Getting body image issues out of my head: Dating while fat
October 26, 2015 12:25 PM   Subscribe

So I am an intelligent, funny, kind, 30-year-old fat woman who generally has a healthy and pragmatic attitude about being fat. I felt constantly shitty about not being thin when I was younger, but whatever the wider world thinks, I know being fat doesn't mean I'm not pretty, or that I'm lazy, or whatever. But the negative self-talk, fueled by cultural narratives and negative experiences, rears it ugly head while dating sometimes. I want to get that voice out of my head.

So the most significant relationship of my life so far has been with a man I met when I was 19 and was with until I was 27. We made each other laugh, had a great intellectual connection, and loved each other, but he was not very attracted to me sexually and it ate away at me. As a 19-year-old who didn't know better than to ask such questions, I got him to admit that it bothered him that I was bigger than him, and never got it out of my head, but at that age I thought, "well, that's fair, anyone would prefer someone thinner." Followed by years of me saying I was disappointed about not having sex much, him saying he just had a low sex drive but never trying to do anything about it, him never complimenting me on my appearance, and me feeling fat and self-conscious next to him, and feeling embarrassed in public thinking that people must be thinking he could do better. (He is really handsome by anyone's standards, thin, and athletic.) I discovered fat acceptance when I was 21 and it really changed my thinking, but I stuck around with the cognitive dissonance of knowing better while still feeling like I couldn't leave someone I loved over this.

Then I left. Suddenly I was comfortable in my life, comfortable in my own home, not always having someone's lack of attraction to me hanging over my head, and I knew I would never do this to myself again. And I haven't. I know I'm not to everyone's taste (and, frankly, that I'm invisible as a dating option to many of my peers), but now I only date guys when we are both really attracted to each other, because it is so much better to be on my own then to not have that.

But I'm realizing the bullshit is still in my head. The last person I dated, it wasn't bullshit that made me feel unattractive, but it was still bullshit. He was significantly older than me, and I thought he was really hot too, but I felt like things were "even" because I am young and young=attractive, right? (Ugh.)

Now...well, the bullshit is at risk of affecting me in a negative way with a new guy. Very cute, my age, just a little taller than me, definitely weighs significantly less than me. Handsome in kind of the same way the above-discussed ex was, and it's brought back some of the same feelings. Thing is, it is SO CLEARLY not new guy's problem here. He wants be seen with me and to hold my hand in public and, frankly, it seems like he may be sexually aggressive and adventurous in a way that I like but haven't found much.

So how do I get this negative talk out of my head and let a good thing happen? Anyone with similar issues, how did you do it? I would hate to miss out on the good stuff just because "I feel fat next to him."

(Also, I know I'm talking all about how guys look with little of their personal qualities--I care about way more than physical attraction of course and am looking for a serious relationship, it's just that physical stuff is what this question is about.)
posted by Squalor Victoria to Human Relations (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

I don't know if this helps or not, but I'm average height/weight and I have a lot of negative voices in my head, too, and one time I said to my SO, "Man, look at all these women who are a lot larger than me, and who love their bodies and who have men drooling after them. How come I can't/don't/won't feel that way? What's their secret?" and he said: For every size woman, there's a man who loves her.

I say that to myself fairly often now.

In your shoes, I would keep telling myself to let him love you. Just keep telling yourself to believe him. Trusting him means believing he's telling you the truth. Trust him. He didn't start dating you to change you. He started dating you because he wanted to start dating you.
posted by janey47 at 12:32 PM on October 26, 2015 [14 favorites]

Have you had the talk with him? "Hey NewMan, I'm fine with my body and not looking to change it. Are you okay with me as I am? Because if not, then lets move to this to friends." If he's not attracted to you as you are, then that doesn't make him a bad person or make you unattractive to all partners. You two are just not a fit.

When there's a big issue bouncing in your head, then you need to surface that with a potential partner. You are allowed to be in the driver's seat and you don't need to wait for him to bring it up. There's lots of social training that women don't ask or lead in relationships. You can reject that and get your needs met.

Ask what he's thinking and respond accordingly.
posted by 26.2 at 12:37 PM on October 26, 2015

I agree with janey47. I'd add that without dwelling on it or fishing for it, I make mental note of the things like holding your hand in public, complementing on appearance, etc and use that to add fuel to your confidence. Over time this might help to extinguish the "bullshit in your head".
posted by jasminejakes at 12:42 PM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

A great book for how to deal with all that old self talk embedded in your brain is called Taming Your Gremlin. I t is lovely book - very gentle in its approach and, surprisingly, both simple and effective, using a mindfulness based approach to become more aware of your gremlin in action (whispering negative message about your body) and how to deal with it in a loving way when it happens.
posted by metahawk at 12:44 PM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: 26.2 asked: Have you had the talk with him? "Hey NewMan, I'm fine with my body and not looking to change it. Are you okay with me as I am? Because if not, then lets move to this to friends."

I totally agree with the "you can bring up a big issue yourself" point and am brave enough to do it nowadays, in general (and act on it when I need to).

To be honest, here, I am not insecure about his feelings and confident that the answer is "You're really cute and I really like you" (which he has said in words) and "I really want to have sex with you" (which he has said in, um, actions). If there was something in what he was doing suggesting otherwise that's one thing, but here I don't feel the need to ask.
posted by Squalor Victoria at 12:46 PM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I wouldn't talk to him about it unless it comes through in your interactions together (e.g. you find that you're inhibiting yourself physically when with him). My personal experience has been that explicitly asking for validation wrt something you're insecure about, when validation is already evident (by way of behaviour), or when the thing that bothers you isn't something that's even been noticed or framed as something to worry about, all of a sudden frames that thing as a possible flaw in the other person's eyes, when it wasn't seen that way before. Or, it'll highlight your own insecurity, which isn't much more helpful, really; better to start on a positive foot, all around. (I also think it's sort of better to handle insecurities of this nature on your own, for the most part, not really a partner's job (very often, anyway.)

janey47 has it.

I'd also say, try to work on seeing yourself as just as lovely as he finds you. Cut out media that favours ideals that don't represent your body type, and seek out media and style icons that do. Cultivate a personal style that accents your beauty. (Get some fancy underwear, etc.) When you see yourself in the mirror, focus on things you like, just skim past what you don't.

Your ex wasn't for you. Whatever he said to you about your body is limited to his perspective. He doesn't speak for anyone but himself.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:30 PM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

So how do I get this negative talk out of my head and let a good thing happen?

Easier said than done, of course, but reminding yourself that new guy knows of what he speaks will help you chip away at your self-doubt. It's always easier to be kinder to yourself through someone else's eyes. Kristin Chirico:
One of the things I've come to understand is that, when you're single, hating your body is more or less a victimless crime, if you don't count yourself. When you get into a relationship, however, it becomes a constant referendum on the tastes and judgment of the person who loves you.
posted by divined by radio at 1:36 PM on October 26, 2015 [20 favorites]

Can you do the CBT thing of catching the thoughts and reframing? Like, if you're out with him and notice yourself wondering if someone thinks he could do better, remind yourself that no, actually you're pretty great and he obviously is attracted to you because of (X)?

I sometimes do a little bit of that with myself, and it helps if (X) is a memory of some especially nice sexytimes or heartwarming display of attraction on his part, because that distracts me to much more fun thoughts. Because thinking about good sex beats beating ourselves up Every time.

