Something that comes up as a very common source of body anxiety and obsession among my clients is the desire to be seen as attractive so that they can find, and keep, a male partner.
I say “male partner” there, because I am specifically referring to women looking to partner with cisgender men, a group of people we’ve all been taught to think of as superficial, judgmental, and highly visually motivated when it comes to mate selection.
In other words, a huge source of body image issues for many women who want to partner with men is the fear that she’s not conventionally attractive enough for a man to choose, love, or stay loyal to her.
At first glance, this seems to make sense. Everyone wants to be considered attractive to their partner, right? Of course.
But the logic of “I need to be more attractive in order for a man to love me” breaks down when we examine it more closely, for the following three reasons:
Men are more than shallow stereotypes. No matter what we’ve all been conditioned to believe, men are just human people. Which means that while they tend to be more visually aroused than most women, they also crave genuine connection; to be seen and known by their partner, and to be loved and valued for who they are. Some men are superficial assholes looking to validate their masculinity and worth by sleeping with or partnering with women who fit conventional beauty ideals, no doubt. But there are also many men out there for whom the stereotype feels ill-fitting, hurtful, lonely, or limiting when it comes to meeting women. (I wrote a whole blog post about that here.)
If you’re looking for one (or a few) great partner(s), you don’t need to be attractive to “all men.” Whenever I ask my clients what kind of partner they want to attract, they tell me about a man who is thoughtful, intelligent, kind, funny, feminist, emotionally aware, and passionate. When I ask if that man is likely to value and love her primarily for her appearance, the answer is always no. So anytime someone talks about wanting to be “attractive to men,” it immediately indicates to me that this woman has spent very little time and energy tuning into her own desires about what she wants in a partner.
Since most of us only need one (or a few) great partner(s), there is no benefit to trying to be attractive to “all men.” You’re not going to be for everyone, and that’s ok! Instead of trying to be attractive to all men as if they’re a monolith, ask yourself what you want! Get super clear on your specific target audience, and recognize that you only need to be attractive to a few in order to get your needs for love, intimacy, sex, and partnership met. It’s like a brand or business getting super clear on their desired demographic in order to do more efficient marketing—it takes the pressure off you to appeal to everyone, and makes you so much more appealing to the right people.
Being objectified by your partner is not the same thing as being loved and valued.
That last bit is what I want to talk about today. We’ve all been taught that objectification is a prerequisite in heteronormative relationships; that it’s “just how men see women.” Thanks to tv, films, marketing, and media, we’ve all learned that it’s normal and appropriate for men to see and evaluate women as objects to be looked at and sleep with, rather than whole human subjects.
As a result of this heteronormative conditioning, many women (especially women who partner with men) have interalized this view of themselves, and taken to a habit of self-objectification.
This means that in our own minds, we may still think of ourselves through the lens of objectification—would we arouse or please someone who looked at us? Would we be accepted and considered good, normal, or desirable to look at?
This makes sense, given that we all learned the only way to get our needs for love, intimacy, sex, and closeness met is by becoming visually appealing to men, and that men will leave us if our bodies change or fluctuate or age.
This perception of love by men being so conditional leaves many of my clients in a state of body anxiety. My single clients often struggle because they believe they need to look the “right way” to attract a partner, and my partnered clients struggle because they believe they need to maintain their attractiveness (aka no aging or weight fluctuations allowed!), otherwise their partner will stop loving them and leave.
It should be stated here that men are generally taught to see themselves (and each other) as subjects, which is why their attractiveness is a relatively less important part of their identity and life experience, and why there is less pressure for men to adhere to male beauty ideals, compared to women.
But women are taught to see themselves and each other not as subjects (aka the agents of action), but as objects (aka the target or recipient of someone else’s action).
This really shouldn’t be surprising, given that marriage used to mean that ownership over a woman had passed from her father to her husband. Objectification has always been about power and control, not beauty, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the horrifying role that objectification plays in the abuse and exploitation of Black and Indiginous women, from the days of enslavement in the US to the fact that Indiginous women are currently nearly three times more likely to experience rape and sexual assault than white women.
The truth is that it’s very easy to abuse and exploit someone you don’t see as a subject, and it’s very easy to dehumanize and objectify someone you’re abusing and exploiting. We might think of objectification of women as the natural effect of men being more visual creatures, but throughout history, objectification has always gone hand in hand with dehumanization, exploitation, and violence.
If someone only loves, values, and stays loyal to you as long as you’re “attractive,” then that person doesn’t really love or value you, and a relationship built upon that foundation will always be subtly (or not so subtly) dehumanizing and violent.
Objectification is not love, and any love built upon objectification will always feel hollow and insecure.
Unfortunately, many women are already partnered with men who do objectify them, or have partnered with men who objectified them in the past, so breaking free from this paradigm is extremely difficult.
Granted, many men don’t realize what they’re doing. They’re often just trying to make their partners feel beautiful by complimenting her appearance, even though that habit reinforces the idea that he values her for how she looks, which makes her feel more insecure in the long run. Other men make objectifying comments cluelessly, having no idea about the innate power imbalance it reflects. And of course, some men use objectification to abuse and manipulate their partners. In the worst stories I hear, he may shame or criticize her body to “get her to try harder to look good,” and even withhold sex or affection to punish her for living in a fluctuating and aging human body.
Of course, none of these habits are exclusive to men or hetersexual relationships. But this is where I see the patterns show up most often.
As you can imagine, being “loved” by someone who objectifies you (even if it’s via lots of appearance-based compliments) makes body neutrality or positivity practically impossible.
With someone like that (either currently, or in your formative history), you’d have to stay constantly vigilant, fighting any signs of aging or weight change, obsessing over every fluctuation, and fighting to “get your body back” after baby.
Objectification and self-objectification always set you up for both body image issues, and relationships that feel insecure and threatening.
The truth is that the only way to even feel fully secure, confident, and worthy (in both yourself and your partnership) is to value yourself for (and partner with men who value you for) who you are as a person, instead of how you look.