The impact of physical and sexual abuse on body image in eating disorders

Tamás Treuer, Magdaléna Koperdák, Sándor Rózsa, János Füredi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

36 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: The role of childhood sexual abuse as a risk factor for the development of eating disorders has gained considerable attention in the literature in the last few years, especially its role in bulimia nervosa. Although physical abuse was also frequently explored in the history of patients with eating disorders, its role was unclear in the aetiopathogenesis of these disorders. The goal of our study was to test the hypothesis, based on our clinical experience, that physical abuse is more frequent in eating disorders than thought previously and that the patient's distortion in body image is more severe in these cases. Methods: A standardized interview method was used to elicit details of physical and sexual abuse in a group of 63 patients with eating disorders. The frequency of laxative use and the severity of body image distortion was also examined with the Body Attitude Test. These clinical data were analysed on the whole sample and also on the subgroups of eating disorders. Results: We found significantly more severe body image distortions in those patients who had been physically abused (p < 0.05) and there were significantly more severe body image distortions in those patients who had a history of laxative abuse (p < 0.001). Sexual abuse occured in 29%, physical abuse in 57% and laxative abuse in 46% within the whole sample of examined eating disorder patients. Physical abuse and laxative abuse were the most frequent in the binge eating/purging type of anorexia nervosa (92% and 69%). Also, these patients had the worse rates on sexual abuse and body image distortion items. According to our results, the presence of sexual abuse was not associated with more severe body image distortion in eating disorder patients. Conclusions: Childhood physical abuse seems to be a more important factor in the development of body image distortion than had been thought before; its importance in this aspect may be greater than sexual abuse. Physical abuse, laxative abuse and the binge-purge subtype in anorexia nervosa are a considerable risk factor for the severity of the distortion in body image and their presence makes the prognosis of the eating disorder worse. Further studies of the nature of these relationships are warranted.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)106-111
Number of pages6
JournalEuropean Eating Disorders Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1 2005



  • Anorexia
  • Body image
  • Bulimia
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

Cite this