I was walking into my doctor’s office when I suddenly became aware of the conversation going on in my head. I was thinking about my delayed yearly exam, but what was really on my mind was the fear of getting on the scale. For years, I have dreaded stepping on that little metal box in the doctor’s office. So this time I decided I would simply embrace whatever the scale said and accept that it was just where I was at with my weight that day. I told myself there would be no guilt, shame or regret. I would offer myself nothing more than grace, understanding and possibly motivation — but absolutely no judging.
Then the moment came, and the nurse said something very different from what I had heard before. She simply said, “Step on the scale and tell me what it says.” So, after stripping off a few removable items from my body, I bravely stepped on the scale. And then I reported to her what it said. No guilt trip, no emotional bashing. I just reported the facts. In that moment I chose to embrace “me” — just the way I was. If only it were that easy on a daily basis.
I'm pretty certain I'm not alone in my struggles with body image. If you're looking for a quick and passionate response from women, bring up the subject of body image and ask how many of them love to talk about their bodies. I mean really enjoy talking about the secret insecurities related to how they look. Especially when they're being bombarded with hundreds of images of "perfect" women every day. My guess is that most women will tell you they are often left wondering, What’s wrong with me?
A simple definition of body image can be boiled down to how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or how you picture yourself in your mind. The National Eating Disorders Association expands on that definition to include your beliefs about your appearance, how you feel about your weight, height, shape and overall body. It's more than just how you feel about your body, though, it actually includes how you feel in your body. A negative body image would then mean that you see your body through a negative lens, feeling ashamed, anxious or self-conscious about yourself. You may even believe others are more attractive than you are.
This can all have a profound impact on a woman's confidence level and her willingness to open up emotionally. And one of the most damaging places this plays out can be in her marriage relationship.
Most women don't feel good about their body
I understand there are different seasons of struggle with body image for most women. In your 20s, you may have started having children, so your body changed after pregnancy and giving birth. Maybe you never lost the baby weight and you were left with a few stretch marks. In your 30s and 40s you may have noticed some weight gain due to the slowing of your metabolism. Add to that the development of wrinkles forming around your eyes and maybe even a few gray hairs shining through. As I'm aging, I find myself comparing my body to the bodies of other women and wishing I looked like a size-6 lady. I also catch myself limiting the amount of light that's shining when my husband catches glimpses of my naked body.
A 2014 survey conducted by Glamour magazine and Ohio State University confirmed that for many years now, women have admitted to not feeling good about their bodies — regardless of their age or weight. Whether they are a size 6 or a size 20, they don’t feel they add up to the picture-perfect women they are continually seeing in social media, TV and magazines.
So how has the struggle with body image shown up in your life — in your marriage? Has it left you feeling uncomfortable when your husband wraps his arms around your waist at the end of the day? Has it made you feel emotionally guarded rather than emotionally open? Or maybe it’s impacted how often you enjoy sexual intimacy with your man.
Studies confirm that how a wife feels about her body leads to a corresponding level of marital satisfaction for both the wife and the husband. This would imply then, that a wife's negative body image could lead to infrequent or dissatisfying sex, as well as minimal or guarded emotional engagements in her marriage. However, women who report a more positive body image tend to experience more fun and freedom in their marriage.
Improving your body image to improve your marriage
If you are like me, you're tired of all the negative self-talk and the constant striving to improve your body. Or maybe you're just fed up with not being able to breathe in your Spanx! And maybe, like me, you're ready to enjoy a new season of physical intimacy with your husband because you're ridding yourself of the body-image insecurities that impact your relationship. So how do we take back our body image at the same time we improve our marriage relationship?
Here are a few things that can make a difference:
- Recognize that comparison steals joy. Theodore Roosevelt called comparison the “thief of joy” — and wow, was he right! We need to make it a habit to recognize when we're being sucked in by the comparison game. Consider the apostle Paul's words: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise" (2 Corinthians 10:12, NIV). Whether we're making comparisons about our husband, our children or our body, we'll always find someone who appears to have it better than we do. So let's stop letting comparison steal our joy.
- Set realistic expectations. It's personally damaging when we compare ourselves to online photos of a celebrity who just had a baby and looks picture perfect. That type of comparison tempts us to set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and we end up self-shaming or taking a ride on the guilt train — ultimately ushering that shame and guilt right into our marriage relationship. So be kind to yourself. If you want to exercise more but you're living with toddlers and not sleeping well, recognize that a walk around the block may be a realistic goal for now. If you're employed full time and rushing out the door early each morning, accept that working out three times a week may be your max. Be aware of the expectations you are putting on yourself and evaluate whether they are realistic in your current season of life.
- Become aware of negative self-talk. Often we aren’t even aware of that inner voice or the random thoughts we have swirling around in our minds. You know, the voice that taunts: I hate my thighs since I've had three children or I hate the wrinkles around my eyes. I encourage you to be a better friend to yourself. Start talking to yourself in more positive language. Recognize the beauty of the changes in your body because you gave life to children or your smile lines mean your life has been full of laughter. As you stop the negative self-talk, you just might be surprised by how much better you feel about yourself — emotionally and physically. And a more confident woman is more attractive, especially to her husband.
- Talk to your husband about your insecurities. Tell your husband how you are feeling about yourself and explain to him what you are doing to battle negative thoughts and expectations about yourself. Enlist him as a part of your positive body-image army. Tell him how he can support you and pray for you. If you're really brave, you may even ask him how your negative body image has impacted him.
- Support and compliment other women. I often hear women say negative things about each other’s looks. I recently had a woman ask me, “So, what are you doing to lose weight for your daughter’s wedding?” I was shocked because I never told her that I even desired to lose weight! We need to be careful with what we say to each other. Hebrews 3:13 (NIV) says, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called 'Today.' ” Let's take that advice and work at encouraging a girlfriend as she battles her own body-image challenges.
Ladies, body image is no small issue, especially when it comes to how it affects our marriage relationship. We need to ask the Lord for healing and then trust it will show up in our emotional connection, physical connection and in the sexual intimacy level we share with our husband.
So, what's wrong with us? Nothing — we just need to believe it!Erin Smalley is a co-author of The Wholehearted Wife and serves in the Marriage and Family Formation department at Focus on the Family.