Over a decade ago, I promised myself I’d never ask my husband anything that resembles the loaded question, “do these pants make my butt look big?” Although I believe that women are subjected to impossible standards of beauty that could lead any reasonable woman to feel insecure about her appearance, I did not want to reveal myself as insecure about my weight. I knew I was not “fat,” and did not want to find myself behaving like a stereotypical weight-obsessed woman. However, most of all, I made a conscious choice – as a woman who studies body image and eating behaviors – to try my best to be confident about my weight. I believed then, and still believe today, that I don’t have the professional luxury of questioning my body or my weight if I am going to tell other people that they should eat healthy foods and not “worry” about their weight.
Some days, maintaining confidence about my weight is harder than I expected it would be. A couple of kids later, a body that sometimes feels determined to fall apart before I hit 40, and a challenging work-family schedule often leave me at the door of self-doubt. And so, I sometimes ask my husband a modified question: “Does this (shirt, shoes, etc.) look okay?”
My husband is no fool, so he skillfully answers this question by telling me “no” in delicate detail. Take when I recently ordered swim shorts. They were on sale and I decided they may be practical swim gear for summer afternoons chasing kids around the pool. He suggested that while probably comfortable for me, they were not as flattering as other bathing suit attire that I already possessed. Note that this was not a discussion about “fat.” He even went as far as to suggest that I should wear skimpier attire while I could get away with it (his words, not mine). I kept the swim shorts, but also kept the receipt.
Less than a week after the swim short discussion, a reporter called me for my “expert” opinion about how romantic partners should discuss weight issues with each other. My response to this sort of query relies on findings from my research examining romantic partners’ influences on body image and eating behaviors. Fortunately (usually), my personal experiences and common sense help to fill in some gaps that the research doesn’t address.
First, if you must ask your partner a question about your appearance, do not ask it in terms that are likely to elicit a lie. Any sane person knows that the correct answer to “do these pants make my butt look big?” is “no.” If you want to have a real conversation, ask a reasonable question. Instead, try on two articles of clothing and ask which one is more flattering. My research suggests that we are not always good judges of our own bodies and we may be our own worst critics (especially women; Markey & Markey, 2006).1 It often makes sense to ask someone else for help in assessing our own appearance, but make your goals in asking for help clear (i.e., do you want a compliment? Validation regarding your choice?).
Second, if your partner needs to lose weight – not just because you think so, but because his or her health may be at risk (if you aren’t sure of this, check here for information from the Centers for Disease Control) – this is worthy of a real conversation. However, this conversation should not come in the context of selecting a dress or suit for an upcoming wedding. Don’t make this a conversation about appearance or outfits, but a conversation about health. Take advantage of the fact that our romantic partners have the potential to help us change our eating habits,2 and have a thoughtful conversation.
Third, don’t use the “F word” (fat) – ever. If you want your partner to lose weight because you think he or she is fat, then your motives are misplaced. The focus should be on health. Drawing on research from doctor’s conversations with their patients about weight loss, it is clear that no one responds well to being told they are fat. Instead, when doctors “inspire” their patients instead of disparaging them, they are more successful in encouraging their patients to lose weight.3 So a good opener for discussing these issues with your partner may be, “I’m worried about our health and I know that if we work together to eat more healthily and be more active, we’ll feel better and we’ll be able to enjoy each other’s company for longer.”
Fourth, don’t expect your partner to do anything you wouldn’t. In fact, don’t ask your partner to do anything you won’t do with him or her. If you think your partner should eat less ice cream, then don’t buy ice cream. You’ll both be healthier for it. If you think your partner should exercise more, buy bikes and start riding together on the weekends. Most Americans can afford to exercise more and eat better (or just less),4 so making weight management a team effort makes a lot of sense.
Finally, plan to make changes to your eating behaviors and physical activity behaviors that you can sustain. Don’t fall prey to the latest fad diet. Don’t feel the need to change your life radically to achieve goals that are unlikely to last. Millions of Americans start diets each New Year. Then, they start them again the following New Year. Why? Because they didn’t work the last time they tried them.5 They didn’t work because they were not practical, they were too extreme, or they weren’t well thought out. So try something realistic, gradual, and sustainable.4 For example, make it a point to always take the stairs and limit eating out to once a week.
Try all of these things with your partner and avoid asking your partner if your butt looks big. Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to. Instead, try having conversations that may benefit your relationship – and your waistline.
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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.
2Markey, C. N., Gomel, J. N., & Markey, P. M. (2008). Romantic relationships and eating regulation: An investigation of partners' attempts to control each others' eating behaviors. Journal of Health Psychology, 13, 422-432.
3Pollak, K. I., Alexander, S. C., Coffman, C. J., Tulsky, J. A., Lyna, P., Dolor, R. J., James, I. E., Namenek Brouwer, R. J., Manusov, J. R. E., Ostvye, T. (2010). Physician Communication Techniques and Weight Loss in Adults. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 39, 321-328.
4Markey, C. N. (2013). The Thinking Person’s Diet: How Psychology, Common Sense, and Science Can Help You Lose Weight. Forthcoming article.
5Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2012, in press). Annual variation in internet keyword searches: Linking dieting interest to obesity and negative health outcomes. Journal of Health Psychology. DOI: 10.1177/1359105312445080
Dr. Charlotte Markey - Science of Relationships articles | 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.