By Lexie Kite, Ph.D.
One of the biggest barriers many women face when working to improve their body image and heal their relationship with their bodies is the judgment and rejection they fear from their romantic partners. This seems to be particularly true for women in heterosexual relationships who have grown up viewing and monitoring their bodies through a sexualized male perspective. When women are objectified and valued primarily as things to be looked at and consumed (visually or physically) in media and among people around us, it is not only men that learn to view women as parts and judge those parts according to carefully prescribed standards — we do the same to ourselves. This distances us from not only our own healthy body image, but also from our partners.
We all learn to objectify ourselves (through self-objectification, or monitoring how our bodies appear) and to objectify others from the time we are very young, from a massive variety of people and messages. If you are a fan of our work at Beauty Redefined, there’s a good chance you have undertaken the incredibly hard but rewarding work of developing body image resilience. As you work on your relationship with your body and begin to experience your body through our life-changing mantra — as an “instrument, not an ornament” — your whole life opens up. You can see the way you have held yourself back and been held back from happiness and health and confidence because you felt defined by your body and wasted years living to be looked at instead of really living.
Whether you love or hate the way your body looks, you’ve probably also realized how hard it is to thrive in your life and your relationship — and even enjoy your most intimate moments — when you are fixated on how you appear at all times. Seeing yourself and being treated as MORE THAN A BODY is essential to your own well-being and to having healthy romantic relationships. So many of us have been trained to think that having a happy, healthy sex life depends on fitting a prescribed idea of what “sexy” looks like. The truth is: You can have a healthy, happy sex life regardless of how you look or how you think you look. You can learn to take back your sexuality as your own, from the inside, because it is something to be experienced firsthand, not viewed or appraised from the outside.
Here’s the deal: Everyone wants to feel attractive. Everyone wants their partner to be attracted to them. A big deterrent to feeling confident and attractive is shame. It’s REALLY hard to take good care of yourself when you are embarrassed and disgusted by your body and/or your partner is, too. It’s really hard to want to be intimate with someone or maintain a loving bond with a partner when you are embarrassed and disgusted by your body and/or your partner is, too. That shame propels you toward unhealthy extremes, whether that be compulsive overeating or overexercise, restriction and starvation, abusing diet pills and laxatives, being totally sedentary, etc. In other words, feeling shame and disgust for your body is the quickest path to self-destructive and relationship-destructive beliefs and behaviors.
As you work to see yourself as more than a collection of parts to be viewed, fixed, ogled, and rejected, you realize how imperative it is that your partner sees and values you for more, too. In past or present relationships, you might have felt the sting of objectification in your interactions — maybe in the way you were viewed and treated by your partner, but maybe also in the ways you have viewed and treated your partner.
For many women who have reached out to us over the years, learning to see themselves as more than a body is complicated by having partners who knowingly and unknowingly see them as bodies first and people second. Here are three examples shared with us by women we will keep anonymous.
“My husband has said unkind things about my appearance many times. Usually, leading up to a big ‘talk’ about my weight, he would also give me the cold shoulder for days at a time. I feel like those thoughts are always in the back of his mind and I’m always self-conscious around him. It’s been the biggest issue in our marriage. I want a husband that makes me feel beautiful. Not one that makes me want to turn off the lights during sex or cringe every time he accidentally touches my stomach. Even when I’ve been thin, he will still comment on my makeup or he’s said that he would be okay spending the money for me to get a boob job. I honestly believe no matter what I looked like it wouldn’t be enough—he’d never be satisfied.”
“My husband and I have been married for more than 20 years and I was obsessed with my weight for the first half of our marriage, and was thin as well. Eventually, I reached a point emotionally where I couldn’t diet even one more time and I started gaining weight. The bigger I got, the more obsessed with his own weight and body my husband became. For the past five years he has gotten into body building a bit and has gotten increasingly restrictive with his diet. He makes little side comments to me in judgement of my food, health and fatness. I’m the only fat person in the house, so he definitely gets his point across to me through the things he says about others and the things he says to the kids around me. This makes him sound really bad but he is wonderful in many other ways. This is just a tough area for both of us as he feels very right in this area.”
“I feel like every time I get close to accepting myself as-is I remember that Dr. Laura says ‘Don’t you dare gain weight’ and that my mom taught me to keep yourself sexy for your man. Typing this out, I realize how horrible this all sounds. My husband is a great guy but he does love my skinnier body more than my larger one for sure. He still loves me and wants me and all but there is a difference in his level of praise, etc. I want him to keep wanting me for years to come but cannot keep wasting my life trying to lose twenty pounds.”