I felt stupid looking in the mirror and mentally saying, "hi, pretty!" to myself for years, but reframing the mental monologues has helped a lot through the years.
posted by ldthomps at 2:06 PM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I started by changing how I reacted to people (esp. women) around me. I didn't think of myself as very snarky, but I used to catch myself thinking "Those pants look terrible on her", "Awful hair", "Too fat for that dress" etc like some sort of low-life version of the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame. So I forced myself to think a compliment in the direction of whoever my critical eye landed on. I'd go people watching and make myself find stuff to admire (or make up stories - "I bet she's kind to animals and volunteers at a shelter"). This sounds bonkers, but it really helped me embrace compassion towards myself.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 2:44 PM on October 26, 2015 [20 favorites]

My ex husband was verbally abusive to me during sex about my postpartum body. It has been years since I stopped having sex with him and divorced but the negative talk I let in my head since then, during sex with people who obviously found my mom bod very engaging, hasn’t stopped completely. It’s dwindled, but when it creeps up it’s such a drag, largely because my internal negative talk has now gone on longer than the original abuse. It’s depressing that it obviously has some hook other than him.

Anyway, what has helped me is completely reframing it as his poor, miserable problem that he was such an asshole. As soon as I start thinking that, especially if it’s actually during sex, I get completely turned off of thinking about him and his words at all. Mostly my internal alarm bells go off and I think, “Oh hell no. He does NOT get to be in bed with me anymore. This kind, smart, sexy, guy between my sexy legs and wrapped in my warm arms and kissing my mummy tummy is the ONLY person I want to be with right now.” And then, yeah, only date people who make you feel awesome as you are and who you think are awesome right back and who feel like peers—which runs counter to what society tells us is sexxxxy, I mean we really get off on power imbalances as a culture and it takes a lot of strength for women to keep that shit contained.

Good luck.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:04 PM on October 26, 2015 [13 favorites]

I don't know if you can really get those thoughts out of your head. It's not just about your ex; we all hear and see so much all the time about women needing to be thin in order to be attractive. It's in the media, but also think about the people you've known and how often they've mentioned it about themselves or someone else.

The thoughts may continue to attack, but you can react differently to them... with practice. I'm heavy, and over time have gotten more comfortable with that. I've learned to dress in clothes that I like, instead of following rules about what styles and patterns are supposed to make me look thinner. When I'm looking in a mirror, I consciously try to notice what I do like about my looks, and push the "too fat" thoughts out that way. After years of losing and regaining pounds, I used to constantly remind myself, "This is my size. It's not going to change." In a way, I "gave up" -- stopped pretending that I would ever get smaller and stay that way.

Be ready with an answer when that internal talk starts squawking. A sincere answer, not a rationalization. Now that I'm over 50, I tell myself, "In 10 years, I'm going to WISH I looked this good."
posted by wryly at 4:02 PM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I haven't mastered this, but I like to remember comments I've read about how beautiful and attractive other plus-size women are. Loads of people have crushes on Adele. Somehow I can't believe it about me, but knowing it about other women reminds me that I should.
posted by theredpen at 4:07 PM on October 26, 2015

Also what Gin and Broadband said -- I think this is a big improvement in mental health.
posted by theredpen at 4:09 PM on October 26, 2015

Over and over, I realize that this shit doesn't matter.

(Caveat: I'm not fat, though I am at the upper edge of a "healthy" BMI and, let's face it, ALL WOMEN beat ourselves up about this shit.)

I have had body image issues ever since I can remember. Back to being 6 or 7 and noticing that I had darker/olive-toned skin when all the princesses in the cartoons had pale skin, or that Cinderella had tiny feet and dainty ankles and I had big feet and chunky ankles, or that basically every female character presented in anything had long luxurious hair (preferably blonde!) while I had short brown hair.

A couple years ago, I saw a picture of myself the summer after I graduated from college. I was 23. I wore a size 4. I looked SMOKING HOT. And yet I remembered that when that picture was taken, I thought I was ugly and fat and hated my hair and had a laundry list of clothes I couldn't wear for Reasons, and I was worried that I wasn't pretty enough to get a boyfriend.

This was kind of a "click" moment for my body image bullshit. Because if I hated the way I looked when I looked gorgeous back in the day in the window our society agrees that women are allowed to be considered gorgeous, then there was a strong chance that I was still pointlessly hating a beautiful body. What's the point? When does it end? If gorgeous twenty-somethings are expected to think we're failures because we're not hot enough, is there any such thing as "hot enough" to begin with?

Right now I'm dating an amazing dude who does not give a single fuck about what I look like. I mean, he tells me I'm pretty, and he's obviously attracted to me, but he wouldn't care if I got $10 haircuts in a strip mall, wore a baggy t-shirt and yoga pants every day, gained a million pounds, whatever. So I just decided to trust him. I'm gorgeous. I'm getting off the body image insanity carousel, and I'm staying off it no matter what (I hope).
posted by Sara C. at 4:19 PM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

William Shatner came to my home city some years ago for a convention. I was lucky enough to get a photo, and be present for the Q&A held afterwards. He said something that resonated with me, and I have never really forgotten it.

People asked him what his favourite Star Trek episode was, and he said he didn't really know, or remember, because he hadn't really ever watched the show. He never watched the show because he hated to watch himself on screen at the time. He hated seeing himself, because all he saw was his flaws.

Of course, he said, now that he was pushing 80 and his body wasn't what it used to, he'd watch some of his old stuff and think, (I'm paraphrasing from memory) 'geez, what a a beautiful man you were. Why couldn't I see that back then?' I believe he said something along the lines of that we're all kind of like this, and we get stuck on our own flaws, and we waste time hating our own bodies most of our lives, until our bodies kind of give out. Something like that.

I remember it struck a chord with me, because it was true. I now look back at childhood photos I loathed at the time and couldn't look at, and didn't want to pose for and think, 'oh, I was so cute,' or days I felt chubby where I look perfectly happy and healthy.

I KNOW that when I'm 80, I will look back to today and think, I was freaking adorable and very attractive. My body was so awesome and it did awesome things. It worked good. It let me do the things I wanted to do. It was healthy. Sure, it was chubby. It was a great body despite that. Hey, maybe it was great because of that too. I will look back and wonder how I could ever hate my looks or this body.

All these things are true today, so, I try to remind myself of them a lot. Easier said than done, but it's a process.

So yeah. I am a little older than you and I am/was in your situation, and probably the best advice to mentally redirect is therapy, probably CBT. I feel like fatness is SO reviled and thinness so revered that it's ingrained in the best of us and the thoughts crop up like a bad smell when you don't expect it. At least it is in me, and despite the progress I have made, I slide back occasionally. I think most people do. It's a tough thing. It's so ingrained, that I find myself judging other people's size sometimes, too. All you can do is redirect the thoughts kindly over and over. Sometimes, I feel like Sisyphus, though. I won't lie.

My body issues stem from my childhood but my first real relationship was with a guy who loved my body and showed me, yet I was at my biggest and unhealthiest and I felt awful. I learned pretty quick that self esteem isn't found in the arms of a partner. After this fell apart, I worked on being healthy, and I lost a lot of weight. But more than that, I started to love myself a bit again, despite not being society thin, or model thin.

So yeah, self-esteem can't be found in someone else. But lack of praise or desire from someone you love and crave approval from can really, truly devastate you and wreak havoc on your psyche. There was a guy I liked a lot. I, like you, connected to him intellectually. We had a ton of fun together and we 'clicked' in that way. Part of me really loved him. We came close to trying a relationship a few times, but at the back of my mind I had this doubt about myself. He came from a 'bro' culture and I knew that prior to me, he'd made fun of women like me. I felt like deep down, I wasn't what he wanted, and a lot of that was physical. I felt like he was looking elsewhere on a subconscious level. Even though it wasn't really his fault at all, it made me paranoid, and it made me hate myself. When he picked up on my insecurity, it was like a weird catch 22 where he found it super off putting and wanted me to snap out of it, yet would engage in comments or behaviors that would compound my fears and make things worse. I feel your pain, because liking someone that isn't attracted to your body that much (even if they like it somewhat) is super damaging, and they don't necessarily have to SAY anything for you to feel it from them. I remember I'd see younger, fitter women, and I'd wonder if he wanted to be with someone like that over someone like me, constantly. I remember thinking with dismay that I could never be that, and I'd never have the physical traits that drove him crazy, and that there was something wrong with me. I remember trying to wish myself different --even after he picked someone else, someone more 'suited' to him. It was awful, and I can't imagine being in that situation for almost ten years. It was almost like a learned helplessness for me at one point-- by the end, he'd kind of convinced me that that's just how men really were. It was very damaging.

