Girls who are sexually abused in childhood are more likely to become obese when they grow up. Like many women, Pauline Sharp used binge-eating as a coping strategy, wearing her 24-stone weight as a “mask, providing padding from the outside world”.
I can barely remember the taste of anything I ate as a child. For the 17 years I endured emotional and physical abuse at the hands of my parents, every one of my senses was numbed. When you are in survival mode, you don’t feel anything.
My family home looked like any dull suburban detached house, but inside it was hell. It was my father who carried out most of the abuse, but my mother was completely under his control. She had to be waiting by the door with his briefcase when he left the house in the morning and have dinner on the table for him when he got home. Whatever she cooked, it was never meant to be enjoyed by me.
At the dining table, I was told by my father that I was poisonous and lucky to be fed at all. At dinner, I would sit in silence carefully eating my mother’s pies, trying not to drop pastry crumbs. I was terrified to say anything that might upset them. I believed if I could just be “good” for my parents I could win their love, but that never happened.
When I was “naughty” they wouldn’t let me have any food, so I would resort to stealing whatever I could get my hands on. I remember being so desperate I scraped a piece of chewing gum from the playground to eat. I would stash cheese, slices of bread and tomatoes and eat them in secret in my bedroom. If they caught me, I would suffer for it. My parents never needed much of an excuse to punish me. I am sure they made things up. If I didn’t make my bed properly or if I was five minutes late from school I could be hit with a wooden spoon, cut, burned or sexually abused depending on how my father felt that day. They would use food to ritually humiliate me. One morning, I was fed porridge that made me sick and my mother forced me to eat my own vomit. I still struggle with the shame of those memories.
My parents strictly forbade me from visiting other people’s houses, but one day I was allowed to go to my friend’s house. There was laughter and noise and it smelled of warm biscuits. I can remember thinking how odd it was that the children could open the fridge without being punished. I didn’t dare go anywhere near it.
After decades of being sexually abused by my father and other men, I failed to escape their emotional control, until, aged 22, I left my parents’ house for a job as a nanny in Canada. I flew as far away as I could, but I was never really free from them.
I tried to build a “normal” life away from my parents. I was convinced I was gaining control, but with them living inside my head, I began forming more destructive habits.
Since the age of eight, I had abused my body. I was always told it was full of poison and wanted to inflict as much damage on it as I could. Alongside the self-harm, I started drinking heavily and mindlessly, frantically gorging on food.
My father made me believe everyone was watching me, that people could see that I was rotten. I was trying everything in my power to cover it up. Being fat was all part of the cover-up. “I’m already ugly,” I thought, “so why not make it a double whammy? Then people really won’t want to know me.”
When I was feeling low I would order Indian food and eat it in my bedroom. I would look at the piles of curry and rice in front of me and say to myself: “I don’t want to do this, but I need to do this.” When I had finished bingeing, I would feel a split-second rush of relief from the pain my parents had inflicted on me. I’d do anything to feel something. I would eat and eat until I felt sick and ashamed. Then, a few hours later, I would start eating again.
Every day I was putting on a mask. My increasing body weight was padding between me and the outside world. For me, being obese was a disguise. It kept me safe from watchful eyes. It protected me from people seeing the evil me underneath, but it also made me feel more invisible. I mean, who wants to bother with a fat, ugly nothing?
I think there is a perception that for all obese people, eating is a luxury. People believe fatness is self-inflicted, that obese people are just indulging themselves, but I didn’t like food much then. In fact, I couldn’t even taste it.
At my biggest, teenagers would shout at me in the street calling me “Elephant Woman”. I was well aware I was being judged for my size, but it was nothing compared to how I felt about myself. Nasty comments were what I deserved. I craved them.
For many years I worked hard to appear normal. I hid the pain of my childhood from everyone. I did so well, keeping my head above water. I never told anyone about the abuse. Then, in 1991 I met my wonderful husband and we had a beautiful baby boy. All I wanted for my son was to create happy memories for him, so I pushed my own pain down in order to show him he was loved.
It was in my 40s that everything fell apart. While on holiday, I caught sight of a man. Something familiar about the way he was dressed triggered an episode of PTSD from the sexual abuse. I was hospitalised for seven weeks. Even on the psychiatric ward I was self-harming and binge-eating. I would order pizzas and takeaway curries to my private room, with my sweets and chocolates stashed away, the same way I had stashed food as child.
