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We may assume that only clear cut sexual abuse in childhood can cause problems with sexuality and intimacy in adulthood. Although there’s a strong correlation (not a cause and effect) between childhood sexual abuse and eating disorders, this is not the whole story. Abuse, neglect, or any kind of mistreatment—overt or covert—all fall on a continuum and can shape your attitude and influence your behavior as an adult.
Obviously, sexual abuse would have a strong impact on your view of your body, but what of other behaviors which may not fall strictly into the “abuse” category? What if your parents couldn’t keep their hands off each other in front of you—not just a quick kiss, hugs, or hand-holding, but touching each other inappropriately? What if a parent regularly got drunk and made sexual advances towards neighbors or relatives with you watching? What if you saw your parent making strangers uncomfortable by acting seductively with them? These kinds of behavior send the message that sex is not a private activity and give you the idea that sexuality has no boundaries.
Sometimes parents play a bit fast and loose with kids in age-inappropriate ways. For example, teenagers are especially sensitive and vulnerable when a parent expects more hugs and kisses than is suitable for their changing bodies. Parents who dress overly provocatively send the wrong message to children and frequently make matters worse by berating their daughters for dressing the same way. What a confusing double message this is! At the other end of the spectrum are parents who never touch each other or share any physical intimacy, or shame children about their bodies, especially about their sexuality. Parents may speak derisively of sexuality or sensuality, making it seem as if being attractive (or wanting to be attractive) for sexual reasons is sinful. The message becomes sex is bad, your body is bad—therefore, you are bad!.
Any kind of off sexual atmosphere for you growing up may affect you still. If you sensed that something was not right, it likely wasn’t. There need not have been out and out sexual abuse to generate the wrong vibes about sex, sexuality and intimacy. Often subtle messages are more difficult to pinpoint and identify than more overt ones. If you are uncomfortable with your sexuality or your body—and it drives you to eat—consider the atmosphere in which you were raised. You may find valuable information to help you better understand your eating patterns and weight concerns. By recognizing the basis for your thoughts and feelings about your body, sexuality and intimacy, you can start to rescript unhealthy messages from the past to make them healthier.
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