When I was out of that, I was pretty low. I wasn't sure how to pull myself out of that rut, so I did CBT and I took a 'fake it til you make it,' approach to confidence. Or rather a 'fuck it, I'm great,' even if I didn't 100% believe it all the time. It helped a lot. It was like night and day. Suddenly I felt a lot better about myself. Suddenly I didn't worry about every single flaw. At least for me, acting confident made me feel confident, and because of it I got a LOT interest from guys--some who praised me on a purely physical level. And I wasn't dressing different or being sexual, it was purely an attitude change. This kind of attention had never happened to me before, and I was kind of floored by it all. Some of them were younger, conventionally attractive guys. I also don't say this because I am superficial, but more because I had thought that wasn't possible for me-- that attention like that wasn't going to happen for a woman like me because guys like that don't like 'fat' women. I realized a lot of the attention was thanks to my newfound confidence, but also -- despite what that relationship made me think-- that essentially what janey's SO said is correct: No matter what you look like, there's a person out there that is going to want what you're putting out there. And some of them will want it real bad.

Soon after I entered a relationship with one of the men who thought I was super awesomesauce. A year and a bit later and we're engaged now. While insecurity crops up occasionally I don't feel 'wrong' any more or like my partner is looking over the horizon for someone 'better'. My fiance weighs about the same as me, but being muscular, he holds it in different areas and he looks pretty fit. I look chubby. I mean, even at my thinnest I was kind of chubby, but now I'm a little bigger than when we first got together. My fiance is attractive. I sometimes feel insecure and 'fat' next to him. Sometimes, I feel like people are judging us, or wondering what he's doing with me. Sometimes, it's women who are interested in him, and often they are conventionally more attractive than me. Sometimes, it's probably just in my own mind. When this happens, I kind of smile and think about how awesome our relationship is and our love is. Sometimes, I'll engage in some PDA, and go to hold his hand to remind myself he loves me. Most of the time he hasn't even really noticed the other women, anyway. Occasionally he'll ask me what's up when I get quiet, and I'll actually mention I'm just having an insecure moment, and let him reassure me. Important thing here: Unlike the other guy, my vulnerability and insecurity is not scary to him, it is not a turn off, it is not something that I need to necessarily 'get over' or hide or pretend is not there or not mention like a good little girl. So many times women are shamed for just fucking having feelings and emotions and daring to show them, for not being perfect. While I do work on my issues on my own and don't want to use him as a crutch to prop up my self esteem, it's so important that he is not afraid of my vulnerability or the emotional side of me and does not feel like they need to not be there. He realizes that women and body image is a real problem in today's society that runs deep for me. This unconditional support helps a lot, and funnily enough, knowing I can "cry if I want to," around him actually makes me tend to cry a lot less. It works both ways-- conversely, I am not afraid of the times he shows his vulnerability, too, and I don't think less of him for it.

So, I try to re-write that internal narrative that wants to think my body is 'wrong' or not praise worthy, because that's total bullshit. Part of that is not really caring what people think of you, too-- part of that is the whole 'fake it til you make it,' thing. It may feel ridiculous to have a shitty feeling about yourself, and force yourself to push your shoulders back and walk tall with confidence and smile at people and such, but it does help me, at least.

