For context, my girlfriend and I have been dating for about a year now, and we're really close, especially when it comes to talking things over. We would both describe ourselves as nerds, and would never normally really care too much about how other people judge us.

So...

Fairly soon after we'd started dating, she revealed to me that she often didn't feel brilliant about her body image. I responded by repeatedly telling her how gorgeous I find her, which, after a bit of time, appeared to clear things up pretty well. However, this has recently reared its head again, and I would really like a way of finding a cure for this, rather than a bandage for it.

Even without being totally biased as her boyfriend, she is nowhere near overweight (she's slim, and is a regular, if casual, runner), but I can't seem to get her to believe that or understand it. Things did develop a little bit recently, when she, whilst we were discussing this, having thought about it for a bit, thought that it might come down to her being worried about not being healthy enough - which was why my attempts at reassuring her as to how beautiful she is has reduce in its efficacy.

The other factor in this is that family members have, in the past, not helped her in her body image (or just in general about her appearance - telling her that I won't like her if she doesn't put makeup on before dates with me - although I have convinced her that it's entirely the opposite, I'd be more offended if she did!) - for instance in describing her, in relation to her even thinner sister, as 'the stocky one' in the family. One family member in particular has hypochondria, especially about obesity, which has led her to the opinion that almost all of the country is obese.

Basically, how can I make my girlfriend feel better about herself? I am slightly worried that, because she can be extremely determined, this might end up reaching the point of anorexia if she puts her mind to it, or, that if I convince her not to do anything, that she might end up feeling worse about herself.

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I can relate to the feeling of being nerd and judged for my outer appearance (Chinese) quite well. So I like the fact you encourage her with words and I admire your courage to share this publicly.

My answer is mixed version of personal and professional experience (coach/trainer not therapist) as well as skills that I have required on trainings about human behaviour and the mind.

Language

It's great that you tell she's gorgeous and slender. Keep that that up. You're what you tell yourself. Even though she might tell you the opposite her subconscious will eventually believe you (that's why it probably stopped the first time).

I'll give you an example: Imagine yourself standing before a mirror and saying "I'm stupid." a hundred times over in an hour. How do think you'll feel then? What do you see when I tell you not to think of the pink elephant? ;)

The Social Environment

As I told you before language affects us. So do the people around us. In your case it sounds to me that what her family does is basically indirectly or directly telling her she's "fat". The same affect applies she can try to resist her subconscious won't let her.

What can you do to change that social environment into a positive one?

Emotions are Infectious

Speech is one part of the equation. Emotions are another thing altogether. If you say something like "You're the sexiest woman alive." and don't believe it yourself - then the other person will be skeptical. To make her feel good you need to feel good yourself. This is easy because you're doing it already - great job on that front.

You see when you feel good nothing can touch you. So when she's happy it's easier for her to overcome the feeling of insecurity regarding her body. What other things can you do to make her laugh, feel happy, loved etc. to strengthen her basic confidence?

Provocative Style (Advanced)

This is a little bit tricky. It needs practice and empathy to work properly. You'll create resistance on other side without hurting someone. What I often experience are people who say "No you're wrong, life really sucks." when I tell them life is good. If I feel like the person always disagrees regardless of what I say I apply the provocative style. It's easy explained: You agree with whatever they say without using irony. Here are some ground rules

  • Only use generalizations (everbody, people, women)
  • Agree with whatever they say (Yes and)
  • Exeggarate in a funny way (all women should be fat to make man feel good about themselves)
  • Don't be ironic with your tone

Let me give you an example:

Other person: "My life sucks." Me: "Yeah, it does. People shouldn't be happy that's not good for them." Other person: "What?" Me: "I agree. Life can't be good and people should suffer." Other: "I'm not like that..."

You do something that the other person doesn't expect which will create confusion at first and resistance second. This is good because she now has an intrinsic motivation to change herself.

