#201: Guest post: How can my girlfriend and I prevent body issues from derailing our awesome love story?

One thing that happens when you make a blog is that you also make friends? And then sometimes you Tom Sawyer those friends into writing guest posts for you. Sweet Machine is in the house today answering a question about body acceptance inside a relationship.

Dear Captain Awkward,

So’s I got a question, which looks like this:

I live with my nice girlfriend, and we are two fat ladies. Heavy Betties, if you prefer. We are both on the fat-positive train, but it turns out that this becomes more complicated. We both gained a reasonable amount of weight in the last year-ish, which for me, just kind of is what it is. I was in grad school, and I like to eat. I have some lingering wishes/hopes that I might lose that 25 pounds, and also if I don’t, I won’t miss out on my life because of it. I just bought a bikini this summer, which I’ve never in my life had before. Really I just wore it around the house a few times, to practice staring at myself half-naked, because I think it’s kind of unacceptable for me to be grossed out by my body. And also, sometimes I am, and right now I’m just going for “can look at myself in all states of naked and feel, at least, neutral.”

My girlfriend has a stronger history of body-hate, and has done a little dance with anorexia in the past, and these days I think is genuinely a size-positive ally, but has articulated really clearly that she can’t do that for herself, just now. And she is trying to make headway by buying clothes that fit that suit her (androgynous) gender expression, but that is proving difficult, and just generally I think feels shitty about her weight gain, and I’m not sure how to respectfully engage around that.

And this is the other thing: we are both healthy, active people. I don’t think it’s emotionally healthy for anybody to go chasing the body they used to have down the rabbit hole of raw foodism or triathlons or whatever. Also, I’m not interested in hating on other people’s bodies, and what they choose to do with them; and also for myself I really find it important to motivate and structure how I eat and how I move in what feels good, and not pin it onto some inaccurate and impossible idea of only one kind of body being healthy.

So, given that this is what we are working with, and we are two people who are living together and doing the nasty with each other and sharing food and life responsibilities and all this other business. I really just feel like, there is gigantic magentic pull on both of us toward the direction of “God we are so gross we should definitely lose fifty pounds like right now” which I am invested in both of us resisting. But it is sneaky, and compelling, and it shows up in us in different ways. 

Dear Captain Awkward, how do you resist the sneaky riptide called “You’re so fat” that wants to pull me and my generally happy functional relationship under the waves? How do we separate our own tricky body narratives, and support each other’s ambivalence, and just generally hang out with each other for this hard thing called making peace with your body?

Thanks much Captain Awkwardpants.

Desperately Seeking Solutions

Dear Desperately Seeking Solutions,

Sweet Machine here.

Before I start tackling your tricky and kind of heartbreaking questions, let me just make a list of the things I straight up agree with in your letter:

· You won’t miss out on your life if you don’t ever lose those x pounds, where x equals 25 and also any other number.

· It is legit difficult to find clothes that fit fat ladies, perhaps especially for your partner’s androgynous style. Fat bodies come in all shapes and fat persons come in all styles, but the makers of plus-size clothing tend not to acknowledge that, like, ever.

· It is not emotionally healthy to chase “the body you used to have”—for one thing, it is the same body you have now, unless you are Robocop, in which case I think I cannot speak to your body image with any confidence.

· There is, indeed, a Giant Magnet called Culture that pulls you toward self-loathing and weight loss. That magnet pulls on you every time you see an ad, an actress, or an obesity epidemic OOGA BOOGA news report. There are billions of dollars to be made from your self-loathing, and shaking off the weight (GET IT) of all that money is a continual, wearying struggle, as you know. But you are doing it, and I commend you.

There’s a lot going on in your description of your relationships with your awesome girlfriend and your awesome body. I feel like you are asking two questions, but one is secret. In my academic field (literary criticism), sometimes we talk about finding the question behind the question—like, you start by asking “Why on earth does Astrophil say that weird fucking line ‘But ah, Desire still cries, give me some food’?  The hell?” but once you start digging, you actually are asking “Does fulfilling desire satisfy that desire, or does it create a need more ambitious and ravenous than the initial desire?” And then you have a conference paper.

I indulge this highly nerdy digression not only to note that Sir Philip Sidney was asking questions about desire, hunger, sex, and love way back in 1591 and we haven’t necessarily figured it out yet, but also to say that I can’t help but read two levels of uncertainty in your letter. The first is the question you actually ask the Captain, namely, “How do we separate our own tricky body narratives, and support each other’s ambivalence, and just generally hang out with each other for this hard thing called making peace with your body?” The second—the question behind the question—is something like, “How can I deal with the fact that my girlfriend’s anxieties are adding more power to the Giant Magnet of Self-Loathing pulling on me?” Forgive me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be conflicted about your girlfriend’s current body image struggle: “My girlfriend has a stronger history of body-hate, and has done a little dance with anorexia in the past, and these days I think is genuinely a size-positive ally, but has articulated really clearly that she can’t do that for herself, just now.” Your prose is very charming, but it’s also contradictory: “done a little dance with anorexia,” though it seriously is making me picture Gene Kelly dancing with Kate Moss, is not the emotional truth of the matter. Your wonderful, awesome, fat ladyfriend is also a recovered anorexic, and that is some serious shit that is probably tied to why even though you want to think of her as size-positive, she actually can’t be, right now.

I’m not an expert in eating disorders, so of course I’m going to jump on the “probably you should both do therapy”—separately—bandwagon. EDs are mental illnesses, and I hope your girlfriend has some pro help with managing her post-recovery process. What I am sort of an expert in is how someone else’s language can fuck with your sense of reality. Everyone who has ever been fat has been on the receiving end of “God, I’m so gross—no no, you are great, you look fine at x pounds but I am disgusting” nonsense, and it sucks. That is one person’s cognitive dissonance being forcibly lodged in another person’s brain. It’s damaging, and it’s unfair. It makes the Magnet stronger.