Finally, after several appointments with mental health professionals, I found a therapist who helped me open up about my childhood. It was through the therapy that I began to process what I’d been through. At this point, therapy was focused on keeping me alive and stable, rather than unpicking my harmful relationship with food.
I knew I was unwell, I weighed 24 stone and was getting bigger and bigger, but I couldn’t stop eating. I was getting pains in my legs and knees. I found out I had arthritis and fluid on the knee. I had damaged my Achilles tendon and could hardly walk. I was told I had high blood pressure and was on the verge of diabetes. But eating and self-harming were the only tools I had to control how I was feeling.
As much as I hated my body, I didn’t want to die and leave my family behind. I was told I needed to lose 10% of my body weight to qualify for weight loss surgery.
I tried slimming groups but I couldn’t tell anyone about the abuse. The focus there was on losing the weight and buying the diet products, not the trauma that drove me to eat. Slimming groups were too public to talk openly and didn’t feel like a safe enough space for me. I lost five stone of my padding but I didn’t feel supported or emotionally resilient enough to keep it off and soon fell back into my old habits.
My health problems were so bad I went to see my GP who recommended a gastric bypass. In preparation, I saw the psychologist and discussed how losing my physical padding might make me feel.
Before my weight-loss surgery I had a number of psychiatric assessments to make sure I was mentally stable enough for the procedure and worked with a personal trainer to lose enough weight to qualify for the operation.
Going into the surgery I was ready for change, but as soon as I woke up from surgery I felt exposed. I was constantly on my guard. As the pounds started coming off, my body changed dramatically and I panicked. I felt vulnerable in public, like the mask I’d worn was slipping off and people were seeing how evil I really was. The bariatric psychologist was meant to follow up with me, but hadn’t been in touch, so I arranged an urgent appointment with her so she could help me work through my feelings.
A few months after my gastric bypass I was rushed into emergency surgery with complications. When I was recovering in the hospital I was told by staff that my father had suffered a heart attack and was lying dead in a hospital bed a few floors below.
When the porter wheeled me down to see his body, I was sick. I had to shake him to make sure he was really dead. I lost the plot in that room. My father’s crimes died there with him. I never reported him to the police and neither he, nor my mother were punished for what they did to me.
It’s been two years since my surgery and I have learned ways to look at my body with kindness, to nurture it and believe it is worthy of nourishment
For my entire life I’ve felt like someone on the outside of everything, looking in. I’ve begun to talk about the abuse and open up to people. I am learning to believe I am worthy of love.
I am still playing catch-up on every aspect of my life, working through negative feelings and self-harming behaviour, but I have a less harmful relationship with food and alcohol now.
If it wasn’t for my gastric bypass surgery I am sure I would be six feet under. I do wish there was more understanding in society about how food and our minds are connected. I hope education around trauma might help people feel more compassionate when they see someone very large walking down the street.
Post-surgery I still have my scars and the loose skin. But my scars tell a story. My body may not be pretty, but it’s not in danger. I am eight stone lighter, no longer at risk of diabetes and my blood pressure is normal. I can take pleasure in the simplest of things like sitting on a plane without having to ask for a seat-belt extension, riding on a rollercoaster or cutting my own toenails. I’m even training for a charity trek in China to raise money for the charity Survivors of Abuse.
I find it possible these days to make informed decisions about what I eat. Being able to enjoy a meal without wanting to hurt myself is liberating. Now, when my son comes home, I can sit down for a Sunday roast with my family and taste every mouthful.
I still struggle with my mental health, but I am a healthy weight and have learned coping strategies. When I have the urge to eat to oblivion or self-harm, I use mindfulness and grounding techniques or reach for my diary.
My hope is that one day, everyone who needs help will be able to access it and move forward in their lives without facing stigma about their size. I hope I’m an example to survivors of abuse that they have choices. I have learned now to love, nurture and respect my body. After all, it’s been through enough.
Yvonne Traynor, chief executive of the charity Rape Crisis, says:
“Eating disorders are a coping strategy for women and girls contacting our services who have experienced sexual violence, particularly childhood sexual abuse. Whether this presents as anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating or compulsive overeating, there will be something that is helping her cope with the trauma she has experienced. The eating disorder could be an attempt to gain control of her body, a way of avoiding the male gaze, wanting to return to a state before the body was sexualised, as a form self punishment, a distraction from the emotional pain or a combination of those factors. For those of us working with survivors, it’s about addressing the underlying issue and exploring the cause – the sexual violence – and not what is wrong with you, but what has happened to you.”
Illustrations by Charlotte Edey.