Personal Preference, or Perpetuation of Oppression?

I just returned from the AASECT annual conference in Philadelphia, and it was, in my opinion, a particularly excellent conference this year. In the next couple months, I’ll share some of the thoughts that are stirring around for me in the aftermath of the presentations and workshops I attended.

First up, I want to tell you about a fascinating talk entitled “The Politics of Desirability.”

Consider what we think of as “personal preference.” Tall, dark, and handsome? Slim, blonde, and athletic? Able-bodied? White? Christine Shio Lim, who presented her research findings, suggests that what we have thought of as “personal preference” is not only socially constructed to the point that the word “personal” hardly applies, but also that these preferences arise from politically and socially oppressive systems that result in biases around weight, race, differing ability, and so forth.

This is not shocking for those of us who believe in social constructionism. But consider the implications for our lives and for therapy. “It’s my right to prefer what I prefer” is a common stance. But what if our preferences perpetuate oppression? Or, if we bring the discussion down to earth in real relationship examples, what if someone experiences diminished attraction to their partner after, for instance, they gain weight, but they want to stay together?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when this situation has comes up in therapy, or is it just me?

As a body positive activist with a life-long history of experiencing our culture’s rampant bias against fatness, I have done lots of research on the topic of fatness and health, and have worked hard on my own personal feelings about my body and, more generally, cultural norms of beauty. I definitely am not interested in perpetuating myths about body size and beauty, or health.

However, I also appreciate the differentiation it takes to say something as hard as “I’m not feeling attracted to you because you have gained weight”. At least, once it has been said, a discussion can happen, if (and this is a big if!) the therapist can hold the tension sufficiently and guide the conversation in productive ways.

Here are some things to consider, from my experience working with body image issues in therapy, and guided by Shio Lim’s findings:

  • The story you’re seeing play out is not just about the relationship between partners—it’s about the relationship between the partners and the culture they exist in.
  • Attraction is malleable. If you want to change it, you can change it. Help the partner whose attraction has waned to look at beauty from a values-led perspective. Do some psychoeducation about size acceptance. Get creative about stretching perception.
  • No matter what a person says about their preference, or how they say it, it is more about them and how they see the world than about their partner. Help both partners understand the emotional boundaries here. There is no “too fat to be desirable” in a global sense. Also, fatness is not a character flaw. The person who states “you are too fat” is expressing something important about their own perception, belief system, and how they see the world as a result of their experiences. They are not right or wrong, nor are they unchangeable. They are just expressing something about their perceptions in this moment.
  • There is an inherent boundary problem with expecting your partner to lose weight. First, it might not be possible for multiple personal or medical reasons. Secondly, it is essentially none of your business.
  • Nobody ever made any difficult change by beating themselves up. Supporting beauty and self-love at any size is a powerful way to help your client stay empowered to make and act on their own decisions about their life.
  • Have you ever experienced being attracted to a person’s attitude, vibe, or presence rather than their body per se? Help the client who has gained weight to find an internal sense of sexiness, body love, joy in life, embodiment of pleasure. That’s the sexiest thing they could do, and almost certainly more powerful than losing weight.
  • It is very possible for a couple’s dynamic to remove or block all motivation to change. In other words, coercion, pressure, auditing or remarking on food choices, or any other subtle or not-so-subtle judgment is more likely to block change than create it. Challenge the pressuring partner to mind their own business while they work to expand their erotic template.
  • I love to have couples watch the film Embrace together. It is about body image for women, but it generalizes well for anyone who needs a new perspective on oppressive systems around size, health, beauty, and ability.

As a therapist, and a human being, you would be doing a radical thing by challenging your clients (and yourself) to consider that all bodies are beautiful, all are worthy, all are equal. Our sense that thinner bodies are more valuable and more desirable is shaped by our culture and our media. At many points in history, and in many cultures, fatter bodies have been valued over thinner ones. Our culture’s current preference does not reflect an eternal truth. The same goes for preferences and beliefs around skin color, ability/disability, gender presentation, and so forth.

