I meant was that not everyone you know who was sexually abused has told you about it.

Based on the broad definition used in this study it's something like 1 out of 4 or 5 people, including 50% of obese women.
I'm talking about studies like this which show that early life stress alters the paternal germline of future offspring.

"Overall, these data support the existence of a sensitive period of early gestation when epigenetic programming of the male germline can occur, permitting transmission of specific phenotypes into subsequent generations."
Yes, but here's the thing: They're talking about a handful of traits. Something like obesity, or some of these psychological disorders linked to stress might be epigenetic. If those things are epigenetically linked then they are linked due to mechanisms for triggering those changes that are coded in the genome.

It's a mistake to think of evolution as something where you have individuals, and genes and that 'individuals' compete with each other. That's just an approximation. It works well but it breaks down in some cases. Like with self-sacrifice in humans or other animals to protect the family. There you can think of it as 'genes' trying to survive. Since family members have similar genes, that makes sense. But that breaks down too. In some cases the response to stress (say, in bacteria) is to release mutagens which cause genes to mutate more quickly in order to evolve faster and be more likely for decedents to survive, even if they have different genes. So really it's not about an individual, or set of genes 'trying' to survive but rather simply the result of a natural mathematical process where the individuals and genes you see now are descended from the individuals/genes which were mostly likely to have created decedents in the past.

No obviously humans can't just trigger extra mutation in our cells, as we would just get cancer.

But there maybe an evolutionary advantage to having a particular epigenetic response programmed in. So for example, if a person has a mutation that causes these epigenetic markers to impact their eating. At first, you wouldn't notice anything. But their children would be more likely to need to eat about the same amount of food. On the other hand, if there was a long, multi-generational drought the descendants of that person would still be better off because they would adapt more quickly, and thus be more evolutionarily successful compared to people who didn't adapt.

But while there may be a handful of traits that have programmed in responses that are fundamentally encoded in there genes. You can't just take 'anything'. If someone practices their signing and gets really good at it, they are not going to pass along 'epigenetic' markers for being a good singer to their kids. If someone reads a lot, they are not going to pass along a 'reading epigene' to their kids. You can't pass along 'any' trait that way, just the ones that are hard-coded due to the genes that determine what happens with various genetic markers.

(Obviously epigenetic 'mutation' just like genetic mutation is probably possible, but a true mutation, rather then an 'intentional' change to an epigenome would only be caused by random chance, not for any 'reason')

The problem with saying that 'epigenetics' 'overturns' evolution or radically changes it is that it's misunderstanding evolution in the first place. That's why the paper you linked doesn't say "We discovered that evolution was wrong and lamark was right" It just says "hey, we noticed these traits may be epigenetic (in mice)"

And, if it's something that's in both mice and men we'd be talking about something that evolved before the common ancestor of mice and men, which apparently happened 75 million years ago -- so we're talking about something that had millions of years to evolve. It makes sense that you would see the kind of selective pressure applied to whether or not there were certain 'points of flexibility' that allowed an series of decedents to adapt in certain ways to certain environmental factors. But what made sense for a proto-rat lineage 100 million years ago may not be a sensible adaptation for a modern human lineage.
posted by delmoi at 4:37 PM on February 27, 2012


"You can't just take 'anything'. If someone practices their signing and gets really good at it, they are not going to pass along 'epigenetic' markers for being a good singer to their kids. If someone reads a lot, they are not going to pass along a 'reading epigene' to their kids. You can't pass along 'any' trait that way, just the ones that are hard-coded due to the genes that determine what happens with various genetic markers."

Right, we're in total agreement. I guess I see what Ivan was saying about the fact that people might misinterperet heritability of life experiences. However I still think there's a lot more to figure out about how experience can affect gene expression throughout life, and what of that could be passed to offspring through specific epigenetic pathways and through alterations in the womb environment due to the mothers bodily functioning being altered. So far it seems like fetal development periods and early life periods are the most vulnerable to alteration (positive or negative) which I hope will increase societal determination to support mothers and parents in general during the prenatal and early parenting years.

And of course I'm still hoping that somehow we end sexual abuse (or any abuse) and that can become not a thing any more. Gosh I hope that's possible one day.
posted by xarnop at 5:19 PM on February 27, 2012


Ivan: I think there's a couple of ways to read that sentence. If "these changes" refers to cortisol-induced brain damage, then yeah, that doesn't have much to do with epigenetics, at least not that I know. But I think by "these changes" the author was actually referring to environmental changes more broadly, in which case there is a substantial body of research that supports the idea that stressful events may leave lasting and heritable changes through epigenetics.

Personally, I'm willing to assume that she meant the second thing, especially since I thought her one-paragraph description of the Dutch hunger winter studies was clear and faithful to the underlying science. Unfortunately that PNAS review is paywalled, but here are a couple of the most critical parts:
Those who were exposed to the famine only during late gestation were born small and continued to be small throughout their lives, with lower rates of obesity as adults than in those born before and after the famine. However, as indicated above, those exposed during early gestation experienced elevated rates of obesity, altered lipid profiles, and cardiovascular disease.

... One of the predictions made by [this hypothesis] is that fetal adaptations to scarcity become maladaptive only when affected individuals are later exposed to an environment of plenty. This is dramatically shown by comparing those exposed to the Dutch Hunger Winter with babies born after the siege of Leningrad. In both cases, pregnant women were exposed to severe famine. However, whereas The Netherlands returned to a complete diet quite quickly after the time of severe restriction, there were continuing shortages in the U.S.S.R., where those exposed to famine in utero did not exhibit higher rates of either obesity or cardiovascular disease as adults (9).

(emphasis mine)
posted by en forme de poire at 6:12 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


But that study does not show transgenerational heritability, if I'm reading it correctly, which is what she wrote:
Studies have also found that consistently elevated levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, can lead to permanent damage in certain brain regions linked to depression. Recently, scientists have discovered that these changes can themselves be passed down from one generation to the next — a burgeoning new area of study called epigenetics.
...and what xarnop is asserting exists.

The author's wording equivocates epigenetics in general with transgenerational epigenetics, an equivocation which is false. The latter is a subset of the former; and evidence about the former, in general, is not automatically supporting evidence for the latter.

