[Editor's note: This post was published in its original form here.]
You walk into the darkened bedroom and quietly slip under the cool sheets to lie next to her. You figure that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo can be finished tomorrow, so you gently reach across her to put the book on the nightstand and wrap your arm around her quiet body. Her arms feel smooth and she smells a lot better than you do. You reach your hand down to feel the softness of her belly, feeling excited and blessed to be touching this woman, your partner.
And then she jerkily shifts her body, removing your hand and placing it firmly back on your own. The look that traverses the space between you is a mixture of annoyance and anger. For a moment, your heart aches, feeling rejected, hurt, confused. But the feeling fades quickly; you’re used to this. You say nothing, retreat to your own side of the bed and turn the lights off.
Assuming you haven’t forgotten her parents’ anniversary or erased last week’s Modern Family from the DVR, your partner’s reaction could have very little to do with you. Her uneasiness — her swift retraction from your touch, her anger — they could all be the result of years of negative body image. (They could also be signs of previous sexual abuse or other trauma.)
When an individual hates his or her own body, the partner suffers as well. This suffering isn’t relegated to bedroom hanky-panky (that’s what we call a euphemism) but also flows into one’s day to day experience — the fabric of the relationship.
When we believe that our bodies are unattractive, we begin to feel that they are unworthy of attention, of care, of appreciation — ours or our partners. We treat ourselves as deserving contempt and any action that suggests otherwise can feel untrue and uncomfortable. It can even elicit feelings of rage, underneath which is unspoken pain.
- How dare you touch this ugly body? You can’t honestly be attracted to me.
- What are you after? How can I trust someone who obviously doesn’t even see how I really look and am?
- Don’t come close to me. I might become aware of my body and that’s terrifying.
Even when an individual with profoundly negative body image does allow himself to get close to his partner, he may not allow himself to truly experience the release and safety of true intimacy. As humans, we are extraordinarily capable of detaching from our own experience.
We eat. We work long hours. We exercise too much. And we might let others get physically close, but only with the barrier of mental distance between us. Many of us can have sex without feeling.
So where does that leave our partners? The ones who — truly and without reservation — think we’re beautiful?
If you are the partner, you need to know that body image issues are not about you. They are about a lot things — culture, biology, abuse, control, perfectionism — but not about you. You can help the person you love by:
- showing love and care in non-physical and non-sexual ways.
- helping your partner find help if he or she needs it.
- stopping your ogling of supermodels and NFL quarterbacks.
- being honest about how you’re feeling.
- getting support for yourself.
Have you ever found body image to be a barrier in a relationship?