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How the 5 Major Types of Abuse Link to Eating Disorders

Many times you have probably asked yourself, How did my life ever get this way? Often at the core of every eating disorder, and many disordered eating patterns, lies some sort of abuse or abusive situation—verbal, emotional, physical, sexual abuse, or a combination of these. When this abuse is added to a family situation where perfectionism and high expectations are the order of the day, food becomes your coping mechanism, your way of masking the real pain in your life.

Physical and sexual abuse are overt, obvious forms of abuse. They are universally condemned as damaging and harmful. A percentage of those with an eating disorder will have this type of overt abuse as a direct reason for their behavior. For others with food issues, however, it can be more difficult to identify what form of abuse has occurred to them. Sometimes, the seed of an eating disorder or pattern of disordered eating may stem from an experience that was not intended as abusive but which can produce abusive effects. A thoughtless action or careless phrase can take on a life of its own.

Exploring these dark corners of the past may reveal the roots of an eating disorder. Here are five of the most common types of abuse to help you understand and begin to identify potential abuse within your past or the past of a loved one struggling with an eating disorder.

1. Verbal Abuse

Verbal abuse is one of the most basic and often times overlooked forms of abuse. As a child you were subjected to spoken messages from others. These provided the basic structure for your self-identity and self-worth. You trusted those around you to tell you about yourself. If their messages were positive, you learned to love yourself and consider yourself special. But if, from early on, you were told, “You’ll never amount to anything!” or “You never do anything right!” or “ You were an accident. We never meant to have you,” you developed a negative self image.

Adults tend to underestimate the power of their words to children. Children hear much more than merely the words pointed in their direction. Their “feelers” are constantly on guard, engaging the mood of the adults around them. The caustic word, spoken in the heat of the moment, may affect a child’s self-image well into adulthood. In the intensity of an emotionally charged argument, a misspoken word can confirm the natural self-doubt and insecurities of adolescence. The word that twists a child’s heart can be spoken in anger or in carelessness. Whispered pronouncements of disgust, disappointment, or disapproval can be as damaging to a child as outward explosions of anger.

2. Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse can be either verbal or nonverbal. Teasing, belittling, sarcasm, and taunts are all forms of emotional abuse. Nonverbal cues might take the form of expecting more from children than they can reasonably deliver. Conditional love, with its message of “I love you, but…” is also a form of emotional abuse.

Emotional and verbal abuses are easy to deny because the scars are hidden; there are no bruises to heal, no visible wounds to point to. It is harder to say, “Yes, this really happened!” If you have always lived with them, these behaviors might even seem “normal” to you. But for all of their seeming invisibility, they can be very damaging.

3. Physical Abuse

The outward effects of physical abuse are usually easy to see. Not so easy to see are the scars brought by the constant fear of being hurt, the ever-present threat of physical violence. The fear of physical abuse hangs over a child all the time, never dissipating. The uncertainty of when the next blow will strike is often dreaded more than the blow itself.

 4. Sexual Abuse

The aforementioned forms of abuse—verbal, emotional and physical—can be combined with one of the most insidious forms of all, sexual abuse. Sexual abuse need not be confined to intercourse. Best defined as the exploitation of one person for the sexual gratification of another, it can take the form of exhibitionism, fondling, inappropriate touching, or an inappropriate relationship between a child and an adult. When someone you love and trust has treated you this way, you may have blocked out the truth of what was happening to you. In adult life, this may lead to an extreme dislike of hugging, intimacy, or any kind of touching. Research’s suggests that one in three girls and one in eight boys under the age of eighteen will be involved in some sort of forced sexual experience with a grown-up.

Sexual abuse has been shown to have a direct effect on the development of an eating disorder. When a child’s thoughts about her body are sabotaged by unwanted sexual attention by an adult, they set in motion a distorted self-image. Studies suggest that the particulars of the sexual abuse can be quite varied; but the important aspects related to eating disorders are the facts of the abuse as opposed to any specific set of circumstances.

5. Spiritual Abuse

The role of faith and spirituality in a person’s life is supposed to bring answers, strength, and comfort. It is supposed to connect the person to something larger and greater than self. It is a severe perversion, then, when faith, religion, and spirituality are used by one person to perpetuate abuse on another. The conditions for abuse are rampant where there is a disparity of authority between the perpetrator and victim. When the perpetrator uses the cloak of religion and takes on the mantle of God, this disparity in position is grossly magnified. Spiritual abuse occurs when the Bible is used as a bludgeon to force and coerce one person to give up their free will and sense of self in God to the whims, opinions, and personal views of another.

Spiritual abuse can be a component of the other forms of abuse—verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual—but with the cloying layer of false piety, self-righteous justification, and legalism. For any person abused in this way, but especially for children, spiritual abuse defiles what is often one of the few places of refuge in the midst of a chaotic and oppressive life. The God who heals becomes warped by the perpetrator into a God who allows and even condones hurt. Abuse of this kind wounds heart, mind, and soul with long-lasting, whole-person repercussions.

Understanding your past is not about measuring any abuse you suffered to determine whether it is “weighty” enough to justify your issues with food. These patterns with food are born out of pain. That pain may come as a direct result of deliberate cruelty by another person or as a consequence of the inattention, neglect, and carelessness of those who should have placed your welfare and happiness at the top of their priority list, but did not.

Pain is not something that needs to be justified. In order to heal, pain must simply be understood. Your eating disorder or disordered eating may have masked the pain and numbed the torment. But unrecognized or denied pain is still toxic, harming the fragile sense of self. Your dysfunctional relationship with food has promised you a temporary smokescreen to shield you from the truth, but at the heart of this behavior is obsession and addiction. It is time to clear the air and see the truth for what it really is.

If you or a loved one has suffered from abuse of any kind that has manifested itself as an eating disorder, The Center • A Place Of HOPE can help. Call 1-888-771-5166 / 425-771-5166 or fill out our contact form and someone will be in touch with you soon.

Excerpts taken from Gregory L. Jantz’s, Hope, Help & Healing From Eating Disorders: A Whole-Person Approach To Treatment of Anorexia, Bulimia, and Disordered Eating, WaterBrook 2010.


  1. Your article was thoughtful and thorough, with the exception that you didn’t mention how neglect contributes to eating disorders. One major effect of neglect is the message that one’s needs are not important. Their needs are sacrificed for the needs of the more “important” or powerful person. Having needs met (physical, emotional, spiritual) is seen as selfish and needy, which contributes to self-punishment, using food as a weapon of mass destruction.

    • Your message was exactly why I had an eating disorder- in other words, thank you for mentioning neglect and how the abuser uses it for power and a weapon- very true!

  2. I too suffered from neglect as a child.Which contributed to an eating disorder that has resulted in me being an overweight adult. My mother was abused by her father so therefore I was punished for that. Her coldness,hostility and emotional neglect continue to this day. My mother is still emotionally vacant and I more than anyone else is her emotional punching bag. But at least now as an adult I understand and am now trying to come to terms with how she has affected me.When parents don’t seek help for what has happened to them they inevitably pass on that pain to their offspring.


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