The research that the author most likely had in mind, though obviously I can't be sure, when she wrote this article—because the article is, after all, about childhood sexual abuse and obesity—is Nature Neuroscience 12, 342 - 348 (2009) [abstract]:
Maternal care influences hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function in the rat through epigenetic programming of glucocorticoid receptor expression. In humans, childhood abuse alters HPA stress responses and increases the risk of suicide. We examined epigenetic differences in a neuron-specific glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1) promoter between postmortem hippocampus obtained from suicide victims with a history of childhood abuse and those from either suicide victims with no childhood abuse or controls. We found decreased levels of glucocorticoid receptor mRNA, as well as mRNA transcripts bearing the glucocorticoid receptor 1F splice variant and increased cytosine methylation of an NR3C1 promoter. Patch-methylated NR3C1 promoter constructs that mimicked the methylation state in samples from abused suicide victims showed decreased NGFI-A transcription factor binding and NGFI-A–inducible gene transcription. These findings translate previous results from rat to humans and suggest a common effect of parental care on the epigenetic regulation of hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor expression.
...which isn't, as is also not the case in your example, about transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. It's about regular epigenetic inheritance; and the possibility that this could become a transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is speculative and based upon the limited laboratory examples of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

The more relevant study for this isn't the Dutch studies, but the similar famous Overkalix study, which does show a transgenerational correlation [excerpt]:
In animal models, these types of effects, termed fetal programming, can be produced by exposing offspring in utero to a manipulation such as dietary restriction of the pregnant female. Although most studies of fetal programming only address effects in the first-generation offspring, there is strong evidence that, at least in some cases, these programmed phenotypes are maintained for several generations. For example, prenatal programming of birth weight by maternal food restriction or maternal exercise have been shown to last for more than one generation.

The molecular basis for these apparently nongenetic transgeneration effects is not known. One hypothesis is that it involves epigenetics. Epigenetics is the process by which patterns of gene expression are modified in a mitotically heritable manner by mechanisms that do not involve DNA mutation. Epigenetic modifications include, among others, the methylation state of the DNA and the proteins that package the DNA into chromosomes. The epigenetic state of the genome is established in early development and is generally thought to be cleared between generations.
Note the two sentences I bolded. Now, that's a six year old paper. However, here is a more recent 2010 survey paper about transgenerational epigenetics (fully available at the link), and it mentions both these studies:
The effects of environmental influences and the possibility that the resulting epigenetic alterations are heritable to the next generation are of considerable interest to those studying disease in humans. A recent study investigated the long-term effects of prenatal exposure to famine on DNA methylation at the imprinted IGF2 gene. Individuals conceived during the Dutch Hunger Winter (1944–1945) showed hypomethylation at the IGF2 differentially methylated region (DMR) when analyzed six decades later. Interestingly, no differences in DNA methylation were observed in individuals exposed to famine late in gestation. The finding suggests that the protein-deficient diet of the mother contributed to the loss of DNA methylation at the IGF2 DMR (Heijmans et al. 2008). It is difficult to tease out cause and effect. The loss of methylation in old age may be a consequence of some as yet unknown physiological changes. Unfortunately, in this study there is no record of DNA methylation patterns earlier in development. A prospective cohort study would be best, and epidemiologists are now collecting biospecimens from MZ twins at birth (Foley et al. 2009). This will provide us with exciting new data in the coming decades.

A large epidemiological study carried out in Sweden reported that early paternal smoking was associated with a greater body mass index in sons (Pembrey et al. 2006). Additionally, they found a correlation between mortality risk ratio of grandsons and paternal grandfather's food supply in mid-childhood. The mortality risk ratio of the granddaughters was linked to the paternal grandmother's food supply (Pembrey et al. 2006). While it is possible to explain these observations based on transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, other equally plausible explanations exist. In these types of studies, cultural confounders are almost impossible to rule out.
Again, note my bolding.

That paper concludes:
Multicellular organisms have evolved complex mechanisms to clear epigenetic states between generations. However, in some cases these mechanisms can be circumvented. Recent studies across a wide range of species have strengthened the idea that the direct inheritance of RNA molecules and of chromatin states does occur, making these plausible explanations. The development of high-throughput methods of sequencing both RNA and DNA in combination with antibodies specific to particular histone modifications will enable us to fully characterize the epigenetic marks across the entire genome of gametes and early embryos in the near future. Together, these studies will provide us with exciting new insights on how and to what extent transgenerational epigenetic inheritance occurs in various organisms. Certainly, we are only at the beginning, and most likely we will have to revise our current models about the nature and stability of the epigenetic marks to fully understand this mechanism.
This is very preliminary work and almost all of what we're discussing here is speculative. This is a very long way from something that overturns the CD and especially that transforms conventional contemporary understanding of evolutionary theory.

The writer of the article makes it easy for the audience, which is without a doubt essentially totally ignorant about both molecular biology and evolutionary theory, to conclude that lamarckian evolution is true. They won't know they're thinking that evolution is lamarckian, but that's what they'll be thinking. That's what xarnop is thinking, and xarnop knows far, far more about these subjects than the average reader of a Time magazine science article. There is a big difference between there being possibly some elements of lamarckian inheritance involved in evolution and a reformulation of evolutionary theory into a lamarckian framework.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:38 PM on February 27, 2012


As someone who has struggled with up-and-down weight over my lifetime, and also with self-worth and personal boundaries, I think it's much too easy/lazy to draw a direct line between "fears intimacy = eats too much on purpose to gain weight and thus feel safe." This folk wisdom is not sufficiently examined.

There's certainly conscious process that creates this, no moment where someone says to him- or herself "I know, I'll get fat and thus be protected from this scary world of sexual interaction!," though people sometimes note its effects after the fact. As noted, it is not good protection in the least and can, in fact, make you more vulnerable to certain predatory strategies.

What's more likely to be going on is that intimacy can be very fearful and negative, so it is one of many aspects of life you might not pursue very comfortably or aggressively. You may even actively shy away from situations which lead to intimacy. Meanwhile, food is a pretty reliable comfort mechanism, which you might pursue more often and with much less fear, finding yourself developing a steady practice of looking to food as a daily delight and surefire mechanism to feel some physical and emotional satisfaction during any given day.

That enjoying food more than intimacy might cause weight gain (it certainly doesn't in everyone who makes the same set of choices) is not an outrageous idea, but it doesn't mean that eating more is a conscious or even unconscious strategy to avoid intimacy. It's just that one thing reliably produces comfort, while the other does not.

That weight gain caused by food might then signal that you are unavailable for some forms of intimacy is not always a satisfying result, as honestly what people of all kinds want most is simply a healthy, rewarding intimacy that does not threaten or confuse them -- rather than wanting freedom from ever being approached sexually. Also, as others have noted, weight gain does not provide protection from sexual pressure.

The position people end up in when they're isolated from sexual and romantic and even platonic interpersonal interactions because of their weight is not one that is experienced as safe and satisfying and a smart response to unwanted attention - it's one with its own hell of frustrations. And the position they end up in when their self-management strategies end up producing a fit or thin or otherwise socially rewarded appearance is that they realize there is really no comfort to be had there, either. As many people will aver, going from obese to slender is a surefire way to reveal that there is little meaningful individual caring and support that arises from simply meeting social standards for 'attractiveness' and that, in fact, you draw new and different kinds of negative attention.


I find it somewhat offensive that people suggest that there's a direct connection between the two things - as though, if you could just un-tease this connection, everyone would be thin and happy. Really, it's indirect. It's not purposeful or a knowing coping strategy - it's a result of a non-human self-comforting strategy (whatever it is) working much better and more predictably than any supposed human-originating comforting strategy (such as people telling you you look cute in your outfit or asking for your number a lot or otherwise giving you praise for your external appearance). There are many, many such non-human coping strategies. People have many habits that they use to make themselves feel better when stressors tax their systems - they may gamble, play incessant video games, drive recklessly, have a slovenly house, do drugs or drink, exercise manically, procrastinate, shop, use other people for short-term sexual pleasure, masturbate to porn, read crappy fiction, obsess over sports, and so on and so on. Eating food is only one of these self-comforting behaviors. Why single it out for such contempt? Is it really safe to do so? Are we all so sure we have no such behaviors that we use to distract ourselves from the stresses we feel? Do you really think that if you're thin, you're mentally healthy? That you should be free of the stigma you decide it appropriate to heap on someone else for the behavior they chose?

I don't think so - not by a long shot. If anyone thinks their lives are perfectly free of behaviors which are self-comforting but might possibly have the ancillary effect of isolating them from others, let's install a 24/7 cam in your house, car, and job and watch how your life unfolds for a few weeks. I'm sure we'll all learn a lot by viewing your example of physical and psychological perfection.

That when an overweight person loses weight and meets all the external markers for 'available and attractive sexual partner' but still do not feel life is safe and satisfying is exactly the problem this piece is trying to call attention to. How about we deal with that.
posted by Miko at 9:27 PM on February 27, 2012 [8 favorites]


There is a big difference between there being possibly some elements of lamarckian inheritance involved in evolution and a reformulation of evolutionary theory into a lamarckian framework.

Oh, definitely! But do you think the article is actually claiming that? I thought it was pretty restrained, and that this paragraph's purpose was more to indicate future directions that people are now interested in studying:
Recently, scientists have discovered that these changes can themselves be passed down from one generation to the next — a burgeoning new area of study called epigenetics. Such research may have significant and long-term implications for the prevention of obesity, addiction and other illnesses related to early life stress. After all, reducing childhood exposure to trauma in one generation may further benefit that generation's children and grandchildren.
That's hedged pretty strongly, I think.

With respect to transgenerational epigenetic inheritance specifically, you're right that we don't yet have unassailable evidence in humans, but there is comparatively stronger evidence that epigenetic information can be inherited across generations in model organisms (e.g.). Not saying at all that this is a settled field, or that we understand it in mechanistic detail, but I would say that the idea that information from the environment can be inherited is not without precedent.

Given that the article only tangentially touches on epigenetic inheritance anyway, I'm inclined to think the author brought this up more to point the way towards future research, rather than suggesting that the science is settled on this point. The rest of the article focuses mainly on trauma during development, which is why I brought up the Dutch hunger winter study -- and here I thought the article did a good job. This was the paragraph I was talking about upthread:
For most of human evolution, a stressful world would have been marked by famines or periods of starvation, and that environment might have resulted in a particular pattern of gene expression that would have prompted the body to store more fat in preparation for the next bout of scarcity. Today, of course, the same response to stress would result in obesity. This theory of a thrifty fat-storing system that kicks in under high levels of early stress was originally proposed by British physician David Barker.
I guess I was just surprised to see such a strong negative reaction, since I thought this article did a lot of things right for a pop science column. Obviously, reasonable people can disagree.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:51 PM on February 27, 2012


"I guess I was just surprised to see such a strong negative reaction, since I thought this article did a lot of things right for a pop science column. Obviously, reasonable people can disagree."

Bad pop science journalism is a very hot-button topic for me and it's entirely possible that I overreacted to this article. I promise I'll read it again in a day or two and see if I form a different impression.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:50 PM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ivan:

[People who perpetuate the stigma associated with childhood sexual abuse] all believe it's bad because they believe that it's essentially bad, and that's why they think that everyone else necessarily must believe this, too...

...There's no reason that there couldn't be any more stigma attached to rape as there is to mugging or other violent assault. But for that to come to pass, enough people have to not accept that rape is qualitatively special...

...There's no reason for childhood sexual violence to have any more stigma attached to it than does other childhood sexual [sic, right?] violence. It's wrong to say that they are qualitatively distinct in a way that makes stigma inevitable for one but not the others.


I don't know, Ivan. I want to believe what you're saying about the lack of qualitative difference between childhood sexual violence and other types of childhood violence, but it doesn't feel true in my experience.

First, I understand that people can respond in wildly varying ways to the same trauma, as can be evidenced in the difference in the ways my half-brother deals with his childhood sexual trauma versus the way that I do. I don't need to venture beyond my own family to see that sexual promiscuity can be just as likely of an outcome as utter sexual withdrawal.

However, in the case of sexual withdrawal and aversion to intimacy, I can't help but feel that the experience is qualitatively distinct. My brother, in his promiscuity, manages to embody many of the stereotypes that our culture holds forth for men. In appearing to be chaste, prudish and asexual to those in my small city, I stand out much more as an oddball than my brother ever would. Of course, garden-variety promiscuity is markedly different from pathological promiscuity.

Moving away from comparing dysfunction to dysfunction, I feel utterly bereft of the qualities of what would be defined as a healthy sexuality (you know, things like self-respect, confidence, a clear understanding of bodily integrity, capacity for expressing love through touch and being touched, etc.). If so many of these attributes weren't touchstones of the foundations of our culture, maybe my abuse wouldn't feel qualitatively different. But my seeming inability to be anything but totally sex/intimacy-avoidant prevents me in large part from participating in so many aspects of our culture: child-rearing, family not to mention sex itself. When I still had a career, I felt blocked in some way by the fact that I'm going it solo. I know you point to the fading of the stigma as proof that progress will continue to be made, but the deficiencies I suffer from seem to stand in marked contrast to some of the most foundational underpinnings of the way society works. I cannot fathom the dominant themes of masculinity and femininity fading from our society to such a degree that I no longer stand out as a fucking weirdo to most.

This isn't even taking into account all the ways in which I feel emotionally cordoned off from the rest of society. Having been clinically diagnosed with both PTSD and Avoidant Personality Disorder, my extreme isolation, inability to trust, self-loathing, fear of being touched, emotional blunting and compulsive self-criticism feel like the sorts of things that render me permanently incapable of participating in any meaningful way in so much in this life. It leads me to think things like this, "A woman who finds out that I am the victim of childhood sexual abuse should be concerned. She is opting into a relationship with a person who emotionally blockades himself, is overwhelmed by simple expressions of love and intimacy (including touch), has so many sexual hangups that are going to have to be worked through very carefully and slowly with no promise of improvement, is often depressed and socially anxious and has extreme ambivalence about family and children. And to read about adult male victims of childhood sexual abuse, she would have to realize how improbable it is that I overcome any of these problems in a significant way. Additionally, APD is not something I'm likely to overcome in any significant way, and she would realize that too."

I've almost deleted or tried to re-write the above on several occasions for the simple fact that I doubt that it's truly logical. This whole thing feels like such a feedback loop. Or at least like maybe it's a feedback loop. "Do I feel the way I do in part because of the way that others respond to me, or is the way that I feel independent of the social stigma." I don't even know what I'm really arguing here at this point. I guess, if what I went through isn't qualitatively special, why does it feel qualitatively special?

[I]t's true that social stigma is something that actually matters precisely in its intersection between the individual and society. Specifically, its ability to attach itself to an individual. And individuals don't have to allow the stigma to attach.

I guess what I'm asking is that what if my experience of the stigma attached to what I've been through feels utterly rational and appropriate when I think about the ways in which the experience has warped me? What if a refusal to allow the stigma to attach is simply tilting at a windmill? A denial of the reality of the chasm between functional society and myself?
posted by samizdat at 6:24 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Miko

[Weight gain in order to ward off sexual attention and intimacy] is not good protection in the least.

Not for you. However, it seems to have worked for me.

You may even actively shy away from situations which lead to intimacy. Meanwhile, food is a pretty reliable comfort mechanism, which you might pursue more often and with much less fear, finding yourself developing a steady practice of looking to food as a daily delight and surefire mechanism to feel some physical and emotional satisfaction during any given day.

This has also been true for me.

That enjoying food more than intimacy might cause weight gain (it certainly doesn't in everyone who makes the same set of choices) is not an outrageous idea, but it doesn't mean that eating more is a conscious or even unconscious strategy to avoid intimacy.

But it also doesn't mean that —for a guy like me— eating more is not a conscious or unconscious strategy to avoid intimacy.

That weight gain caused by food might then signal that you are unavailable for some forms of intimacy is not always a satisfying result, as honestly what people of all kinds want most is simply a healthy, rewarding intimacy that does not threaten or confuse them -- rather than wanting freedom from ever being approached sexually.

I feel like I want freedom from ever being approached sexually until I can become convinced of a person's sincerity in seeking healthy, rewarding intimacy with me. But because I have the severe trust issues of the Avoidant Personality, I'm not sure how a woman could convince me of her sincerity. I feel trapped in this way, and thus, what you've written above does not feel entirely true for me.

The position people end up in when they're isolated from sexual and romantic and even platonic interpersonal interactions because of their weight is not one that is experienced as safe and satisfying and a smart response to unwanted attention - it's one with its own hell of frustrations.It's not purposeful or a knowing coping strategy...

For you. It's not for you. For me, however, it feels like it is a purposeful coping strategy for warding off attention. In part. It also feels like a comforting mechanism. Why can't it be both? Why must your experience of these things apply to all victims of childhood sexual abuse? I won't say that the assumptions you're making are offensive to me (the way you say that the assumptions of others in this thread are somewhat offensive to you), but I will say that I find them kind of annoying.

That when an overweight person loses weight and meets all the external markers for 'available and attractive sexual partner' but still do not feel life is safe and satisfying is exactly the problem this piece is trying to call attention to. How about we deal with that.

Hear, hear! If someone has $135/week to spare so that I can start up another long-term therapy relationship, please let me know. However, I can't guarantee progress as a result of your investment.
posted by samizdat at 6:50 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


A correction to the post directly above. I screwed up my formatting. This is how it should read from "The position people end up in..." and below.

The position people end up in when they're isolated from sexual and romantic and even platonic interpersonal interactions because of their weight is not one that is experienced as safe and satisfying and a smart response to unwanted attention - it's one with its own hell of frustrations.

Indeed.

It's not purposeful or a knowing coping strategy...

For you. It's not for you. For me, however, it feels like it is a purposeful coping strategy for warding off attention. In part. It also feels like a comforting mechanism. Why can't it be both? Why must your experience of these things apply to all victims of childhood sexual abuse? I won't say that the assumptions you're making are offensive to me (the way you say that the assumptions of others in this thread are somewhat offensive to you), but I will say that I find them kind of annoying.

That when an overweight person loses weight and meets all the external markers for 'available and attractive sexual partner' but still do not feel life is safe and satisfying is exactly the problem this piece is trying to call attention to. How about we deal with that.

Hear, hear! If someone has $135/week to spare so that I can start up another long-term therapy relationship, please let me know. However, I can't guarantee progress as a result of your investment.
posted by samizdat at 7:03 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


For me, however, it feels like it is a purposeful coping strategy for warding off attention. In part.

I'm will say I'm surprised - you're the first person I've ever heard say that they intentionally use this as a planned coping strategy. I would say that I'm not only speaking "for me," but voicing something I've encountered in a lot of literature and in support groups. I have never heard someone say "My intentional plan is to gain weight to avoid being sexually attractive; that will make me feel safer." Indeed it may be something you have decided, but it's the first time I've encountered it.

