Weights and Measures: How to have healthy and affirming conversations about weight with a partner
Content note: While this piece discusses weight and weight gain, it is weight-neutral. Neither your health, your attractiveness, nor your value are linked to your weight. This piece will not be telling anyone any of those things, and does not encourage anyone to change their weight in any way.
When I went up two dress sizes last year, my first concern was having to buy a whole new wardrobe.
My second concern was more serious. I found that I couldn’t seem to have a conversation with anyone about the changes my body had gone through without them using it as an opportunity to “help” me by suggesting methods of losing weight.
What none of the people I spoke to realized was that I felt comfortable in myself and with my body.
I wasn’t looking for “solutions” from them because larger bodies — just like smaller bodies, or just like a body of any size at all — are completely fine as they are. Rather, I just wanted a safe space to talk about my thoughts and feelings with those I care about the most.
In no relationship was this more important than in the one I share with my partner of five years. Our relationship is a typical example of the clichéd “opposites attract.” His idea of a great date is a long hike up a mountain, while mine would be going out together for some cocktails and great food. Yet despite our differences, our partnership works so well because we learned to compromise early on, and we are always honest with each other.
But when I gained weight, I could tell that neither of us knew how to proceed when it came to talking about it. For the first time, I felt out of sync with him, like there was a wedge between us. We both skirted around the topic, and I found myself isolating myself from him emotionally to avoid the inevitable “solutions” talk.
When we did finally discuss it, he actually handled it much better than me. I had unknowingly developed a hard, defensive exterior that was activated by any mention of my weight, good or bad. I felt myself withdrawing from him and shutting down any conversations of this type even weeks later.
We’ve since reached a better place, where we understand each other and know how to navigate these conversations — and each other — with more sensitivity and care so that each of us has a healthy and productive space to both speak and be heard. I found that what helped me the most was remembering to prioritize myself. You need to give yourself time to process how you feel before talking about it. Also, remember that you are never alone in your experience. There are plenty of Scarleteen resources to help you out, including the Scarleteen forums and this guide, which will give you honest and actionable steps that can help you navigate these situations better (no matter which side of the conversation you find yourself on!)
1. Learn about body neutrality
While the body positivity and self-love movement is certainly something to celebrate, this isn’t something you should feel that you have to aim for unless you want to. Contrary to popular belief, just accepting yourself is enough. Learning about body neutrality really helped me — and my partner — come to terms with my changing body.
The basic focus of weight neutrality is that the number on the scales doesn’t represent your health or worth as a person. It is all about functioning outside of the confines of weight loss or a smaller body being a goal. The goal is to respect your body and learn how to develop and maintain healthy habits that work for you. For example, move your body because you want to, or because it feels good and movement brings you joy, not to burn off what you ate for lunch.
“The process of self-acceptance about weight isn’t all that different from trying to come to terms with other aspects of yourself or your life that are different from what you’d hoped for or expected,” says Dr. Sheila Addison, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) in California and Washington state and supporter of Health at Every Size. “Acceptance or self-love may not even be on the table, which is why the idea of cultivating neutrality toward some aspect of yourself, or the image of declaring a peace treaty, can be more helpful.”
For more on weight or fat neutrality, you can read up at:
- A rundown at Body Positive
- The Case for Weight-Neutral Self-Care - Heidi Andersen
- ‘Fat’ Isn’t a Bad Word—It’s Just the Way I Describe My Body - Aubrey Gordon
2. Be clear about what you need from the conversation
If you go into a conversation wanting there to be a specific outcome, but don’t communicate this to your partner then you may be setting yourself up for a misunderstanding. According to Dr. Addison: “It’s very common for couples to get into a conflict because one person thinks they’re having an emotional support conversation, and the other thinks they’re having a problem-solving conversation.”
She suggests using John and Julie Gottman’s “Stress-Reducing Conversation” techniques in this situation. This essentially involves each person having time to air their concern while the other person listens, asks questions, and empathizes without offering any suggestions or inserting any of their personal thoughts or opinions. The primary aim of these conversations is ensuring that each person feels heard and understood.
For example, before giving your own views, you might ask: “May I offer you a suggestion?” or, “Do you want to hear ideas from me?” If the other person says, “No thank you,” the conversation should end there.
“Of course there’s nothing wrong with offering suggestions if that’s what the other person wants,” adds Dr. Addison. But it is important to ask the other person if that is what they want from you before you offer your opinions.
When Food Writer and Wellbeing Blogger Sally Walker went up numerous sizes, she, too, found that honesty was the best policy when it came to conversations about weight with her partner: “I think you need to be upfront with your partner and just say yes I want to lose weight or… you know what, I am happy as I am thanks! If you aren’t honest with your partner then you can’t expect them to have a true reaction to a weight gain,” she says.
3. Leave your relationship out of it
Out of everyone in my life, I personally found it most difficult to talk about my weight gain with my partner, because of the stakes I had mentally attached to the conversation. I knew that my friends and family would still feel the same way about me, but I was scared that this same logic wouldn’t apply to my partner because of my belief, at the time, that my larger body would somehow be less attractive to him than my smaller one.
What was helpful for me was to remember that outside of our romantic relationship, he is also my best and most trusted friend. By taking the relationship out of the equation, I was able to talk to him more freely. It also stopped me from falling into the trap of asking loaded questions with hidden meanings.
As Dr. Addison explains: “Very often in relationships, when one person complains or expresses insecurity about their appearance, what they’re really asking is “do you love me? Often the question underneath the question is about acceptance, about how strong your bond is, about how much they can trust that you will be there for them when they reach out for you.”
Dr. Addison encourages couples to avoid asking loaded questions and instead “approach one another gently, slowly, with curiosity and openness.”
4. Be aware of your body language and tone of voice
Your body language can tell the other person more than you think. Facial expressions, posture, touch, and eye contact are all types of nonverbal communication. When you spend a lot of time with someone, you naturally become attuned to their body language, so if they suddenly start acting differently you will notice immediately.
This means if you enter a conversation feeling guarded or insecure, your body language will convey that to the other person before you even start speaking. This in turn may make them mirror your behavior, and before you know it you’re sitting opposite each other with your arms crossed and minds closed off to each other.
“It's the work of everyone, of any body size, in any kind of relationship, to help make the world a kinder and safer place for everyone [else,]” Dr. Addison says. This starts not with what you say, but how you act. Always keep your body language open, and stay affectionate to try and associate conversations about weight with positive emotions.
Each partner should also take note of any sudden changes in another person’s body language or tone of voice, and adjust accordingly. For example, if you notice a partner looking away or nervously tapping, stop speaking. Is what you’re saying so important that you must continue even if a partner is showing physical signs of discomfort? I would hazard a guess that the answer is a most definite no. Remember the principles of the Stress-Reducing Conversation and always put another person first.
Every single body will naturally change over time, so weight changes are both normal and expected. It is also normal to feel unsure about the changes in your body, and for your partner to initially struggle to know how to respond. I am now completely content in my skin and feel loved and supported by my partner, but a key factor in reaching this point was both of us taking the time to learn how to tackle the subject of weight gain while respecting the other person’s feelings.
Above all, always remember your worth, which is in no way linked to what size your body happens to be at any one time. “I think there is too much pressure from the media to look a certain way and then for our partners to feel a certain way about how we look,” summarizes Sally. “At the end of the day, if your partner truly loves you, he will find you beautiful no matter what size you are.”
Amen to that!