How you can help your partner overcome body shame and insecurity.
For two months now the sweet cha-ching of cash registers has filled the air of gyms across the country. And with “swimsuit season” around the corner we choose to believe with all of our hearts in the miracles offered by juice diets and exercise videos. We may not think much about it, how that affects men and women can be two dramatically different things.
For men, bulking up and chiseling their man curves appears to be a matter of personal vanity. Men are expected to get out of the shower and smile as they gaze in the mirror. Mad props on your confidence if that’s you, but it’s just not the same for women.
Most women emerge from the shower with towels already on, covering every inch of our bodies with all the modesty appropriate under sharia law. We have so much shame attached to body image that the sad truth is, many of us would rather get dressed in the dark than confront—much less embrace—our own lumps, stretch marks, and cellulite.
Guys, in my experience it’s hard to be female. It’s more than just hormonal fluctuations and having to shave far too many parts far too many times a week. Men are considered rugged and attractive when they look a little scruffy, or when their crow’s feet begin to appear. But images of women—even the most naturally gorgeous and youngest of us—are photoshopped to create the illusion that Barbie-sized hips, boobs, and waistlines are not only possible, but that they are what we are supposed to aim for.
Women are subjected to so many ideas about what is beautiful and what is not, and the cruel truth is that no matter how wonderful we women are, we are constantly told that there is someone smarter, younger, skinnier, or more desirable than we are. That’s because the messages we hear and see, and the standards we learn to hold each other to are simply not real.
The scramble for a spot on the elliptical or for a seat in spin class at the beginning of the New Year or at the first hint of warmer weather has so much more significance for many women. To us, looking better than we do means maybe we’ll be more worthy—of acceptance, of praise, and of love. When we fail (and many of us inevitably do) you can almost hear the sound of shattered dreams and broken self-esteem.
For men who look at the woman in their life and see a beautiful, sexy lover and who just don’t get the patterns of insecurity that are so deeply ingrained in many of us, here are some thoughts about how you can be a supportive partner in helping her let go of the insecurity and learning to see herself the way you do.
The secret to helping the woman in your life to be happy in her own skin is helping her to learn to love herself—messy, imperfect parts and all. While change can only happen from the inside out, it really can be a team effort.
Here are some tips to help you (and us) along the way:
- Compliment us often. Not just on our looks, but on other things that you love about us. This may be a no-brainer on the surface, but there’s more: Take notice of things that not everyone may notice. Maybe it’s the way we bite our lip when we’re thinking. Maybe it’s the way we chat it up with strangers at the grocery store. Reinforce the fact that each of us is beautifully unique, and that you truly see us as we are.
- Mean what you say. Women are intuitive creatures, and we can smell a line of bullshit a mile away. While compliments are important, they only count when you’re being truthful and honest.
- Don’t be a critic. While it’s perfectly fine to talk about things that need improvement, how you frame those things can mean the difference between coming across as loving and caring, and coming across as a completely insensitive jerk. And still, a good rule of thumb is to never criticize our bodies. We are already our worst critics. We know every flaw we have, and we don’t need to hear that you think we’re flawed, too. And never, ever try to disguise an insult as honesty.
- Recognize that, when we get ugly, it’s often more about us than it is about you. It’s no secret that sometimes we have bad days. When we become critical of others, it usually has more to do with how we’re feeling about ourselves than about how we feel about other people. Try to see through the façade and recognize the root of the issue. Are we feeling unlovable? Do we feel insecure? Are we worried others are going to judge us? It’s not always about you, and we’ll love you all the more if you can remind us how beautiful we are, inside and out, in spite of ourselves.
- Love our scars. No one gets through life without experiencing some pain. We have all made choices, some which have led to more positive outcomes than others, that have made us who we are today. If you can love us unconditionally, scars and all, you can shine the light for us to begin to fully embrace ourselves.
- Be tough, but not rigid. Be strong enough to stand up to us when necessary, but soft enough to be our safe place to land when our own shit hits the fan. Also, be tender enough to trust us with your own pain and disappointment. Allowing us into your deepest chasms builds intimacy and trust for both people.
- Come from a place of love and compassion. Many women are naturally nurturing, but it’s hard for us to remember to treat ourselves with the same level of kindness that we treat others with. Show us that you cherish us, and remind us that we are lovable, just as we are.
It may sound like a tall order to be there for the woman in your life, but I promise that, if you do, you’ll be rewarded with respect, honesty, and the woman in your life’s uncanny ability to love you through it all, too. Your relationship will be better, your lives will be happier, and you’ll be the hero of your own story.
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