If your partner withholds intimacy, kindness, or affection because they are unhappy with your body, that is a sign that you might be in an unhealthy relationship. If they make rude comments about your body or punish you in any way because they don’t approve of your body, that is a sign that you might be in an unhealthy relationship. Objectification is at the heart of these unhealthy relationships. When someone objectifies you, whether knowingly or not, they dehumanize you. They might view and value you as parts to be used, looked at, evaluated, rejected, and fixed. They might feel entitled to your body. They might prioritize how you look over how you feel. Objectification pushes away love. It is hard to fully love and respect someone you see through such a narrow lens. It is hard to be compassionate and kind toward someone whom you expect to uphold beauty ideals that may well be hurting her health, happiness, and well-being. It is hard to fully love someone else or feel their love when you know on some level that their love might be contingent on you looking a certain way.
That doesn’t mean a relationship where objectification is present is destined to fail or can’t be fixed, but it does mean that both you and your partner have some work to do if you want to progress.
Healthy romantic relationships are founded on love and respect. If you are in a healthy relationship, then sexual appeal is much deeper than just the visual. Yes, the visual, physical sexual attraction is there, but there is also love, chemistry, bond, touch, connection, communication, shared history and experiences. It is giving as well as taking. If your partner isn’t sexually attracted to you because your body has changed, they must learn to see the objectifying ways they have dehumanized you and uproot it. You are human and human bodies change for reasons in and out of our control. We age, grow, shrink, get sick and injured, give birth, face mental and physical challenges. If you are in a relationship with someone who is only committed to your body, they aren’t actually committed to you.
If your partner objectifies you by feeling entitled to your body looking a certain way or degrading your appearance or asking you to change, please know that you can’t escape that harmful dynamic by changing your body. You can’t outrun it. Any increase in warmth, affection, care and concern you earn through “fixing” your body is guaranteed to be temporary and always at risk of being withdrawn. That is a temporary and tenuous solution to a problem that will not go away. You won’t always be able to live up to those expectations, for a huge variety of reasons you can and can’t control. In a committed partnership, love has to be bigger and deeper than that.
Seeing and valuing yourself as more than a body will allow you to identify whether your relationship is healthy and founded on love and respect. You deserve nothing less. If you feel your primary value lies in the way your body appears, every rude comment, judging glance or withheld intimacy or kindness can be blamed on you and your body. Every ounce of rejection and coldness will feel deserved, and will hold intense power over you because you might even agree with it. It reinforces the very pain and shame you have learned to feel about yourself and your appearance — never good enough, never in control, never right. We have all been trained to blame ourselves for the love we don’t receive, but we can’t turn against ourselves. We can turn against objectification.
In some circumstances, you may have unknowingly helped teach your partner how to treat you and value you in an objectifying way. You may have started out your relationship very fixated on your body and spent time asking your partner if you looked fat, how you looked, if you should change this part or that part. You may have asked for and required a significant amount of praise and attention directed toward your body just to feel OK in your relationship and assured your partner was happy. You may have been on a strict diet or workout and asked for help to stay “on track,” only to wallow in self-loathing and annoyance when you got off track. As you’ve gained weight or your breasts have changed with age or children, you might have withdrawn physically and demonstrated lower confidence and less interest in sex.
If that is the case, your partner learned what you needed and validated you accordingly. He may have seen how happy and confident you seemed when you were losing weight or toning up or practicing intense restriction around food, and he also may have witnessed how depressed and self-conscious you seemed when you gained weight or lost muscle definition or stopped dieting. He may have internalized the idea that you are happiest and most confident when you are at your thinnest, when that isn’t actually the case. You have now learned the truth — you are actually happiest and most confident when you see yourself and others see you as more than a body to be looked at, judged, and fixed. When your self-worth and happiness each day isn’t dependent on how you do or don’t look or what you do or don’t eat. When your confidence and fulfillment is based on experiences, actions, and feelings, it is much more sustainable in the long run. It is self-determined and self-directed, not earned or appraised based on how others look at you.
