To investigate the association of physical and sexual abuse in childhood and adolescence with risk of adult obesity among black women in the United States.


Participants were women enrolled in the Black Women’s Health Study, an ongoing prospective cohort study begun in 1995. In 2005, 33 298 participants completed a self-administered questionnaire on early life experiences of abuse. Log-binomial regression models were used to derive risk ratios (RRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) for the relation of child/teenager abuse with obesity (BMI ≥30) and central adiposity (waist circumference >35 inches) reported in 2005.


The RR for BMI ≥30, a measure of overall obesity, was 1.29 (95% CI 1.20–1.38) for the highest severity of exposure to child/teenager physical and sexual abuse relative to no abuse. After controlling for postulated intermediates, including reproductive history, diet, physical activity, depressive symptoms, and socioeconomic status, the RR was 1.14 (95% CI 1.08–1.21). The RR for waist circumference >35 inches, which measures central obesity, for severe physical and sexual abuse relative to no abuse was 1.29 (95% CI 1.19–1.38) before adjustment for intermediates and 1.18 (95% CI 1.10–1.27) after adjustment.


Early life sexual and physical abuse was associated with an increased risk of overall and central obesity in adulthood. Although the association between abuse and obesity was explained to some extent by health behaviors, reproductive history, and mental health, these factors did not fully account for the associations. Our data suggest that early life adversity is related to adult body size and weight distribution.

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