My wife has put on weight recently and I think she looks amazing. I have always found her incredibly attractive, but her new shape is absolutely beautiful. However, she hates it and has started fasting and running to try to get rid of it. I know that her body is none of my business but – apart from anything else – she’s giving herself hell. What do I say?
With love, what you say matters far less than it should. Suck on this statistic from Elise Loehnen’s excellently angry book On Our Best Behaviour: “Fatness is so feared in our culture that according to a survey conducted by the Yale University Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Health … 15 per cent of respondents [of whom 83 per cent were women] would rather die 10 years early than be fat.” The survey also revealed that 30 per cent would rather be divorced, 14 per cent would choose alcoholism and 25 per cent would give up the ability to have children. So any kind, passionate and reassuring words that you have for your wife may just be a sticking plaster for a huge, gaping, core wound. We, as women, tend to see our bodies through the eyes of the world. We do not own our own body image; it is filtered through a toxic diet culture that is with many of us every minute of every day.
It can feel much easier to exist in the world as an “appropriately sized” woman. And FFS don’t start proclaiming about BMI and heart health in the comments, people, because we are not talking about life-threateningly fat situations. We are talking about the need to be slightly thinner than is natural to our body type. Slightly leaner. The sort of thinness that comes with deprivation and “obedience” and discipline. Lying in bed every night listing what you have eaten and establishing whether you have been “good” or “bad”. Exercising to the point of injury. Telling ourselves that our bodies aren’t here to please anyone else, all the while knowing that we might do any number of deals with the devil to just … win. To be congratulated for making ourselves smaller; for taking up less space. Because that is “feminine”.
Annabel has been fat and she has been slim-ish. Years ago, when she lost a load of weight through heartbreak, running six miles before work, eating white fish and asparagus, and weeping, Emilie was the only person among the cacophony of “Well done, you look AMAZING” to quietly say, “You always looked amazing.” Two male reactions stand out in her memory as helping – or at least, not feeding her constant, bottomless self-loathing. One, when she pointed out she had lost a stone, looked nonplussed and said, “It’s just not about that for me.” The other, when she apologised for not being thinner, shrugged, and said, “You’re just Annabel-sized.” Her body was irrelevant (within reason) when it came to connection.
We shared your problem with Alex Light, author of You Are Not a Before Picture and brilliant diet culture commentator (Readers, if any of you struggle with body image and wonder why you feel so bad about your body, please follow her on Instagram), who says, “While it’s, of course, positive to reassure your wife that you think she looks great, ultimately, it’s vital to remind her that the reasons you – and all of the people around her – love her have nothing to do with how she looks.” She reminded us that much of your wife’s distress will have been formed against the wallpaper of “a lifetime of societal conditioning around fluctuating bodies”. Remember those Heat magazine covers with “fat” stars who were emphatically not fat, just shot at a bad angle or a little curvier than we had come to demand of them? Your wife grew up with that. We all grew up with that. Do not underestimate the power of this constant cultural reinforcement. Can you pinch more than an inch, Bewildered?
Please don’t use your tendresse for her newfound curves as a way to hold on to them. It’s too much interference while she is distressed. The stuff at stake here isn’t her relationship with you, it’s her relationship with herself. Alex Light continues: “What you can do to help ease her concerns about her body is continue to be supportive, reiterate how great she looks and how attractive you find her, and encourage her to be kind to herself. You could point out that she would treat someone else in her position with compassion, not loathing, so that’s exactly what she deserves.”
This stuff has become very politicised, but actually living it is deeply emotional and very tiring. The weight may come and go, but you have the opportunity to show her that she means so much more than her jeans size. She probably won’t completely believe you. But she might believe you a little bit. And that is a beautiful thing.
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