Though my followers are mostly women, today’s post is written for the man in your life. If you are married, pass it on to your husband after you read. I hope you can talk through it together and reach a new level of understanding on this issue.
(Not married? I hope you’ll read it anyway! It’s a hard truth to swallow that marriage doesn’t make body image issues go away. Perhaps this will shed some light on that common fallacy.)
“My wife’s body image issues are hurting our marriage. Big time.” His note started. “How can I help my wife with her body image? It seems like nothing I say or do even matters to her on this front.”
The note might as well have been written by my own husband. The sentiment is one he’s expressed to me dozens of times over the years. He felt powerless to help me, especially early on in our marriage. It seemed like nothing he did or said could ever be “right” or “enough” to help me overcome my struggles. You can read about what I put my husband through in this post and in this one.
Do you know that feeling? Do you feel like you try to affirm your wife, tell her she’s “beautiful,” or find other ways to let her know how much you love her–only to have her cower in response? (Or completely ignore you?) Does your wife insist on lovemaking with the lights off (or avoid it altogether) because she feels ashamed of her body? Does her insecurity in this way sometimes cause you other problems in your marriage–like fights that don’t seem to make sense?
I want to help.
But before I do, I need to share with you some good news and some bad. First the bad: I can’t provide you a list of exactly what to say or do to instantly fix your wife’s body image issues. Following the suggestions here will not guarantee that in two weeks your wife will clothe herself in only a bow, hoping to “connect” under a spotlight and mirrors. Sorry. It probably isn’t going to happen like that at all.
But the good news is if you can come to understand the heart of your wife’s body image issues, you can help her. So, so much. She needs your encouragement, your listening ear, and to know that you are her ally in this battle. Your understanding (or attempt at understanding- I know we women are way complicated), means a whole lot to her and to the tone of your marriage.
Are you ready, guys?
Here’s how to help your wife with her body image issues:
1. Recognize that her problem is not physical.
I don’t care if your wife weighs 104 pounds or 401 pounds, body image issues have nothing to do with what you see on the surface. Supermodels have body image struggles. The challenge is in helping your wife understand that her value is not tied to her physical appearance alone.
She needs to know that you find her attractive, yes. Very much so! Yes! But, internally–deep, deep down–she struggles to believe you could possibly love her for more than just her body. Voices in her head tell her the best thing she has to offer is on the outside. They taunt her, numerous times a day, with reminders of the ways she’s not “good” enough.
And, somewhere along the way–either in childhood or adolescence– she learned that beauty is a fix. She adopted this belief system and defaults to it. She convinces herself that, “if only this next diet (or exercise plan or magic “get skinny” pill) would work,” then she’d be all better.
Here’s where it gets tricky. It’s likely that your wife actually believes that if she could fix the outside of her body, everything else would get better. She may think a certain number in her jeans will make her a better lover. She may believe that if she eliminated all post-baby flab, you’d never lust after another. Or, she may believe that a numeric destination on the scale will make her more confident at work, or more secure in your marriage.
I’m not saying these thought patterns make sense. I’ll just confess that they are real. (Though difficult for her to say out loud or explain.)
She strives to meet these conditional physical metrics because (notice the irony here) she desires unconditional love and acceptance. In her mind, this type of love comes only after she’s good enough, physically.
These thoughts torment her. Some studies show that she could have as many as sixty negative thoughts about herself in an hour. Yes, you got an “A” in math, didn’t you? That’s one per minute!
So when she tells you she needs to join the gym, buy the diet foods, take the pills, or whatever . . .understand that these body image “fixes” will be as effective as a new paint job for your car after the transmission goes out. Sprucing up the outside makes your car look better, but the mechanical issues remain.
Body image issues are not physical issues.
(The same applies to eating disorders. If your wife has or has had eating disorder issues–anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder, orthorexia, exercise bulimia you’ll want to encourage her to seek professional help from a counselor. These issues can escalate quickly and don’t often go away without some professional help.)
2. Recognize that you aren’t the man to fix this.
Ouch. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that one to come off so, well, direct. But, it’s the truth. You seem awesome. But, the only “man” who can fix this for your wife is Jesus.
You can work out with her, stand by the treadmill yelling “You are so hot!” You can tell her she’s the most gorgeous woman you’ve ever seen 534 times every day. Write her sonnets about how much you love her body or put it on a billboard in your town. It won’t matter. It will never be enough. Chances are, she’ll respond like this, “You have to say that ‘cuz we’re married . . .”