Here’s what I think you need to do: I think you need to clarify your conversational boundaries with your girlfriend. YES I AM TOTALLY COPYING OFF THE CAPTAIN’S HOMEWORK. You don’t mention how you and your girlfriend are actually interacting—I’m not clear if this is something you discuss endlessly in circles, or if neither of you ever brings it up but it floats beneath lots of conversations, or if there’s food-morality talk going on that is indirect but makes you feel weird, or what. But I want you to remember that, even as your girlfriend is struggling, you don’t actually have to be all things to her, especially if doing so is harmful to you because of the cognitive dissonance parade (Grand Marshal: Mitt Romney). If talking about your girlfriend’s weight with her makes you feel horrible about yourself and derails your own self-acceptance, you have every right to tell her so, and to draw a boundary there. Please note: I do not mean that you should tell her she’s responsible for your feelings! First of all, that’s incorrect; secondly, that will likely make her feel worse about herself. What I mean, rather, is that you say something like, “I am so sorry that you are feeling bad about your weight gain, and I think you should talk to someone about that—but I don’t think that person can be me, because I’m working really hard on actively embracing my own body and having those conversations makes it much harder.” In my humble opinion, the greatest way you can help your partner feel good about her body is to make her feel good in her body, with sex and snuggles and compliments, and by not talking shit about anyone’s bodies, period. [Yes! Have more sex. The bodies of the people we love and lust for are, without exception, amazing and perfect. – Captain Awkward]

Fat acceptance is hard. Escaping the pull of that Giant Magnet is incredibly hard. There is a whole world out there that confirms your girlfriend’s point of view and denies yours. I think you’ve figured out already, though, that loathing that pernicious bullshit leads to a far healthier and far more enjoyable life than loathing yourself. You can’t force your girlfriend to get there with you, but you can show her how happy you are to be on the other side of the Magnet’s pull.

Love and baby donuts,
Sweet Machine

Edited To Add: Now with bonus pants explosions!

Edited to Add (again): Thanks, Hairpin, you read our minds.

72 thoughts on “#201: Guest post: How can my girlfriend and I prevent body issues from derailing our awesome love story?

  1. So I was digging pretty hard on this letter anyway, and then it was closed with “Love and baby donuts”, and absolutely shrieked with glee.

  2. When I first got together with my sweetie, I found out that he was very scared/paranoid about his potential fatness and what it might mean for his attractiveness. He would ask me things like, “Is it okay we’re just sitting here eating the ice cream?” And at first, I’d respond with what had always been in my head up till then, “No, it’s not okay, we’re fat pigs getting fatter.” And his face would just fall, and I suddenly realized, holy shit, I can’t say this to him. Wait, why do I say it to myself? LIGHT BULB

    I have tried to dive face-first into fat acceptance, and it works, like, 70% of the time, which is cool. He has tried to dive with me, but is in that place where he sees the fat acceptance, he hears the fat acceptance, he knows the fat acceptance, but it is for other people. He is just a fatty fat fat BAD MAN. And it is hard. Because I love him and I don’t care that he’s fat, but he cares SO MUCH, and the part of him that is self-loathing and self-insulting is, in fact, the least attractive part of him (to me), so the messages get all mixed. I am like, “You are fat and I love you and you are sexy, but I’m not reeeeeeeally that interested in fucking you right now because your vitriol about stretch marks is such a coldboner.” And all he sees is me not being interested because FAT.

    I’ve tried responding to his, “I’m fat” sadtimes with talking about how I feel that way sometimes, or how I pull myself out of it sometimes, or just listening, or just saying, “I love you” and cuddling, and then it doesn’t *work* and I get frustrated. Which is a whole unexamined sack of expectations about how things are supposed to “work,” just because I think that’s what would work for me, so why hasn’t he figured it out yet?!

    This is a really helpful letter and response, because honest to god, I had not thought of this in terms of supporting myself, or my needs. It was all about supporting him, because I had this fat acceptance thing down so I don’t need any help, and he is sad so obviously he does. Except if I had it down, I wouldn’t feel so quicksanded every time he got on a “I’m fat” screed. I always tried to get super on the side of SUPPORTING YOU!!! and never thought to say, with words, that my fat acceptance needs some support sometimes, and maybe you cannot provide that support, which is cool, but it means I might not want to listen to you dish out what effectively feels like anti-support.

    1. holy shit, I can’t say this to him. Wait, why do I say it to myself? LIGHT BULB

      This is one of the finest and greatest ways to learn new things within a friendship or romantic relationship, isn’t it?

    2. I’ve tried responding to his, “I’m fat” sadtimes with talking about how I feel that way sometimes, or how I pull myself out of it sometimes, or just listening, or just saying, “I love you” and cuddling, and then it doesn’t *work* and I get frustrated.

      Dude, it’s like you’re a fly on the wall of my relationship. I find the best thing for it is to grab him, pull him into the bedroom, and show him how much his body rocks my world. (the prob is that his fat-hate sometimes effects his boner, and that is very sad days.)

      1. Like I almost forgot about THE ENTIRE REST OF THE LETTER AND REPLY after I clicked on that. I want to download that magazine and go have filthy sex with it, and I don’t care who knows.

  3. I wish more people could tell how their “No, no, you’re fine, YOU’RE beautiful, it’s me who needs to lose weight right NOW” translates as “I’m giving you a pass because I don’t want you to feel bad, especially when I’m watching, but UGH FATTY FAT is HORRIBLE!!”

    Which, as Sweet Machine says, just reveals the poison of the whole conversation.

    But also, and maybe beyond all the size-acceptance part, is that so many of us have been taught that it’s wrong to feel OK about ourselves, that self-love is arrogant, or something. Your hair is pretty, mine is stringy. Your singing voice is lovely, and mine isn’t as good. You wear that dress so well–I know I don’t look right. Loving someone should not have anything to do with making hir the gorgeous hot talented perfect one and oneself the plain dull stupid one. In fact, I don’t think we can love one another if we’re stuck on trying to make the other person/people carry all the things we would like to be able to love about ourselves.

    But that’s easier to decide than it is to believe in our hearts.

    1. Yes! Not to be all horn-tooty here, but when I was writing this post I reread some of my own archived writing, including this post, which directly speaks to that. Here’s what I said back in 2012 (about a picture of myself with my very conventionally beautiful friend):

      A lot of things have changed in the last three years, but the most important change here is how I view other women’s beauty. It’s not that I used to be jealous of beautiful women, though of course I envied them some — it’s that I often felt diminished by them, as though they were so pretty just to spite me, to remind me my place in the order of things. Of course, this had nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I felt like I was passing as a pretty woman most of the time, and the presence of someone who was Certifiably Pretty revealed my true nature. Standing next to M, who is kind and generous and funny and sweet but also very very pretty, made me feel like my mask had been torn off.

      Now it’s like looking with new eyes — but of course it’s really my new brain. I don’t compare myself with her; I love myself with her, because she is my friend. When I see those 2006 pictures now, I feel like I look prettier in her company; her beauty includes me now, because I look at both of us with a more generous gaze. We’re not pitted against each other in a zero-sum contest of finite beauty; we are friends in a world that is, at times, heart-rendingly beautiful.

      You get to *both* be awesome, and have great hair, and enjoy your bodies. Self-love isn’t arrogant — it’s the opposite of arrogant. It’s accepting that you are just as human and flawed and wonderful as the people you love, and that you are not so supremely important that your flaws, alone in the universe, are unforgivable.

      1. I totally need a late pass to this thread (sorry- couldn’t get my locker open).


        I don’t think we can love one another if we’re stuck on trying to make the other person/people carry all the things we would like to be able to love about ourselves.

        This is just the most beautiful way of saying the thing.

  4. I just get so excited sometimes that three of my favorite bloggers all hang out in the same place (aka here).

  5. I hope this isn’t a derail! but I was reading the kate harding article and I got to this sentence:
    “for years I had looked like a clearly undesireable person with a flabby body, bad skin, and way too much hair, who would never ever be pretty.”
    and then I kept reading and about midway through the second next paragraph I stopped and
    “way too much hair”
    like a snowball to the back of the head. Because I do believe this and I don’t want to believe this and it hurts that I do believe it and I don’t know how not to.
    but actually I have had so many people tell me they would love to have my hair and it’s my father’s hair and my family’s hair and why do I not love it too?
    which I think ties in with the kinds of bodies that get privileged and I don’t find the sleek blond hair attractive at all… but I really appreciate dark straight sleek hair? and wish I had that instead of my brown frizzy tangly thick wavy coarse mess
    and then I was thinking about who does my hair look like? and it looks sort of like the hair of at least one disprivileged cultural/ethnic group (to which I do not belong) and I know I’ve read before about how it’s so hard to care properly for thick curly hair (even though mine’s not that curly) and maybe I’m just caring for it WRONG – I shouldn’t have to leave half my head on the hairdresser floor to have acceptable clean hair, I just shouldn’t

    WHICH IS ALL TO SAY that I am ashamed of being ashamed of various bits of me but I don’t know how not to be.


      I have the super thickest, super curliest dark hair. And of course I hated most of my life. Everybody would coo about how wonderful it must be, but the thing is, I had no idea how to care for it. Almost nobody knows how to care for it. So it was this potentially beautiful thing that in actuality was a horrific nightmare fuzzball that on some rare occasion would just “decide” to look nice, and then I could feel bad for hating it because it looked *really, really* nice, but I could never figure out how to make it tolerable most of the time. I ended up keeping it really short a lot, because as soon as it got long, all I could do was put it in ponytails every day, because otherwise it would just be a frizzy mass.

      Perhaps you know my pain here, perhaps you have crossed that curly threshold, but whenever I’ve tried to look up information about how to care for curly hair, or asked hairdressers, or other adults who seem to know about hair, the advice I got seemed to be for a different kind of curly hair. For a thinner, tamer, wavy sort of hair. Like, people who tell me to blowdry my curly hair so it gets volume? DO YOU NOT KNOW HOW MUCH VOLUME I CAN GET? It will eat the world if I blowdry it, what is with that advice? Or, like, put gel in it? Leave-in conditioner? My hair is so thick, if it’s shoulder-level, I can go through half a bottle in one or two days.

      I will say that learning how to care for my hair in a way that’s acceptable to me has made me love it for once. Feeling like it was out of control, like I could do nothing but pray and hope I wouldn’t wake up with a fuzzball, and then enduring all the “oh my gosh, you are so lucky to have curly haaaaaair!” shrieks from people just made me feel like my hair was the worst part of me. So, just in case this helps, here are some things I have discovered work for me:

      1. If you are looking on the internet for tips for your hair, stop looking at what white people say you should do with white hair. THEY DON’T KNOW what this hair is like, and I don’t understand what metric of curly they’re using, but it’s not our kind of curly. You’ll get a lot more mileage looking up hair care tips for African-American women or Latina women. They know what really thick, really curly hair is like, so even if it’s not *exactly* like your hair, it’ll be closer to it than what you usually find looking at white hair care tips.

      2. My hair is so outrageously thick, it needs more oil than can be believed to keep it from getting dried out (which equals the frizz). So I don’t shampoo anymore (not never, just rarely, most of the time I give myself a spritz of vinegar in the shower). They call this no-poo and I hate that name because come on, poo, but that’s what they call it. But it’s really helped. Shampooing stripped what little oil there was out of my hair, and because my hair is so, so, so thick, it took half a bottle of conditioner to get any oil back. So expensive!

      3. Find alternative sources of conditioner! I have used, to great success (and savings), olive oil, honey, and coconut milk. I usually put a drop or two of tea tree oil in the olive oil or honey to keep it antiseptic (and I like the smell). COCONUT MILK, oh my god, if you have a super fancy party to go to and you want super fancy hair, rub that in, get out of the shower, let it sit in a shower cap, hit it with a hair dryer for 30 minutes, get back in the shower and rinse it out, you will have the softest hair you have ever had in your life, and it’ll smell *really* good, too.

      4. Hairspray is ass, you need like a whole can of it for hair like this, put some salt and water together in a spray bottle and give yourself the beach look.

      5. I started giving myself my own haircuts. Thick, curly hair is very forgiving — nobody can see your mistakes because it’s all a tangled mess anyway. This kept me from the anxiety of going to a hairdresser who is going to squee about my hair while I feel terrible about it, and then give me a haircut that works for thin, wavy hair, and tries to get me to buy the *tiniest* bottle of conditioner that costs 20 bucks and tries to give me that, “you just use a dime-sized amount,” like a dime-sized amount can go past 1/8th of my hair. This also means I don’t have to go for weeks and weeks with something I hate about my hair because I *just* got a haircut, I don’t want to go back. I just grab a pair of scissors and snip till I’m satisfied.

      1. I am going to rub so many substances on my head based upon this post.

        Just gonna add that if you can’t do no-poo (I have thick hair, but I still need some shampoo action to keep it from plastering itself on my head like unto a gull in an oil spill) DEFINITELY go for sulfite-free shampoos. So much nicer for your scalp, and doesn’t strip your hair of quite so much oil.

        1. I’ll check those out! I still want to give my hair a shampoo now and again, but I haven’t really settled on what to use to do that, so I’m glad for the recommendation.

          As for the conditioner replacements, what I have heard is that anything that can go in your mouth can safely go on your head, and the fattier the better. But based on that, I have some anti-recommendations (though, you know, everybody is different, yadda yadda):

          1. Mayonnaise. GROSS. It just sort of glorps and glops through your hair and down your ears and it smells not great and you already have to overcome the gag factor of there is MAYONNAISE in my HAIR.

          2. Avocado. This is really great in theory, but jesus, it’s a lot of work. And then you finally think you have it all nice and blendy so you can put it in your hair, and you dump it on, and SURPRISE avocado chunks are in your shower drain. NO.

          3. Eggs. Shit just seems like *work*.

          Also, neither mayonnaise, avocado, or eggs can keep — I like olive oil and honey, because I can put it in a bottle and leave it in my shower and it’s pretty much okay (keep an eye on the honey, it might start to ferment after a month or two, though adding a bit of water and that drop of tea tree oil seems to stop that. Also the fermenting probably won’t hurt your hair, it’s just unsavory). Coconut milk doesn’t keep either, but that’s why it’s a special treat for special days.

          Random recommendation:

          Stale tea as a rinse. You get some real nice smelling tea, rinse your hair with it. I read somewhere that this is good for your hair somehow, I don’t know if that’s true, I do it because then I smell like chai and honey. And if stuff escapes your hair and runs down your face while you’re in the shower, it is DELICIOUS.

          Also, I should mention. When I started doing this, I still showered daily. So I was olive oiling my hair up daily, and it got SUPER greasy. Since then, I’ve experimented with different shower routines that work for me, my skin care (my skin, like my hair, needed more oil than I was letting it keep), my schedule, etc. Now I shower about three times a week (more if heavy exercising). Every time I shower, I get my hair wet and massage my scalp because it feels nice, and to scratch the dandruff out, but only once a week do I do the olive oiling. So, experiment with the hair goops, but also experiment with how often you’re gooping, because that also might have something to do with it. I realize now that a lifetime of shampooing my hair every single day was drying it out like a motherfucker, but, you know, I thought that’s what you had to do to not be a dirt monster.

          1. The other thing is that even though I have thick hair I also have kind of greasy hair! So if I don’t shampoo the heck out of it, it is all gross the next day, and if I do, it is all dry and my scalp is itchy. So clearly I should try putting all the things on my head and see what happens!

          2. When I was showering every day, I ended up greasing up my hair first, then shampooing. Because I hadn’t yet figured out how much oil to put in my hair, and was pretty much always overdoing it, shampooing after seemed to strip out the excess without making my hair dry.

            Some people also get some good results using a baking soda paste for shampoo (I guess you can also do this dry, but I haven’t tried it).

            Oh my god, you could baking soda and then vinegar your hair.

          3. That sounds like the most hilarious thing ever xD except my suitemates would totally kill me if I left any vinegarfizz in the shower :q

            This is clearly a brilliant plan

          4. My housemate has curly thick hair that frizzes in the rain. She uses Sorbolene in it after washing. It’s cheap and leaves her hair soft but manageable. My own hair is straight and shiny so feel free to take everything I say with many grains of salt.

          5. White girl with thick, wavy Italian hair here, so this advice may not be useful to everyone, but the Organix Coconut Milk shampoo and conditioner have been hugely helpful with my hair. They contain no sulfates and the conditioner contains coconut oil and milk. It has helped so much with the frizz problem!

            I find I shampoo once a week in winter, twice in summer, and only work the shampoo in at the roots, then put the conditioner on the rest of my hair, especially the tips. Lorainne Massey’s “Curly Girl” book was helpful too for managing my hair. YMMV, of course.

          6. Also, there are very mild detergents in most conventional conditioners. So, instead of going through half a bottle on all of your hair, you can use some just on your scalp to get it clean without stripping out all the oil.

      2. Hahah – OMG I feel you on this. I also have very think wavy hair and like you the blowdrying comments!
        I agree with you on the no shampoo thing. I coincidently am allergic to something that is in a lot of detergents/shampoos/soaps (even the ‘organic’ ones) but have found an Australian company (Moo Goo) that I can use. The beauty of these type of products is they stop stripping your hair of oils, which in turn reduces the frizz.
        Ditto on the olive oil. Macadamia oil is also a nice treatment.

        1. Oh and I forgot. For other ladies struggling – throw out the brush! I comb with conditioner using one of those widetooth combs that are (apparently) meant for incredibly curly hair. Brushes just make my hair into big frizzy boof.

          1. I have a lot of fine hair, basically the antithesis of the curls. But my partner has super-duper think and curly mediterranean hair. It is rinsed and conditioned daily, post-workout; but it is only washed every week or two. The hair gets detangled with fingers in the shower and very, very occasionally knots are pulled out with a wide tooth comb (mine actually, because I cannot use a narrow-toothed comb on my nuclear hair knots). I never realized you could run your whole life without ever combing your hair. I just seems so wild and transgressive.

            My partner is lucky, his hair falls into perfect ringlets on its own. I long to touch it, but that frizzes it up pretty bad, so I only get to play with it on special occasions.

      3. just wanted to add as a lady with super thick hair that due to hormone issues ranges from OMG greasy to dead bone dry, that the best thing for the dry hair is hair lotion. It usually has a mix of avocado and olive oil (without the gloopy avocado in the shower mess) and it costs like three bucks a bottle for one that should at least last a week. I’ve been using it on my hair for ten years and I love it. I

    2. I’ve got the thin straight white-person hair, and one of my friends with typical Black hair and I often discuss how you can’t win with hair. I’ve definitely got it easier for every day, but my mom always wants my hair to have more volume, and I curl it for special events, while she straightens her hair for special events.

      Apparently professional hairdressers are only trained on straight hair, which makes it very difficult to find a good one if you don’t have that kind of hair.

      There are places that specialize in “ethnic” hair, and I think they would probably have a better idea what to do with yours. Around where I am it’s Brazilian population that they mostly cater to.

      Anyway, I understand that your hair is a complete pain to deal with, but I’m sure it can hold more interesting styles than mine and it’s beautiful even if you don’t think so and I really hate how our culture requires conformity in HAIR of all things. I hate that aspect even more than the fat-shaming aspect, because I’ve seen so many beautiful amazing hairstyles on African men and women and children and the culture says NO you should ruin your hair and make it an imitation of my limp straight breakable hair.

    3. Hey, as the author of that post, I sympathize! It sounds like we are hair twins, and I was totally in the same boat as a teenager — people saying “Oh my god, your hair, I am so jealous” and I would go “I don’t think you realize how long it takes me to shampoo this motherfucker” and feel complete cognitive dissonance. And you are right about there being a racialized aspect to all aspects of what counts as “good hair,” at least in the US, and that complicates things too.

      You don’t have to be ashamed of being ashamed. Look how much bullshit is out there actively trying to make you feel shame! It’s not your fault that it works sometimes! If it helps, here are some ways I made peace with my hair, to the point where now I think it is my most glorious feature:
      — Pony up for expensive haircuts — whatever is not going to bankrupt you but might still make you go “Oh Jesus, how can I pay that for a haircut.” Try different salons until you find someone who gets it, and when you call for appointments, ASK FOR A SPECIALIST IN CURLY HAIR. This is the most important step! You need someone who has been trained in curly hair, and they are out there.
      — Read http://www.naturallycurly.com/ until your eyes bleed.
      — Get layers, always layers, lots and lots of layers.
      — For me, going short was incredibly liberating, because I can have a “stylishly messy” haircut that masks the fact that my hair is, uh, naturally messy.

      You can love your hair. I was that kid who got called “helmet head” by everyone on the school bus. Now friends ask me for my hairdresser’s name because my hair always looks awesome.

      1. A few years of stylishly messy short hair really does wonders for patching up the relationship between you and the top of your head! And curly hair is really great for this — depending on how short it is, you might not even have to comb it, just sort of paw it into a new sleazy part, spritz it with water, shake like a dog, and go. Minutes later, ADORABLE CURLS.

        I am sort of anti-haircut because of YEARS of hairdressers who knew dick about my hair (and some who screwed it up MASSIVELY because of that), but I’m now growing my hair out for the first time since I learned how to care for it, and I forgot how complicated it can get the longer it goes. Now I’m at that point where it’s starting to look like a Christmas tree, and fucked if I know how to fix that with a shot of vodka, some scissors, and what seems like a good idea at the time (which is normally how I give myself a haircut). I never knew there was such a thing as a specialist in curly hair! This is a freakin’ game changer, man. No more triangle head!

        1. Oh my god I would totally go with short hair EXCEPT between the lengths of about two inches and six to eight inches my hair is like “yo it’s the eighties! rock on!”

          so clearly I was born two or three decades too late

      2. The trials of being an unemployed college student! Right now I am trying to grow it out and hoping that if I can keep it in a braid it will actually! freaking! behave! sometimes, because I do think I look better with long hair – when it’s behaving. And keeping it in a braid is cheap. 😛

      3. Thank you to everyone for the fantastic advice for dealing with long, curly hair! I had exactly this problem for most of my life and mostly ignored it by relying on the ubiquitous ponytail and avoiding haircuts. I just didn’t know what to do with it or how to care for it beyond the shampoo and conditioner every 2-3 days, much less stylish coiffuring. In 2008 in my thirties, I finally decided I needed to learn how to deal with it and started finding books and buying supplies. The amusing thing was that I had always thought I was blond, but over the years people identified me as a redhead or brunette or possibly strawberry blond. Whatever. But I loved the hair even if it was more of a feral pet than a well-trained companion.

        Then I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. I donated a good 18″ to Locks of Love and was left with a bob. With chemo, the hair started falling out as expected. Even after a week or two I still had an amazing amount of hair on my head, but the clogging drains and the hairbrush! So I shaved it off and got a henna tattoo on my skull just in time for the mastectomy, but it didn’t last. When the hair started growing back, it was a kind of roan mixing blond, grey, and brown. It became very curly, and everyone asked if that’s the way it used to be. I really didn’t know because I had never had short hair in my life, but did have a pronounced wave and lots of frizz, so I always suspected that it would be very curly if short. But then, there’s the cancer curl–lots of people end up with a new texture (and color) in the new hair. As Marie said, it was wonderful! Wash, comb and go and it always ended up looking great.

        Then more breast cancer. Another shave, another ephemeral henna head tattoo. When it started coming back, it pretty much grew straight out in a puffball, much like Einstein’s do in many of the old photos. And now about two years after treatment ended my hair is just beyond the shoulders. It’s maybe darker than originally, but then, I no longer work in the field year-round getting my hair sunbleached. But this time it seems much straighter with less body. It might just now be developing some wave. I am still trying to figure out what this hair is like and how to care for it. For the past month, it has felt tremendously dull, lusterless, with awful texture. I worried that it was an indicator of poor health, because I had noticed that some people with multiple bouts of cancer and cancer treatment had hair that was a permanent casualty–limp, lusterless, faded, scant…but all clear on my checkup this week, and shampooing with a cleanser to remove buildup helped tremendously.

        I was taken by surprise how much it bothered me that I might no longer be blond. I hadn’t realized how invested I was in that identity because for the most part, I’ve tried to ignore the impossible beauty standards, obviously with limited success. I’m also struggling with the body image and weight stuff, in myself and others. I gained wait in chemo both times, and now that I’m postmenopausal, it’s probably here to stay; it hasn’t budged in the two years since treatment ended.

        I am conflicted about the fact that I want to lose weight. Partly, it’s medical. If I lose weight, I will likely have fewer problems with my lymphedema–the symptoms might subside entirely with the loss of 10-20 pounds. Partly, it’s vanity–I want to be able to do chin ups again because I never achieved my goal of 10, just 8 maximum. But am I just hopelessly chasing after the body and abilities of my youth (when I was a firefighter)? Should I just recognize that I am middle-aged and I simply won’t be able to achieve that degree of physical fitness? Or is this simply my particular version of fat hatred inflicted on myself? I don’t know, so I am not quite sure how to proceed. Plus real appetite and energy issues.

        And then many of my friends are in Weight Watchers. I want to be supportive, but I am not sure how best to do that. Should I give attaboys for working toward their weight loss goals? Should I offer other affirmations of their value and attractiveness and ignore the dieting/weight loss efforts? How can I steer them toward HAES and fat acceptance? Should I even try? Particularly if I too am trying to lose weight, but without the program support.

        Regarding the original LW, I agree with showing and verbalizing consistently in small, understated ways that you find your partner attractive, wonderful, successful, talented, and sexually appealing at every opportunity both directly and indirectly. I think this kind of nonjudgmental, unconditional support can help tremendously. It helps create and maintain that safe environment for your partner that can help reframe her personal narrative. This is what I am trying to do for my querido, who has some body image and other issues. Zie struggles with mental illness, and as a result somehow seems to believe that zie isn’t worthy of love or a good partner or my equal.

        And I also agree with the need to figure out what are your personal boundaries around this issue that you share with your partner, and what your needs are for getting rid of the iron filings in your psyche that pull you irresistably toward the big giant magnetic crane of the cultural junkyard. Good luck!

  6. I LOVE this post. Simply because Sweet Machine’s plight takes me back.

    I was a runner in high school. A pretty fit runner. But as trim and hot as I was back then, no one knew the secret hell I went through with my body-image hate. I’d over exercise, weight myself five times a day and sometimes wouldn’t eat. Despite how normatively beautiful I was, I couldn’t seem to like myself.

    Then, I went to college and between the binge drinking, not running track and working as a waitress, I’ve gained about 100 pounds. But, ironically, I’ve never loved myself more. I’m a thick sister for sure, but I love what I see in the mirror, and I think I strut my stuff way better than I ever did when I was trim. I pole dance and get tail left and right and dress better.

    Yet none of that would have been possible without the love I got from certain partners. I grew up hating my body and no one in my family was supportive about my difficulty with weight issues. But once I started dating people who really made me feel sexy because they reciprocated affection and passion, I realized that I didn’t need to stress out about my body to stimulate my partner.

    Captain Awkward’s advice is spot on because sometimes trying to reason with the other person’s insecurities doesn’t always work, but just making efforts to make them feel good about their bodies and making them feel desirable speaks more volumes than any awkward conversation about the “big elephant in the room,” so to speak. Accepting my body took a long time and a hell of a lot of affection, passion and attraction. Should we evaluate our self worth based on how much we attract other people? Probably not. But does it feel damn good when someone’s pining for you? You bet your ass it does.

    In the end, my advice as a person who used to be in your gf’s position would be this: keep on loving her, make sure the intensity and flame keeps going and don’t hesitate to make her feel desired. You don’t have to have candid conversations about weight to accomplish these things and it makes you both feel good and loved in the process.

  7. LW, I feel you here, because I’ve been on your girlfriend’s side of things in a lot of relationships. I just wanted to add one thing, you might want to ask her explicitly about how she feels about compliments. A lot of us recovering anorexics out there can’t quite handle them, because when you say, “You’re so beautiful” our brain says, “haha no, I’m so disgusting” and it’s really hard to deal with. For the longest time I couldn’t help verbalizing the “No shut up I’m not beautiful” thoughts in response to compliments. Then I read some fat-positivity stuff, realized that when I did that my self-hatred was kinda set free to hurt others, and learned to suppress my negative reaction to compliments – but that would set me into a horrible spiral of “No, I’m disgusting. Wait, don’t say that. Why do I even think that? What the hell is wrong with me?” I guess that was better for people around me but it basically just redirected my self-hatred to a new target within myself. It was like meta-anorexia in which I was hating on my mind for hating my body.

    Basically this is the kind of mindfuckery that comes along with eating disorders a lot, and it kind of sounds like your gf is going through some similar stuff. That’s why former anorexics can use therapy once in a while even once we’re eating food again!

    1. Yes! All of this. You feel fat and ugly and horrible and worthless, but you also feel ridiculous because you believe that you are fat and ugly and horrible and worthless when obviously you are just fine.

      I mean, the second I stopped beating myself up for not being skeletal enough, I started beating myself up for having a psychological problem and wasting everyone’s time and being tiresome and annoying.

      That’s just how people with this problem roll, I think. The problem isn’t that we loathe our bodies. The problem is that we loathe ourselves.

      It’s nobody’s fault but anorexia’s, but when I was struggling with eating disorders, my takeaway from any compliment was, “You’re stupid. Why are you so stupid and weak? Shut up, stupid weak irrational person.”

      I think…well, I agree with everything everyone has said about self-care for you as well, but I think that the best strategy might be to distract your girlfriend. Because if she is saying, “I hate the way I look,” she probably means, “I am stressed out and upset and tired, and I am coping with my bad feelings the only way I know how.” It might be your cue to go for a walk, or run an errand, or play a card game.

      1. Basically. It’s like you take a flamethrower to one level of crapthoughts and discover there is another layer right under there and your flamethrower is plum out of flamethrower fuel.

        Here’s to re-fueling our flamethrowers, no?

    2. I wanted to say this, but wasn’t sure how to put it. I’m currently working on being in LW’s desired position on feeling neutral about my body after not eating and over-exercising started affecting study. I’ve done quite well at it. I don’t like how I look, but I don’t dislike it, and anyway I have other things going on that I’m good at. For myself, I view beauty the same way I view having a good singing voice – don’t have it, it would be a kind of cool thing to have going on, but not having it isn’t something lacking.

      I’ve even gotten better about compliments! If someone tells me I’m pretty, I can thank them, and think that it’s nice to know that they think so even though I disagree, and feel kind of fuzzy. If someone tries to convince me that I’m pretty, out of an attempt to bolster my esteem, my reaction plays out as something like
      1. They don’t think it’s okay for me not to think I’m pretty
      2. because it’s not okay not to be pretty
      3. but I’m not pretty
      4. 😦

      Unfortunately, disagreeing with compliments sounds like further fishing, and saying “Actually, when you try to get me to agree that I’m pretty it makes me want to not eat for several days” can only prompt conversations I generally don’t feel like having, and will make them feel bad and they were just trying to be nice and… etc.

      1. Here is a thought, having a great singing voice isn’t objective is it? Some people love Cobain’s singing voice, some people love Ella Fitzgerald’s. Some people are more into Dolly Parton songs, some can’t get enough of Gil Scott-Heron. Some love all of those singers and more!

        I’m making some vague extrapolate-y hand gestures at you, FYI.

        Seriously though, I know. For a long time my best response to compliments was “thanks, I’m glad you think so” while I would actually think “well, that’s just like, your opinion, man”. The important thing is that we’re working on it, right?

        1. I was kind of unclear. I’m able to believe people think I’m pretty etc., and it is nice to know they think so! I’m just pretty average according to my own sense of aesthetics. As attitudes to my appearance go, “I’m not pretty, or ugly, and I can make cool things and get good grades and be a good friend independent of that” is working out better than … hoping I was pretty, because people said I was, and trying to see it and seeing nothing but flaws, and getting upset because I should be pretty. Or something. I used to find compliments on my appearance really uncomfortable, whereas now they’re nice unless pushed.

          I guess the subjectivity of it lends itself to jerk-brain. To run with your example, if I don’t like a band, and someone is going on trying to convince me I should like them, I’ll go from “Just not my thing, couldn’t say why” to “THEY ARE TERRIBLE FOR THESE REASONS.” I’ll need to come up with a reason and latch on to specific things I didn’t care about that much to begin with. Oh brain, you so silly.

  8. This is a great post — I was a lurker at Shapely Prose as well as here, and I miss it! I’m glad Sweet Machine gave me the opportunity to geek out a tiny bit about sonnets, as well, because nothing could be more apt to this subject than Sidney’s still-crying desire. That’s the thing about desire for an unattainable ideal (like the desire for the object of a sonnet): it’s not satisfiable because it isn’t for a _real thing_. It’s just like the desire for “the body I used to have.” The endless, aching desire for feeling right in your own body can’t be satisfied by any amount of putting yourself through pain. That just breeds more desire and more pain.

    That’s why I love Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (written around the same time as Sidney’s poems): he wrote his sonnets to the woman he actually married, and it results in lovely little lines like “Most happy he! that can at last achieve /The joyous safety of so sweet a rest.” It’s so sweet to think of your beloved as “so sweet a rest” and a “joyous safety” — someone who is always both new and familiar– like home. Which is why it’s so upsetting when that old, bad desire — for the unattainable, for the impossible perfect — disrupts that great, homely feeling of a good relationship. And I know how easy it is for that to happen!

    Anyway, I don’t actually have a tremendous amount to add to the advice here — it’s great. Just to agree with what others have said, it’s okay for the LW to tell her girlfriend she can’t talk about this stuff this way with her, but it’s also so helpful (and I know this from personal experience) to keep _showing_ her how much you desire her — how much her body is a joyous safety you — and how much you love to look at her whatever shape she is.

      1. Eee! I am honored to be Renaissance-sonnet bffs with Sweet Machine! Sonnets: still the key to being a coolster.

    1. There’s actually a word in Portugese for that feeling of longing for something you can never really have and isn’t necessarily even real, saudade. It’s one of my favorite “nearly impossible to translate” words.

      /linquistics geekery

      1. Oh, I like that word. Leave it to Portugese to put a name to a very powerful concept!

  9. OK, so after rereading the letter, I have a question for the wonderful fat-positive experts round here. Clearly it isn’t cool or self-loving to decide we need to drop everything and go on some ridiculous diet or unsustainable exercise routine in order to get back to a prior weight. But would there be a way for LW to square the circle and decide something like “I’m not going to stress over my figure, but I’ve been having some rapid changes in weight lately and I would like to adjust some of my habits”?

    I freely admit I don’t have much personal insight here, I don’t allow myself to weigh myself any more and the last time I had to switch up my eating routines it was because my unhealthy habit of skipping lunches was not working with my bike commuting at all… so basically I’ve had to accept in recovery that a lot of my food instincts are kinda messed up, my hunger triggers are uh… not the most sensitive, and I really do need to monitor myself carefully. So unlike with LW, self-acceptance around food and stress issues is not an option for me personally.

    Still, it seems to me that there must be some way to frame this so that LW can both accept her body as it is, and take the weight gain as a message from her body that grad school is stressful and throwing her for a bit of a loop in ways that manifest physically?

    1. Ugh I am pretty concerned that this post contains something horrible and I can’t quite see it o_o

      1. I am not an expert, but I am facing a similar situation. I’ve been dealing with depression and until-recently-undiagnosed condition that causes fatigue and pain, so I was eating a lot to make up for not sleeping well, and not exercising because it just wasn’t happening. I’ve lost and gained a lot this year, and am now heavier than I was 12 months ago.

        Here is how I’m framing things now, finding myself uncomfortable in my body: something was wrong. It’s okay that I’m unhappy to have gained weight because there was something wrong. Fixing that something is more important than losing the weight. Odds are that I’ll lose some weight now, because I am doing physical therapy and sleeping better and not relying on eating extra food to make up for those problems.

        If there’s something weird about your comment, to me, it’s that I read in her words that the LW does accept her body as it is and gets that grad school affected her – she may be fighting the magnet, but she hasn’t pointed to her weight gain as something she herself feels is a thing to be fixed. The stress of grad school was a problem, and while it’s hard to resist the fantasy of magically never gaining the weight because of grad school/health, what’s done is done, for her and for me, and now life still gets to be lived. (Does that square with what you were asking? Obviously I have some biases here! :-))

        LW, three cheers for you! Resisting the magnet is hard, and grad school is hard, and from here it looks like you’re doing it right. Sweet Machine speaks wisdom, and I hope it helps you!

        1. You’re right, gaining weight is not the problem, the problem is stress that means the LW requires some self-care. Thanks for explaining that so thoroughly!

          I guess that even though I was saying “weight” the whole time, what I was trying to gesture toward is a more holistic body-and-mind strategy toward the problem, like the one you are using to deal with your health issues. Which is awesome! I hope you get something out of PT, it can be really cool.

        2. I’m pretty similar to you, I’ve gained weight over a couple of years due to horrible depression fatigue. And I struggle with the last little bit, but try really hard to tell myself that it may or may not change, but I am starting to feel better and I will therefore be able to get back to running and biking and thus feel even better.

          I also try to make a point of doing myself up in whatever way makes me feel sexy — of course, being fatter means lingerie and such can be more of a challenge…but the effort is nice if it means you feel nice. In my opinion, anyway. We’ll see if my story changes when the vintage-style lingerie I ordered comes in. 🙂

    2. I don’t know if any of the posts address this directly but The Fat Nutritionist has a lot of good stuff about healthy (as in, emotionally/psychologically healthy) eating habits that might be cool to look through.

    3. Ensign Perception:
      I think accepting that you don’t have well-calibrated instincts is part of fat acceptance. In general an abrupt weight loss or gain, regardless of the original starting or ending weight is a sign that something has changed, and not usually in a good way. It’s not bad to figure out what it was, and what, if anything, needs to be done about it.

      Being careful with your eating habits because it makes you able to function better is completely different from being careful with your eating habits because you don’t like your body. In this case, the intention is everything. The point is self-love and acceptance and living your life. For some people that means eating whatever they want whenever they want. For other people it means making sure to have enough fuel to get through the day’s activities (I’m there with you! I have to invite people over for dinner sometimes or I’ll get lazy and not cook or eat and then go into a horrible depressive spiral.)

      In fact, it sounds like you’re doing a pretty good job accepting yourself around food and stress issues. You’ve recognized how to take care of yourself, and what will reduce your stress. Another part is accepting that you won’t always take care of yourself perfectly or love yourself perfectly, and that’s ok.

    4. I got what you were saying, Ensign. My natural, healthy, beautiful equilibrium is quite curvy, within a margin that I’ve discovered only through living with it. My body is quite capable of socking on or dropping 10 pounds in a month, and when it does that, it is a message to me that I am not treating myself correctly and I need to address the cause. There have been times where I was so stressed that I over-ate, or so upset that I stopped eating, and there have been cash-poor times in my life where I’ve lived on Nutella and carrot sticks… and while I’m size-positive and happy with myself, that is not the relationship I want to have with my body. The root of it is that “how I want to look” is very different from “how I want to treat myself,” and it is quite acceptable to say “I love my plush, I love my breasts and belly, and I’m going to take extra-special care of my awesome self while I get this grant in, which means listening extra-hard to my stressed-out body and nourishing it accordingly. I won’t skip lunch and order takeout for dinner; I will force myself to slow down and enjoy my meals; I will cook things that are delicious, because I deserve them and they are good for me.”

      It is also okay to say “I need to monitor myself carefully, and that involves listening extra-hard to myself and nourishing myself accordingly.” I don’t think you need to undermine the work you’ve done with yourself by saying that you “need to monitor yourself” ; in fact, I think you’re taking good care of yourself by listening to what your body needs, and that’s really great, and I don’t read you as saying “blarrr I am foodmonster who cannot be trusted,” because I really respect your self-knowledge. It took me way too long to understand the same thing, myself.

      It sounds like both you and LW have a good handle on that.

      1. “The root of it is that “how I want to look” is very different from “how I want to treat myself,” and it is quite acceptable to say “I love my plush, I love my breasts and belly, and I’m going to take extra-special care of my awesome self while I get this grant in, which means listening extra-hard to my stressed-out body and nourishing it accordingly.”

        Yes!! That is very important! I have an awesome lush body and I want to take great care of it. Loss or gain would make me look at how I was feeding myself.

  10. Ooh, a Sweet Machine post! So nice to read something by you again.

    I agree completely with the advice about boundaries. Listening to diet talk or body hate talk is not something you can do right now. One thing I would add is that although you can’t police your girlfriend’s behaviour, you don’t have to feel guilty for not being actively supportive of her weight loss efforts. My boyfriend has done an amazing job through my many diets and regains over the years (I’m one of those dedicated Shapely Prose readers who has struggled applying it to myself). Although I have fished for it, he never compliments me on weight loss or congratulates me on sticking to a plan. He just lets me do as I will and always tells me he loves my body at any size. In the end I feel way more supported and healed by this than I would if he had waved pompoms and cheered my dieting efforts. I am so grateful he refuses to place body-size related conditions on his love even when I kind of ask him to.

  11. I miss Shapely Prose, too, and am really happy to read something by you, Sweet Machine!

    I have nothing to add to the advice, but when I read the part about the LW’s girlfriend having problems finding clothes for a more androgynous style, I had to think of this post: http://www.alreadypretty.com/2011/10/reader-request-menswear-looks-for-curvy-women.html
    (I love Already Pretty, which is really size-positive). Maybe LW’s girlfriend will be able to find some shopping resources/recommendations.

  12. I have a comment squarely from the shallow end of the pool:

    Perhaps Sweet GF would be happy getting to know a local tailor? That way she could have clothes that fit (a) her and (b) her personal style, made to order. It’s expensive, but you end up with clothes that last longer, and if you love the hell out of them, the cost amortizes out per wearing.

  13. Count me among the other Shapelings who are ecstatic to see Sweet Machine posting! 🙂

    I think her advice is spot on, as well. I have no experience with relationships to draw on personally, but the Captain has made me think a lot about boundary issues in every kind of relationship, and this seems to be a situation that calls for positive boundary reinforcement.

  14. I used to go out with a guy. Let’s call him H. He was a semi-pro cyclist and pretty fit and healthy. I am not a semi-pro athlete of any kind, and although I was then pretty slim, I wasn’t skinny and I wasn’t health-conscious AT ALL. And that was fine, and I was happy with my general level of (un)fitness and how I looked.

    H wasn’t happy with how he looked. When I was making drunken pancakes for all our friends, H was glaring and refusing to eat them and worrying that if he ate one drunken pancake, he would become fat. When I baked delicious cookies, H would refuse to eat any and would get angry at me for baking them. The list goes on. The general gist basically being, H was definitely in the throes of some kind of eating disorder, which I was too young and stupid to correctly identify.

    And while it was/is bad for him, and I feel sorry that someone who is such an awesome person and so attractive feels so shitty about his body, it was also bad for me. It made me with my nineteen-year-old body confidence feel self-conscious and weird. If H thought HIS thighs were too fat, what did he think of mine? H’s ribs were visible, mine weren’t; was I fat? H spent hours working out if he ate a burger, I ate burgers all the time; did I need to work out?

    Somehow I had avoided a lot of the shame and shittiness associated with being female and eating… And then H gave me a massive, high-intensity dose of it. I couldn’t even TALK about food in front of H (or my next boyfriend, or the one after that…) and suddenly eating became like pooping – everyone knew I must do it, but I couldn’t let anyone SEE it happen. It took years
    (and living with a partner) before I felt able to eat a burger in public again.

    TL;DR = Hearing people dissing the way people-who-aren’t-you look can still damage you. It is totally cool and awesome and acceptable for you to draw boundaries in your relationship and ask your partner not to do X in front of you.

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