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I hate my body, so I don't want my boyfriend to see it.

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Olivia asks:

To start off, I'm really self-conscious. I'm slightly heavyset, and practically hate myself for it. I know it's nothing really major, but nevertheless. I don't like my body.

My boyfriend is very athletic and is on one sport team or another all year round. He has a fantastic body and is really tan- me, on the other hand: un-muscular, pale (and pink, in some places), hairy (I have a trail of hair from my pubic area to my mid-stomach) and "flabby".

I don't feel comfortable taking off my clothes in front of him, much less having sex with him. Is there a way I can "train" myself to take my clothes off in front of him and not feel totally inferior?

Heather Corinna replies:

Well, it might help to start by simply acknowledging - or reminding yourself -- that there is no one "best" or "right" body type.

Clearly, you feel yours isn't -- and that's understandable in a world so messed up about looks -- but without external messages that something was wrong with your body (with every body, really) that you internalized, it's unlikely you'd feel that way. Even if you had a totally different body, you could still be feeling this way: plenty of athletic, thin,
tan girls have body image problems just like you: I've heard from them myself. No one kind of body makes a person immune from feeling this way, believe it or not.

We ALL have a wide array of body types and compositions, and that's determined primarily by our genetics, something we can't control. Anytime we or anyone else decides that any one body type is the right one, or the best one, it's not a sensible thing, because we're all so incredibly different. Too, if your partner is an athlete and you're not, you're likely to have variances there as well. How active we are, and how often we're active is often -- not always, by the way, nor per how we appear or what we weigh -- going to influence our body.

Regardless, his being athletic and being leaner or tanner than you are doesn't mean his body is "fantastic" and yours isn't or is less so. It means that your bodies are different, likely because of both your genetics and how you each use them. Per the tan issue, again: this is a cultural beauty standard, and those standards are both arbitrary and also change very often. In another space and time, you, the paler gal would have been or would be considered more attractive by another standard. Of course, too, if that tan is from sun exposure, it may look great according to a given standard, but it's not a smart, healthy choice on his part.

Lastly, on the issues you brought up, nearly everyone past or into puberty has hair all over their bodies, and most women have hair where you're describing: this is normal. How dark or light, thin or thick it is is again, going to depend on our genetics. There's no one right amount of body hair for anyone, male or female, this size or that, to have: we're all different.

But here's the thing I think is helpful to ask yourself: if you're not okay as your genetics made you, by your standards or someone else's, what does that really say -- about you, about all people, about the world and relationships? Does it mean something is wrong with you, or something is wrong with those standards?

If you go with that something is wrong with you, that would mean that by another set of standards, either in another time period, or in a different area, something would also be wrong with how your boyfriend looks, and how his genetics made him. And if every time a standard changes -- or we go somewhere else where they differ -- we go from somehow being perfecty-perfect to having everything wrong with us, it's pretty easy to start figuring out that that's pretty flawed logic.

I'll spell it out: there's nothing wrong with you, and everything wrong with any set of beauty standards, personal or cultural, which privileges any one way of looking, or any one kind of body or person.

So, what can you do about how you're feeling, especially with him, besides doing what you can to try and unpack all the garbage most of us get our heads filled with about appearance?

For starters, you can "train" yourself, in the sense that it's normal for it to take time and the development of trust to be intimate with someone else, for most people, most of the time. You can let him know that you're having some body image issues, so that he knows to be even more sensitive than he might otherwise (though flatly, he's your boyfriend, he likes you, and thus, likely isn't seeing any of the issues in you that you are in yourself). You can take whatever baby steps you need to, only exposing yourself and sharing your body in ways you feel most comfortable with first, so that you can build that trust. If that's none right now, that's totally okay: whatever timetable feels right for you is the right pace. Even people without body image issues often take time with this, and get more and more intimate with someone else in stages.

You can certainly consider some counseling or pro support in working on your body image issues, because if they're profound, they're going to impact you in more ways than just this one: if you need help working through this so that it doesn't stand in the way of your esteem and the enjoyment of your life, by all means, seek that out. Too, if you just don't FEEL good -- as in, not per how you look, but how you feel, in your body -- and could stand to make some positive changes for your health and well-being, do that, not just with the aim of changing your looks, especially since changing our diet or activity doesn't always do that, but to improve your health, mood and overall well-being.

Also, feeling okay about your body with someone is only one part of feeling ready to have sex together. Those aren't seperate issues, but one is part of a much larger whole where there are also a lot of other issues. For help with figuring things out in terms of sex readiness, have a look here, and I'd also suggest having a read of this and this.

One last thing, what I think is the most important thing? Cornball as it may sound, I want to invite and encourage you to be a revolutionary, a radical, a rebel. Sounds pretty awesome, right? It should, because it is.

Women who hate their bodies usually hate their bodies because they have bought into -- many without realizing it, or even meaning to -- all of the bullshit that comes out of sexism and misogyny, as well as capitalism and consumerism when it comes to places like the diet industry, the fashion industry, the cosmetic industry. All of those arenas benefit themselves by making YOU feel like something is wrong with you: if you didn't, after all, they wouldn't make money (when we're talking about places and people that directly profit from all the crud people buy to try and fit an image they're being sold). I mean, the diet industry alone is a multi-billion dollar industry: if it actually WORKED for women, it wouldn't be (it really relies on the fact that diets don't work in the way those companies say they do, and it relies upon diets ultimately failing), and if women didn't feel so pushed to fit a given mold of beauty, and were instead just encouraged to take care of themselves in basic ways, no one would even feel a need for that industry. Take a look even at the commercials for diet programs sometime: if you can start to look at them with a more critical eye, you'll begin to see the way they really capitalize on all of us feeling crappy about ourselves and our bodies, and who really benefits from the whole works.

Believe it or not you (and every other woman) picking apart and hating your body helps sexism thrive because it keeps women from spending their time and energy on things that pick us up instead of keep us down.

A lot of how we feel good about ourselves is because of how we feel about our WHOLE selves: in other words, who we are and what we do tends to have a lot to do with how we feel about our bodies and how we look. When we refuse to internalize cruddy messages about ourselves and our bodies -- and go the extra mile and activly protest that by taking steps to tell all those places and systems that sap our self-esteem to take a hike -- it's a powerful thing that tends to have powerful, empowering results: results which don't just improve body image but the whole of your self-image and self-esteem. When we let other people and voices boss us around and put us down, we understandably feel like crud about ourselves. Anyone -- including myself -- who I know who has told all that to go to hell, or just taken steps to start doing that, has always felt a lot better about who they are and how they look, and has felt anything but inferior. You feeling beautiful just as you are, and really working to FEEL that inside, and kick out the negativity, is rebellious, radical and revolutionary. What revolutionary isn't freaking gorgeous?

You may have heard something Eleanor Roosevelt (an awesome as well lady who certainly didn't fit most of the beauty standards of her time) once said, which is this: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. That was one smart -- and powerful, and beautiful: check out her smile! -- lady, just like you are. It's not often something we can do overnight, but over time, we really can turn the tables so that we no longer consent to things we do to ourselves that do us harm. If you're going to give consent, consent to things that are great for you, that make you happy and that celebrate you, not the stuff that holds you back from all the good stuff.

written 04 Oct 2007 . updated 10 Aug 2012

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