After spending three months apart in quarantine, my boyfriend asked me what I thought about his body.
He asked because he was slimmer pre-quarantine when we met than when we got back together after, and he was feeling a bit self-conscious. But he pointed out he was just curious what I thought because I never, ever complimented his body.
This struck him as a bit strange, and potentially worrisome, and I was glad he brought it up so that I could explain how due to my line of work I try to never comment on other people’s bodies at all, not even in positive ways. (Because I never want to participate in oppressive narratives about one kind of body being better or worse than another.)
But the more I thought about it, I also realized that I specifically don’t compliment my partner’s body for more personal reasons.
In past relationships, my partners would often “compliment” me on my body or appearance, and I noticed that counter-intuitively, this always contributed to me feeling lonely and insecure.
Granted it didn’t start that way. At first, being complimented felt great; I loved knowing my partner was attracted to me, desired me, and turned on by me. But over time, the more a partner gushed about how pretty, sexy, lean, fit, or gorgeous I was, the less confident and loved I felt in those relationships.
Having realized this, I dove into exploring why that was, and came up with three separate reasons.
It was a reminder that I’m being looked at and judged. Normally I go about my day doing what I want, thinking my thoughts and feeling my feelings. Having someone comment on how I look while doing those things is jarring, and reminds me that I am constantly being looked at, judged, and sexualized– a fact both deeply embedded in my personal history, and reinforced everywhere in our culture. This reminder leads to more thoughts about my appearance, and more self-consciousness overall.
It reinforced the idea that as a woman, my value to my partner comes down to looking good. The message women get from a young age is that our value is based on how we look, especially in relationships. When my partner complimented my appearance (especially if he rarely complimented my internal qualities like humor, intelligence, writing, passion, and dedication to growth) I got the feeling that he liked me, loved me, chose me, and valued me for how I looked, as if hotness was the most important thing I brought to the table as a partner.
As a result, I felt like my partner didn’t really see, understand, or value who I am as a whole person, and I felt disrespected, invisible, lonely, and unfulfilled. (I want to be desired by my partner, yes, but my appearance should be the least interesting and valuable thing I bring to the table.)
It made me feel pressured to maintain my appearance. Hearing my partner gush about how I looked made me feel pressure to maintain that appearance through any means necessary, or else risk disappointing them or being rejected/abandoned by them.
All those compliments made me feel like their approval and love were conditional, and that changing the way I looked (due to bloating, aging, changing shape/size, etc) would threaten the safety of relationship. This understandably led to way more body obsession and anxiety over time.
The truth is that the more my partner talked about how attractive I was, the more obsessed with my own appearance I became (especially with fixing, controlling, or maintaining it), and I would never wish any of this upon my own partner.
It’s worth noting here that everyone is different. If you want your partner to compliment your appearance, that’s great too! (Although in my experience coaching women, when they say they want their partner to compliment them more, what they really want is often to feel more seen, desired, appreciated, and valued, or to have more intimacy/sex.) I’m not here to tell anyone else what to do in their own relationships.
Anyway, my boyfriend’s question sparked a super interesting conversation.
After I shared everything above, he said he understood but still wanted to hear what I thought about his body, especially regarding the changes from before to after quarantine. He pointed out what he called “love handles” and belly fat, and wondered how I felt about them.
I found this incredibly difficult to answer.
To be honest, I’ve never been as desperately into someone as I am with him. Eight months in, and it’s just getting better and better. So the idea that I might approve or disapprove of the shape of his body just seemed… absurd and arbitrary.
His body houses his heart, mind, and soul. His body is how I connect with him, and is a source of endless abundant pleasure for me. His body is like coming home, and coming to god, and just cumming over and over. Sometimes I want to climb into his body and live there. His body is everything. His body is perfect.
But I realized I rarely actually look at his body, because the details of its shape and size are utterly unimportant.
After taking a minute to collect my thoughts, I explained that there were things I loved about his appearance when we met, and there were slightly different things I loved about his appearance after quarantine.
I acknowledged that he looked a bit different, but my mind seems to constantly be searching for (and finding) beauty when I look at him, the same way it searches for (and finds) beauty when I look at my niece and nephew.
Kids look different day to day and month to month, and my mind simply finds different things to admire, appreciate, and adore each time I see them.
It’s the same with him.
I’m into him when he looks pretty and delicate, and I’m into him when he looks tough and handsome. I’m into his feminine, and into his masculine, his softness and his hardness equally. I was into his blonde highlights when we met, and I’m into his natural brunette now. I’m into it when he shaves and is all baby-faced, and I’m into it when he grows out his beard and looks rugged. I was into his leaner body pre-quarantine, and into his softer body after.
The throughline here is that I’m just into him; so much so that pretty much anything he does with his appearance suddenly becomes attractive to me. If he covered himself in tattoos I’m sure I’d suddenly find tattoos sexy. If he started wearing makeup I’d find myself turned on by men in makeup.
We’ve never taught that being attracted to someone can be like this, but it can.
We think we’re “supposed to” have a preference for body type, shape, size, or appearance, and that leaner and more gender-normative is always more attractive.
But attraction and arousal can also be set aflame by emotional connection, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the shape or size of your partner’s body. (If you’ve never heard of demisexuality I recommend looking it up, there’s lots of interesting insight there!)
This isn’t exactly to say I don’t notice the differences in how he presents himself however, or that I have no preferences or opinions. I do.
I love when he wears tight t-shirts, baggy hoodies, and basketball shorts, but don’t really notice polo shirts or jeans. I love when he wears bright colors, and I hate this one trench coat he has.
It’s just that nothing could be less relevant to my love or desire for him.
And while this brings up some super interesting insights for relationships, I also realized through this conversation that we can approach our own appearance the exact same way.
Our brains are constantly manipulating what we see when we look at other people, making them appear more or less beautiful based on how we feel about them. (This is why we all think our own kids and pets are the cutest ever, and why I find my boyfriend to be perfect-looking, no matter how he looks.)
It does the same thing when we look at ourselves.
So what if instead of trying to find ourselves attractive, we focused on trying to feel close to, accepting and approving of, loving toward, and intimate with ourselves?
The more we like, love, accept, respect, and adore ourselves, the more flexibility we have to like what we see no matter how we look. So maybe by focusing on connecting to, respecting, and adoring ourselves as people, we could look in the mirror and admire something different every time our bodies changed the way we do with the people we love.
Maybe we could have preferences without letting those preferences be powerful enough to make us hate what we see.
Food for thought.
Sending you love and approval,