I hope this helps. If you have anymore question feel free to ask :)

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    Thank you very much for your reply. I'll try out your suggestions. Thank you for your help! – DaveThePerson Oct 14 at 12:40
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    Do you mean "sarcastic" instead of "ironic"? I'm unable to see what irony is possible here. – GoodDeeds Oct 14 at 19:28
  • @GoodDeeds Most, if not all, of the suggested responses are ironic, in the sense that "the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect," (first definition of irony to appear in Google). I think what Dr4gon means is the fact that the responses are ironic should not be revealed deliberately through tone, manner, etc. Perhaps the advice could be "play it straight", or "keep it deadpan" (although, deadpan might imply lack of emotion, whereas appearing to agree might require a bit more acting). – Joshua Taylor Oct 15 at 0:46
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    @GoodDeeds Languages change. For some reason (likely because irony and sarcasm is kind of hard to grasp), "ironic" now means what "sarcastic" used to mean (while "sarcastic" seems to mean the same thing, but harsher). I didn't find any replacement for "irony", sadly - it just seems to complicated for most people to reliably get. Remember the Morissette "Ironic" era, where "irony" basically meant "bad luck"? :) – Luaan Oct 15 at 7:31
  • @GoodDeeds I think it goes in the same corner, see the "definition". Both of them are bad because you need be sincere with your exaggeration and your statement in general. Otherwise you'll hurt the feelings of that person because either you mean the opposite (irony) or you mock them (irony + looking down). I know it's counter intuitive at first. I can promise you this works great even in therapy, see the founder Frank Farrelly. – Dr4gon Oct 15 at 7:54

I am (or at least used to be) in the same situation as your girlfriend. My mother kept telling me I need to watch my weight for the past few years. I grew up with an older brother repeating how ugly I am every chance he got. I dropped almost 10 kilos in the past year and gained a lot of muscle, but still feel ugly and fat. It just happens less often than it used to.

There is actually not much you can do to help her with that. You might want to suggest she gets some professional help. She seems to have unresolved issues with her appearence that a professional therapist could work on with her.

What you can do is give her support. Try to acknowledge the way she sees herself, instead of reponding to her by saying she is gorgeous. You can try to make her question herself if you want, but it would probably be better to not negate the experience she is having. For example, you could direct her attention to something else.

Her: Look at my belly, it's so full of fat

You: I am sorry you feel that way about it. I personally find it very cute. Actually, as much as your gorgeous shoulders.

Try to use some feature she is not insecure about when you point her attention to some other part of her body.

Also, you might want to read into body dysmorphia. Not saying she has that, but it might be a possibility, and reading about can give both of you pointers on the matter and on seeking external help.

Good luck on that journey and thank you for caring about her and wanting to help her.

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    Thank you, I'll take a look at that, but I'm not certain that therapy would help - it might just turn something which she doesn't see as too scary into a really terrifying thing (that's something that her parents often do which just makes various academic things worse). But other than that, they sound like great ideas, thanks!!! And especially thanks for the link! – DaveThePerson Oct 14 at 9:49

In addition to what other people have already said, you can also do those things:

First, compliment your girlfriend about things that aren't body related. Things like: "You are so smart, creative, funny, etc...". This will increase her self-esteem and studies have shown that people with better self-esteem are more satisfied by there body:

Self-esteem was the most important predictor of body dissatisfaction, with females with low self-esteem experiencing more body dissatisfaction than those with high self-esteem.

(Griffiths & McCabe, 2000, p. 312)


In relation to the previous point, I will also argue to not complimenting her on her body at all.

This is probably counter-intuitive but, if you tell her "you look beautiful", she might wonder:

What will happen if I gain weight? Or if I start having wrinkles? Will he still love me?

This will put more pressure on your girlfriend to "look good" (whatever that mean). And any change in her body might decrease her self-image.

So, what I will suggest doing instead is saying things like:

You will always look beautiful to my eyes.

This way you are telling her that she is beautiful but that it as nothing to do with how she actually look.

You can also use:

Your inside is so beautiful that I can't even see the outside.

(but be careful with this one, it might suggest that she is ugly but, since she is also nice/funny/whatever, it's okay).


This last point is more about you. Try to avoid making comment about how other people look. Thinks like "Wahoo, she is fat!" and "Did you saw her makeup? It was so ugly!" are to avoid.

When you talk about those subjects, you show that you care about how other people look. This will naturally lead your girlfriend to think that you care about how she looks (since you care about other people look, why wouldn't you care about her look?) and this will put more pressure your girlfriend to "look good". Which, in turn, might lead her to think she is "ugly".

