After spending three months apart in quarantine, my boyfriend asked me what I thought about his body.
He asked because he was slimmer pre-quarantine when we met than when we got back together after, and he was feeling a bit self-conscious. But he pointed out he was just curious what I thought because I never, ever complimented his body.
This struck him as a bit strange, and potentially worrisome, and I was glad he brought it up so that I could explain how due to my line of work I try to never comment on other people’s bodies at all, not even in positive ways. (Because I never want to participate in oppressive narratives about one kind of body being better or worse than another.)
But the more I thought about it, I also realized that I specifically don’t compliment my partner’s body for more personal reasons.
In past relationships, my partners would often “compliment” me on my body or appearance, and I noticed that counter-intuitively, this always contributed to me feeling lonely and insecure.
Granted it didn’t start that way. At first, being complimented felt great; I loved knowing my partner was attracted to me, desired me, and turned on by me. But over time, the more a partner gushed about how pretty, sexy, lean, fit, or gorgeous I was, the less confident and loved I felt in those relationships.
Having realized this, I dove into exploring why that was, and came up with three separate reasons.
It was a reminder that I’m being looked at and judged. Normally I go about my day doing what I want, thinking my thoughts and feeling my feelings. Having someone comment on how I look while doing those things is jarring, and reminds me that I am constantly being looked at, judged, and sexualized– a fact both deeply embedded in my personal history, and reinforced everywhere in our culture. This reminder leads to more thoughts about my appearance, and more self-consciousness overall.
It reinforced the idea that as a woman, my value to my partner comes down to looking good. The message women get from a young age is that our value is based on how we look, especially in relationships. When my partner complimented my appearance (especially if he rarely complimented my internal qualities like humor, intelligence, writing, passion, and dedication to growth) I got the feeling that he liked me, loved me, chose me, and valued me for how I looked, as if hotness was the most important thing I brought to the table as a partner.
As a result, I felt like my partner didn’t really see, understand, or value who I am as a whole person, and I felt disrespected, invisible, lonely, and unfulfilled. (I want to be desired by my partner, yes, but my appearance should be the least interesting and valuable thing I bring to the table.)
It made me feel pressured to maintain my appearance.