I began studying body image among romantic partners approximately 15 years ago. Since then, I’ve gotten married, had two children, gotten divorced, and started dating as a nearly 40-year-old. These life experiences have provided me with ample opportunities to consider how our romantic relationships are related to our body images. I’ve also managed to publish over a dozen scientific articles on the subject. Some of the results from these studies are clear and easy to interpret; some of them aren’t. But, one thing that seems certain is that we all come to view and appreciate our bodies in the context of our intimate relationships. In other words, how we feel about our bodies impacts our relationships and our relationships impact our feelings about our bodies. So what are some of the lessons from science that can contribute to improvements in not only our body image but possibly our relationships?
First, it turns out that we may be our own worst critics when it comes to evaluating our bodies (especially women). Although our appraisals of our bodies are somewhat related to our romantic partners’ appraisals of our bodies (i.e., if we think we are a healthy weight, chances are our partners do, too), we tend to think we need to lose more weight than our partners think we do. In fact, in one study I conducted, women typically reported that they would be most satisfied with their bodies if they were underweight. In contrast, their husbands reported that they would be most satisfied with their wives’ bodies when they were of a healthy, “normal” weight. Sometimes, our better halves may actually know what is best for us!1,2
Second, talking to our partners about our bodies has the potential to improve how we feel about our bodies. I know what you are thinking: “I’m not going to try to navigate that mine field!” But, guess what? Our romantic partners are with us because they like (even love) us and are attracted to us. They don’t necessarily see the faults that we see. In fact, in a recent study conducted in my lab at Rutgers University, we asked men and women to talk about their bodies and weight with their partners. A few couples fought, but most of the 288 participants subjected to these conversations left the lab happy. And, the majority of participants reported more healthy “body ideals” after they talked with their partners. In other words, their partners helped them to see that the body they should strive to have is a healthy body – not the emaciated ideal they may have initially favored.3
Third, physical and emotional intimacy are associated with how we feel about our bodies. I’m guessing you didn’t need me to tell you that. It’s probably not surprising that men and women who report greater satisfaction with their relationships and their sex lives also report higher body satisfaction. Of course, it can be daunting and intimidating to reveal ourselves both physically and emotionally to a partner, but both may deepen intimacy. I’d be remiss not to admit that there is a bit of a “chicken and egg problem” in this research. It remains unclear if physical intimacy leads people to feel better about their bodies, or if feeling good about one’s body leads one to be more satisfied with one’s sex life. Most likely, both are true.4
Fourth, working with our partners to achieve health, fitness, and our “best body” can be advantageous to all involved. Working with our partners should not involve denigrating or shaming them into eating well or spending more time on the treadmill. Research suggests that encouragement and support are likely to go a lot further. And, why not make it a team effort? Joining forces may mean skipping the ice cream aisle at the grocery store if you think your partner should eat less ice cream. Eat off of smaller plates to help control your portions. Agree to eat out only once per week. Buy bikes and start riding together on the weekends. Take a walk after dinner instead of watching just one more show. There are many simple things that can improve your health – and your waistline – and you’re more likely to stick with them if you have good company along the way.5,6
So, whether you have been married for 20 years or find yourself dating for the first time in 20 years, it can be valuable to see your body through the eyes of your partner. It is easy to feel vulnerable around our romantic partners – the people we care about the most and who see us in all our glory – but it’s also worthwhile to communicate with our partners about this vulnerability. In doing so, we may create intimacy and depth in our relationships – and ultimately, encourage health and well-being for both ourselves and our loved ones. Because, at the end of the day, it turns out that the birthmarks we try to hide, the cellulite we wish we didn’t have, or the 5 pounds of baby fat we never lost may make very little difference to our partners.
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1Markey, C. N. & Markey, P. M. (2006). Romantic relationships and body satisfaction among young women. Journal of Youth and Adolescence (Special Issue on Body Image), 35, 256-264
2Gillen, M. M. & Markey, C. N. (2015). Body Image and Mental Health. In H.S. Friedman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 2nd Edition. New York, New York, Elsevier. Book chapter manuscript accepted.
3Markey, C. N., Markey, P. M., August, K. J., & Nave, C. S. (2015). Body Talk Improves Body Image Among Couples. Manuscript in progress.
4Goins, L., & Markey, C. N., & Gillen, M. M. (2012). Understanding men’s body image in the context of their romantic relationships. American Journal of Men’s Health, 6, 240-248.
5August, K. A., Kelley, C., & Markey, C. N. (2015). Marriage, Relationships, and Health. In H.S. Friedman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Mental Health, 2nd Edition. New York, New York, Elsevier. Book chapter manuscript accepted.
6Markey, C. N. (2014). Smart People Don’t Diet: How Psychology, Common Sense, and the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently. New York, NY: Da Capo/ Lifelong Books.
Dr. Charlotte Markey – Science of Relationships articles and here | Website/CV
Dr. Markey’s research addresses issues central to both developmental and health psychology. A primary focus of her research is social influences on eating-related behaviors (i.e., eating, dieting, body image) in both parent-child and romantic relationships.