That's not to say it's not true or not working for you. I suppose both things can be true for some individuals. But that can't safely be extrapolated to other people. I speak about it because my larger purpose is to disconnect the two parts of the idea that "fat people are fat because they fear intimacy" as a causal relationship in the popular mind. It may indeed be true for you, but it's not reliably true for all people who struggle with weight and/or intimacy, and I don't think it's fair for people to assume so. Some overweight people are perfectly well prepared for intimacy, some overweight people are isolated from intimacy as a secondary effect of their relationship with food as a comfort mechanism, and some non-overweight people are isolated from intimacy by other coping mechanisms or simply preferences. That's what I'm talking about here.
posted by Miko at 7:14 AM on February 28, 2012


Hear, hear! If someone has $135/week to spare so that I can start up another long-term therapy relationship, please let me know. However, I can't guarantee progress as a result of your investment.

I'm actually not telling you to "deal with that." I'm trying to redirect attention to the point of the article - which is that child sexual abuse is a pervasive societal problem that many people keep turning away from in favor of discussing issues about appearance and other secondary effects.
posted by Miko at 7:16 AM on February 28, 2012


Yeah I think people who aren't totally wacked out by abuse are benefitted from being seen for being as capable as they are. For those of us with symptoms like your samizdat (myself included) people feel justified in avoiding damaged goods.

It's perfectly acceptable for people to choose who they do and don't want to be around. It's perfectly understandable that most people can't handle or want to be around people who are obviously affected by trauma. Even if you're trying to do things right and you can manage to be in a good space, for a lot of people if they know your history you're a reminder of things that are unpleasant and painful and people just don't want to be around you.

And I understand this because I can't always handle other peoples suffering or unpleasant coping mechanisms or after affects of trauma. So I respect it-- and it feeds the Avoidance mechanisms you're talking about. I cut myself off first and sve everyone the discomfort of having to do it themselves (and save myself the misery of finally opening up and having my own emotions come up and then being left floundering)

And that's just in friendships. I push people away hardcore. I'm lcuky I have two stubborn female friends that seem tp keep calling me and trying to hang out even though I avoid my phone and don't call people back.
I feel like this is better because when I open up it's just too much. Too much need, too much pain wanting to come out, too much yearning to fall apart and be carried.

I felt safer when I was heavier. But when I decided I needed to find other coping mechanisms for health reasons and I lost 60 pounds and got to normal weight, I try to get the same safety feeling by thinking I'm still ridiculously unattractive so therefore no one will be attracted to me. It actually helps because there's a feedback loop when you're afraid of people and they can tell you're afraid and they get ideas, or they already have ideas and their ides make you afraid. I can cut that off really well by thinking "Nu-uh I don't believe you! You're not even aroused, your arousal doesn't even exist and you have no ideas about doing anything because I'm really yucky. Yucky!" It's weird when I can really disengage from someone elses stuff regarding power/sexuality then I feel more able to present myself without being afraid or cowering which always winds up with people going after you. You run from a barking dog, what happens? You stand your ground and laugh at a person who wants to be a predator they don't have anything left.

Well, unless they're really bad. Anyway, samizdat, I'm sorry you've faced these issues as a result of abuse. It's a terrible thing to face. The isolation is terrible.

Stigma will always be there because it's hard to see people affected by, currently in, or who might display affects of terrible suffering. People assume you go to therapy long enough, or the right kind or "trauma healing" or do enough meds and then you can be well adjusted like everyone else. Some people can. Some people it's not like that at all.

I do however hope we find better ways to support people dealing with these things. Just from all the people I see floundering in the world around me, I think there must be better ways.
posted by xarnop at 7:16 AM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


"People assume you go to therapy long enough, or the right kind or "trauma healing" or do enough meds and then you can be well adjusted like everyone else. Some people can. Some people it's not like that at all."

Also another point about that is that if your functioning is so impaired you struggle at school or work there may be little or no option to even do any kind of therapy or get any comprehensive support with functional struggles at all. Spiral.
posted by xarnop at 7:19 AM on February 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Miko:

[Y]ou're the first person I've ever heard say that they intentionally use this as a planned coping strategy.

And from the your original post to which I responded [emphasis mine]:

[I]t doesn't mean that eating more is a conscious or even unconscious strategy to avoid intimacy.

I need to clarify what I was speaking to in my particular case. You mentioned both conscious and unconscious motivations, and it was the latter I was claiming as a possibility. Because the sort of motivation you and I were speaking to would be unconscious, neither you nor I could be aware of its existence. For me and my particular case, it's a hunch that I have that there may have been some unconscious motivations for my initial and rapid weight gain following closely on the heels of two anxiety-ridden sexual encounters (I went into some detail of those encounters in my first post in this thread). There may not have been such motivations. I don't know for sure. That's what makes them unconscious. But the fact that unconscious motivations drive people to do things they don't fully understand is not something that I'm willing to remove as a possibility. Therefore, it's possible in my case.

I draw the conclusion that what may have happened throughout the year 2000 as I went from 170 pounds and quite fit and trim to 215 pounds* is some sort of reaction to sexual anxiety about being found more and more attractive. Before the breakdown I suffered in 2000, I was in control of my food intake and loved vigorous exercise. After the events of that year, and a couple subsequent breakdowns, it seems that anytime I've ever made progress on the weight-loss front, the self-sabotage slowly creeps in until I wreck that progress. I feel like an entirely different human being from the committed fitness freak.

Is the self-sabotage an unconscious mechanism to maintain my unattractiveness or is it simply a comforting mechanism (or is it both?). I don't know because, as I pointed out, I'm talking about the world of the unconscious. But these behaviors following closely on the heels of the experiences I referenced at least leads me to consider the possibility.

By no means was I trying to argue for intentionality to the degree you were referring. This is an analysis of my behavior in hindsight and with a lot of distance between the initial weight gain and a lot of experience trying to return to the guy I once was.

I speak about it because my larger purpose is to disconnect the two parts of the idea that "fat people are fat because they fear intimacy" as a causal relationship in the popular mind.

That's certainly an admirable purpose.

My purpose is to simply communicate my experience of this stuff. I would never extrapolate that my experiences apply to anyone but myself.

Some overweight people are perfectly well prepared for intimacy, some overweight people are isolated from intimacy as a secondary effect of their relationship with food as a comfort mechanism, and some non-overweight people are isolated from intimacy by other coping mechanisms or simply preferences. That's what I'm talking about here.

I wouldn't doubt the veracity of any claim in that passage. I'm sure what you say is true for many overweight people. I'm writing in this thread only as a representative of myself and as a witness to my experience as it applies to childhood sexual abuse, the stigma surrounding that abuse and the weight gain that I experienced as I began to emotionally fall apart.

