Study Suggests Men Affect Women’s Body Image: How Body Image Affects Your Relationship
Australian women are experiencing a crisis in body image. From photos of scantily clad, unbelievably thin women emblazoned on billboards and in advertisements to near-constant messages suggesting women should lose weight and conform to an unreasonable beauty standard, it’s no wonder so many women hate their bodies. Indeed, a stunning 91% of women report that they’re unhappy with their bodies or weight. Many men are frustrated by constantly hearing their wives or girlfriends complain about being fat or ugly. But researchers from Southern Methodist University in the United States have found that men may have more control over women’s self-esteem than men might suspect.
How Do Men Affect Women’s Body Image?
For the study, researchers recruited about 450 women, the majority of whom were white – suggesting the data might not hold up for women of other races, since those women may face different cultural messages and pressures. Researchers divided the women into two groups. One group saw images of very thin women, while the other saw images of larger women. The researchers then told the women that men were participating in the study, and that the men had seen the images, too. The researchers told one group that men preferred the thinner women, while telling the other group that men preferred women with fuller figures.
After this trial, all of the female participants completed questionnaires on weight and body image. The women who heard that men preferred larger women reflected fewer body image concerns and reported greater satisfaction with their weight. Women who believed that men preferred thinner women, though, experienced more dissatisfaction with their bodies. Interestingly, a second trial using the same approach reveal that, when women thought other women preferred larger body types, this did not affect their self-esteem as strongly as their beliefs about what men prefer.
Why Are Men’s Opinions So Important?
So why is it that women’s self-esteem was so strongly affected by men’s beliefs? This might be especially surprising to men who repeatedly reassure their wives that they’re beautiful, only to hear insistences to the contrary. The researchers didn’t address this issue, but previous research has. Experts on women’s body image have proposed a number of explanations for why men’s beliefs are so important. These include:
Women don’t believe men who reassure them. There’s good reason for this, too. A quick perusal of any message board will reveal hundreds of men making cruel comments about women that they would never share with their partners.
Heterosexual women are heavily invested in pleasing men, particularly their partners, so hearing that men prefer a specific norm makes them more likely to believe their own partners prefer that norm, and therefore more likely to feel good about themselves.
Women are constantly inundated with messages telling them to be thin, to be young, and to sexually objectify themselves. When they hear that men don’t want them to do this, it boosts their self-esteem.
To know for sure why men’s opinions figure so prominently in women’s self-esteem, though, we’ll need to see more well-controlled studies.
How Self-Esteem Affects Your Relationship
If you’re experiencing trouble in your relationship or bogged down in the stress of everyday life, it’s easy to dismiss your partner’s self-esteem as a trivial matter. But the way your partner feels about herself, and in particular, the way she feels about her body, can have effects that reverberate far and wide, touching virtually every area of your relationship:
Women who have low self-esteem are more likely to pass this onto their daughters, creating a vicious cycle of women who hate their bodies.
Low self-esteem is a predictor of a number of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. These issues can cripple your relationship and harm your spouse. Eating disorders are particularly dangerous, with 10% of eating disorder sufferers eventually dying from their disease.
Poor body image encourages substance abuse and drug addiction.
People with low self-esteem are poorly equipped to solve relationship problems. For instance, if you calmly tell your spouse you’d like her to change something about her behavior, she may be unable to accept the criticism because she already feels so bad about herself, leading her to become defensive and further undermine your ability to communicate.
Low self-esteem can give rise to affairs and infidelity.
Women who do not love themselves are poorly equipped to support their partners, and may even lash out at the partners, projecting their low self-esteem outward. For instance, a wife who thinks she’s fat may begin calling her husband names as a way to deal with her anger and disappointment with her own body.
How Self-Esteem Affects Your Sex Life
More than half of married couples report that their sex life isn’t as good as it was when they first began dating. Most couples who walk through our doors want to increase emotional intimacy so that they can experience greater physical intimacy and more sexual pleasure. But trying to have rewarding sex with someone who hates her own body is a losing battle, for a number of reasons:
Low self-esteem has been proven many times to lower women’s sex drive, so if your wife suffers from low libido, self-esteem issues could be the culprit.
