Frequently, I get messages from people — usually cis men who are dating cis women, but not always — asking me what the hell they’re supposed to do when their partner talks negatively about their own body.
“She’s unhappily gained weight since we’ve been together, and I know saying ‘I still think you’re beautiful’ confirms the idea that fat is bad,” they say.
“My boyfriend is shy about not being bigger muscularly, but how can I reassure him that that’s exactly my type without confirming his insecurities?” they say.
“I don’t know how to respond when they talk about needing to go on a diet,” they say.
And I get it.
So while I certainly can’t speak for your partner and their needs, what I can do is give you some ideas that you can mix and match depending on your situation. So let’s start there.
1. Ask Them
Like I said: I can’t speak for them. And unless I’m your partner (and babe, if you’re reading this, hi!), I have no idea what will feel best for them.
And it doesn’t have to be an awkward conversation like "Hey sweetie! How do you want me to talk about your body when you hate it?"
It can be as simple as taking some time — when your partner is in a good space, by the way, and not hyperfocused on body negativity — to say, “I want to check in about how you’d like me to respond when you’re struggling with your body image. What would be helpful to say? And what would be harmful? I care about you, and I want to support you; I just need a little help.”
Communication goes a long, long way.
2. Validate Their Experience
When your partner is unhappy or feeling down, they’re unhappy and feeling down. And no amount of “No you’re not!” or “You’re beautiful!” is going to make that go away.
And affirming their feelings and validating their experiences is really important.
The thing about body image is that it’s a psychological relationship to one’s understanding of one’s body. It’s not really about what’s “real” and what’s not; it’s wrapped up in perspective and emotion.
Rushing to suggest that they change their mind — “No, babe, I love your body!” — doesn’t acknowledge that they’re in a difficult emotional place.
Try “I understand where you’re coming from, and [reality]” or “I hear what you’re saying, and [reality]” instead. That way, you allow space for their feelings, while also reminding them of what’s objectively true.
The evocation of reality can be anything from “fat isn’t a bad thing, but you also just so happen not to be fat” to “your body isn’t all that you are.”
Just remember to use “and” and not “but” — because that implies that there are two truths that are connected, rather than implying that your partner’s experience is false and that your assertion is correct.
3. Focus Attention Away From Their Body
Living in our society — and especially when we’re women — we’re forced not only to constantly define ourselves based on our physical appearance, but to prioritize that over our other dimensions.
And that’s actually the root of all of our body image problems.
So try to focus attention away from your partner’s body entirely. Because when you zero in on their body — even if you’re telling them how amazing it is — you might exacerbate the problem, leading them to stay focused on exactly what’s stressing them out.
So, why is your partner awesome outside of their body? Are they smart, funny, thoughtful? Give some lip service to those attributes, and that might help your partner stop fixating on their body so much.
4. Compliment Parts of Their Body That You Know They Don’t Like
OK. I know this one completely contradicts the last suggestion, but different things are going to work for different people — or sometimes a little bit of both can help someone shift their perspective on their body. So give them a heads up that what they see as insecurities, you see as sexy as hell.
For example, pretty much the only part of my body that I don't like is my stomach. Everything else, I more or less always like or am comfortable with. But my midsection? Blah. I usually struggle with it.
And I don't think I've ever had a partner say, "I like your stomach. It's cute.” And, I mean, in reality, what does a “cute” stomach even look like? So I don’t blame them for not thinking about my stomach when they can think about my ass or thighs (both of which are awesome, PS). But when no one ever compliments the one thing that I hate, that kind of confirms in my head that it sucks.
And is that unfair? Sure. But negative body image isn’t exactly known for being a rational beast.
So just letting your partner know that you like the things about them that they don't can be a little boost.
5. Remind Them of Exactly Why You Love Their Body
Admit it: As attractive as your partner’s body might be to you, it isn’t necessarily any quote-unquote “better” or “worse” than any of your other partners’. Because the biggest reason why you love your partner’s — and why you’ve loved your former partners’ bodies — is that it belongs to them.
And I think one of the nicest things someone can say about their partner’s body is just that: "I love your body because it's yours, and I love you."
Those words can go a long way in reminding us that the idea of “beauty” is entirely subjective, and that a few pounds’ difference either way or stretch marks or small breasts or whatever-the-fuck mean nothing in the long run.
Because I can already tell that you’re a good partner. The fact that you’re asking about this and reading this article proves that. So remind your partner that they’re a good partner, too — exactly what you need and want and love, body and all.