* Eventually, as the years progressed, I topped out at 287 pounds. I'm about 25 pounds lighter than that now.
posted by samizdat at 7:43 AM on February 28, 2012


Miko:

I'm actually not telling you to "deal with that." I'm trying to redirect attention to the point of the article - which is that child sexual abuse is a pervasive societal problem that many people keep turning away from in favor of discussing issues about appearance and other secondary effects.

I agree wholeheartedly. I was just being silly and flippant.
posted by samizdat at 7:46 AM on February 28, 2012


xarnop:

Thank you for all of that. I related to every single last sentence you typed. It rang entirely and wholly true for me.
posted by samizdat at 7:50 AM on February 28, 2012


[I]t doesn't mean that eating more is a conscious or even unconscious strategy to avoid intimacy.

I need to clarify what I was speaking to in my particular case. You mentioned both conscious and unconscious motivations, and it was the latter I was claiming as a possibility.


While it's a possibility, it's just not a necessary connection. That's what I'm arguing. Many people assume that it always is. I have my reservations, because in the beginning, one simply can't know - even on an unconscious level - that overeating will cause them to gain weight before the weight is gained - especially as a child or teen or young adult. Some individuals really do not put on weight at that age despite high-calorie, unhealthy diets. You first have to experience the condition before you can effectively predict the outcomes of the condition.

This is an analysis of my behavior in hindsight

I think that's what happens a lot - knowing where we are now, and knowing how it's affected our lives in this way or that we, we look back and realize that Action A created Effect B, and wonder whether it's possible that we did Action A knowing on some level that it would create Effect B. That's a natural thing to speculate about - but I don't think it holds true in all cases. You can benefit from or even enjoy an effect that you never intended to create - and then possibly intentionally re-create it later, that's true. Though it's possible that some people do it under some circumstances, I don't think it starts out this way. I think there is no necessary casual relationship there.
posted by Miko at 7:57 AM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Once again, I never argued that it was true for all people or even most. Not once have I argued that it is a necessary connection. In fact, I expressed that I have no doubt that what you're writing —about the overweight people you know who've experienced childhood sexual abuse— is true.

I am speculating that it may be true for me. We are talking about the subconscious, and neither you nor I can speak too much about what's going on there.

We're both speculating. I'm just speculating about my particular case. I think I have enough expertise to at least try to do that with some confidence.
posted by samizdat at 8:05 AM on February 28, 2012


Sure, I hope it's clear I'm not contesting you at all. I understand this is your own experience - I'm talking about something entirely different, the tendency for people outside the situation entirely to extrapolate that type of experience to all people who they observe to be overweight. I think because no experience is universal, it's worth examining this presumption more closely.
posted by Miko at 8:17 AM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


First, psyched to have my article as an FPP— thank you!!!

And second: Yikes!!! I'd like the person who accused me of getting epigenetics wrong to point to a specific, incorrect sentence or concept in my article. I work very hard to avoid doing "bad pop sci journalism" and so, if I have inadvertently produced such a work, I'd like to know *exactly* what I got wrong so I can avoid doing so again.

Nowhere did I say that epigenetic inheritance proves Lamarck right in all possible ways (I didn't, in fact, even mention Lamarck). However, I am not alone in pointing out that when an experience affects the development of two succeeding generations (and this is now seen in studies in both rats and humans) and does not involve a DNA mutation, this is basically a Lamarckian process.

You might argue that I implied that epigenetics is *only* about Lamarckian inheritance patterns of methylation by not explaining that epigenetic changes aren't always heritable— but this is a basic limitation of writing short articles, one can't explain everything every time. I have written about the early life stress/later life disease connection and the possibility of these changes being passed down from one generation to the next in multiple articles, as well as in my book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, co-written with neuroscientist and child psychiatrist Bruce Perry. I absolutely do my best to get things right and don't appreciate being included in "bad pop sci" writing for writing an article that was clear and accessible and not actually wrong. Like any human, I make mistakes, but I will own up to them when I actually make them, thank you very much!
posted by Maias at 3:58 PM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


samizdat, you offered this as a possible train-of-thought someone like yourself might have or has:

"'A woman who finds out that I am the victim of childhood sexual abuse should be concerned. She is opting into a relationship with a person who emotionally blockades himself, is overwhelmed by simple expressions of love and intimacy (including touch), has so many sexual hangups that are going to have to be worked through very carefully and slowly with no promise of improvement, is often depressed and socially anxious and has extreme ambivalence about family and children. And to read about adult male victims of childhood sexual abuse, she would have to realize how improbable it is that I overcome any of these problems in a significant way. Additionally, APD is not something I'm likely to overcome in any significant way, and she would realize that too.'"

and then xarnop wrote:

"Yeah I think people who aren't totally wacked out by abuse are benefitted from being seen for being as capable as they are. For those of us with symptoms like your samizdat (myself included) people feel justified in avoiding damaged goods."

First, samizdat, I want to say that I'm impressed with your courage to talk about these things in public here, especially given the things you're written make it clear just how deep this stuff cuts with you. That's pretty impressive, and I'm saying that as someone whose known a lot of survivors of sexual violence.

But, also...I feel that I have to step very carefully here. Honestly, I feel that this is stuff you need to be discussing with a highly trained counselor who is experienced with survivors of childhood sexual abuse and particularly with men who are survivors of the kind of sexual abuse you experienced. Even if I were such a qualified counselor, which I'm assuredly not, there isn't that much productive that can be accomplished here in this very limited forum.

That said, both those quotes above, well, break my heart. And I think I have, at least about this specifically, a huge amount of experience and credibility to speak to this.

But I also have to be discrete, you understand. Even though my ex-wife was, and I assume still is, very public about being a survivor of incest, there's obviously very little beyond that essential fact that I have any right to discuss in public. So I can't. And then there's a second person I am extremely close to, let's say she's family, who survived something a little more like what you describe, samizdat, and that is that she was sexually abuse by an older female when she was a child.

So. I think it's not violating confidence to say that both my ex and this other person had their sexuality profoundly affected by their experiences of abuse. And, speaking as someone who loved and married an incest survivor, I won't lie and claim that how this affected her sexuality didn't have a profound, and problematic, influence on our sexual relationship.

But, first of all, I personally don't count those problems among the worst problems in our marriage and, second of all, I don't even count those problems among the worst in our marriage that were a direct result of her being an abuse survivor. In truth, how the abuse affected her emotionally, and how she existed within the context of a relationship, was the bigger problem.

