National Eating Disorders Association

Sexual Assault and Body Image: Hope, Healing and 3 Common Myths

August McLaughlin

Nearly one in five women and one in 71 men report being raped at some point in their lives, according to the Center for Disease Control. Given the shame and other complexities that keep many victims from reporting the crimes, these numbers are likely lowball—and don’t include other kinds of sexual violence, such as unwanted sexual touch.

Along with other challenging and potentially debilitating effects of sexual assault comes a high risk for poor body image, disordered eating and full-fledged eating disorders. 

Sexual assault commonly causes the victim to feel powerless, worthless and objectified, said Cora and Lucas Reidenbach, school psychologists in the Twin Cities, because their body was used by another to gain domination.

In an effort to cope, some victims focus on controlling their physique, becoming obsessive about dieting or exercise. Others carry the weight of body-shaming thoughts and feelings long-term without acting on them. In either case, no one deserves to endure such harm and negativity. Fortunately, there is hope. 

Kayla, a 42-year old teacher and mother who was raped by a family friend in her early teens, is overcoming derivative body angst and disordered eating. 

“My therapist pointed out one day that I always wore oversized clothes,” she said, “and that I consistently showed up sipping sugar-free drinks.”

When the therapist asked her if she was trying to lose weight, Kayla became defensive, denying any correlation between her dieting efforts and the assault, calling it “none of her business.”

“But it was her business,” Kayla said, “Now I’m glad she asked. I don’t think I could have healed as much as I have emotionally without facing those issues.”

In addition to gaining awareness of and addressing body image challenges linked with sexual trauma, understanding a few common myths may help you or a loved one better heal.

3 Common Myths About Body Image and Sexual Assault

Myth #1: Unlike anorexia and bulimia, poor body image isn’t a big deal.

Poor body image can be a very big deal—particularly when it’s rooted in trauma. Not only does body-dislike raise your risk for serious diseases, including eating disorders and clinical depression (risks already raised by sexual trauma), but it commonly contributes to heightened stress, anxiety, poor academic performance, relationship problems and more.

TIP: If feeling low about your body or appearance is detracting from your ability to lead to a full and happy life or delays other aspects of your recovery, prioritize help and healing.

Myth #2: Overtly sexual behaviors and dressing provocatively are sure-signs of sexual assault.

Sexual trauma doesn’t affect everyone in the same ways. While wearing more revealing clothes and behaving in a more sexual nature can be one sign of sexual assault in teens and young adults, said Lucas Reidenbach, EdS, NCSP, they aren’t a sure sign. (Many girls and women are bullied for expressing their sexuality as they see fit, and shouldn’t be.) 

“For some,” he said, “sexual assault may be personified by extreme modesty and avoidance of physical or sexual relationships altogether.”

TIP: Don’t judge others or yourself by appearance. If you’re concerned that a shift in personal style or expression could be linked with sexual assault, seek guidance from a qualified professional. 

Myth #3. Sexual assault brings life-long body hate. 

Just because you’re grappling with severely poor body image now, doesn’t mean you will forever. 

“It bothers me when people say, ‘You’ll always fight your body,” said Kayla. “I still have work to do, but I’ve come a really long way. People need to know that [healing] is possible, or why would they even try?”

By maintaining hope, gaining any needed professional help and prioritizing positive change, you can gradually improve how you perceive and treat your body. More importantly, you’ll have more time and energy to invest in more gratifying and worthy-of-you pursuits—all of which can enhance healing.

“Begin to practice valuing one's body again through mindfulness exercises, yoga, religious beliefs, pursuing a passion or participating in the arts in some form,” suggested Cora Reidenbach, EdS, NCSP.

Over time you’ll find it easier to perceive your body for what it is: a beautiful, embraceable gift no one should ever have violated. 


April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For help and information, contact RAINN at 800.656.HOPE or