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Obesity and Childhood Trauma: Background information when reading Hunger

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A Memoir of (My) Body

by Roxane Gay

Hunger by Roxane Gay X
Hunger by Roxane Gay
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2017, 320 pages
    Jun 2018, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Obesity and Childhood Trauma

This article relates to Hunger

Print Review

In Hunger, Roxane Gay associates her ongoing struggle with obesity to the rape she endured at age twelve. Psychological studies indicate that she is not alone. Dr. Vincent Felitti of the Kaiser Permanente Department of Preventative Health in San Diego has been tracking this connection since the 1980s and has found ample evidence that there is a correlation.

Felitti stumbled upon this connection by accident while conducting a weight loss trial. Individuals involved with the trial were put on a strict regimen of fasting, some for upwards of a year, and the results were astonishing, participants lost between 50 and nearly 300 pounds. Many had trouble keeping the weight off, however, or they quit the trial early despite its overwhelming success. Felitti soon discovered why.

One participant, Patty, lost 276 lbs over the course of a year before suddenly gaining back 37 lbs in less than a month. When questioned, Patty explained that she had been upset by a married co-worker complimenting her on her looks. She then revealed that she had been raped by her grandfather when she was ten years old. Another participant recounted gaining 105 lbs in the year after she was raped because, "Overweight is overlooked, and that's the way I need to be." Individuals, particularly women, who had been the victims of sexual abuse or assault felt that they would not be assaulted again if they were obese enough to not be viewed as sexual objects, just as Gay believed. Felitti conducted a survey of 286 obese people, and found that 50% of the morbidly obese had been sexually abused as children.

Neurobiology offers another piece of the puzzle. Childhood trauma can result in anhedonia in the brain, a condition that makes a person less able to feel positive emotions. This can lead to addictive behavior as the individual pursues the slightest hint of pleasure wherever it can be found, in this case, in food. There is also an indication that chronic stress can cause insulin resistance in the body, resulting in obesity.

Felitti and his team of researchers used the results of this research and others to publish the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which looked at various causes of stress in childhood and how they were linked to medical conditions in adulthood. These stress factors (abuse, alcoholic or mentally ill parent/s, abandonment, etc.) showed a high correlation to later problems with chronic pulmonary lung disease, hepatitis, depression, and suicide, among others.

The ACE survey was conducted between 1995-1997 and queried 17,421 individuals. Since then, Felitti and his associates have published over 60 papers on the topic in prestigious medical journals. Their research has only recently begun to be practically applied with the establishment of local government task forces designed to address childhood trauma.

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to Hunger. It originally ran in August 2017 and has been updated for the June 2018 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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