And lastly, (sorry for length) but when I have thoughts about it, I often just redirect the thoughts without shaming myself or beating myself up about having them. Sometimes I see fat acceptance fashion blogs or articles and I feel bad that I'm not at that point, too. That I can't wear the things they wear and feel comfortable like they do. And you know what? That's ok. The thing is, it's OK to feel insecure sometimes about myself. I don't need to achieve perfect zen with my body and the world and get to a point where I love myself 100% of the time. This may not even be possible anyway, and that's OK. Like my body, I'm not perfect. All I need to do is get to a point where it's not taking over my thoughts and my life any more, and just deflect those negative thoughts when they crop up. All I need to do is feel good more than bad, and try my best to re-write that internal narrative, one day at a time.

I'm worthy of someone awesome like my fiance, and he's worthy of me because I am awesome, and my body is pretty awesome too. You're awesome, and you are worthy of someone awesome who can see that, too.

Good luck.
posted by Dimes at 4:20 PM on October 26, 2015 [20 favorites]

Confidence. Live in it. Slurp it. Refill your existential mug until its over-brimming with confidence. Really, count your blessings and work on providing countless good moments for others (especially when you stand to benefit nothing).

I think a prominent part of dating is realizing that while past dating experiences have you as the common factor, the people you date and their vary in behavior. I find this incredibly liberating in that I get to see that other person's perception of myself and thereby see their values. I also get a chance to change my own perspective and behavior for the better as I put it into practice over time.

If you feel that your SO is happy, don't doubt it. If you have a concern for yourself or them, talk about it.

Sometimes my thoughts and concerns are validly panicked. Sometimes I've exaggerated the situation at hand. Sometimes the SO may be outlandish and just plain silly (aka not an issue).

In any case, talking with the SO can lead to some good solutions. If that doesn't feel like enough (sometimes it isn't), an awesome therapist could really listen and give you great feedback. Honest feedback is awesome.

FWIW, you sound cool. Best of luck!
posted by Giggilituffin at 8:24 PM on October 26, 2015

I don't have these exact issues but for generic negative self talk stuff, I came up with this concept of "the little scientist." Basically what I realized is I spend all this time engaging in positive self talk, improvement, social connection, exercise, etc great mood lifters, and then this part of my brain called "the little scientist" runs in all, "ok that's all well and good but I've been to the lab and here's all the data about what's wrong with your life and why everything sucks."

The little scientist sounds like she has all the data, the real facts, societal expectations and what everyone is probably Really Thinking and what not, but it made me think- what makes her right all the time? Why are her negative "facts" necessarily more real than any string of more positive conclusions about my life I could cobble together?
My point is I think we're conditioned to see more negative outlooks as more practical and "real" and so we give that stuff more weight, but it's all just a story we tell ourselves.

Now when I hear the self talk I just picture the little scientist with her lab coat and papers trying to get my attention, and I'll give her a few minutes but I'm the CEO here so should probably go...
posted by zutalors! at 8:47 PM on October 26, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm not "fat" but I'm also definitely not conventionally beautiful - and the taunting that I endured as a kid and teenager still somtimes hurts my heart, even though I'm in a great relationship with the love of my life who DOES find me beautiful.

Here's what I tell myself (and I like this approach because it's entirely independent of what I imagine anyone else thinks of the way I look): when I am 90, and my body has gone to pieces, and I'm wrinkly and have nose-boogers that I can't see because my eyes are failing, and hair growing off my chin, and I have saggy colorless flesh and cloudy eyes... well I'm going to look back at my 35 year old face and body and think, "oh my god, why did I think I was so ugly for so long?"

When you look in the mirror - pretend you're looking from the future and see yourself the way you are now: young, vibrant, healthy, happy, bright, independent, strong... all of those things. Those things ARE TRUE NOW.

you are beautiful.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 10:26 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

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