I have told the story of my relapse in this space and others before: I walked into a coffee shop one morning after losing more than 100 pounds and was visually assaulted by a table full of men. I know that may sound ridiculous to some people, but as a woman who has a history of sexual assault, believe me, the threat that comes with being visually accosted is real.

I walked in, they stopped talking and leered at me, and I wanted to hide under the nearest table. I wanted to run. To disappear. Instead, I ordered my coffee, waited coolly, and calmly walked out the door with my drink in hand. I cried all the way to work. By the end of that year, I had regained most of the weight I had lost and worse, I had let go of my recovery with both hands.

Of course, it took me more than a year to understand the connection between that moment in the coffee shop and my relapse. Once I figured it out, though, I was still left confused. How do I change this reaction? How do I overcome the deeply embedded belief that my fat keeps me safe?

My therapist and I worked for years on issues with my sexual history, including being raped when I was eleven years old. Although I better understand what happened in my mind and my body during those awful minutes, knowing how to overcome the fat-as-armor mindset remains a struggle for me.

I developed my eating disorder not long after I was raped. Even though other factors contributed to this development, such as genetics, living with a food addict, poverty, and so on, coming to grips with the role that beliefs about fat and protection have in all of this has been challenging. I could have turned to other forms of addiction: alcohol, drugs, and so on, but the model in my life—binge eating—was the path I chose.

But how did I get from binge eating as a method of temporarily soothing my pain to fat being protective?

I think we all know that Western culture sees fat bodies, especially fat women’s bodies as disgusting, repulsive, undesirable, unlovable. Surely, then, if I got fat and stayed fat no one would hurt me again. For the most part, that plan worked. Guys were not interested in me. I didn’t have my first boyfriend until I was 15, and even he had issues with my weight. Boys my age rarely looked at me, and when they did, they made fun of me for being fat.

And therein lies the conundrum and deep sadness. As much as I did not want to be raped again, I certainly did want to have a boyfriend. I wanted to go to dances. I wanted to make out at the movies. I wanted all of those things, but my darkest fears of being vulnerable helped keep me fat.

I did every diet under the sun, like most binge eaters I know, but whenever I found myself being paid compliments or getting extra long looks from men in public, out would come the potato salad and strawberry shortcake.

Given that I have lost 100 pounds four times, I have been through these motions before. I lose weight, get tons of compliments, and then freak out because I feel like at any moment someone could drag me behind a building and rape me.

Even though I know that there are so many issues with that way of thinking—chief among them that fat women DO get raped—it persists, but I feel that today, at long last, I might have made a break through.

I was at the pool with my husband and son enjoying a hot, sunny day. We applied water-resistant sunscreen and jumped in, splashing and swimming for more than an hour. After snack time we applied more sunscreen and got back in. By bed time that night, it was apparent that we either did not apply the sunscreen as well or as often as we thought or it was an effective batch, because we were all mildly sunburned.  As I was tucking my son in, I realized that even with what we believed was protection against the sun, we all still got burned.

The truth is we cannot control everything in our lives. We cannot control other people. We cannot control whether we get a bad batch of sunscreen or not. But for me, I could control what I was eating. I could feel like I was in control of men staring at me. The more weight I added, the more protection I believe I had.

In reality, I realized that being fat gave no real protection against sexual assault. Women of all shapes and sizes are raped and ogled at and catcalled.

And yet even with that knowledge I wonder how when people do start noticing my weight loss, which has come as a result of being re-committed to recovery, what I will do. How will I respond this time? Better yet, what tools can I put in place so that when the compliments come in, I will be ready to handle them without hurting myself.

It is not an easy matter. Not something I can just talk myself out of or into. I need actionable tools that I can use to cope. I have a long way to go before people start noticing my weight loss again. Give me strength to not sabotage myself.

If you want to read more about Christina’s journey through recovery from food addiction/binge eating disorder, check out her memoir: