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Body image and low self-esteem in relationships

While it’s nice to imagine a time when we can all be comfortable with our bodies, and focus on being healthy and happy instead of worrying about what we look like or what others think of us, we’re not quite there yet. Research shows that both men and women struggle with body image. This affects our self-esteem, which in turn has an impact on our overall relationship satisfaction [1].

In a relationship, many of us want to present our best sides to our partners. If you’re dating, or in the early days of a relationship, you might find yourself drowning in insecurities. When you’re trying to convince others to look at you and see the best, it’s easy to look at yourself and see the worst. You might find yourself fixating on your flaws and insecurities, questioning how someone could possibly be attracted to you, let alone fall in love with you.

Be kinder to yourself


Your partner, prospective or actual, may well be doing the exact same thing with their own insecurities. Think about a time when a partner has expressed their insecurity about something they see as a flaw. When you love or care for someone, the things they worry about are often the things you love most about them. For example, your partner might think they don’t have the best singing voice – and maybe they don’t – but your heart melts when you hear them singing along to the radio. You might think you’re a terrible dancer but, even if you are, there’s nobody your partner would rather dance with. 

Now think about this in terms of body image. Have you ever been totally in love with the things a partner worries about – an untameable curl, an eyelid freckle, or a misshapen finger? Well, it works both ways. Even if you think you have a wonky nose, silly eyebrows and a doughy tummy, your partner can still see you as the cutest, cuddliest creature on the planet.

Most of us are our own worst critics. What you think of as your flaws could be just the thing your partner finds most adorable about you. In studies of body image, both men and women were less satisfied with their own bodies than their partners were [2] [3]. So, knowing that the person most likely to be most critical of your body is you, could you give yourself a break and try to celebrate the body you’ve got?

Be kinder to your partner 


If your partner has a negative body image, the first thing you can do is the most obvious thing – be kinder to them. Sincerity is essential here. It’s no good throwing out random compliments for the sake of it if your partner doesn’t believe you. While you can’t be 100% responsible for how someone feels about themselves, studies do suggest that the more things your partner believes you like about them, the more loved they will feel [4]. 

This can work in your favour too. When you see your partner in a positive light, you are more likely to feel satisfied with your relationship. This is worth bearing in mind if you think you might be prone to taking your partner for granted. And, the more loved your partner feels, the more optimistic you are both likely to be about the future of your relationship [4].

This, of course, can apply in any relationship – if you’re reading this because you’re seeking advice for a friend, you could do well to remember it in your own relationships too.

How to show appreciation


You might be wondering how to go about showing your partner that you appreciate all their components. While the specifics are very much down to the individual, most of us fall into one of a few categories, and there are certain things you can look out for to notice the types of things that your partner is likely to appreciate.

Some people, for example, are moved most by words of love – simply being told, “You have lovely hands” is enough, provided it’s delivered sincerely. Some rely on physical intimacy, which doesn’t just mean sex – it can also include back rubs, cuddling or actually holding those lovely hands. Others need quality time together to know that they are truly loved, or little practical gestures like surprise cups of tea (delivered into their lovely hands).

This isn’t just about paying them compliments—it’s about demonstrating that you love being with them. Try a few different things. Notice what your partner appreciates most, and try to do more of that.

Of course, if your partner has very low self-esteem, it can be difficult for any kind of positivity to sink in [4]. If this sounds like you, try to be more considerate to your partner in general, and attentive to their insecurities. If it’s something they’re trying to change, support their efforts. If it’s something they can’t change, keep reminding them that you wouldn’t want them to even if they could.

We all have things we don’t like about ourselves and we all want our partners to see us in a positive light. But even people with low self-esteem feel happier in their relationships when they truly feel that their partners love and appreciate them [4] – weird body parts and all.

Getting support


This article is about general body image worries. If you are worried that your partner has an eating disorder, or consistently negative body image, seek external help. You can find many routes to support through the eating disorder charity, Beat.

References


[1] Tager, D., Good, G., and Morrison, J. B. (2006). Our bodies, ourselves revisited: Male body image and psychological wellbeing. International Journal of Men’s Heath, 5, 228-237.

[2] Markey, C. N., & Markey, P. M. (2006). Romantic relationships and body satisfaction among young women. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 35, 256-264.

[3] Goins, L. B., Markey, and C.N., Gillen, M.M. (2012). Understanding Men’s Body Image in the Context of Their Romantic Relationships. American Journal of Men’s Health, 6(3), 240-248.

[4] Murray, S., Holmes, J., Griffin, D., Bellavia, G., and Rose, P. (2001). The mismeasure of love: how self-doubt contaminates relationship beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol.27(4), pp.423-436.

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