I’ve been with my girlfriend for nine months. Things, for the most part, are great, but there’s one issue that’s been really irking me. She’s got some body insecurity issues, and recently she’s been taking them out on me by comparing our bodies and finding fault with hers. She’s totally beautiful, of course, and it makes me feel terrible to think I’m contributing to her insecurities somehow, but I also don’t want to apologize for the way I look. How do I help support her while also letting her know that it’s affecting me too?
Anna says: You should never have to apologize for the way you look, unless perhaps you are Carrot Top. No, not even then.
Your story is sadly familiar to me. Many of my partners have struggled with weight issues and negative self-perceptions. (I don’t exempt myself from these issues either, FYI). One ex would talk about how much she hated her ankles, and how my ankles were just the pinnacle of ankles and wasn’t I lucky to have such resplendent joints that connected my legs to my feet? I was like, “Bitch, you’re romanticizing a hinge! Also, my ankles are frail and prone to spraining and other ailments. Why would you want that over your perfectly fine and functional ones? And, most importantly, why are we fighting about this?”
I found her statements baffling, and like you, somewhat hurtful after a while. Luckily, it didn’t come up very often, so I was spared the obligation of defending my girlfriend’s ankles, for the most part. The trouble is, of course, that onus is ultimately on your partner to change her perceptions, which is something my friend Carla reiterated: "The thing with body image issues is that only the person with the issue can change those thoughts. Often people with serious body image issues can turn anything into an attack on their body, even the most innocent and well intentioned compliments."
My friend Kelly offered this advice, "Try to develop positive health habits together and don’t make it an issue. Nothing is worse when you are an ‘I hate myself rut’ than your partner fighting with you about it. At some level, you also hate yourself for hating yourself, so having someone else ostensibly hating you for hating yourself doesn’t help."
"It’s a heavy situation. No pun intended," said my friend Jen, who’d dealt recently with a similar issue. "You have to straddle the line between being supportive and being overbearing."
It makes sense that two women who see each other naked regularly would compare each other’s bodies to their own. We can’t escape the warped cultural and media depictions of female beauty – tall, uber-thin, pouty, photoshopped – so it’s hard not to have sympathy when girls fall victim to thinking of their bodies as less than. We all fail that test some days, even supermodels. The goal, as my friend Carie put it, is to retrain your brain. “Re-focus attention on what your body can do, rather than what it looks like or weighs has been a huge breakthrough for me, which meant doing things like trapeze and rock climbing (for some people pole dancing, or anything that makes their body fun and something to be proud of, rather than ashamed of).”
Just how common are women’s body issues? Here are some depressing statistics that illustrate this insidious trend from Rader Program, an eating disorder treatment center:
— A University of Central Florida study of three-to-six-year-old girls found that nearly half were already worried about being fat.
— 79% of teenage girls who vomit and 73% of teenage girls who use diet pills are frequent readers of women’s health and fitness magazines.
— Four out of five U.S. women are dissatisfied with their appearance.
— Following the viewing of images of female fashion models, seven out of ten women felt more depressed and angrier than prior to viewing the images.
So if your girlfriend is a regular consumer of women’s rags, you might do well to burn them all.
It’s also heartening to note that a small army of positive body image websites exist that also might be helpful. Such as: Adios Barbie, About-Face, NOW’s National Love Your Body Day, and the New York Times’ Well blog. PsychCentral has a blog devoted to body image as well. They suggest learning how to be a critical consumer, and talking to your partner about a greater purpose, among other tips. I thought the latter was most interesting.
“Numerous studies have shown that people who have a sense of purpose have better health, better relationships and a higher overall sense of well-being, ” body image expert Sarah Maria writes in her book Love Your Body, Love Your Life. This made me think of the yogic principal of dharma, or duty, and how developing a regular yoga practice radically transformed my own relationship to my body. So did becoming vegetarian, but that’s neither queer nor there.
To help you find your purpose, PsychCentral suggests you create a one-sentence life mission statement by asking yourself three questions:
1. Do what?
2. To whom?
3. In what ways?
Since we just started 2012, it’s timely and would probably do us all some good to craft such mission statements. Screw resolutions! Focus on what you love, what you’re good at, and how you can be helpful to others. I guarantee that "losing 10 pounds" won’t be on any such list. Here’s my advice-columny mission statement, to give you an example.
I want to write, inspire, and inform those who seek my advice by being thoughtful, engaged, compassionate, and funny on a weekly basis.
A study in Psychology of Women Quarterly noted that women in same-sex couples might be better equipped to deal with negative body issues than their straight counterparts. From the abstract, because I can’t afford to shill $25 for an academic article: "positive descriptions of empathy toward body and appearance concerns as well as diversity within same-sex attractions suggest that same-sex relationships have the potential to encourage women to feel happier with their bodies." So, you know, keep being gay. It’s for your health! But then someone brought Sad Science Suzie into it and reminded us that this is just one study, not a be-all-end-all: "This analysis suggests that the theoretical debate is too simplistic and that a synthesized explanation should be explored in future research."
Lastly, if your girlfriend’s body snarking continues to persist to the point where it’s seriously affecting your quality of life, then it’s probably time for therapy. Or a new relationship.
What say you, AfterEllen.com readers? How do you support your partner’s body issues, or your own?
Hailing from the rough-and-tumble deserts of southern Arizona, where one doesn’t have to bother with such trivialities as “coats” or “daylight savings time,” Anna Pulley is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Find her at annapulley.com and on Twitter @annapulley. Send her your Hook Up questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.