Content note: describes violent physical abuse, emotional abuse, and disordered eating. If reading this article brings up issues for you, call WIRE on 1300 134 130. You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Butterfly Foundation for eating disorders on 1800 33 4673.
I was drifting off to sleep shortly after midnight on a weekend. My cat and I had just burrowed into my quilt when I heard my phone beep with the tone I had allocated to my abuser. It had become a Pavlovian prompt that caused my stomach to twist up in fear every time I heard that particular chord. He would punish me for failing to respond to messages quickly enough, so having a dedicated sound helped me know that I needed to race across my apartment to reply.
“Whore,” the screen read. No pleasantries. No ‘hello’.
“Yes, Andy?” I replied with the only words I was allowed to use, unless I wanted to be beaten the next time he saw me.
“You need to lose weight.”
My heart sank, the same way it does in any scenario where you find out your crush or romantic partner finds you unattractive.
I am the sort of body type that has always been overweight, so that was not news to me. But it was a sudden change from a partner who claimed to be sexually interested in my appearance. And it was heart-breaking.
“You can do that for me, can’t you, slut?”
“Do you know how?”
Everything Andrew said had additional insults buried between the lines. Even seemingly benign conversations could turn sour the next day, designed so that you would only spot them later, leaving you feeling constantly on edge.
Every message was like an emotional Trojan horse that snuck unidentified abuse through my city gates until I was burning myself down. In this case, clearly I must not know how to manage my weight because I hadn’t done so.
He told me he wanted me to lose a certain amount of weight a week. “If you can do that, and show me that you care, I can do the same,” he said.
Should I stay or should I go?
I know what you are thinking. I know because I used to think the exact same thing when someone would describe an abusive partner like this.
Why did I stay?
How could I allow someone to treat me like this?
What stopped me from walking out the door and closing it behind me?
I do not blame you for this response. However, if you really cannot imagine how a person can become trapped in a harmful situation, this proves that you have never been brainwashed or under psychological control yourself.
So I am asking you to keep your mind open to the complexity of abuse and the stranglehold it can have on its victims because I am about to tell you how that happens.
The power an abuser has over their prey goes beyond a basic Stockholm syndrome. Perpetrators purposefully set out to gain control over others by artificially fabricating and manipulating emotional dynamics so that they can enjoy the experience of power.
Andrew wanted me to believe that any affection I developed for him was merely a convenient by-product lubricating his efforts to access the money, sex, apartment, and car that he sought from me. In fact, breaking me down to literally sobbing and crumpling at his feet was all that ever mattered. Make no mistake, psychological abusers desire nothing more than the validation of gaining power and control in a world where they don’t have much of either.
For an abuser to achieve and maintain this over others, they look for ways to maximise coercive influence over a victim. That is why the vast majority of abusers tap into power dynamics that broader society has already done the legwork to establish. It makes sense to echo expectations someone has been subject to their entire lives rather than establishing entirely new ones. It saves the abuser time and effort, while also obscuring their abuse, hiding it within expectations that have already been normalised and validated.
From birth our society equates personal value with aesthetic value. This unfair association applies to all genders, but women, intersex, and non-binary persons suffer it disproportionately. Our appearance is constantly viewed through the lens of the male gaze. In modern society, if you are not sexually desirable to cisgendered heterosexual men, you are invisible or rejected.
And there is no feature more determinant of this than weight.
So it was no accident my abuser chose to tell me I was too fat as opposed to too anything else; my bumpy skin, my lopsided grin, my spots I get around my lower cheek, all too small scale and ineffective. My abuser chose a pressure point that he knew had the most power shame me into submission. Like most personal attacks about weight since the dawn of time, my abuser veiled his criticism as concern for my health.
“I am trying to bring out the best in you. You need to appreciate the amount of energy I am investing. I wouldn’t do nearly this amount of work for anyone else, how are you failing to see that? It comes across as very callous and manipulative.”
“Okay, Andy.” What else can you say when someone has taken reality and spun it on its head? The answer is, not much, because every hint of contrition will get you beaten when they are next there in person.
“From now on you walk to work every morning. And get some runners, then from next week start walking home too.” He dictated how much I could eat and when and how I should change my routine.
Out of control
Every Sunday, I had to send him a photo of my feet on the scales, proving I had met the weight loss target. I ended up losing quite a bit of weight over the three and a half months he imposed this regime. But it was starvation, so my hair was falling out in clumps, my skin was greyed, my lips chapped, and my teeth stopped producing enamel markedly enough to worry my dentist.
None of these things bothered me if Andrew was happy. Losing weight became just another form of control he had over me. The same as wanting keys to my apartment, to use my car, to deposit money from my savings, to have me find other women for him.
With each favour, task, or behaviour I completed, I was unknowingly strengthening the power dynamic it had been borne out of. A snowball effect and a vicious cycle combined. In psychology, this is known as building compliance.
Importantly, Andrew would alternate between positive reinforcement to reward my weight loss or negative reinforcement to punish me for how much weight I still had to lose. Before I opened my eyes in the morning he had decided whether it would be a wonderful day or a horrible day. This is what all abusers do. This teaches you that you have no control, that the world is controlled by them.