Recently I had the opportunity to help two amazing humans talk through a sticky spot in their relationship
— one that I know countless other couples have dealt with.
The very short version of the issue was that the woman was dealing with beauty and body insecurities that led her to feel like she “needed” to do things like wear makeup and straighten her hair every day… and her male partner saw both these behaviors, and the thoughts/feelings of insecurity, as completely illogical, silly, and pointless.
They were both frustrated that this argument had become a common refrain in their relationship, because despite a solid foundation of love and communication, neither of them was getting what they wanted or needed. They felt stuck.
When I asked the woman what she wanted from her male partner, she immediately responded that she just wanted support, empathy, and understanding. His response was dismissive and disparaging, she said. He seemed to blame her, almost even be mad at her for stupidly caring about “stuff that doesn’t matter,” as if confidence was simply a matter of willpower and logic.
My heart broke for her, because I know better than most that body image issues and insecurities cannot be overcome with willpower or logic… and I also know that having a partner who invalidates and dismisses our pain, no matter the reason, makes us feel deeply, excruciatingly lonely.
When we turn to our partner and say “I’m wounded, look, it hurts,” there can truly be nothing so painful (and intimacy-destroying) as to hear in return “that wound is stupid, and also your own fault.”
On the other hand, when I asked the man what he wanted from her, he made it clear that he just wants her to accept, embrace, and love herself as she is. He looked at his girlfriend and saw someone amazing, smoking hot, badass, and extremely attractive.
He loved her natural curls and her natural face, and he just wanted her to love them too, to feel comfortable and confident in her own skin.
His response to her insecurities might have looked like anger at her, but it stemmed from anger on her behalf, from outrage that the diet culture and unrealistic beauty ideals could have so much power over someone as intelligent, feminist, and awesome as his girlfriend.
We had to talk about a few things to clear this up, starting with the fact that by rejecting and shaming her for her insecurities, he was creating the exact same kind of judgmental environment for her as someone who rejected and shamed his partner for her body.
This one is a tough pill for many good guys to swallow, but you don’t get extra points for rejecting part of your girlfriend’s truth just because it’s a different part than what some archetypal douchebag might reject. Rejection is rejection, and when we reject things about our partner, we puncture holes in the bubble of intimacy and trust we’re trying to build and maintain.
There’s no two ways around this– intimacy thrives and blooms under acceptance and non-judgment, and it struggles and asphyxiates under judgment and rejection.
We also had to talk about the fact that body image issues and insecurities are not the result of illogical thoughts, unintelligence, or weakness. Disordered eating, compulsive body checking, and relying on certain beauty and body behaviors/rituals to feel accepted, worthy, and “safe” in the world are all actually completely normal, natural, and logical responses to living in a sexist, fatphobic culture that treats women as though their worth is based on their appearance.
It might not make sense to someone who grew up in a boy-body, but honestly, it doesn’t have to.
Just like how penis size insecurity will never make complete sense to me (who fucking cares?? be logical! most women don’t cum from penetration anyway!), beauty and body image insecurities might never make sense to the male partners of women dealing with them. And that’s ok, as long as we’re all on the same page about the fact that just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s illogical, stupid, fake, a sign of weakness, or her fault.
To that end, I’ve decided to put together a few tips for couples struggling with this.
For the partner struggling with body image:
Show your partner this article. 😉
Keep doing active work (therapy, coaching, self-education, self-inquiry, etc.) to heal your insecurities around beauty, body, and worthiness… both because you deserve to feel secure, worthy, and confident in your own skin, and because your partner needs to know you’re doing everything you can to tackle this.
For the partner who “doesn’t get it”:
Bear compassionate witness.
Recognize that you do not have a problem-solving role in this. It is not your job to make your partner feel beautiful or confident, and in fact by trying to “convince them” that they look fine, you are often deepening the wound. A lot of the anger you feel is likely the result of feeling like you keep trying, and failing, to solve their problem. If you stop trying to solve it, some of that anger will dissipate. Instead of solving the problem, you have a very important role– a hero’s role really. Your role is to simply bear witness to their pain, to hold space for their struggle with compassion, patience, and acceptance. You don’t have to take on or feel their pain to do this, but you might have to let your heart soften a bit so that you can connect to the fact that your partner is afraid and in pain, and you can’t fix it. It’s humbling, and hard, to sit with someone and just bear witness with compassion and acceptance, especially if you have been conditioned as a man to feel anger and base your worth on your ability to solve problems… but I promise you, this practice alone has the power to restore intimacy and trust between you. You might be surprised at how powerfully your partner can bloom if they feel truly witnessed, accepted, respected, and cared for in this way.
Note: I encourage you to ask them questions about how they feel, what hurts and what frighten them about the way they look, and why. Ask and then really listen– not with the goal of solving, changing their mind, or pointing out flaws in the logic, but rather just to understand your partner more deeply. Here are a few phrases that can help you with this:
I don’t understand yet, but I want to. Can you tell me more?
I’m so sorry you’re going through that. I had no idea.
That sounds so ______(hard/painful/scary/upsetting/awful/lonely).
I don’t know what to say, but I’m here, I’m listening. I believe you, and I care.
Apologize and commit to curiosity instead of judgement.
In a separate conversation, apologize for being dismissive, belittling or blaming your partner, or any other behavior that has eroded some trust and intimacy between you, if necessary. Let your partner know that you will be attempting to be more thoughtful and curious about both their issues, and your reactions… and then do exactly that. Ask her questions, with the goal of better understanding where she’s coming from, then ask yourself questions. Why do you think you’ve reacted this way? What are you really angry at, or frustrated by? Does logic actually play a role here, or is that just wishful thinking? Why do you think rejecting your partner for rejecting herself will be helpful? What role have you been trying to play in this situation, and how has that affected you? Your partner? What role do you want to play now? And what do you really want in this area? What emotional needs are going unmet for you? Get curious, and share what you discover with your partner.
You have every right to be struggling with this. It’s extremely difficult to watch someone you love suffering and in pain, especially with something it feels like you (or they) could easily solve. It would be much easier if you could fix this, or if they could just flip a switch and stop caring so much about how they look, or if it was purely an issue of logic or willpower.
I’m with you. As a body image coach I know all about this yearning to fix and help people in pain. Your feelings of frustration are valid, and you need and deserve a place to talk about your experience. That place just might not be with your partner. (It’s not often appropriate or fair to ask the person in pain to support you about how hard it is to support them.) Reaching out to other men with female partners in a similar boat would be a great way to get support in this area, or if that sounds impossible, hiring someone to talk to in the form of a therapist or coach can be extremely valuable.
I hope this is valuable to anyone in a partnership where beauty or body image insecurities take up space. It’s not easy for anyone involved, but it doesn’t need to drive a wedge between you.
Sending you so much love,