Come summer, my mum and I would scoot off to the rain-soaked environs of Kolkata to visit my grandmother. Unlike most kids who would squeal in excitement at the very mention of a ‘holiday’, the run-up to my vacation was marked by stress. As a 10-year-old, I barely knew how to put a name to my emotions — all I was aware of was that I hated being scrutinised for the way I looked. A tall and lanky frame, and tanned skin covered with a million breakouts didn’t go down well with my relatives. I was subject to skinny shaming by these self–proclaimed well-intentioned folks for months. By the time I returned home after the break, I loathed my body a little more.
A few years later, I was exposed to a different school of thought. As a student at a plush south Delhi school, I realised that being thin was ‘in’ — to my horror, puberty brought with it a whole lot of flab and I was once again on the other side of the fence. I was mocked for my weight not only by my family but also by my peers. The feeling of being an outcast grew stronger — not only did it shake my confidence; I came to believe that having a slim body was essential to score a good relationship.
While my friends (I had only 2-3) explored their curiosity and interacted with the opposite sex, I spent nights drenching my pillows and feeling undesirable as ever. Little did I know that the negative relationship with my body would impact romantic relationships in adulthood.
Was I the only one going through this ordeal?
No. It seems like there are several others in the same boat. In her 2010 study titled ‘Relationship Between Body Image and Self-Esteem Among Adolescent Girls’, author Brenda Huebscher from the University of Wisconsin-Stout revealed that “50-88% of adolescent girls feel negatively about their body shape or size, while 49% of teenage girls say they know someone with an eating disorder. Furthermore, only 33% of girls say they are the right weight for their bodies, while 58% want to lose weight" (Croll, 2005, p. 155).
Dating seemed like a rather tricky terrain for me, because my mind was solely focused on my appearance. What I ate, how I dressed, and the perfect angle for that social media post were dominant conversations with partners I was involved with, and even prospects. Loyalty, compassion, and love took a backseat — validation for my body was all I was looking for and it hit me hard in the long run. Let’s not even speak about sex — I was so skeptical of baring it all and was always filled with self-doubt that my partners violated my boundaries time and again.
“There are unrealistic standards of beauty set by social media and other channels like television and fashion magazines. However, these reinforce the belief that we are not enough. Body image is then altered as a consequence of these unachievable standards of perfection when it should be associated with a strong sense of self,” notes Nayamat Bawa, Head of Psychology, IWill.
Body image issues are not limited to women; there is also evidence that suggests “men equally experience discontent after viewing images of muscular men in the media,” says author Hannah Krisher in her paper titled ‘The Association Between Body Image, Sexual Satisfaction, and Relationship Satisfaction in Adults’. “Along with the concerning information regarding body image dissatisfaction is the issue pertaining to high national divorce rates and romantic relationship dissolution,” she adds.
Self-esteem and relationship struggles
In her practice as a relationship counselor, Bawa has often observed couples struggling to connect emotionally and physically, as a result of dissatisfaction with their appearance as well as their partner’s.
“Often, self-doubt can have a damaging effect on their dynamic, causing partners to completely avoid intimacy. There are several couples who find themselves hitting a rocky path, because they believe there’s a lack of effort by the other in enhancing their body image. This can further trigger feelings of being body shamed and lead to increased discontent and disconnection between partners,” adds Bawa.
If individuals struggle with body image concerns or low self-esteem, and they believe that the costs (i.e., risk of rejection) will overpower the rewards of the relationship, they will not pursue the relationship (Sciangula & Morry, 2009).
A negative body image can also have a direct link with the intimacy that the couple shares. believes Akanksha Singh Chandele, a trauma-informed therapist.
“Not being your authentic and secure self can give rise to numerous reasons for conflict and misunderstandings, as we would end up placing a lot of importance on what a romantic partner might have to say about our body and internalise it,” she explains. “This could also prevent us from having secure physical intimacy with our partner as this negative body image could end up in feelings of inadequacy or unattractiveness, even if that is not how the partner views us,” adds Chandele.
There are others who completely avoid sex, because they cannot imagine receiving pleasure at the sites they have always considered unattractive. Pleasure-focused sex educator and intimacy coach Pallavi Barnwal has often come across cases of women who have undergone pregnancy and are filled with hate for their C-section scars, protruding belly, and flabby thighs.
“It takes a lot of intentional work to let go of body shaming messages. Our society is obsessed with the idea of a “perfect body," and once we internalise those messages, they get in the way of us receiving and wanting pleasure,” she says.
Navigating the tricky terrain
The good news is you can salvage your relationships by building a positive sense of self. Of course, the ride isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either. The first step to working through this is to become aware of the relationship that you share with your body, advises Chandele.
“Spend some conscious time with your body every single day. Notice how you talk to yourself, and to your body. Are you connected with the needs your body presents? Do you know what makes it comfortable, safe, seen, and appreciated? Question the internalised societal standards within yourself,” she adds.
Barnwal shares a similar view — having a healthy relationship with your body can begin with asking the following questions to quash those "negative beliefs" in your head. Here they are:
1. What do I believe I can't do because I don't have a 'perfect' body?
2. Am I uncomfortable with my body or am I uncomfortable with what people think when they see my body?
3. What narratives play repeatedly in my head about my body image? What is the origin of these narratives?
4. What if I didn't look in the mirror before I go out? Is this thought scary or courageous?
5. Can I remember a time I felt good or neutral in my body? What was different at that time?
“Changing yourself or chasing perfection isn’t the answer. Loving what is yours (you and your partner) is what makes your relationship with yourself and your partner more solid. Work on things you would like to change, but do not obsess over them,” concludes Bawa.
Geetika Sachdev is a writer and journalist.
Also read: How sologamy can set you free