OK, you’ve been warned. If you clicked on this, you likely already saw season 3 of the Netflix reality show Love is Blind. If you haven’t and weren’t deterred by the spoiler alert, the concept is a dating show where people get engaged based solely on personality (they can’t see each other), then live together for a month before deciding if they want to marry each other. This season there was a theme with two of the couples (Cole and Zanab; Bartise and Nancy) where the man frequently made negative, mild to moderately critical or comparative comments about his partner’s body image. In one of these cases, it ended with a public berating of Cole by Zanab for his behavior. This received a mixed reaction: for some people they’re not saying he’s the greatest fiancé but they aren’t seeing a situation where he did something gravely wrong; for others, they saw this as a woman standing up for herself after being mistreated in a relationship. Regardless of how you feel about these specific situations, they reflect a very common experience: repeated small comments about your body image from someone close to you, especially a partner, can take a serious toll on how you see yourself and can trigger disordered thoughts and behaviors surrounding eating and body image. These comments can be so small that often the person making them may not even be aware of what they’re doing. So, how can you protect against this in your relationships?
First, Identifying the Bad Behaviors
It is easy to identify extreme relationship behaviors you won’t tolerate. But what about the smaller ones? Cole and Bartise expressed repeated disappointment in their partners physical appearance from the honeymoon to the altar. This included subtle, indirect comments such as how their partner is different from their normal type or how physical attraction was becoming difficult to maintain. It also included more obvious behaviors, such as openly flirting with and praising the appearances of other woman at the expense of their partners. While more people are aware that flirting with an ex and praising their body crosses a boundary in a relationship, most people who are not body-image informed may not realize how small comments can be absorbed by someone who is not fully comfortable with their body. If you’re struggling to determine if a comment is appropriate, ask yourself “how would I feel if I saw someone I love (your friend, your sister, your mom, your child, etc.) being spoken to like this by their partner?” If the answer is a negative feeling, then you don’t deserve to be spoken to like that either.
What’s the Big Deal?
On Love Is Blind you can only see what was edited into the show and they showed many, many of these borderline comments over the course of only 38 days of filming. While one comment like these may not be impactful or may come across as harmless, you have to look at the total. You don’t become intoxicated after one sip of alcohol, but if you’re having many sips in a short period of time you will get drunk. In the same way, your partner making one small comment about your body one time may not be a trigger but repeated, consistent small comments will create a situation where your body shape not meeting their standards will become a cornerstone of your relationship dynamic. At the end of the day, if something that your partner says makes you feel insecure about your body shape the issue is not your body it is how they view and value you. There is no situation where your partner’s role in your life should be diminishing your confidence because that is emotionally unhealthy and unacceptable. But, not everyone engages in this behavior intentionally and may not realize the toll they are taking on their partner, so it is time to communicate.
Changing the Dynamic
Again, Love is Blind relationships were only 38 DAYS (except Alexis and Brennon, they are soul mates), and it’s a reality show, so the producers weren’t in the business of showing how this issue can be healthily addressed. Nancy did confront Bartise about the comments and healthily took the focus off of her body being what needed to change, and instead put the pressure on him to accept her or leave her. However, the show did not display a lasting sincere change in his behavior or how he viewed his partner. And of course, Zanab took out her frustrations and insecurities on Cole in an unhealthy way via passive aggression and a public berating. Luckily relationships in the real world rarely have firm expiration dates and you can take the time to healthily address this pattern with your partner.
First things first, you have to talk about it. Similar to any other serious relationship conversation, this is best done calmly, in private and on neutral ground. It’s very possible that your partner loves your body and has no idea that they are creating or contributing to insecurities. Either when you notice a comment, or when you feel in a good head space and think the time is right, sit down and have a vulnerable conversation about how these comments make you feel. Try to avoid accusatory language, name calling or assigning thoughts and belief to your partner. Tell them how you feel after hearing these comments and give them the opportunity to change and ask more questions to better understand what is going on. Unless your partner has first-hand experience with body insecurities, disordered body image thoughts and/or disordered eating behaviors it is very unlikely they understand the impact these comments can have. Give them the chance to become more body-image informed and learn how what they say can be absorbed by others. But also, have a standard in your head that they have to meet going forward. Talking about it alone won’t change the impact on you; changing the environment, language and behavior patterns that created this in the first place will.
Dealing with the Aftermath
Before we discuss anything, the most important thing is your physical, mental and emotional safety. If at any point any of these are compromised, or if you do not feel a relationship is right for you, you have the right to walk away. If you have a conversation with your partner about the impacts of comments on your body, they work to change their behavior and be a supporter in your journey to improve your relationship with your body, then that is a sign of a healthy relationship. But what if your partner’s language and behavior doesn’t change? I cannot and will not tell you what to do, but I will say that love is not dependent on a body type, that is lust. If someone sees a body type or weight as the key factor for love that is a strong indicator that they are seeking lust and see their partner more as an object than a complex human being equal to themselves.
Refusal to change a behavior that you have communicated causes you emotional distress and is negatively impacting your mental health also demonstrates a lack of concern for your well-being. One thing they may argue is that it is based in “health concerns” and they’re looking out for you. In that case I ask you, when was the last time they reminded you to get your pap smear? When did they last compare your blood pressure to other women’s? When did they last make jokes about how long it’s been since your last skin cancer screening? Do they push SPF 50 and Vitamin D supplements at you the same way they touch your food? But also, why is your mental health less important than your physical health? If you’re communicating to them that their method of supposed “health intervention” is impacting your mental health, why aren’t they changing tactics and asking how they can be more supportive?
Taking Care of Yourself
The other part of this is addressing the toll this dynamic has taken on you. The most important relationship you will have in your lifetime is with yourself and a large part of that is how you speak about and treat your body. Do you see your body differently in the mirror? Avoiding clothes that you used to wear confidently to avoid showing too much of your body? Are you second guessing yourself before eating something? Are you restricting what you are eating in an attempt to feel more in control or manipulate your body image? Or maybe eating high amounts of food has become a source of comfort? None of these behaviors or others are healthy coping mechanisms for an unhealthy relationship dynamic. These are the signs of a disordered eating pattern and/or body dysmorphic mindsets. You do not have to fit the standards of a specific eating disorder diagnosis to seek treatment for disordered eating. Those standards were developed for mental health research purposes and the reality of disordered eating is that the resulting physical, mental, social and emotional damage begins well before the behavior patterns and physical outcomes meet the severity criteria outlined in those diagnoses. Seeking treatment for disordered eating, regardless of whether or not you meet criteria for an eating disorder, is vital to your health. You don’t wait until a UTI becomes a bladder or kidney infection to seek antibiotics, so don’t wait until disordered eating becomes a diagnosable eating disorder or results in another severe health outcome to seek treatment. A dietitian is a key factor in that treatment process. For more information on how we can help repair the damage that has been done to your relationship with food and your body, please reach out for a consultation.