Conversations: Being in a Relationship When You Don’t Like Your Body
By Kiki Zeldes —
The conversation below is excerpted from an online discussion on relationships, identity, and sexuality that OBOS hosted while compiling the last print edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” You can learn more about the discussion and read bios of the participants.
Alexa: I’m currently living with my monogamous boyfriend of two years. As a larger woman (size 18–20, 230 pounds), I occasionally engaged in relationships in my teen years that I didn’t particularly want to be in because I felt lucky that somebody would be interested in me in spite of my body. Now I am with a great guy who is attracted to me for many reasons, but partly because of my body.
I recently realized that physical attraction has a lot to do with intimacy, and what I actually resent is that the contemporary media have decided on one type of body that is acceptable to find attractive.
Sophia: I am 5’3″ and on average 140 pounds. I’ve always wished I were thinner and taller. I used to wear loose, shapeless clothes to hide my body. My husband, who is tall and lean, told me that he loved my “curves.” I had a hard time believing that he was not just flattering me.
When I got pregnant, I was a little worried about how big I was getting, but my husband just marveled at how my body was changing in response to pregnancy. We had some of our most amazing sex while I was pregnant. After pregnancy, my husband was awestruck by the way my body changed and slowly got back to prepregnancy condition.
I’ve come to terms with my body. I will never have the body that will allow me to wear whatever I want, but I don’t wear baggy clothes anymore. I exercise and eat sensibly for my health, not because I want to get to a certain dress size.
Lydia: For me, the experience of being in a sexual relationship has been incredibly grounding in terms of enjoying my own physicality and the physical presence of others (namely, my girlfriend). I feel like I have permission to really pay attention to her body in a way that few settings in our culture offer us: the joy of getting to know, intimately, the shapes and smells and movements of another bodily person. And then the reverse: having someone else become so familiar with my own body and take such obvious delight in it.
Victoria: Your description of how your sexuality grounded you in your own physicality really resonates for me. When I started college and started to come into my identity as a feminist, I started to really think about what I’d been taught about sex and my body, and to consciously reject the shame and guilt I’d internalized. I started to masturbate. I read erotica. I had sex for the first time. I talked more openly about sex with other women. And I felt more and more present in my own body, and more and more comfortable with my own sexuality and sexual desire.
Now, at thirty-three, after eight years of marriage and two babies, I feel lost again in my own body. I’m not happy with what I see in the mirror. I’m not happy with my squishy, stretchy belly. I’m not happy with the width of my hips or the jiggle in my thighs. I don’t feel the kind of sexual desire that used to make me want to ignore everything else—homework, messy apartment, no food on the shelves—and snuggle up to my partner. And I know, I know, I should feel beautiful and proud of carrying babies and embrace the new shape of my body. But it feels really empty when I say those things to myself, or when my partner says them to me.
My two-year-old just peed all over the floor. And I wonder why I don’t feel sexy?
Cody: I’ve just started dating a genderqueer transmasculine person who has had top surgery and takes T [testosterone]. I’m actually surprised to find myself feeling a kind of body discontentment I haven’t experienced in a long time. Learning the geographies of my lover’s body, hir flat chest and strong arms, small hips and stubbly cheeks, chest hair and defined abs, I’m craving a body like hirs and I can’t figure out if it’s about gender or about old habits of self-hate. Why do I want to be shaped like that? Is it because I’ve always struggled with wishing I was smaller and didn’t have these wide hips, or is it because I want to transition in the ways that ze has and be read as a boy?
It’s a new thing to me, to actually be jealous of a lover’s body. I’m hoping I can keep it manifested in sweet affirmations of how hot ze is, in love notes and whispered intimacies, and I can tell hir all the time that ze’s a stud. I’m hoping it’s not something that makes me sad when we’re in bed together, and I feel too big and soft in all the wrong places, and I’m being held by this person whose body is perfect.
Danielle: It was incredibly difficult trying to be in relationships before I transitioned, because someone telling me I was handsome was actually a bad thing. I didn’t enjoy being “handsome”; what I really wanted was to be told I was pretty.
