Many of my clients come to me harboring the belief that in order to find a partner (or keep a partner interested), you absolutely must be conventionally attractive.
The interesting paradox here is that they can all pretty much also admit that being valued only for how they look would make them feel objectified, and that in order to feel truly confident, their partner would have to see, value, and love them for who they are inside.
So let’s break this down for a moment, shall we?
What we all crave more than anything—and what we intuitively know we need in order to feel secure and confident in the world—is to be seen and valued and loved for our inner selves. And yet we go about trying to secure that exact thing by looking good enough on the outside that we capture the attention of someone who will… eventually go on to love us for who we are on the inside?
Among my single clients, this particular line of thinking tends to circle around why they feel they have to control their body and appearance in order to gain access to dates, sex, attention, or a partner. The control behaviors they use include everything from diet and exercise to wearing makeup, sticking to elaborate anti-aging practice, dying hair, sucking in the belly, or posing in “flattering” ways.
I should clarify that the goal of these control behaviors is always to express themselves and “feel good” day to day, not only to look attractive… but there is very often an underlying pressure or anxiety that if they don’t do these things they’ll never attract the partner of their dreams. As a result, those behaviors can both feel empowering, and also make them feel trapped.
I’ve had clients tell me they desperately wish they could stop following their strict “food rules,” take rest days without guilt, stop spending so much time doing or checking their makeup, stop worrying so much about what they wear, or stop feeling so stressed about bad hair days or aging. But when I ask a client what she might need to feel safe/secure enough to, say, take more rest days away from the gym, or stop wearing mascara every day, the #1 answer I get from my single clients is that they would need to already have a partner who loves them for who they are.
Interestingly though, I often see even more body insecurity in my partnered clients. Not always, mind you. But often enough that it’s a pattern. Many people meet their partners while controlling their body/appearance in many of the aforementioned (and unsustainable) ways, and then struggle with major relationship insecurity once their body changes, or their partner has to see what they “really” look like naturally.
Let’s take the example of a woman who worked out super hard and skipped meals in order to look fit, small, and conventionally beautiful while single. She felt super hot on her first few dates with a guy, chalked up his interest in her to how she looked, and felt both proud and validated by it. Things went well, and they ended up falling in love. At a certain point though she was eating many of her meals with him so she could no longer skip them, and she was happy to take more rest days from the gym so they could sleep in, have sex, and enjoy their weekends together.
As a result of those changes, this woman gained some weight. And now, despite the fact that she knows her partner loves her for who she is, she becomes super insecure about her body, because she feels like she “tricked” him, that he would prefer her previously smaller body to her current body, and that he wouldn’t have chosen her if he’d met her looking like this. She becomes paranoid and jealous, and anxious that he’ll leave her for someone thinner/prettier, so she doubles down on body hatred and weight obsession.
This story isn’t about any specific client, but rather it’s a composite, representing many clients I’ve worked with and talked to over the years, who struggle more with body image inside of a relationship than they did when they were single.
Of course this kind of story only really applies in the case of people who (for lack of a better word) “succeed” at their goals for beauty or body-control, and then meet someone under those “successful” circumstances. After all, if you wear a lot of makeup, blow out your hair, suck in your belly, and wear uncomfortable but “flattering” clothing on the first few dates with someone new, you might feel attractive and confident in knowing you temporarily “look good,” but it’s actually likely to lead to more anxiety and insecurity down the line.
Eventually they’ll see you without makeup. Eventually they’ll see you braless in sweatpants and a t-shirt. Eventually they’ll see your belly all soft and round after a meal, and your curly hair post-shower.
If things go well, eventually your partner will see everything.
But if you’ve been controlling your appearance in an unsustainable and “enhanced” way, that process can be painful and terrifying. They worry that their natural state won’t be good enough, or they won’t be attractive enough or hold their new partner’s interest, and end up with massive anxiety and self-criticism about their natural appearance.
Not to mention the fact that attempting to change your appearance to attract a dream partner with the goal of being seen, valued, and loved for who you are inside doesn’t make sense. It’s just… a terrible plan.
I can’t help but think of the Hollywood “rich guy” trope, where some dude comes into a ton of money, but feels lonely, because he can’t tell if people like him for him or for his money.
Yes we’ve all been taught that the key to happiness and confidence is gaining social status conforming to social ideals… but we also all recognize why getting there might make someone feel a bit hollow and unsatisfied. After all, the thing we crave most is to be seen, valued, and loved for who we really are, not to be valued and liked for how closely we conform to social ideals (whether those ideals are about wealth or beauty).
So how do we expect this to work? When exactly does the person who fell for our looks become the person who is so in love with our inner selves that they don’t care how we look? How are we supposed to ever feel body-confident if it’s all based on finding and keeping a partner’s attention?
What I sometimes tell my single clients is to imagine how different it might feel months into a new relationship if your new partner met you looking like your natural, sustainable self. No makeup, no fancy hair or clothing trickery to look more attractive, no sucking in the belly, and at the exact weight your body is happy to maintain while living your best life without effort.
Not only would it be easier to believe your partner was genuinely attracted to you, it would be soooo much easier to believe that they weren’t with you “because of your looks.” You would feel a helluva lot more confident that they see, love, and value you for who you are inside.
And while I’m not here to tell you how to live your life, I do ask that we all get more curious about this. What’s the relationship between body image and partnership (or lack there-of) and how has that been working for you?