How Abusers Use Body-Shaming To Control Their Partners

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On Tuesday, eight women came forward publicly alleging that screenwriter and filmmaker Max Landis sexually and emotionally abused them, The Daily Beast reports. Among the disturbing and sweeping descriptions of his alleged sexual abuse, many of the women said that Landis would openly judge their bodies, or compare their physiques to other women, and tell them that they needed to lose weight .
"He’d compliment me for not eating," an ex-girlfriend who is identified as Kerry (not her real name) said in a statement to The Daily Beast. "He bought me workout classes to shape me the way he wanted. I lost 15 pounds I couldn’t afford to lose while we were together, and even though he’d bring up openly that he’d given an ex-girlfriend an eating disorder I somehow didn’t identify what was happening to me as that."
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Another ex-girlfriend who goes by Julie (not her real name) in the story said that Landis would criticize her body to their group of friends, and say that she would be "so hot" if she "committed to working out more." Dani Manning, another ex-girlfriend, said that Landis would physically "smack" food out of her hands to keep her from eating it. "He told me that if I worked out more I’d be supermodel pretty," she told The Daily Beast. "Except I was not pretty. And I would be told why, in detail."
While these stories are allegations at the moment, it's a very common tactic of abusers to degrade their partner's bodies, explains Lisa Fontes, PhD, senior lecturer at University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship. Abusive relationships are all about power and control. One way that people gain power over their partners is by making them feel worse about themselves, she says. "It's just one approach, but it's an approach that's very effective with women growing up in a society where they're learning that their appearance is more important than anything else," she says.
It might seem counterintuitive that someone would want their romantic partner to feel worse about themselves. Someone who's not an abuser, for example, would try to boost their partner's self-esteem and support them, Dr. Fontes says. But abusers aim to make their partners feel less confident and powerful in relationships, so that they're less able to speak up and drawn boundaries. "The worse a person feels about herself, the more likely she is to depend on this partner or potential partner for their self esteem, and feeling better about themselves," she says. This also makes it more difficult for someone to leave a relationship.
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Pushing someone to eat less, lose weight, and exercise more could also be a way for an abuser to weaken their partner physically as well as mentally. "If they're weaker physically, they may be more vulnerable to whatever else they want to do to her," Dr. Fontes adds. In the NXIVM case, for example, Keith Raniere allegedly controlled women's diets and insisted that they only eat a certain number of calories to "build character."
In The Daily Beast story, Julie's sisters recalled seeing her rapidly lose weight and said they thought it was a red flag. "Her self-confidence was plunging, and she stopped really sharing with us," one sister said. The best thing you can do if you're concerned that your friend or family members is in an abusive relationship is encourage them to learn about the signs of coercive control, and stay in touch, Dr. Fontes says. "One of the main hallmarks of coercive control is that the abuser tries to isolate the victim," she says. Even if you're just sending them a lighthearted text regularly, communication can be immensely helpful. Although your instinct might be to tell your friend what to do, that can often backfire. "Rather, you should listen, express concern, and help them find information," she adds.
And if you aren't sure what to do, or you are in this situation yourself, then it's always helpful to speak to a domestic violence counselor — even if there are no signs of physical violence, Dr. Fontes says. A counselor will not tell you to break up with someone, but they may help you identify other ways in which you or your friend's boundaries are being violated. "There's a whole host of other red flags which will help you connect the dots and give you a sense of what to do."
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
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