If your partner struggles with poor body image, you’re not alone. Body insecurity is remarkably common. By age 13, more than half of American girls are unhappy with their bodies. And by the time girls reach age 17, 78% are dissatisfied. 
Poor body image can strain your relationship and lead to conflict. While you may not know how to help someone love their body completely, your gentle kindness may lead to a happier life.
Addressing the issue together, showing sensitivity, and supporting your loved one can minimize the shadow that body image issues can cast.
Body Insecurity in Relationships
Body image is an extremely sensitive subject that can be triggering for many individuals in eating disorder recovery. Even many people who have never struggled with an eating disorder feel unhappy with their weight or body shape.
This can be especially challenging if both partners have poor body image. Both parties can feed off each other’s negative energy surrounding their bodies and the resulting negative self-talk.
Alternatively, it might be hard to understand why your partner struggles with their self-image if you do not have any body image concerns. To you, they are beautiful. So why do they not see themselves the same way?
Poor body image can lead to decreased physical and emotional intimacy. This inevitably takes its toll on a marriage or relationship, which is why transparency and open communication are essential. If you are struggling with your body image, be honest with your partner and let them support you.
Talk About Emotions, Not Appearance
Many people wonder how to help with body image issues. Shifting how you respond to your partner’s comments is a good place to start.
Some people who struggle with body image ask relatively loaded questions, such as the stereotypical, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” or “Does it look like I’ve gained weight?” Answering these questions the way you think your partner wants can enable their disordered thinking and lead to an increased need for external validation.
Shift the focus of the conversation to the underlying emotion. For example, rather than saying, “You look beautiful!” try, “Are you anxious about the party tonight?”
Body image issues stem from how the person feels inside, not how they look outside.  Teasing out the inner feelings could help your loved one to find solutions.
Compliment With Care
Giving your partner compliments unrelated to their body or physical attributes can be beneficial.
Those in recovery are working toward internal validation, but everyone wants to feel attractive to their partner, both physically and emotionally. So steer away from generic compliments and come up with personal, unique things you love about them.
Ask About Triggers
Since each person has different triggers, openly ask your partner what their triggers might be. What makes her feel unattractive? What makes him wonder if he’s fit enough? An open discussion can help you learn how to support the person you love.
Rather than wondering how to help your girlfriend with body image issues, just ask her. She might be more than willing to tell you about the people, places, and things that cause her to hate her body.
If your partner is in therapy and you have the option of attending their next session, consider taking advantage of this opportunity to learn more about how to uniquely support their recovery.
Suggest Healthy Activities
Couples can inadvertently support poor body image issues. For example, women say they would invest more hours of their lives than men to achieve their ideal appearance.  These sorts of activities could be problematic:
- Exercising together
- Shopping for clothing
- Watching modeling shows
- Visiting tanning salons
If your loved one has body image issues, look for shared activities that don’t involve weight loss, body comparisons, or criticism. For example, you could do the following:
- Read a book together and discuss it
- Watch a fun comedy film together
- Plant a garden and tend it
- Take a card-making class
Find ways to spend time around other body-positive people doing healthy, fun activities.
Learn From Mistakes
Navigating a relationship in which poor body image plays a role might feel like walking on eggshells. If your partner is ready, you can encourage open communication and healing by getting things out in the open.
It is inevitable to make mistakes when dealing with something as sensitive as body image. Be patient with yourself and your partner. If you accidentally trigger your partner, remember that any negative reaction they might have is likely the result of their poor body image, not their true feelings toward you.
Making casual comments about what someone is eating, the way their clothes fit, or their body shape is rarely helpful. However, these comments often flow off many people’s tongues without understanding the repercussions for the other person. If you make this mistake, learn from it and continue to educate yourself on how to best support your partner.
Step Away From Screens
About one in five adults says images on social media spark body image concerns.  If you catch your partner doom-scrolling, suggest face time.
Make some tea and talk about your day. Encourage the person to interact with you in real time rather than looking at others and making dire pronouncements.
Create a Safe Word
Come up with a “safe word” to use when either of you is engaging in negative self-talk or comments triggered by negative body image. It might sound silly, but hearing “iguana” or something similarly random when you are spinning can get you out of your head and give you time to reset.
How to Help
Eating disorders impact 20 million women and 10 million men at some point during their lives.  Some people develop poor body image concerns as a stepping stone to more severe eating issues.
If you notice these warning signs, talk to the person you love about enrolling in a treatment program: 
- Skipping meals or developing significant rules and regulations regarding food
- Frequent mirror checks for flaws in appearance
- Extended visits to the bathroom after meals
- Weight fluctuations or weight loss
- Preoccupation with calories or ingredients
- Excessive exercise
- Evidence of binge eating, vomiting, or both
Some people in recovery from eating disorders relapse to their former habits. If the person you love has left an eating disorder program and these signs appear, they likely need to reconnect with therapy.
You are not responsible for changing your partner’s body image, but there are certain things you can do to support them in their journey toward self-love and self-acceptance.
Body image issues and disordered eating are isolating. It’s common for people to feel alone, misunderstood, and unlovable. Your constant, accepting presence could be just what the person needs to enter a treatment program and get better.
If you want your partner to come to you when they are struggling, it is important to be supportive in the way they need you to be. Ask what they need now, and follow through to the best of your ability.
A long-term goal in eating disorder recovery is for a positive self-image and body image to come from within so individuals do not need to rely on external validation. That being said, providing this validation can be extremely helpful for someone struggling with body image issues, particularly if your partner is fresh into recovery.
- Get the Facts. (n.d.). National Organization for Women. Accessed September 2022.
- Tips for Body Positivity: Ways to Feel Better About Our Bodies. (n.d.). The Jed Foundation. Accessed September 2022.
- Quittkat HL, Hartmann AS, Düsing R, Buhlmann U, Vocks S. (2019). Body Dissatisfaction, Importance of Appearance, and Body Appreciation in Men and Women Over the Lifespan. Frontiers in Psychiatry; 10:864.
- Body Image Report: Executive Summary. (n.d.). Mental Health Foundation. Accessed September 2022.
- Warning Signs and Symptoms. (n.d.). National Eating Disorders Association. Accessed September 2022.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 30, 2023
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com