How can I help my girlfriend see how beautiful she really is?

My girlfriend is uncomfortable being naked around me. She is beautiful and I love the way she looks. If she could see what I see, she would be more comfortable. What can I do to make her feel better?
CJ replies:

Bravo to you for loving the way your girlfriend looks and seeing her beauty, both inner and outer! The truth of the matter is that many women are uncomfortable with their bodies and this starts at an amazingly young age. We (of all genders, though women are often targeted) are bombarded with media images telling us that we are not pretty enough or thin enough or fill-in-the-blank enough. Women are shown images of celebrities who, realistically, may have eating disorders, and told that this is beautiful. Cosmetic surgery has become a huge industry and it seems that women are told that they just need some botox or some liposuction or some tucking or enhancing and then, maybe then, they will be almost good enough. Fad diets come and go more quickly than you can figure out how they even purport to work.

Have you ever seen the movie Mean Girls? Yes, I'm referencing a movie starring Lindsay Lohan but bear with me for a second. The movie was actually largely based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman. While aimed at parents, the book took a somewhat ethnographic exploration of teen girls and the ways in which they interact. Boys may be overtly aggressive, but Wiseman described the subtle aggressive undertones used by teenage girls, and often times this bullying and power play was centered around issues of the body and of sexuality. That is the reality for many girls and young women...they may be uncomfortable from all of the messages they received from the media and from their families around their bodies, and then their peers totally bug them about it, too.

It can be hard to grow into one's own as a sexual being, and body image is a part of that. It's a process and it can be hard to face in the midst of the neverending barrage of seemingly horrible things people say about each others' bodies.

As a loving and supportive partner it can be really hard to watch someone you care about struggle with their bodies and body image. Do you tell her how you see her? How does she respond? Sometimes it can be hard to take a compliment but I believe that developing that skill (how to accept a compliment graciously and without disclaimer) is a key, sort of like a fake it til you make it step. You could try this: if she is someone who will laugh or tell you that you must be blind when you pay a compliment to her beauty, try asking her just to believe you for one second and say thank you. She may want to explain to you all about how her thighs are really all the wrong size when you are telling her that you love her curves, but perhaps you can get to the place where even if she does not internalize what you say, she doesn't argue. That's a step.

It can be really tough to talk about body image with anyone, but perhaps she would be willing to talk about it more directly with you. Maybe she doesn't realize what it is that you find so attractive about her. Does she have any body parts she likes? It's sometimes easy to get caught up in the parts we don't like, and also to only think in terms of the parts that society deems "sexual". But maybe she really likes her ears or her hands or something else and you can start there. Perhaps you two can find some time together and make a list of the parts you like on each other and why, and then (this can be hard to do!) make a list of the parts you like on yourself. During this exercize there is no dismissing, no trash talking, no arguing. You just need to sit and hear what it is that your partner loves about you, and let your partner know what you love about them.

These are all just ways to open up communication around body image. Communication is awesome, but I can't promise it will magically make your girlfriend feel better about herself. It's a tough world out there and already she may have internalized a lot of negative beliefs about herself. Damage is done by individuals and by society, but the good news is that healing often happens within the context of a safe and loving relationship.

Even if someone loves their body, they might have trouble being naked in front of a partner. Find out if there is something that would make her feel more comfortable, if there is some way that she would feel more at ease with herself. Maybe cute underwear or an outfit that makes her feel smokin' will feel better for her, and that is ok. It's all about finding what works for us, and there is no right or wrong way to go about being intimate with someone. Maybe there are parts of her body that she feels so uncomfortable with, she does not want you touching. Respecting that can help build trust and a feeling of physical and emotional safety...which can, eventually, help us feel better about our own bodies.

Find out what makes your girlfriend feel beautiful and encourage those things. Let her know how you feel. Respect that it takes a lot of time and effort to undo some of the crappy things that she has learned about herself and let her know that you're going to be there with her to remind her of how awesome she is. Having a loving partner who thinks that you are hot/sexy/beautiful/gorgeous can make a huge difference in the way someone feels about her or his body. I wish I could give you a magic wand and some Harry Potter powers that would allow your girlfriend to magically believe everything that you believe about her body, but in this case I must report that the best--and only--way out is through. Patience is key, and I hope that one day she will feel comfortable in her skin and love what she's got.

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