The process of dating can bring up feelings of excitement and adventure, but on the downside can also trigger one’s insecurities. For someone who deals with negative body image or body dissatisfaction, the idea or actual process or dating someone, whether in pursuit of a casual or more serious romantic relationship, can trigger thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding one’s body.
For most people, dating requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone in both an emotional and physical sense. An individual who struggles with body image may feel uncomfortable engaging in situations that may require them to experience being in their body, whether physically, sexually, or emotionally.
Here are some ways that body image concerns may come up while you anticipate or participate in dating:
For most, dating involves physical or sexual attraction. This idea may cause an individual to question their appearance or body image and whether another person will feel attracted to them. For someone who struggles with their body image, they may experience an intense fear that an individual will reject them for their body or looks. This may influence the individual to focus even more on their body, and potentially attempt to control or manipulate it in a way that they (and their partner) may like. The individual may also experience fear that certain changes in their body could drive their partner away. In summary, dating someone can bring up feelings that one’s body (and ultimately they, as a person) may not be good enough.
Physicality and Sexual Experience
Dating someone may also bring up feelings and experiences regarding being physical, in ways that are sexual and/or intimate. The use of touch is a way to demonstrate physical or sexual attraction, or create intimacy. If you are struggling with your self-image, the idea or act or another person touching you could trigger feelings of insecurity and discomfort around one’s body. For someone who has experienced trauma, physical touch by another person can feel intense and terrifying. Moreover, for an individual who is experiencing confusion or transition regarding their gender identity or sexuality, sexual relations can also trigger body image issues – the individual may feel dysphoria or some cognitive dissonance or incongruence regarding their body during sexual or intimate relations.
Moreover, if you agree to become involved sexually with another person, there is an implication that the other person will view, touch, and experience your body, if this is what you choose. Subsequently, you may recognize certain thoughts, feelings, or sensations that you are having around this. A struggle with body image can interfere with sexual chemistry and intimacy, whether you are uncomfortable with another person having access to your body or feel triggered having to be present in your own body. Someone struggling with their body image may face difficulty fully enjoying sexual experiences, finding that they focus too much on what their body might look like or feel like in terms of size/weight. The individual may therefore create an obstacle in their experience of sexual presence, intimacy, and pleasure, and could also feel less confident or eager during sexual acts, thereby interfering with their partner’s experience as well. Moreover, their partner may be able to sense the other person’s discomfort or sensitivity and feel uncomfortable engaging in these moments.
Other then sexuality and intimacy, with dating comes a variety of new experiences. This may mean taking chances to engage in activities that you may not otherwise try. Your partner may want to share experiences with you where body image challenges will come up – swimming, exercise/movement, social events, etc. You may feel pressure to take better care of yourself which can be challenging for someone with poor body image, in terms of dressing up or attending to physical needs. You may experience pressure in new social situations and find yourself comparing your body to others or wondering if others are judging yours.
Vulnerability. Dating can also trigger feelings that could manifest as negative body image. I’ve mentioned before how with body image concerns, there is usually an underlying feeling that is the root of the body dissatisfaction. That being said, dating experiences can bring on a multitude of emotions – happiness, excitement, anticipation, giddiness, etc. This process can also bring forth more painful emotions – insecurity about abandonment, fear of commitment, low self-worth or not feeling good enough, jealousy, sadness, anger, heartbreak, anxiety, or fear of being enveloped and losing your own identity. If you tend to experience poor body image, chances are that feeling these emotions can worsen body image; focusing on body dissatisfaction can be your way to cope or distract from these otherwise painful feelings.
From my experiences as a clinician, I can go on about other ways that body image concerns may show up while dating or anticipating dating/romance. I’d like to provide some reminders and tips that may be helpful in addressing body image concerns when dating.
- You are not your body. Remember that your body is just one part of you, and not your only identifying feature. If someone chooses/doesn’t choose you because of your body, honestly reflect upon whether this is the type of person you even want to date – someone who can’t see or consider the rest of your great qualities. Remind yourself of what your inner/inherent qualities are – your kindness, motivation, passions, strength, sense of humor, etc. Embracing these qualities will bring you authentic confidence, and not fleeting self-worth that is based on your appearance.
- Different ideals exist. Take into consideration that your idea of an ideal body for yourself may not be the same as your partner’s ideal. Many studies have actually shown that women and men have differing ideas of the “ideal woman’s” body. Furthermore, in the LGBTQIA+ community, where sexuality and gender identity are more fluid, there may be various “ideals” regarding body types. Overall, for many with poor body image, they may not be able to see themselves accurately, but carry a distorted view. Furthermore, since people have different preferences, an individual may not be able to see themselves through the eyes of their partner. Thus, while you may consider something about your appearance or body to be a flaw, this quality may go unnoticed or even considered beautiful by someone you date.
- Talk about it. Share your body image concerns with your partner and how they may affect you and your relationship dynamic. Give your partner an idea about your distress and if there’s anything you need from them when you’re struggling. One suggestion is to ask them to inquire about how you’re feeling or what you’ve been experiencing during your day or life that could be underneath the poor body image. Your partner may have the impulse to compliment your body or to give you tips (diet, exercise) to have the body that you want, but this could just reinforce that your body isn’t good enough the way it is now. Thus, set boundaries with your partner about the type of topics/comments regarding body image with which you are comfortable.
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates Virtual Body Image Groups for adults and adolescents with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are experiencing body image distress or any other psychological turmoil related to a chronic illness, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment.