There are many reasons to see the movie Precious. Rarely does a movie devastate and uplift you at the exact same moment. It will leave you reeling emotionally. In a nutshell, it is a movie set in 1987 Harlem about an overweight, illiterate, African American teenager who is a victim of incest. Among many things, it is a story of perseverance and survival. It also gives us a raw look at the connection between abuse and eating problems.

Precious' excessive weight and eating plays a central role in the movie. Aspects of the story help illuminate many of the reasons emotional, physical, and particularly sexual abuse, are risk factors for eating disorders.* Abuse isn't a "cause." Instead, it puts someone at a higher likelihood of having eating issues (there are many biological and social factors that play a part as well). This includes anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder as well as emotional eating, obesity and body image dissatisfaction. Thus, it is no surprise that Precious, who was sexually abused by her father, struggles with her weight, body and eating.

Sexual abuse violates a person's body and personal boundaries. Physical sensations, including sexual feelings and hunger, become severely disrupted. At times, Precious turns to food for soothing and comfort. For example, when hungry one morning, she seeks comfort food. She steals a 10 piece bucket of fried chicken, eats it all and then vomits it back up. Precious has lost of control over her body, particularly how to appropriately feed her physical hunger. She admits, ashamed, at various points, that she overeats. She is painfully aware of her problematic eating.

Precious' mother, who did not protect her from her father's abuse, perpetuated the abuse in many ways. One way is through food. She bullies Precious into cooking greasy, fatty foods for her. She violently demands that Precious eat even when she isn't hungry. Making her daughter "fat" helps to ensure that others will reject her. It also gives her further ammunition to hate her daughter, who she is jealous of for many reasons. Preventing Precious from modulating her own hunger is another way of abusing Precious' body and violating her personal boundaries.

Precious struggles with her self-esteem. It is in part due to her mother's constant stream of violent and demeaning put downs. Her weight does not help. Being overweight leaves her vulnerable to taunts by classmates, boys on the street and her mother. Comments about her weight ignite embarrassment and unlock anger at herself and at others that she typically keeps at bay. Eating is often one way to stuff down and numb out painful emotions like anger.

There is a frank discussion about McDonald's in this movie. The nurse (played by Lenny Kravitz) is eating healthy, natural, organic food. He advises Precious and the other girls in her class to stay away from McDonalds. They flatly refuse and state their loyalty to the fast food joint. It seemed to be a juxtaposition between the employed, educated nurse who takes care of himself and the illiterate girls hooked on junk food. Cheap, low quality foods that do not nurture their minds or bodies are a staple part of their diet. These unhealthy foods are the building blocks to obesity.

Precious, like others who have been abused, sometimes overeat (or undereat) for protection. Being overweight or underweight can desexualize a body. In Precious' case, the opposite sex, are more likely to stay away from her body and can't violate her further if she is overweight. The layers around her protect her from the sexual advances of others.

Many abuse survivors deal with sexual abuse through dissociation, which was clearly depicted in the movie. During episodes of her father's sexual abuse or emotional abuse by her mother, she slips into "dissociation" or a fantasy world in which she is lavished dressed and admired by a boy. While these journeys to her dream world are protective in the moment of abuse, it can exacerbate problems eating. When you disconnect from your body, you no longer feel your hunger. Also, food is something you often can feel when all other sensations are turned off. When feeling numb and invisible, abuse survivors use food to try to fill the emotional void.

For years, Precious told no one of the incest. Unfortunately, it is common for both sexual abuse and eating disorders to be kept a secret. Those who are abused learn to keep quiet, often out of sheer survival. There is a poignant moment when Precious reveals that she has never spoken in class before. The teacher asked how it felt to speak up. She stated, "I feel here." Being present is the polar opposite of her silence and her dissociative, inner fantasy world. As she heals, she begins to have a voice and no longer keeps the abuse a secret. Her need to slip into an alternative world fades and her weight becomes less central to her life. Her self-esteem instead hinges on her education and care for her children.

Thank you to Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe for playing Precious, such a complex and emotionally difficult role, and to the other actors who brought this story to life. We also can't forget Lee Daniels, Tyler Perry and Oprah (and many others) who got this movie to the theaters. Again, it is a gripping story. Be warned, if you are an abuse survivor who has not seen this movie, the scenes are very graphic and can trigger memories and flashback.

This review just scratches the surface of the connection between sexual abuse and eating disorders. If you have been sexually, emotionally and physically abused, and have an eating disorder, it's important to get treatment from a qualified, professional who specializes in eating disorders. These professionals can help you heal the emotional scars of abuse and to guide you in rebuilding safe, healthy boundaries with your body and food. You deserve to eat mindfully and to enjoy a healthy relationship with your body.

By Dr. Susan Albers, psychologist and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and Eating

*Molinari E. "Eating disorders and sexual abuse." Eat Weight Disord. 2001 Jun;6(2):68-80.

Carter JC, Bewell C, Blackmore E, Woodside DB. "The impact of childhood sexual abuse in anorexia nervosa." Child Abuse Negl. 2006 Mar;30(3):257-69.

About the Author

Susan Albers, Psy.D.

Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a psychologist who specializes in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns and mindfulness. 

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