“Help! My boyfriend says I’m overweight and it’s giving me body image issues”

Dear Sarah,

So, I am in love, one half of a happy couple saving to buy a house together (mostly with his money)—but something is getting me down and I just can’t shake it. The problem is my body. I’m only a size 10/12 (US equivalent 6/8), but I have my wobbly bits, especially after recently graduating from university. I’ve never been skinny, but I wouldn’t say I’m gaining weight and I don’t really have body image issues. I understand women have different shapes and sizes, and I am proud of who I am, but my boyfriend isn’t. He wants me to lose weight and be the trophy girlfriend he can show off. He threatens to dump me if I do put on weight and constantly reminds me he doesn’t want a “fat girlfriend.” When I tell him tell him I am happy with my size, he says he isn’t and, “don’t I want him to be attracted to me?” I know the obvious answer would be…”Pfft get rid of him and find someone who loves you the way you are,” but I do love him and I am happy with him—I just want him not to care so much about my body. Talking to him about it doesn’t seem to change his mind. Am I being selfish—should I really just put the effort in to lose two dress sizes? Would it make me happier, as well?

—Food vs. Love in Cambridgeshire, UK

Dear Food vs. Love,

Seems to me the problem is not your body, it’s your boyfriend. On the one hand, you say you have a positive body image and are satisfied with the way you look, on the other, you think you would be happier if you dropped a couple of dress sizes down to a US size 2 (how he wants you to look). I think his badgering and criticism is messing with your confidence and self-perception and you are mixing up a few different concepts: happiness, weight, fitness, and health.

The other day I received a letter from a young woman in the Philippines with a similar story about her boyfriend of five years, so this response is for both of you—and for all the others out there who’s partners are acting in ways that undermine their sense of self worth. She described how she comes from a family of “kick-ass cooks” who love to eat and celebrate around the table, while his family just eats for sustenance. He compares her to his “petite” sister and tells her point blank that she should exercise more and has “grown fat.” She says she swims and does yoga and that, “My body has never been an issue for me. Until I met him.” She concludes, “He said that I shouldn’t be offended because he just wants to make me look better. I don’t want to look better. I want to FEEL better. I want to love myself again. How do I make him stop making me hate myself? Please help!”

Some readers might say that you both should ditch these guys pronto, but, as you wrote, its not as simple as that because you are still in love with many aspects of your BF’s. However, this isn’t just a little problem—disordered eating stemming from body image and self-esteem issues can truly be a matter of life and death.

Let’s untangle the issues:

1. Losing Weight Does Not Equal Being Happy

If you magically dropped 10 or 15 pounds tomorrow, I suspect your happiness would be short lived. If you are now at a normal weight range for your height and body type, in order to be skinnier, you would be living a life of deprivation and also constantly worried that if you gained an ounce your BF would reject you.

True happiness and self-esteem are built through positive deeds and relationships. If wellbeing was the same as conventional, youthful beauty then everyone over 40 would be miserable. In fact, I’m happier than I was when I was in my 20s, in part because I’m not as caught up in how I look.

2. Fitness isn’t About Having a “Hot Beach Body” and Does Not Equal Weight.

There are heavier people who are fit and skinnier people who are out of shape. Check out these photos of olympic athletes to see a gorgeous rainbow of different body types and also how physical form is related to strength and function.

P.S. In real life, not even Victoria’s Secret models look like Victoria’s Secret models in a bathing suit (umm…hello, Photoshop) and I’m sure your body with all its unique, un-airbrushed lines and curves is absolutely beautiful.

3. Nor is Being Healthy the Same as Super Skinny

Being physically active is important for health and longevity, but if you work out to look a certain way, it becomes a tedious chore. The same goes for eating nourishing, delicious meals versus a restrictive diet. If you are a couch potato who lives on junk food, sure, eat better and get out there and find some kind of exercise that you enjoy—walking, tennis, Pilates, roller disco, whatever. Doctors recommend that everyone do some cardio, stretching and weight bearing activity on a regular basis, but you don’t have to be a triathlete on zero carbs to achieve a healthy balance.

4. No One Has a Right to Say You Should Change Your Appearance

That goes for advertisers, the media, your parents, your boyfriend—nobody. If you are at risk for developing diabetes, heart disease or another obesity related chronic illness, it’s legitimate for your doctor to discuss adopting a healthier lifestyle, but that’s not about looking a certain way to please someone.

I don’t know why your boyfriend feels its OK to body shame you, but it needs to stop. Given the narrow standard of beauty that most of us (including men, increasingly) have been hurt by at some point in our lives, its hard enough too feel good in our own skins—even with a partner who is wonderfully complimentary and supportive. So, I seriously encourage you tell your boyfriend that enough is enough and you aren’t a “trophy” —you are a human being who is perfectly cool with the way she looks. Perhaps have him read this letter, or parts of it, if that’s helpful, but most importantly, let him know that his criticism is offensive, painful and threatening to your relationship and your self-worth. Tell him that needs to sort out why he’s trying to undermine your confidence. Make this his problem, not yours.

You’re great just the way you are, really.

Love, Sarah

Have an issue that could use a mom’s-eye-view? Our advice column features a real live mother of three who is ready to discuss any of your burning questions judgment—and baggage—free. Email [email protected] with the subject line “Dear Mom.” Please include your first name or nickname and where you are from. Questions may be edited for clarity and length.

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