A Look Into Obesity—Adverse Childhood Experiences

Over the past few years, some prominent voices have chosen to take the pop culture route and shame ‘fatness’, but also to speak about people who they know nothing about except for the fact that they may be “fat”. One would expect such comments to come from individuals that are trying to become “influencers” and who tend to include “free thinker” in their social media bios, but it becomes troubling when scholars also join in on the shaming, especially when they are licensed psychologists.

When it comes to licensed psychologists, if they are focused on critiquing more than they are focused on explaining the complexities of obesity, then perhaps they should change their career path, transitioning from a psychologist to becoming a Next Top Model judge. Otherwise, the focal point of every conversation around obesity needs to start with the impact that adverse childhood experiences have on people and go from there.

The foundational ACE Study – Adverse Childhood Experiences

The foundational ACE Study was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1990s with a group of patients that were insured through Kaiser Permanente, a study that focused on adverse childhood experiences, and it resulted in major breakthroughs on better understanding illness, including obesity. This study started out by exploring traumatic experiences during childhood including maltreatment and family dysfunction, and the current health status and behaviors were affecting the health outcomes of adults.

There were a total of 10 adverse childhood experiences that were identified, five were directly related to the child while the other five were directly related to the child’s family. The experiences that affected the child directly were experiencing physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, physical neglect, and psychological neglect. The five experiences related to the child’s family were the child witnessing domestic abuse, having family that misused substances, family with mental health struggles, family that served time in prison, or parents who would divorce.

When it came to being overweight or gaining a large amount of weight in a short period of time, the researching team discovered that the experience that seemed more common amongst children, and eventually adults, was the experience of physical and sexual abuse.

In cases of physical abuse, it was often found that children would overeat to get “bigger” and with the thought of being more likely to defend themselves against bullies. The impact of sexual abuse was also significant, and whether it occurred while a person was an infant, or as they were entering into adulthood, it was not uncommon for patients to overeat as a coping mechanism and to continue putting on weight. One patient described how their sibling, who they described as being ‘fat’, did not seem to be getting sexually abused because being obese seemed to protect her. However, it is just as likely that this patient’s older sister was also sexually abused, and the weight she put on was a result of her adverse experiences, but that the abuse was occurring in private.

A lot has changed since the 1990s, when one of the lead researchers behind the ACE Study, Dr. Vincent Felitti, flew to give a presentation on the findings to his peers, and for which he was subsequently ridiculed. Over time, Dr. Felitti proved to be right, and the ACE factors would get expanded to include outcomes like community violence, neighborhood safety, racism, and living in foster care. Thankfully for all of us, modern-day scholars seem to realize the complexities of the human experience and how science is constantly growing and helping us learn more about ourselves.

People are the product of the environment and the sum of their experiences.

Our ‘opinionated psychologist’ friends never meet the “fat” people that they choose to shame, shaming them only after society chooses to celebrate them for being themselves.  So, is the issue obesity or is it celebrating people that might not be “perfect”? In the end, mature adults can tell the difference between comments that go wrong, but which start with good intentions, and comments that someone makes when they are jealous of another person’s success and when they have unresolved issues with their own sense of self. The comments made about the plus-size Illustrated Sports Swimsuit cover and other individuals who may be overweight are the latter, and any comments that come from a place that is without empathy and understanding of another person’s life also fall into that category.

Simply put, there is so much more to obesity than a person being “lazy”. People who struggle with their weight, with obesity, are not weak in any form nor are they flawed for looking the way they do. Much like bulimia and anorexia, overeating and obesity are eating disorders that many people struggle with, and there are many reasons why someone might be overweight. Some of those reasons can include organ function and hormone regulation, two extra factors that can affect a person’s physical appearance and body weight. There is far more to people than first glance.