When Your Body Image Is Based On How Your Partner Sees You

Why do we women feel the need to connect our body image to our dynamics with our significant others? By doing so, we externalize our own self-worth, making it fragile and dependent on other people.

We all been there, haven’t we, or is it just me and Christina Sturdivant over at xoJane? On Monday, Sturdivant wrote a piece entitled “I Love My Boyfriend, But I Don’t Love My Relationship Weight.” It was about how finding herself with a new love in her life—with the corresponding Chinese take-outs and brownie sundaes—has blissed her out so much that she no longer fits into most of her jeans.

To explain this phenomenon, she refers us to Urban Dictionary’s entry on boyfriend weight:

Gaining weight while with your significant other due to non-stop eating binges for anniversaries, birthday celebrations, or complete boredom.

This concept is probably not new if you, like me, have ever suddenly found yourself a) happily connecting with someone awesome, and b) having lots of great sex on tap, when the cocktail of dopamine and oxytocin flooding your brain blunts the firing of your neural weight-gain-phobia transmitters.

Sturdivant’s story about re-taking control of how she eats is of a woman taking back her own body image, and for that I applaud her. I hit a similar point about a year in with an ex when I realized I was desperate to binge on proper Mexican food that I’d been avoiding because he detested spice. (Life lesson learned: Romance shall not interfere with enchiladas.)

My problem with the piece is that it doesn’t question the idea that your body image is tied somehow to your partner. Every relationship obviously involves striking a delicate balance of how two people (or three, four, etc. for my poly peeps) will influence each other. My partner calls this the relationship equation, and it can include everything from what you eat to which films you watch on a Saturday night to whether you spend your anniversary at a Mexican cooking school or on a Yucatecan beach.

But it’s precisely when the relationship equation starts chipping away at one party’s self-esteem that you know that it needs to be reconfigured somehow. I’ve written at great length in many previous columns about the need for women to more aggressively take the reins in framing their body image and sexualities. But “boyfriend weight” is not the only expression of many people’s tendency to hand away that control to their significant others.

For instance, I know many happily coupled women who obsess over whether they are letting themselves go. The logic behind this is, of course, that if you ever find yourself heavier/less stylish/giving less of a damn about primping than you were when you first got with your partner, he or she will stop finding you attractive and cheat on you and it’ll be all your fault. (I recently spent a long time Skyping my own mother—who is 46 and insanely beautiful—trying to convince her that this logic is horseshit. She’s still skeptical.)

On the other side is a phenomenon I think of as revenge starving, also known as “having a minor eating disorder.” (It was minor in my case, but I know too many people for whom this is severe.) This occurs when relationship drama takes away your appetite and you allow yourself to “forget” to eat for a week, then watch in grim satisfaction as your cheeks and hipbones become Angie Jolie–style emaciated. You perversely revel in your own sense of fragility, and hope your idiot boyfriend notices how unwell you have to become to get magazine-model skinny, as in: Look how I have to bloody starve myself to be your socialized idea of sexy.

Another way we give away control of our body image, though in this case a positive one, is by attaching it to a highly supportive partner. In my case, this involved going out with someone who thought I was a mamacita (I don’t approve of this term, but I still liked his sentiment behind it). So much so, in fact, that I wanted to take two-hour walks and eat lots of Brazil nuts and dragonfruit and dance the night away in a pheromone-saturated sweat. All because seeing him believe I was beautiful and healthy and sexy at my actual, normal size made me believe I could be all of those things. But if this person disappears from your life, then what happens?

Why, even in that last best-case scenario, do we women feel the need to connect our body image to our dynamics with our significant others? By doing so, we externalize our own self-worth, making it fragile and dependent on other people. It’s a trap, says Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth, that functions to beat women down so that they undervalue themselves both emotionally and economically.

What would be the consequences—I asked my mother in our recent two-hour body image talk—if she woke up tomorrow and decided she fully accepts herself exactly as she is? (I was, of course, paraphrasing a rather sage meme that I assumed hadn’t yet made it into her Facebook feed.)

She seemed to find the idea a bit ridiculous—dangerous, even, to both her marriage and her sense of successfully being a woman.

Can’t we do something about this? We’re under so much pressure, I know. But how ridiculous would it really be to shake it off, validate ourselves, practice radical self-acceptance? And then see what happens?

Are we afraid of losing our partners, or losing our sense of self? Or both?

Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter. 

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