And this other woman, who was abused as a child by another female, also was very strongly affected by it in her sexual life and, basically, she was pretty asexual. And she was very homophobic, although she is smart enough to try to keep things in perspective. I hope that she has a happy and satisfying sex life now in her marriage with her husband, but I don't know that. I do know that, if she does, it will be the truly first happy sexual relationship she's had, although, as I mentioned, it's not like there were very many prior to her marriage.

And here's the thing: I don't regret falling in love with and marrying my ex-wife. I mean, I don't really regret it at all, even though the way we broke up and she left me hurt me more badly than I've ever been hurt, before and since. And that did have everything to do with the abuse and her emotional life and how she exists as a survivor. She's a survivor in every sense of the word and when she decided to leave, man did she ever just leave. We had very few interactions after she left; and, after the night she left, she basically never said another kind word to me, ever. This is not how I relate to people, this is entirely contrary to my way of understanding things. I still sort of care for her, as I do, really, everyone I've ever loved. I still think well of her. I pretty much never end up after relationships have ended being all resentful and angry with my exes. In fact, my ex-wife is the only ex of mine in my entire life that I am not at least still friendly with. This still really bothers me, 18 years later.

So, you know, if I wanted to, I could have big regrets that I could blame her abuse for and my getting involved with an abuse survivor. But I don't.

Here's the thing that both of you really need to try to believe, because it happens to be true: survivors of trauma like yours have trouble with relationships. Some of you, like samizdat, became extremely avoidant of relationship. And in both cases, there's a lot of projection onto other people a lot of stuff that are built around your own wounds and pains and fears that really aren't justified. Yeah, it's true that surviving trauma like this, especially childhood trauma, and perhaps especially sexual trauma, has profound effects on one's entire being. I'm not saying that this is always true: one thing you learn when dealing with survivors of sexual assault is that while there's a lot of things you see in people, emotions and behaviors and whatnot, all the time, it's also true that people vary enormously, and for every one thing that's very common, you can find one or more examples that are entirely contrary to this. Some people really aren't profoundly changed by the abuse. It's hard to believe, most especially by people who were, but it happens. You need to be very careful about generalizing; because, when you (I) do, that implicitly invalidates the experiences of the people who don't fit the generalization. So generalizations, even when pretty accurate, should always include disclaimers.

Anyway, yeah, most survivors of childhood sexual trauma are profoundly altered by it. But, dammit, that's not the same thing as "damaged goods". I fucking hate that expression with the heat of a million suns. That expressions stands all by itself as an example of how survivors, and society, stigmatize. This is exactly what we're arguing about.

You can be altered, you can have problems because of it, you can have difficulty emotionally and sexually, but that's not "damaged goods". Because, for one thing, I've pretty much not known anyone who doesn't have some deep problematic issues as the result of some trauma in their lives. If the "damaged goods" concept made much sense, then almost all of us are "damaged goods", which kind of undermines the whole concept.

I knew going into the relationship with my ex-wife that she was an incest survivor. I won't lie and claim that it didn't worry me, because it did, a little. I worried about a number of other things more. And rightly so, it was a lot of those things that our marriage couldn't survive, not the stuff related to the incest.

Or, well, this actually might undermine my argument a little bit, but it's important to be completely honest here, so... In fact, that I'm who I am and that she's who she is and an incest survivor was probably, in some ways, actually among the things in our relationship that worked and was good. I did everything I could to understand childhood sexual assault and incest; I read the books and I talked about it with experts and I ended up working, along with my wife, in rape crisis. I was frustrated with some of the sexual problems, but I was far more cognizant and patient about this stuff than most men would have been, and, well, I think she made a lot of progress toward having a healthier relationship with her own sexuality during our marriage. And about the larger stuff, well, usually I handled things very well. I mean, look: she still had a relationship with her father. Her mother didn't leave him after she had disclosed to her mother when she was twelve—which, incidentally, pretty much poisoned my ability to have a relationship with my mother-in-law as much as it did my father-in-law—and because my ex-wife loved her mother and wanted to continue to have a relationship with her, not to mention her younger brother, she had to have a nominal familial relationship with her father. As I often bitch, I spent two damn Christmases with that man. And, the thing is, although he stopped being a sexual predator (of her, anyway, I can't speak to the larger question), he didn't stop being the kind of emotionally abusive manipulative narcissistic crazy evil person that he'd always been. And, more to the point, he hated me...for reasons you might guess at. And he attacked me. Not physically, but using the sort of tools he used within his family. And, well, I grew up with an emotionally abusive narcissistic father. Because of that, I have a real problem with bullies and whatever difficult things I had to navigate with my own father, I was absolutely not going to do any of that with my father-in-law. He's a fucking child molester. So, when he sets his sites on me, and attempted to sow discord between me and my ex-wife, my first and most powerful instinct was to destroy him utterly. And, you know, that wouldn't have been so difficult considering that he's a child molester. But, here's the thing: I loved my wife. Also, right from the beginning she started to rely upon my advice for how to deal with him and, the more I learned about this stuff, the more I realized that this wasn't a good thing in the long run.'

A digression: in rape crisis, you end up seeing something that's really heartbreaking in that women rape survivors end up having more problems with their boyfriends and husbands (and fathers) than they do dealing directly with being survivors. And I don't mean the "damaged goods" stuff, though that happens, too. It's not as common, thankfully, among family and friends as we might fear, but it does happen. No, the much more common problem is that these men become a) angry and b) protective. And both of these impulses have an inadvertent disempowering affect on the rape survivor, and so the horrible feeling of being completely vulnerable, not able to make her own decisions and keep herself safe, ends up being exacerbated by well-meaning boyfriends and husbands and fathers who become angry and overprotective.

So, I understood this and realized that as much as I cared about her, and wanted to protect her from her father, and as much as I felt attacked by her father, and that I had a right to defend myself from, the larger concern was her and that I needed to restrain myself and let her find her own way in this. Which I did, and she did. It was sort of amazing watching her slowly find her own empowerment in dealing with the abuse and dealing specifically with him.

Anyway, so, yeah, the irony here is that I was well-suited to be in a relationship with someone with her history. So I guess I have to admit that and include it as a disclaimer.

Even so, it's not as if it was easy. And there were times in the long-term serious relationship I had later that I was glad to not have to deal with those issues. I won't lie. But, even so, I don't regret falling in love with and marrying my ex-wife. She's an amazing woman, an amazing person, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have loved her, and been loved by her.

