I’ve been with my boyfriend for 3 years. We are both in our early thirties. When I first met him, I thought he was very attractive, and I still do. I like skinny dudes and he was skinny when I met him. About seven months into our relationship he put on about 15-20 pounds, which I found less attractive. His stomach was no longer flat and he carried weight around his middle in general. I expected him to lose it quickly, but he didn’t. Eventually I brought it up and he said I should have just said so and that he hadn’t really noticed, and that he would start a diet and exercise more.
It didn’t stick for long and since then every few months I ask him if he is still on his diet (which is all I do, I don’t bother him about it otherwise) and he gets upset and says yes (and sometimes no) and we had a fight about it recently where he said he wants me to stop asking.
I have stayed the same size, and I know he would not be super happy if I put on weight, since his preference is strongly skewed toward very thin women. I feel that while I do maintain my weight for my own sake, I also do it because I know he likes the way I look and I want him to be maximum attracted to me. That it’s been over 2 years makes me feel that it doesn’t matter to him if I am maximum attracted to him.
I am having a hard time distancing myself from this and figuring out what is right. I am a very goal-oriented person and also a “pusher,” one of those best/worst qualities — on the one hand, I always try my hardest at everything and I’ve accomplished some good things because of that, but on the other hand I also find it difficult to just let other people go at a slower pace and not micromanage. I try to rein this in, but I can’t tell if it applies in this situation. I want my boyfriend to stay in (reasonable) shape as we get older, but when I looked in the archives, particularly at #284, I saw people calling this mentality terrible and controlling (although I don’t think I’m like that guy, who sounds like he wants a different girlfriend. I don’t want a different boyfriend, I just want him to look a little more like he did when we met). Should I just deal with it, or is there a better way to approach this issue?
– sad, possibly a jerk
Dear Sad, Possibly A Jerk,
Watch (or rewatch) the movie Vertigo sometime. Scottie, played by Jimmy Stewart, becomes obsessed with a woman named Madeleine, played by Kim Novak. Things don’t work out between them. Later, he runs into a woman named Judy (also played by Kim Novak), who looks exactly like Madeleine except, not. Madeleine was blond and coiffed and wealthy and dressed in upscale, tasteful, elegant, “classy” clothes. She wore just the ‘right’ amount of makeup. Judy is “a tawdry redhead” and dresses in brassy, “cheap,” bright colors and wears very heavy makeup. Scottie sees Judy’s resemblance to Madeleine, who conformed utterly to a certain kind of beauty standard, and he’s haunted by that potential and the memory of Madeleine. So he buys Judy new clothes and a makeover and pressures her to dress like and do her hair like Madeleine, to become his Madeleine. There are many examples of vertigo as a paralyzing fear of and attraction to heights in the film, but this makeover sequence and the way Scottie browbeats Judy creates a different kind of emotional vertigo for the audience. Like Scottie, we are curious, and we want to see Judy’s transformation into Madeline so badly that we’re complicit in the horrific emotional abuse and destruction of “Judy” for the sake of even a glimpse of Madeline. Lots of movies have makeover montages, but director Alfred Hitchcock and costume designer Edith Head mix the pleasurable, aspirational aspects of transformation with the oppressiveness and destruction that comes with having this imposed by others. For audiences, especially audiences at the time, there is a perversity in Judy’s refusal to conform to the beauty standard because she’s so very close to it, like, if you could choose to look like Madeline why on earth wouldn’t you? Judy loves Scottie, so why wouldn’t she want to be “maximum attractive” to him?
My advice to you, Sad, is to make sure that you are not hurting the man you love in order to chase a memory or a status symbol. He is not a project or raw material to be sculpted (nor are you), he is a being and a universe entire. Bodies change with time, and if this becomes a lifelong relationship both of you are going to go through many changes in looks and abilities. What if you could decide to enjoy and love your body and your boyfriend’s body to the fullest extent that you can? Have sex as often and as joyfully as you can. Touch his body and your own with love and awe for the things it can do. Revel in its solidness and strength and in the miracle of his warm skin under your hands. If you like to dance, then dance. Someday you are going to be very old and you are going to look at pictures from this time in your life and think “why did I waste a single minute hating our bodies when we were so goddamn beautiful.”
One very concrete thing you can do is to practice saying only kind things about your boyfriend’s body and your own and about all the bodies that you see. Ask him to do the same, and refuse to tolerate any double standard that makes you feel dissatisfied with your own body. Having a preference about who you’re attracted to is one thing (though let’s not pretend that these preferences just spontaneously develop independent of the bombardment of idealized images of thin people and damaging shaming and denigration of not-thin people), mentioning and proclaiming and reinforcing that preference as a way to police the bodies of people in your life is quite another. If you and your boyfriend can wean yourselves off of negative self-talk, stop pointing out “figure flaws” on your own or other people’s bodies, let go entirely of the idea of what people should and should not wear or show on their own bodies, stop bonding over negative body talk and shame, and phase out consumption of magazines and other media that talk about bodies as a collection of “problem areas,” these things will go a long way toward increasing self- and mutual acceptance and joy that can last you both through all sorts of physical changes.
If your boyfriend can’t agree to try out a “no negative body talk” practice, and if he insists that your body needs to look a certain way but rebels against that standard for himself, then you’ll know what to do. But if he’s just asking to be left alone about his diet and not scrutinized about his weight, and all else is light and love between you? Turn your ambition and your goal-setting energy to your own life instead of toward sabotaging something that makes you happy.
Recipe for Happiness, Khaborovsk or Anywhere Else, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
One grand boulevard with trees
with one grand cafe in sun
with strong black coffee in very small cups.
One not necessarily very beautiful
man or woman who loves you.
One fine day.
Please read the comments policy before adding your input. We have a strict “no-weight loss talk, no mention of specific weights, no promotion of dieting, no insulting your own or other people’s bodies” thing going on here and I’d like to keep it that way.
My comment derailing bingo card filled early today. We’ll try this another time.