Women who are uncomfortable with their bodies are less likely to experience sexual pleasure. Even worse, the open communication that makes sexual pleasure possible – such as sharing sexual fantasies or explaining to a partner how you like to be touched – is very challenging for women who do not like their bodies.
Low self-esteem is statistically correlated with a history of abuse. While most women struggle with self-esteem issues, severe issues may hint at a prior history of abuse, which in itself can compromise the quality, frequency, and overall intimacy of your sexual interactions.
Anxiety and depression both negatively affect libido and desire, and the medications used to treat these conditions can also have negative effects. Many women who suffer from low self-esteem also struggle with poor body image.
What You Can Do to Promote Healthy Body Image
Though both men and women can suffer from low self-esteem and poor body image, in today’s society – with its emphasis on hyper-sexualised, incredibly thin women – women typically suffer more than men. Moreover, men frequently report that they are able to feel good about themselves even when they are displeased with their physical appearance; for women, by contrast, appearance and self-esteem are frequently inseparable. It’s important for both sexes, for people of all orientations, and for people in all sorts of relationships to prioritise their partner’s self-esteem. But as this latest round of research shows, men are uniquely positioned to boost women’s self-esteem, which means you have a moral obligation to help your wife or girlfriend work on body image issues.
So what can you do? Both couples and individual counselling can be deeply helpful. In couples counselling, you can explore options for boosting self-esteem together, in addition to discussing ways self-esteem issues affect your relationship. Individual counselling can make a big difference, too. For you, individual counselling helps you gain an understanding of self-esteem issues while exploring ways you can help, as well as ways your partner’s self-esteem issues affect you. And for your partner, individual counselling can be a key step in the journey toward healthy self-esteem and a happier life.
What if you want to do something to help in addition to counselling? The following tips have been shown through various studies and through clinical practice to help boost self-esteem:
Follow the 10 to 1 rule. For every complaint you make about your partner, be sure you offer at least 10 compliments.
Do not tell your partner she needs to lose weight, change her body, wear more makeup, or otherwise change her appearance. If your partner is overweight, ageing rapidly, or otherwise suffering from appearance-related problems, she is already keenly aware of these issues. Raising them with her only makes her feel rejected and ashamed.
Compliment your partner’s body, but don’t just focus on its appearance. Also focus on what her body can do. Research suggests that, when men fixate solely on women’s appearance, women begin basing their self-worth on their appearance. By praising your partner for her strong arms, endurance during childbirth, or commitment to breastfeeding, for example, you’re much more likely to raise her self-esteem than if you only talk about how beautiful she is. Of course, you must also talk about how beautiful your partner is, so don’t neglect this important job.
Don’t make negative comments about other women’s appearance or weight.
Explore the differences between standards your wife must live up to and the standards you face. Odds are good that your partner does her hear, wears makeup, and frets over clothing choices almost every day, whereas you may never have to think about some of these issues.
If you have a request for something your partner could do to improve her appearance, consider whether you’d be willing to do the same thing. If not, the request is unreasonable. For example, if you think your partner should shave her legs more frequently, consider whether you’d be willing to shave your own legs, or shave them as frequently. If not, leave her alone.
Create a healthy attitude toward food by cooking nourishing meals together.
Exercise together. The endorphin rush may also help your sex life.
Don’t police your partner’s food or exercise choices; if she needs to lose weight, she needs to choose to do so on her own.
Remember that the image of beauty with which Australian men are presented is not only unrealistic, but unhealthy. Research suggests that most high-fashion models are so thin that they would be rendered infertile, and that most women could not be this thin even on starvation diets.
Focus on your partner’s personality and intellect. These are things that do not fade with time, and by focusing on these unique gifts, you help your partner see that she is worth so much more than just her appearance.
Appearance, in the grand scheme of things, is a trivial matter. What matters most is how your life touches others. By helping your partner realise this, you may take a giant step toward better harmony, more sex, and a happier spouse.