How can I stop body image issues getting in the way with a new partner?
November 30, 2015 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Please help me to get over my body image issues when it comes to sex with someone new.

I feel deeply embarrassed to be asking this question. I'm almost 30 years old, and despite a history of eating disorders, low self-esteem, etc, I've been 'recovered' for many years now, eat well, exercise, am not overweight, and when clothed, feel pretty good about myself. I also see a therapist, so I'd prefer answers that contain personal wisdom, or things that have worked for you personally to get over body image issues.

I can't shake this thought process that, even if I meet a man and he really likes me for who I am, the minute I take my clothes off he's going to be disappointed.

Basically, I conflate love and looks. I think that even if in the beginning he's 'blinded' by love for me, over time, he'll start to silently judge my imperfect body.

I know that some might say this would indicate a shallow partner. I also sometimes go along not worrying about these things, with the knowledge that no one is perfect, and why should I hold my body up for a man's judgement, who isn't going to be perfect himself. I know also that when I've been in love with a man, I've thought him physically perfect, have never privately wished his body were different.

So this isn't a rational thing. It's also compounded by ideas I developed in high school, where to be pretty for a boy was second to nothing, and that only pretty girls got or deserved love. That makes me sound immature, but I'm sure that's where these ideas must have started. And this is certainly a narrative or idea perpetuated in our culture.

My last boyfriend also made a few remarks about my body that have haunted me a bit - that I was 'weirdly' shaped. Of course I clung onto this over the other positive remarks he made about my body, and again, rationally, I know it was an inconsiderate thing to say, and that one could argue everyone has a 'weird' body.

So, can anyone give advice on how to get over this? I know it would make sex SO much more enjoyable if I were able to let go totally and not worry about an assessment being made on my body. It would also free up a lot of thought time, not ruminating and stressing about this.
posted by NatalieWood to Human Relations (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

Almost everyone deals with this! You are not alone. I find that comforting, for one, remember that you are dealing with something very human and that everyday you are bombarded by messages that say you are not good enough and it's really hard to get over that. This is not a you problem at all, this is a society problem.

Have you explored the body acceptance movement at all, including fat acceptance? The latter might seem to have nothing to do with you, but it's an amazing feeling to let go of any disgust you feel about fat people or unconventionally attractive people. Once you expose yourself, repeatedly, to people who society deems unattractive and retrain your eye into realizing that bodies of all shapes, sizes, and shades are beautiful you will start to look at yourself with a kinder eye.

It really is about training yourself to let go of all those messages you're receiving from advertisements, television, shopping sites, packaging, social media, even just being out in the world (where you can see attractive people being treated better than unattractive people), and old boyfriends who made ambiguous comments about your body. (For the record, fuck that fucking guy for saying that you had a 'weird' shape! You're human-shaped, we're all human-shaped, there IS no weird and he's an asshole for taking out his poor self esteem on you.) By 'training' I mean that you should look at as many images of non-Photoshopped, everyday people as possible, people you don't see in the media.

Selfies also help. It's not selfish, it's not vain, it's vital to take control of your image. Take as many flattering selfies of yourself as you can, start by taking them when you feel fabulous and from any angle you want. Work up to taking them when you don't feel fabulous and take them from 'unflattering' angles and train your eye to see your body as a beloved, good friend. There is great advice in this fantastic book, Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls (again, I get that you're not fat, but this book goes way, way beyond just fat acceptance) that you should stop looking for someone else when you look in the mirror. Stop expecting a supermodel who doesn't exist—there's only a tiny percentage of the population who look like supermodels, and even then they're airbrushed all to hell—and become familiar with what you really look like.

The more you can love your body, the more you'll take care of it and the better you'll look. You're already taking good care of yourself now, but it sounds like that could be tenuous. Eating disorders are so tenacious and embracing body acceptance is a really good tool in your recovery tool kit. Body acceptance is not at all about "letting yourself go", and fat acceptance isn't about that either. Their goal is to let you decide for yourself what gives you joy, makes you feel beautiful and makes you love yourself (because you take better care of things that you love), and in so many cases, that's something that's hard to get to the bottom of because of all the negative, shaming messages every single one of us gets every day.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 8:10 PM on November 30, 2015 [10 favorites]

Try a little bit of weed if you're into it. Works wonders.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:57 PM on November 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

I find that it helps me to just be like 'who cares?' Rationally I know I'm attractive enough, even if I don't feel that way. If I'm naked in front of someone, I'm already naked, so I just try to tell myself 'who cares, have fun'. If they have problems with your body then that's their problem. I always feel self-conscious, even with a seasoned partner, and I accept that I feel that way but don't let it get to me. Like, 'yes I feel bloated and my legs are a little stubbly and when did I get cellulite there' but then I take that thought, say 'who cares' and put that thought aside for long enough to enjoy myself. You don't have to convince yourself that you are perfect, because that's a losing game. Just try to convince yourself to enjoy the moment. The best part of sex for me is losing myself for a minute--remembering that my body is just nerves and pleasure zones and a vessel for feeling good with someone else.

Of course, there's still the 20-40% of the time where I can't get out of my head enough to be purely unselfconscious in the moment but fuck it, who cares :)
posted by greta simone at 9:18 PM on November 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Right now I'm on a medical break from exercise, but a thing that helped me was, in my workouts, focusing on what my body was doing vs. looking like. Attending to performance goals reached (like time, or weight lifted), and to the pleasurable feeling of exertion, of my muscles working, cardio buzz, etc. That helped me feel more anchored in my own experience, and it did carry over to how I felt in other situations. I liked walking around feeling strong - it helped me feel very much more in my body than before. Thinking about what my parts could do - not even by looking at my leg, by flexing it and doing a little jump - helped me selectively ignore bits that tempted negative focus and kept my head in the feeling of movement and strength. (I know you're exercising now, wondering if maybe this is a shift in attention that could help.)

With sex, same thing - focus on the sensations you're feeling and on the connection with your partner. (I think a little weed could help take the edge off, for sure!)

People get used to each others' bodies, and particular feelings about particular parts are coloured by that. I'm not going to say I didn't notice the pot belly on one of my exes, I did, but I thought it was cute because it was his. Despite all the crap men (also) get about women's bodies, I think many are the same, when there's love or something like it. Your ex was a bit of a jerk, right, but trust the new guy, he's not the same person, and this isn't the same relationship. Hard, yes - it's a leap of faith. (Close your eyes while you're leaping, if you have to, and focus again on what you're feeling.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:18 PM on November 30, 2015 [8 favorites]

Search for blogs that feature and celebrate people who look like you. Get Feedly or some other RSS app, and put them on your phone and scroll through them every day while you're on the can or whatever. Seeing beautiful people with your body shape, size, colour, age, whatever (or maybe the size you were at a different point in your life, whatever works for you)- is really validating.

Fuck Yeah Chubby Girls,
Fuck Yeah Fat Girls,
Fuck Yeah Fat Chicks Skinny Guys,
Girl With Curves,
Fatshionista on Flickr,
Black Girls R Pretty 2,
The Mindy Project Style,
these blogs for tall and plus-sized women,
Already Pretty and her contributors,
and there are many more if you do a quick google and/or follow Tumblr links.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:41 PM on November 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Personally -- and this may be a little weird -- I've found it helpful to have partners I can discuss it with who don't immediately jump to tell me that I MUST MUST MUST accept my body as perfect and flawless. Partners who are ok with me being disappointed in myself, and patiently reassure me that they like my body but also understand that I might not, don't indirectly imply that I'm a meta-failure of a human for having a brain that works that way.

I find it exhausting, anyway, to have to put up a self-love facade when I'm not feeling it, or argue for my right to be a little sad about how I look. Acceptance works best when it's at multiple levels: acceptance of facts, and acceptance of reactions-to-facts, and acceptance of reactions-to-reactions, and so forth.
posted by ead at 10:38 PM on November 30, 2015 [9 favorites]

A partner that actively makes you feel desired in the moment can go a huge way toward helping with this... especially if how they "show" they desire you happens to click with how you need to feel desired.

Not sure I'm explaining it very well... for some it's the words they say, or the way they move or touch you, or the sounds they make, etc. But remember, in the moment, that's one heck of a lot of power that YOU have, that YOU and YOUR BODY, exactly as it is, is making them feel that way...
posted by stormyteal at 12:31 AM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been with a lot of women, as it were, and I've never once been disappointed when clothes came off. Not once.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:32 AM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

I totally get the self consciousness and I agree with other posters that have said to focus on your body's abilities. Right now I'm living somewhere that has no mirrors, and my god have I felt awesome and free. It has really helped me focus so much more on what my body can actually do rather than what it looks like. Last month they didn't turn the heat on until super late and it was so cold. I became endlessly grateful for any extra fat I had and for all of the functions my body was trying out just to keep me warm and alive. You can do the same for sex - be endlessly grateful for all the awesome sensations and feelings your body's giving you.
posted by thebots at 12:53 AM on December 1, 2015

Seek out a Rainbow Gathering or other clothes-optional festival, and spend a week relaxing in the company of a bunch of completely normally oddly-shaped other naked people. Take your man with you if at all possible.

This will achieve a few things.

First, the fact that you're in the company of a bunch of friendly and genuine people for whom getting naked is a means to be comfortable rather than a precursor to sex will drive a wedge between anxiety about being seen naked and anxiety about being sexually attractive, allowing you the opportunity to work on these things separately rather than having them gang up on you.

Second, spending time in an environment where most of the flesh you're seeing is right there and real rather than mediated through Photoshopped imagery will undoubtedly teach you that each of your own bodily weirdnesses falls somewhere on a spectrum, that everybody gets a package deal of these, and really bring home to you the fact that there is no such thing as a Platonically ideal human body.
posted by flabdablet at 1:17 AM on December 1, 2015

I used to have the same issue as you - lots of anxiety when it came to men and it especially ramped up if they were smaller in size than me. I'm by no stretch a large woman, but I'm tall and athletic and for whatever reason ever "6'2"" Guy I dated was the same size as me (because I later realized it's because they all lied about their height, or had some sort of Napoleon complex, but that's neither here nor there).

What helped me was to focus on how great I felt from exercising and being healthy and telling myself that I was doing a good job with keeping myself healthy. That, and being confinent even when I wasn't feeling confident drastically helped. People kind of learn how to act around you by your social cues, so if you outwardly face confidence, then it will be ok. Finally, where I had identified this soft spot of my self esteem, I guarded it fiercely...rather than allowing my self esteem about my body take any hits I was proactive in only letting those in who I felt comfortable around, who I knew would not cross the line and leave me in an anxious heap about WHAT DID HE THINK.

FWIW, I ended up marrying my now husband who is a very tall guy and used to be obese, but happened to be in the process of losing a significant amount of weight when we started spending more time together, and is no longer even close to that weight category. However, one of the first few tines we were intimate it kind of struck me how he was feeling ridiculously self conscious about HIS weight. I really picked up on I and all I could do was be loving and supportive and caring because in my eyes he was perfect and I didn't see any of those things that he saw. I wanted him to see what I saw and it made me feel sad that he was feeling so anxious! I thought he was so beautiful. I felt the only thing I could do was tell him that I did not agree because I thought he was wonderful. I could never imagine what sort of person could say something negative in that situation.

So, although controlling others reactions to your body is NOTHING you have control over, you do have control over how that person fits into your life. If anyone told me my body was weirdly shaped, I would have given them the boot because my self esteem had already been on the floor and it didn't need any more help. Likewise, if I ever said anything along those lines to my husband, dear gawd, what kind of monster would I be to say something so heartless? Intimacy and empathy have a strong bond, so be choosy about who you decide to open that vulnerability to...and if anyone makes a weirdly shaped comment, they are not worth your time.
posted by floweredfish at 3:31 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you have an artistic bent, go to a few live drawing events. I did this a few years ago and one thing I noticed was that the "perfect" bodies get boring after a while. The bodies with scars, wrinkles, stretch marks, fat, hair, and blemishes .. those are fascinating, unique. Those bodies have lived, those bodies have stories to tell, and they are exciting to draw.

Sex is for everyone. Not just beautiful people.
posted by bunderful at 5:03 AM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I hope this helps. It's from Cheryl Strayed, writing as "Dear Sugar."
You have to find a way to inhabit your body while enacting your deepest desires. You have to be brave enough to build the intimacy you deserve. You have to take off all of your clothes and say, I’m right here.

There are so many tiny revolutions in a life, a million ways we have to circle around ourselves to grow and change and be okay. And perhaps the body is our final frontier. It’s the one place we can’t leave. We’re there till it goes. Most women and some men spend their lives trying to alter it, hide it, prettify it, make it what it isn’t, or conceal it for what it is. But what if we didn’t do that?

That’s the question you need to answer, Wanting. That’s what will bring your deepest desires into your life. Not: will my old, droopy male contemporaries accept and love the old, droopy me? But rather: what’s on the other side of the tiny gigantic revolution in which I move from loathing to loving my own skin? What fruits would that particular liberation bear?
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:27 AM on December 1, 2015 [12 favorites]

This is obviously not for everyone... but I found that casual sex helped. Once you're with the third, fourth, fifth person this month who cheerfully has sex with you with nothing but nice things to say, you realize your body really doesn't make a difference when it comes down to it. I recognized that people might prefer it if my body were different, but stopped caring. Yay Tinder!
posted by metasarah at 9:29 AM on December 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

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