Your wife craves a love you can’t give her. That’s not your fault. It’s God’s. He designed us with a need for Him. There’s a good chance that, like me, she assumed marriage would fill this empty hole in her heart. But, it didn’t. It couldn’t. It’s nothing you did wrong–marriage just wasn’t designed to save us.
If you want your wife’s attitude about her body to change, encourage her to draw closer to Jesus.
How do you do that? You draw closer to Jesus, first. That’s right. Nothing makes a woman more inspired to chase after God than watching her man do it. Grow in Him together. Find a church that talks about things like “idolatry” and “accountability.” Skip the ones that only want to talk about improving your life or helping you be a “good” person. Find a place where you get fed the real meat of the Bible. Plug-in, serve and connect with other couples there.
Want a made-over wife? Want one who is ready and able to encourage you, support you, love and connect with you physically? Then find ways to encourage your wife to know and love Jesus! You will marvel at how her love for Him transforms her ability to love you.
3. Recognize that she needs grace more than anything.
Chances are, at the heart of your wife’s body image struggle there is an idolatry issue. That sounds weird, right? Your wife struggles with feeling fat–not bowing to Buddha. Allow me to explain.
Modern day idolatry doesn’t revolve around paying homage to inanimate objects. Rather, idolatry exists when we believe that something or someone will save us. And, this something or one isn’t God.
Perhaps your wife expected you to save her. Husbands can be idols. Or, maybe she believed the love she desired would come when and if she had a “better” body. She may assume that if she were “thinner” then she’d have the life (and freedom) she wants.
The idolatry is subtle, but present. It whispers: If you get the “perfect” body (or one “better” than the one you have now–idolatry is tricky), then you will have all that you want. You will be saved.
Some women start their struggle early. I decided in elementary school that I had fat legs. Other women start later, sometimes after they have children and experience the body changes that go along with pregnancy and childbirth.
Either way, this garbage penetrates her thinking. She wrestles a lie that more beauty will save her. Now you have a unique opportunity to help her see truth.
The next time your wife says, “I just wish I could lose another fifteen pounds!” or “Could I just trade in my butt for a new one?” ask her why. Maybe the answer is for health reasons. (And, there’s some merit to that.) But, don’t let her stop there. (Most women–even those of us who need to lose weight for the sake of our physical health–have a hidden motivation to want to look “hot” too.) Ask her if she believes that you would love her more if she looked different. Ask her what else she believes would change in your lives if she wore a different size or had a different build.
4. Talk about truth in a gracious and loving way.
Then, let her talk. (Your job is to listen!) Encourage her. (Don’t scold or say “Ah Ha! I knew it! You are an idolator! That’s your problem!” That won’t go over well.) Tell her that you will support her if she really wants to change her body, but that you don’t think she needs to. Reiterate that you love her and she doesn’t need to change for you.
(**If you do want her to change for you, then I’d encourage you to read Ephesians 5 and ask yourself if this is how Christ loves the church. He pursues us and we change in response to his loving pursuit. This applies even if your wife needs to lose weight for health reasons. You have the power to positively motivate your wife towards healthy change. Not pursuing her because she’s overweight or “punishing” her because she hasn’t lost weight will likely exacerbate any unhealthy habits. More on this in next week’s follow up post next week called “FAQs: The Fight-Free Way to Navigate My Wife’s Body Image Issues.”)
Gently, help her see that women who have the body type she desires still have struggles. Top actresses still get cheated on, supermodels lose their jobs, and even women considered “gorgeous” by our culture’s standards find themselves trapped in addictions or in the spiral of depression because being physically beautiful doesn’t fix our brokenness.
Talk to her about the lies she believes. Allow her to bring them to the light through conversation and graciously dispel any of them that you can. Sometimes just saying out loud the ridiculously mean and cruel body-related thoughts tormenting us offers huge relief. Allowing her the freedom to safely share her struggles is key.
5. Apply the Gospel to her body image issues.
Then, lead her to the cross. Talk to her about the truth of the Gospel–how the only thing that will ever really satisfy her will be Jesus, not more beauty. Encourage her to confess her idolatry to the father. (We can “talk” about it all day, but the real healing and change comes after we confess our sins and ask him to forgive them!) Confess to her your own struggles with looking to other things (your job maybe? lust?) for satisfaction and contentment. Grow together in your marriage as you mutually give each other grace to struggle and work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
Your wife wants to love you well. Trapped in a web of lies about her value, she needs you to, gently, help her get out. Pray for her. Encourage her. Love her well. And, don’t give up. Though the enemy may plan to destroy your marriage through her issues, you can stand tall against his schemes and come through this time with a marriage that’s stronger than ever.