So finding someone who would tell me that was pretty incredible. And then, as I went on hormones and my body started changing, it was likewise amazing to have someone tell me the changes were making me that much more attractive to her. And having her reassure me about the things I did like about my body— smooth skin after shaving, my growing breasts, my hair—was an important part of me finding enjoyment in my own body.
Chloe: Part of the reason having sex with other trans women was important to me early on was that it helped me come to love my own body, too. Seeing them and their body however it was—pre-op, non-op, post-op whatever—as beautiful helped me see my own body as beautiful, too. Part of it was coming to understand how my body worked with new hormones, new feelings, new body parts. Part of it was finally feeling comfortable in my physical body. But part of it was also unlearning cultural stereotypes and socialized messages that make me and other women, trans or cis, hate our bodies.
Heidi: My ex-husband was not happy with my body because I have a very small chest. He used to encourage me to get breast implants, which we could not afford. He would watch porn that depicted women with large breasts and make occasional comments that really made me feel self-conscious. I spent a lot of money on specially made push-up bras in an attempt to look as close to his standard as I could. Whenever I was naked around him, I was always very aware of my chest and never entirely comfortable.
Now I try not to care, but I do occasionally feel self-conscious about it. It has become a pet peeve of mine that natural is no longer good enough when it comes to breasts. It also really bothers me that I let him make me feel inadequate (and sometimes still do). He has some extra weight on him, which didn’t bother me at all, but I now see it as an example of a double standard in which women’s bodies are typically more rigidly scrutinized than men’s bodies.
Since having children I haven’t been with a partner who does not have experience with a mother who has given birth vaginally, as I am worried about what they would think about the different color and shape that comes with birth. I am also worried about the fact that I don’t like to shave, and I have been told that pubic hair is no longer “normal” on women. As much as I like to think that I am happy with my body, and as hard as I try to make that a reality, it really isn’t, and it affects many aspects of my life, including my relationships with others.
Victoria: I share your frustration with the idea that natural breasts (and normal pubic hair!) are no longer considered sexy. Honestly, I think someday people are going to look back at breast implants and Botox and bikini waxing and think our culture was completely bizarre.
Cathryn: Pubic hair is totally normal on women—don’t buy into that myth. As for the rest, I can relate. I feel much, much better about my body these days, ironically when it’s physically broken (multiple back injuries), but there is plenty I would change if I could. But at sixty, just being able to get out of bed in the morning with minimal pain is very nice and serves to put the rest in perspective.
Nidea: There was a point in my life that I hated my body. I didn’t fit that saucy Latina image; I was a lost bird that wore oversize clothing. Sexual abuse didn’t help my insecurities. I needed to find ways to make myself feel invisible to men and sometimes would even cut myself over it. Family would call me fat, so I was not only dirty but fat, and all I wanted to do was hide under anything I could.
But as I matured, my relationships became a safe haven. Relationships provided a safe and healthy space for me to learn about myself and define and redefine myself. For eight out of the past nine years of my life I had a boyfriend, and I have been single for the past year. I am slowly integrating myself into the single scene, and I am trying to maintain the confidence I built within the security of a relationship—as well as avoid the stereotypes that exist to define and confine me before I can speak for myself.
Zoe: I’ve always thought that I had a cute face and pretty features, but when I think about my actual body, I start to have doubts. I’m taller than most women, and in heels I’m over six feet. In college, I hung out with a group of girls who were all about 5’2″ (if that) and I would always joke that I felt like Gandalf and the Hobbits because I towered over them. To top it off, I’m not a small girl—size 14—so everything about me just felt big.
I don’t actually know if I could be with a man I thought was smaller than I am. I would be far too insecure. I’ve dated a lot of men who are around my size and even that feels strange to me—I tend to feel more comfortable with either larger men or African-American men, who I think are more used to my body type and who I have more in common with culturally. The relationships I’ve been in that have been most successful have been the ones where my partner reassures me that I’m sexy, attractive, and that he desires me.
