How do you, as a husband, help a wife who is struggling with seeing herself as beautiful?
This is Keith, Sheila’s husband, and welcome my second installment of “Men’s Corner”!
Once a month, I’m going to write an article mostly aimed at Sheila’s male readers, but hopefully speaking in a way that is accessible to all. This month, Sheila has asked me to chime in on how a husband can help his wife with her body image issues. Yikes! Can anyone say “minefield”? This is an area many husbands feel great trepidation when approaching, but I hope to disperse that a bit and give you some practical hints on how to help.
Let me start by saying that this post is specifically about how a husband can handle his wife’s body image issues as this is a women’s blog. I recognize that studies show that 20-40% of men also struggle with body image issues.
Please don’t take the fact that I am only addressing the topic from the women’s side as lack of compassion for your plight. I encourage you to get the help you need from trusted sources for men’s health.
Now with that said, let’s get on to how we can help our wives in this area!
First of all, guys, it is very important to realize that for almost every woman this is a real struggle.
A negative self-image and negative self-talk is something most women battle with on a daily basis. My wife tells me that if you ask a woman to “name five things she hates about her body” she can give you that list within a matter of seconds. The only struggle she would have is limiting it to five!
For the majority of guys, though, this is completely foreign to our way of thinking. So much so that we can even tend to get a bit dismissive of our wife’s struggle. Sometimes we might even be tempted to think our wife is just saying negative things about herself as a way of fishing for compliments. Gentlemen, I can assure you, they are NOT.
From an all too young age, our wives have been bombarded by media and messages designed to make them discontent about their bodies. It is everywhere and it is relentless. Under this onslaught, even if they have healthy relationships all around them, they are always being pushed toward seeing their worth and value purely in how they look.
One of the most powerful things we can do for our wives – and our daughters! – is to push back against this message as hard as we can. And the first step is recognizing it and labelling it for the lie that it is. But what are some practical ways we can do that?
1. Don’t feed the stereotypes of attractiveness that are out there.
Magazine covers, movies, television shows and other media all tend to present an unrealistic idea of what the average woman looks like. Even if the movie/show/whatever is supposed to be about “average people”, the actors playing the roles are usually anything but average in height, weight or overall attractiveness. And don’t get me started about airbrushing and all that other nonsense!
We men can unwittingly buy into these stereotypes and then subtly or overtly express displeasure in aspects of our wife’s appearance as a result, sometimes without even realizing it. It probably goes without saying that this can be very damaging to her self-esteem and contribute massively to her body image issues.
Instead, we really need to be promoting the idea that beauty comes in many different shapes and sizes. I really enjoy British programs, because they tend to do a much better job of presenting a variety of body types and levels of attractiveness than we do over here in North America and I find that very refreshing.
Now this doesn’t mean you have to ignore serious health risks. Obesity and being overweight are medical conditions that are becoming increasingly frequent. They carry a heavy health burden and need to be addressed. But even if she does need to lose weight for health reasons, you can be the voice that helps your wife feel beautiful at any size. Support her pursuing a healthy lifestyle that means you will be active and healthy together for longer, but recognize that many women are already telling themselves, “I’ll be beautiful when I’m skinnier.” Do not be another voice contributing to that.
But many times what we as husbands are dealing with is a wife of average size who sighs and says something like, “I need to lose weight.” Instead of agreeing with her, a good question to ask would be why she feels that way. Is it truly for health reasons? Or does she secretly think you would love her more if she looked different. If so, be quick to reassure her that you love her unconditionally for who she is.
And if it truly is for health reasons, let her know you are willing to support her by making healthier life choice yourself and – most of all – ensure she knows that you love her the way she is right now.
Back about 6 months before I was pregnant, I realized that I had slipped into the “overweight” BMI category. I was shocked at first until I saw the stack of pizza boxes on our recycling bin and thought, “Oh, well that makes sense.”
I asked Connor if he thought that I looked bigger and the man handled it like a champ. He said, “Yeah, we’ve both put on some weight. I think you’re just as beautiful as ever, but we should probably work together to make sure that we get back on a healthy trajectory.”
With his help and his encouragement, by the time I got pregnant I had reached my goal and was a healthy BMI again!
But here’s the catch: for years before he had been building trust with me, never criticizing me for having cellulite or not being a size two. He had shown me so well that he finds me attractive whatever size I am that when I needed to lose weight to maintain good health I knew I could trust him that he was still attracted to me. So men, even if you have a wife who needs to lose weight, if you haven’t put in the leg work to build that trust, don’t expect the conversation to go well! Instead, take you time to show your wife how she can trust you when you say she’s beautiful and then, when the health question comes up, you may find you have more success and a more secure wife!
2. Don’t let her talk negatively about herself.
Women have a constant negative inner voice criticizing every aspect of their bodies. That’s why naming five things she hates is not a stretch for her! Never feed in to that and take every opportunity to confront that voice with words of truth and positive affirmation. When she says something like “My thighs are too fat.”, “My nose is too big”, for instance, then challenge her on it and ask “Why would you say that?” If she says something that you feel is untrue about her body then tell her. “Well frankly, honey, I disagree; I think your nose is beautiful.”