This conversation can be incredibly difficult and painful. It’s also an amazing opportunity for both partners to put differentiation of self into practice. It takes real emotional muscle to hear something like “I’m not as attracted to you anymore because of your weight” and recognize it as something that comes from your partner’s experiences and history rather than as an indication that something is wrong with you.

I know a lot of therapists might shy away from having an open conversation about weight and attraction. It just feels too personal, too painful, and too potentially explosive. But once we recognize that our ideas about desirability are both personal (meaning they reflect our values and experiences, not objective reality), and shaped by our society (meaning that factors like systemic bias and oppression play a meaningful role), it becomes possible to have a non-judgemental, non-pathologizing, diversity-embracing conversation about where our desires come from and what roles they play in our lives and relationships.

Links on Body Positivity

We all imbibe harmful messages from our culture about our bodies. Too short, too tall, too fat, too thin–everyone has felt that they don’t measure up in one way or another, and body hatred has real and harmful consequences for our health and happiness.

Body shame can also hurt our relationships. Among other things, it makes it difficult to feel comfortable being naked in front of another person. That discomfort often inhibits people from relaxing, connecting, and experiencing pleasure as fully as they would like to.

If you have a client who struggles with negative body image, or if you’ve struggled with it yourself, I hope that you find something helpful in these links.

Resolution: Start Loving Your Body, Today

How To Set Loving Goals for Lifestyle Change

Body Positivity and Health Consciousness

How You Can Help a Client With Negative Body Image

How You Can Help A Client With Negative Body Image

People come in all shapes and sizes, but our culture tends to only value bodies that fit a very limited mold. Almost everyone has had the painful experience of feeling like their body doesn’t measure up. Almost everyone is somewhere along a journey of coming to terms with the unique way their body looks and works. As a therapist, you can play an important role in helping your clients on this journey.

Healing body image is often a part of my work as a sex therapist and a couples therapist. There are all sorts of ways that negative body image can hurt a relationship. If you don’t love your body, it will be hard to be comfortable being naked in front of another person, or being touched in certain places, or being in certain positions. If you’re always worrying that your appearance is turning your partner off, how can you relax into an experience of pleasure? The self-consciousness and negative self-talk might block your arousal or make it difficult to experience an orgasm. Body shame can get in the way of having a conversation with your partner about it. In this way, building body love and body acceptance is often the first step to more satisfying sexual experiences with a partner.

The way you feel about your body will naturally shape your way of experiencing the world in a fundamental way, in all spheres, not just sex. For that reason, I believe that helping your clients build a better relationship with their body is one of the most meaningful projects you can take on as a therapist.

If healing negative body image is a part of your treatment plan, where can you start? Often, I ask people to talk with me about what they love about their body. It’s quite revealing how often I hear that they can’t think of anything. When that happens, I shift the focus to function, not aesthetics.

From the perspective of function, it’s hard not to see how incredible your body is. Think of the zillions of magical and automatic functions it does every single second! If your client can take a moment to appreciate the wonder of all the work their body does every moment, that can be a seed that sprouts into a more nurturing, grateful, appreciative relationship with their body.

When a client expresses hatred for their body, I might say:

  • “Your body is absolutely beautiful just exactly as it is. You don’t have to change it in order to love it or find it beautiful.”
  • “This is a belief system, you know. Other cultures view this differently than ours”.
  • “I’ve never known anyone to change anything about themselves by hating themselves into it.”

That last one is important if you have a client who is trying to motivate a lifestyle change while also struggling with negative body image–a difficult balancing act, and one that they will likely benefit from your support. In that vein, I advise you to be very cautious about body compliments that might come across as judgments. The urge to compliment a client who has been struggling with body hatred is understandable, but it is important to choose compliments carefully, in order to avoid falling into the same body-negative tropes that are hurting your client and us all. For instance, if a client said to me, “Do you notice I lost weight? I think I’m looking a little better,” I would respond with “I’ve always thought you are beautiful, and you know, I’m the wrong person to ask about weight loss because I just don’t see people that way.”

If you want to learn more about body positivity, or are searching for something on the topic for your client to watch, I recommend the film “Embrace.” It’s an excellent recent documentary and a real education in body acceptance and body politics.