So, no, that line of reasoning I quote above isn't exactly right. Even granting how this sort of trauma influences your life and makes sex and relationships hard, that doesn't mean that you don't deserve to love and be loved and it most certainly doesn't mean that people shouldn't, or won't, want to love you and be loved by you. You're totally wrong to think that.

Because, honestly, that's not what love is about. Love is a difficult and complicated thing even in the best of circumstances. Relationships are difficult, and they often fail, and it often is painful. People are hurt, and they hurt others. This is just part of what it's all about. This isn't exclusive to people to people who are survivors of serious trauma, it's true for everyone. There are risks for everyone, and everyone has things that make it difficult for others to be in a relationship with them. And while I won't deny that there are people out there who do think in terms of "damaged goods" and would avoid a relationship with an abuse survivor, there's people out there who think all sorts of things and will avoid a relationship with someone for all sorts of reasons, some of them more justifiable and many of them much less justifiable. Being a childhood sexual abuse survivor doesn't make you unlovable or undeserving of love, that's just as wrong as anything could possibly be wrong. And it doesn't mean that people are "smart" or "correct" to avoid loving such a person, either. I know this because I loved such a person.

A lot of this stuff is best hashed out with a good counselor. I can write these things here, and you might listen to me and want to believe them, but you'll only believe them when you've worked through them over time with someone who can help you really sort all this stuff out. But, you know, it's a good thing and a good sign to talk about them at all.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:35 PM on February 28, 2012


First, psyched to have my article as an FPP— thank you!!!

Thank you so much Maias! I had no idea this was written by a member of metafilter, and thanks for stopping by! I personally thought it was very well written and accessible, and touched on an issue that I don't think gets practically any press. We hear about obesity all the time in the media, but whenever I hear about it, it's in terms of "new discovery that X makes you fat!" or "if you just do this activity, you'll lose weight!" and all that stuff that makes dropping pounds sound like the easiest thing in the world. I hear almost nothing about how obesity can be related to emotional or psychological issues, which is surprising. Yes, I'm sure a lot of it has to do with the crap we eat and the food industry, etc. etc., but I feel it's very short-sighted and erroneous to point to one single thing as the reason for people getting fatter, and especially when it comes to trying to explain why people are obese.

In terms of whether it is a scientifically problematic article, I obviously did not see any issues with it. I really have seen some really egregious examples of bad science journalism (correlation=causation, ridiculously small sample sizing), but I think yours did a good job, didn't make any crazy claims, and was very accessible. I was sort of taken aback at how it was attacked for something I never quite thought it did in the first place, but maybe I don't understand the issue?

Anyways, thank you for writing about this. I hope you write about any future findings in this area of research.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:20 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, Justice... I actually cover this stuff quite regularly there and if you are really interested, there's a whole chapter on Felitti, obesity, the ACE study in my book Born for Love (including the truly inspiring story of a woman who grew up in foster care after intense abuse and did become obese, but also a wonderful advocate and all around kind person). There's a whole emerging science of how early life stress increases risk for obesity, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers via overdoses of stress hormones, epigenetic and other effects. The physiology is really beginning to be understood— and when you put it in context of the fact that what mediates this relationship is love and social support, you get a really interesting picture of how the mind grows in a social context and the problems with lack of connection and inequality.
posted by Maias at 10:20 AM on February 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm a big fan of your writing Maias, and this is a subject close to my heart. Thanks for the post The ____ of Justice.

I relate intensely to people who suffer from obesity, not because I share, or have ever shared, an obese or overweight appearance. It's really hard to explain. What's that saying about fat people feeling they have a thin person inside screaming to get out? I feel like I have a fat person inside of me screaming to get out - but I don't have an eating disorder or actually any real unhealthy habits. I just know it's complicated and it's about food.

I'm probably slightly underweight. I eat healthily and don't binge, diet or purge or have any kind of actual eating disorder, but I don't feel healthy inside no matter what the outside looks like. I find it hard to explain how poisoned inside I feel by childhood trauma, even if externally I look fine. I've wondered about, yet not researched, the oral soothing component of food, smoking, nail-biting etc that reminds me of the infant seeking some kind of suckling nourishment?

The Poverty Clinic appeared in the New Yorker recently and links childhood trauma of all kinds [poverty, violence, sexual predation etc] to later illness. I know you cover this territory extensively Maias so you have probably read it, but to other Mefites, I really recommend it if you want to explore this subject further.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:55 AM on March 1, 2012


Maias, I'm a graduate student working in microbiology and I didn't think your handling of epigenetics was that problematic. It does kind of imply that Lamarckian patterns of inheriting methylation are the extent of epigenetics, but I'm sure those who don't already know will would at best only half remember the misconstruction.

I was pretty bugged though by how unclear what research you were referring to was throughout the article. You used the last name of the primary investigator at the core of the research and even a few dates, WHICH IS AWESOME and way to fucking uncommon, but myself and other educated folk in this thread had trouble figuring out what you were referencing. I'm not asking for proper citations, as amazing and helpful as that would be I can see how it might turn off lay readers, just enough context clues that I can be sure what you mean when I start a search for it.

I know this comment might come off as kind of hostile, but I actually really liked your article. It raises good and thoughtful questions while actually engaging in the research as it is.

That said, there has got to be a better construction for introducing epigenetics than this,
    "Recently, scientists have discovered that these changes can themselves be passed down from one generation to the next — a burgeoning new area of study called epigenetics."
Epigenetics has been around as an intact concept since 1942, a decade before the double helix, and the most modern definition was coined by Holliday 22 years ago.1 1942 might be recent to many TIME readers, but even its most current form is already older than the undergraduates I explain it to. My high school English teacher also taught me to never use the word scientists in print, that if it couldn't be substituted with a name the sentence probably wasn't worth much, I haven't seen her wrong yet.

1Holliday, R., 1990. Mechanisms for the control of gene activity during development. Biol. Rev. Cambr. Philos. Soc. 65, 431-471
posted by Blasdelb at 10:34 AM on March 1, 2012


Yeah, it's hard to always get everything perfect when you write every day and I'd like to do a more thorough treatment of epigenetics itself. Most of my articles directly link the studies they reference, full text when available. I am not sure why the links fell out of that one— but I know they used to be there!!

Anyway, the ACE studies can be found here.
posted by Maias at 1:11 PM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


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