Madigan: When I was fifteen it was discovered that I had been born without a uterus or a vagina, a condition known as Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome (MRKH). The diagnosis came after much medical trauma, as I was initially misdiagnosed and put through a painful and unnecessary surgery. I was immediately pressured to have a neovagina created but was too ashamed and shocked to deal with anything at the time. Over the next three years, I hid this secret and was deeply ashamed of my body. I thought if anyone knew, they would reject me or think I was a freak. Being sexual and/or intimate under these circumstances was difficult and painful. I was never able to be sexually present or enjoy myself, as I was always focused on keeping people from penetrating me.
At the age of eighteen, I was in my first long-term relationship with my first love. I decided to be up front about MRKH, and this was a very positive experience for me. A couple of months later, we were attending a queer conference and I stumbled across a workshop on intersex. This workshop completely changed my life. I was finally able to feel the emotions I had stuffed away at fifteen. I was able to get angry at the way I had been treated by doctors, about the assumptions that had been made about me and my body, and about the pressure put on me by doctors that I need to be “fixed”—that even if I wasn’t ready at fifteen, I would eventually “have” to have a vagina created. (Lord knows we can’t have a woman running around without a vagina!) I also decided that never, ever again would I be sexual with someone who didn’t know about my MRKH beforehand. I was terrified of rejection but have never experienced this when I have been honest. I made the decision that I would keep my body as it is and have finally learned to love and enjoy my sexuality again.
Cathryn: Madigan, thank you for telling about how intersexed bodies are just as “normal” as so-called standard bodies. The medical establishment tries to enforce standard bodies on those who may well be comfortable, with some support, in nonstandard intersexed bodies. Bless you.
Miriam: For as long as I can remember, my mother complained about her body. No matter what her size, she always felt she was fat and was very vocal about this. My older sister was always heavy, and her weight was often criticized or discussed at home (and by strangers in public).
Almost every girl I knew complained about her body—about her stretch marks, the size of her hips, her breasts, her thighs. I always kept quiet. I was chubby and felt like if I complained, I wouldn’t get the reassurance that so many girls were looking for. Or if someone reassured me that I wasn’t fat, I would feel like they were lying. And I didn’t want to be part of that culture that encourages body snarking, either toward self or toward others.
I don’t talk about how I feel about my body. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I question how someone can be attracted to it, but I know that my insecurities come from myself. I’ve found that if I fake confidence in my body, I start to feel it. I can be with a lover and not want to be seen naked in the light, but if I pretend I’m comfortable with it I quickly become comfortable. I’ve decided that I don’t want those moments of not liking my body to affect my relationships.
Faith: I had weight issues when I was in high school. I lost over thirty pounds by the end of it through strict calorie counting and exercise, and have kept it off. However, the feelings of self-loathing from that time period have always stuck with me and my eating is still somewhat disordered because of it.
When I lost my virginity (which was after I’d lost the weight), I remember really not wanting my boyfriend to look at me. I had had so many feelings of shame about my body that it seemed weird to want attention in that kind of way. It didn’t dawn on me until later that sex is about appreciating each other’s bodies, not to mention truly feeling comfortable in your own. Sex in relationship actually helped me get over a lot of my body issues. I had never been comfortable being naked, even by myself, until someone else had showed me their appreciation for my naked body.
EJM: I grew up with severe eczema. Due to the constant peeling and scars on my body, I have very discolored and uneven skin. In previous relationships, my skin was something unsexy and shameful. I rarely liked the lights on during sex, and if my partner commented on my skin, even the most benign comment, it would put me into a negative thought pattern.
My [current] partner takes an active part in taking care of my skin. When I scratch while I sleep, he will wake up to hold my hand to stop me. On my bad days, he will help me put ointment and creams to ease the pain on my skin. Even this very little gesture has made me feel very comfortable with my skin and showing my skin to him. Because he is a part of my regimen of skin care and prevention, it has been less of a burden. With his help, my skin feels better and it also feels wanted.
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