Marriage is a commitment to and partnership with someone. It is not a contract to work forever to keep the same body you had on the day of your wedding. You don’t owe anyone your body. You really don’t. That is a degrading, dehumanizing ideal that way too many of us have grown up believing and perpetuating. It is incredibly sexist, because no one expects men to maintain their teenage bodies and faces their whole lives, and men aren’t tasked with maybe the most physically burdensome job of all time — growing and birthing babies. In our culture, men get to proudly age and embrace those outward changes, but women don’t. Men get to show signs of humanity like facial lines and wrinkles and grey hair and baldness and natural body hair without judgment or ridicule, but women don’t. Men get to live with their bodies as they are, while women are asked to implant and inject certain parts to be more plump and lipo, laser, and shrink other parts. Men get to be praised and valued and powerful for many reasons beyond how they look, while women are rarely granted the same luxury unless their looks are also deemed acceptable.
If you are in a committed relationship, having a partner who values you as more than a body is crucial to your well-being. You do not deserve to be in a relationship with anyone who attempts to diminish you and divide you against yourself, keeping you at odds with your own body. You are whole. Surround yourself with people who encourage you to remain that way. If you are in a relationship with someone who insists upon you meeting and upholding certain physical ideals, it is up to you to weigh the pros and cons of being with that person. When necessary and possible, this could lead to distance from people who aren’t supportive of your pursuit to understand your body as an instrument rather than an ornament, or who don’t care to try and understand your perspective.
If you feel safe enough to confront your partner and you believe your relationship can be healed, there are a few strategies you can use to prompt positive changes:
Be vulnerable. Share your feelings. Tell them what you’ve learned about the harms of objectification and how it has impacted the way you feel about your body and yourself. Tell them about experiences in your past when you have held yourself back, felt pain and shame, and missed out on opportunities because of judgment, embarrassment, or ridicule. Tell them about the ways feeling like an object has impacted your relationship. Has it caused you to withdraw, hold back, disconnect, hurt yourself, fixate on your appearance or food or exercise at the expense of your life, happiness, and health? Let them know that they are hurting you by doing things or saying things that feel objectifying. Give specific examples. Share how you felt in those moments and how it pushes you away from your partner and your own self-worth.
Ask for what you want. Ask them to refrain from commenting on your appearance or others’—for the sake of yourself and those in earshot. Ask them to help you stop obsessing about your weight or appearance. Ask them to support you and help you feel more confident as you are right now so you can stop being driven by shame and self-objectification in ways that hurt your well-being and your relationship. Ask them to consider the impact of their own media, entertainment, and friend choices, and how they might not only reflect harmful, narrow, sexualized ideals of women in general, but perpetuate them in your home and daily life. Inform them about the negative impact their harmful comments and actions have on your life. Ask for compassion and understanding.
Encourage them to be vulnerable. Ask them to open up about their own insecurities, whether they are body-related or not. Ask them how you can support them and build up their confidence. This will build trust and intimacy, which will strengthen your relationship. Encourage them to seek therapy to dig deep into how and when they learned to objectify people and how they can correct their thinking and heal their relationships and their own body image. Offer to work with them as you both learn healthier ways of seeing and relating to each other and your own bodies.
Reclaim your body as your own. The best thing you can do for your relationship is to not spend one more day fixated on losing weight or planning cosmetic procedures or fighting off aging to change your body for your partner’s approval. That is an unsustainable, short-term plan for what you need from what should hopefully be a lasting, loving relationship. You are more than a body, and you are doing your absolute best living inside a dynamic, growing, changing body. Your relationship with your partner, your kids, and yourself is hurt when you fixate on your body, as you ride the roller coaster of emotions and self-esteem that goes up and down by the minute depending on what you ate, how much you worked out, how you look, etc.
Your relationship with others and yourself will deepen and grow as you heal your relationship with your body. As you learn to see yourself as more than a body, you can be more present, confident, and fulfilled in your relationships because you will have the security of knowing your worthiness to be truly loved is not dependent on how you appear. You won’t blame yourself for anyone else’s perception of you or their unrealistic and exhausting expectations of your body. You can take better care of yourself because you value yourself as more than a decoration. You can experience more connection and pleasure during sex and intimacy, which is not possible if you are monitoring and evaluating your appearance from the outside. You can live each day knowing that you are worthy of love and respect and kindness no matter how you look. Once you know that truth, you won’t accept anything less.
If you want more guidance on this stuff, we worked for years to develop and test our online Body Image Resilience course that is available to individuals 14+. Through an in-depth 8-week video course (that also includes full text, graphics and audio), participants can learn how to 1) recognize harmful messages in media and culture about female bodies; 2) reflect on the ways those ideals have impacted your life; 3) redefine the ways you think about beauty, health and individual worth; and 4) develop resilience through your own path that utilizes four sources of power.