But most of all, remind her that every part of our bodies doesn’t have to be perfect in order for us to be attractive. That is a lie foisted onto us by a society intent on the commodification beauty. Don’t buy into it and help her not to buy into it either.
Does your marriage need some spicing up–and some fun?
3. Never compare her to other women
Or agree with her when she compares herself to other women. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Whether it is comparing possessions, life circumstances or our physical bodies, looking to others for our sense of identity is a terrible trap to fall into. As Christians, our value and worth are found in Christ. We are children of God, who made each of us unique and loves us unconditionally to the point that He was willing to die for us!
That is the well out of which our self-esteem and our identity needs to flow, not how we rank up against others. Comparing your wife to other women, even in jest, only reinforces all her insecurities. Even positive comparisons fuel the idea that we should judge ourselves according to others, which we know is a lie.
Always affirm your unconditional love for her and encourage her to find her value in Christ rather than her external appearance. So the next time she says “Oh, that woman is much prettier than me.” Don’t get trapped into comparison by either agreeing (Is there any guy dumb enough to do THAT?!?) or even over the top contradiction (which she will likely not believe anyway). A more positive approach would be to say: ”She may be beautiful, but so are you. And you are the one I love.”
4. Recognize that women’s bodies change with time and that is NORMAL.
I think I we all know what I mean here; time takes its toll on all of us. Sheila often describes this in her Girl Talks by pointing out things like “Once gravity happens it doesn’t UNhappen.” Having babies results in natural changes to the body which we all have to accept. (And don’t tell me about that one movie star who had three kids and still has a perfect figure – She has a personal trainer, a maid to clean the house, a cook to make meals for her and a nanny to watch her kids while she goes to the gym two hours every day!)
I was very encouraged to recently hear a husband at a marriage conference saying he felt that the mother of his four children should be proud of her post-baby figure because she “worked hard for it”. Let your wife know you signed on for the long haul. You know that means you will obviously both change as you age and you are okay with that. Sheila has begun sighing recently about the few wrinkles she is starting to get, but they don’t make her any less attractive to me.
It may sound sappy, but to me they are a testimony of the years when have spent together, a reminder of all we have been through. It is sad but true that society’s message is that while age in men may be considered attractive, women do not get the same treatment. In society’s distorted lens, a man at least has the possibility to age like a bottle of fine wine with the hope of looking better year by year.
Conversely, a woman feels she is combatting a losing battle just to keep what she once had. Have sympathy for your wife’s plight. Remember what I said about not comparing her to other women? Well one of those women is her former self! Refuse to buy into society’s double standard of beauty and encourage her not to as well. Reassure her that she is still beautiful to you in every stage of life.
From an all too young age, women have been bombarded by media and messages designed to make them discontent about their bodies. It is everywhere and it is relentless.
Now I can hear some of you men out there already saying, “But I DO say all those things and she is still always unsatisfied with her body.”
For some of you, you may be tempted to give up as she doesn’t seem to be listening when you try to encourage her. But let’s contemplate for a second why that might be happening.
First of all, your positive words of affirmation are not the only thing she is hearing. The voices that are out there encouraging her to be unsatisfied with her body cannot be switched off and they continue to work against the positive things you say. I read somewhere that on average, women have one negative thought about themselves every minute.
So you have to be realistic and recognize that you are fighting an avalanche. But don’t lose heart! Keep the positive affirmations coming. Although there are no guarantees – no magic number of times you can say she is beautiful in her own way that will suddenly change everything – it is true that the more she hears positive from you the more likely she will start to believe it.
Secondly, try to remember that these negative self-critical thoughts have a real history in her life. If she has been hearing one message for the past twenty years, don’t expect she will drop all that after you say nice things to her consistently for a week or two.
The truth is, if you are going to help your wife with the body image battle you need realize you have signed on for a prolonged campaign, not just a brief skirmish! Be willing to walk with her through this and keep giving the same message of love and acceptance. A consistent message over a prolonged time can make it easier for her.
Many men tell me that their wives tend to dismiss their positive comments with remarks like “You’re only saying that because you have to” or “You’re just being nice.” Try not to get frustrated or upset when she discounts the positive things you say like that. Instead, see that as an indication of how deep set her insecurities can be sometimes. When she says things like that, you may feel that she is not listening to you, but a husband’s words are very powerful to his wife.
Keep saying the words that build her up. You ARE making a difference.
One last thing I would suggest is to be careful about saying how much it hurts you when she says negative things about herself. I worry that for some women, that might only make her clam up entirely as well as adding guilt to the maelstrom of emotions she feels when she looks in the mirror.
Instead, if you feel that way, tell her you are honestly worried that her negative self-talk is unhealthy for her and depriving her of joy. Often depression and anxiety are linked to struggles with body issues. Let her know that for the sake of her mental health, she ought to try to make her self-talk more positive and reassure her that you are definitely on board with helping her in that fight.
So now it’s your turn! Tell me what resonated with you or what I missed. Are there other ways that you have found to deal with body image issues in your marriage? And feel free to leave suggestions of other topics for upcoming “Men’s Corner” blog posts!