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.

How to Set Loving Goals for Lifestyle Change

For the last few weeks I’ve been writing about different aspects of self-image, body positivity, and health. This is difficult material because our culture is steeped in body-negativity, harsh judgments and confusion between health and body size. My hope is that I can inspire you to think about this material from a new perspective, one grounded in hope, love, compassion, and kindness, especially for yourself.

Today I’m going to focus on goals, which are at the root of motivation. Setting loving goals is part of the key to success in most things, and definitely in body things.

What are your goals for your relationship with your body? Go ahead, write them down. What kind of relationship with your body would you like to have?

What kind of relationship do you currently have with your body? Write that down too.

Now consider. How far apart are those right now?

Now I’m going to apply my best couple therapy tool to the relationship between you and your body. What would YOU NEED TO DO to get closer to the relationship with your body that you aspire to have? (Clue: don’t write down anything about what your body needs to do or become).

How are you feeling right now? I hope you feel empowered and inspired. Because you actually are completely in charge of the relationship you have with your body. You and your body are one organism, not two. You definitely have complete control over what kind of relationship you want to have with your body.

Now consider your body-related goals again. Is your body happy about how your mind is handling body-related decisions these days? Here’s the thing. You ARE your body. There isn’t that much separation between body and mind. Your brain is a collection of nerve cells that connect throughout your body. Your body and brain are completely intertwined.

How could you be kinder to your body? Make a list.

Get curious about how you talk to your body. Look at yourself in the mirror, and listen carefully to what your mind is saying to and about your body. Think about what you are hearing yourself say. Is this what you want to tell yourself? If not, today is the day to change.

Body Positivity and Health Consciousness

Are you worried that if you are kind and forgiving of your body you will not be motivated to make lifestyle changes to benefit your health? I have never known this to be true. Hating any aspect of yourself is a surefire way to get stuck in a wrestling match with yourself. I truly believe if you want to make healthful changes in your life, the only way to create lasting change is to love yourself into it.

But how? This is a very tall order, and if it is a necessary ingredient for success, that might feel a little daunting. Don’t lose hope! You can do whatever you set your mind to. If you haven’t tried focusing on love and kindness, give it a try. See how much easier it will be to reach your goals.

Gentle, Kind, Loving Change

Do you feel clear that there are changes you want to make in your life to improve your health? If so, I invite you to carefully consider these questions.

Do you feel angry with yourself when you don’t achieve a goal? If this describes you, please consider carefully how you might change this pattern. Making lifestyle changes is challenging. Despite what marketing campaigns might tell you, change is not linear and setbacks are inevitable. When you begin to make changes, your self-criticism will have many opportunities to take over. If you let it, it will undermine your motivation to try new things.

Are you a good starter? There is a lot of attention on sticking with lifestyle changes, and I can agree that endurance helps. However, I have noticed that life is full of very real setbacks like getting the flu, injuring a knee, a trip out of town, a stressful week, sheer exhaustion, etc. Flexing when life throws you a curve is a GOOD thing, not a lack of willpower. This is why starting again is at least as important as sticking with it. When you hit a roadblock, instead of telling yourself “I’m bad at sticking with things” (or worse), try telling yourself, instead, “I’m good at this. I’m restarting now.”

Are you a kind coach? If you can be encouraging to friends who are taking risks or braving new challenges, you have the skills you will need to lovingly coach yourself. But there is a catch: can you turn your own approval onto yourself? You will need to love yourself if you want change to happen. Please be a loving coach and cheerleader for yourself. You deserve it!