You can't "make" her feel one way or the other.

I've been married for a long time now, and I've learned that I cannot change my wife's body image. The images she sees daily on TV, in magazines, etc, are just too many. There's a chorus of "you don't measure up" that women are subjected to on a regular basis, and it's your one voice against many.

What you can do, however, is accept her for who she is. If you want to encourage her to feel better about herself, don't focus on trying to combat that message about body image. Focus on her. Spend time with her. Tell her what she does well (and be sincere about it). Do things that she enjoys, and tell her you are having a good time doing that. Encourage her in her work and hobbies. Remind her that she is worthy of being loved and then demonstrate it. Demonstrate her value to you. Those are the things that will help improve her self-image.

Another thing you can do is to ensure that she knows you will support her. Don't get into arguments with her family, don't try to separate her from her family, but do say things like, "I'm happy with how she looks" or "I would never think of someone I cared about as overweight" or "she's an amazing person that I love spending time with". That will send a positive message, yet not get you into arguments that you can't win.

An additional note: don't downplay the things she doesn't like about herself. Instead, build up the things that she does like about herself. Compliment the things that you notice. That's a slow process, but helping her self-acceptance by enabling her to see that others notice the things that she likes will help her to gain a more positive image.

The other factor in this is that family members have, in the past, not helped her in her body image (or just in general about her appearance - telling her that I won't like her if she doesn't put makeup on before dates with me - although I have convinced her that it's entirely the opposite, I'd be more offended if she did!) - for instance in describing her, in relation to her even thinner sister, as 'the stocky one' in the family.

Just addressing this one issue, there's an old proverb that is totally applicable here.

"Looks don't mean anything. Real beauty is what's written in the heart."

You'll need to go a little careful saying this, but talk to her about the following. No matter how good looking she is now, as the years pass, those looks will fade. However, the beauty that's in her heart, which is the one that really matters, will never fade away. That's why you're in love with who she is, not what she looks like.

By letting her know that makeup doesn't matter, you've already laid the foundation for this, just take the time now to make it 100% clear how you feel.

having thought about it for a bit, thought that it might come down to her being worried about not being healthy enough

There are many resources online about improving health. It is a very serious issue and should be addressed. One of the most important things she could do is educate herself about diet and the effects of what she eats has on her body. If she already runs that is a good step in the right direction. Encourage her to find a type of exercise that she finds enjoyable and can stick with, be it running, yoga or weightlifting to name a few.

Basically, how can I make my girlfriend feel better about herself? I am slightly worried that, because she can be extremely determined, this might end up reaching the point of anorexia if she puts her mind to it, or, that if I convince her not to do anything, that she might end up feeling worse about herself.

If she is worried about her health that is not something that should be shamed. Helping her on the path to getting fit and healthy will not only give her a feeling of accomplishment, but she will feel better as she is actively working towards being healthy and will be in control of her source of anxiety rather than controlled by it.

One family member in particular has hypochondria, especially about obesity, which has led her to the opinion that almost all of the country is obese.

Assuming American this is wrong, it is only about 1/4 of the country. From The CDC

The prevalence of obesity was 39.8% and affected about 93.3 million of US adults in 2015~2016

Good luck to you and have a happy long life.

  • "If she is worried about her health that is not something that should be shamed." - could you explain why you think that is, given the context? It sounds like OP is concerned that the girlfriend may be / become so worried it becomes unhealthy. Is there a way that OP can encourage her to be mindful of her health, without going too far? (And, welcome to IPS! I encourage you to check out the tour and How do I write a good answer? to learn more about the site's guidelines.) – Em C Oct 16 at 0:39
  • @EmC "could you explain why you think that is, given the context?" - Why would it? Worrying about your health is a natural adult thing to do, but people can tread the wrong path with the misinformation out there where they end up engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as bulimia as an example. That is why OP should help her down the actual path to a healthy longer life through research. By learning about healthy living she can engage in behaviors that allow her to directly take control of her health alleviating health/image related anxiety because she has control over the source of the anxiety. – Poppoff Tarts Oct 20 at 6:05

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