One of the truly great benefits of being a therapist is getting to hear how people really feel, deep down inside, about themselves and the world around them. After working with men and women for years, it is clear there are pressures on both genders to conform to a standard of beauty that is unrealistic, at best, and dangerously unachievable, at worst. Even with the growing awareness about the dangers of these pressures, particularly for young women who are thought to be vulnerable to the intense pressures to be skinny, there is no less drive to look a certain way for all of us. Having treated more men than women throughout my career, a handful of whom were actively in a committed relationship at the time of our work, there have been very consistent themes across clients that stood out as unique to the men I have counseled and coached. One in particular is often hard, even embarrassing, for them to admit. Unlike many of their female counterparts, men can become terrorized by their fear based on how their partner appears to others and the outside world. In particular, men worry that their partner is going to get fat! They can often be terrorized by this thought!
Now, before you crucify anyone for feeling this way, let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. It’s a horrible thing. A terrible truth that no one wants to admit. The massive marketing campaigns of the last 50 years promoting perfect bodies, now reaching us with direct personalized access to our devices, has infected us all like a disease! From Instagram and Facebook to print media, television commercials, Hollywood, pro sports, video games, and email advertising, everyone is all too eager to cash in on the selling power of speaking to our most primal instincts. Salacious imagery, in one form or another, is shoved down our throats in a continual, slow and steady assault. Everywhere we are, there it is, with few exceptions and no escape! Perfected Beauty! In its many forms! Having worked as a counselor, therapist, and clinical coach for many years, I can tell you that regardless of gender, money, age, ethnicity, or any other factor, we all got the message! The desperate desire for youth and beauty, has crept its way into the DNA of most of us. A desire that has created a perpetual longing. A deep dark fear that festers in all types of clever ways. I call it the feeling of “not good enough-ness.”
For a long time, it was believed that only women struggled with these types of issues. Things like eating disorders, constant dieting, over eating, and obsessions with how they look. Now, of course, we know that this is simply not true! Even our treatment centers for eating disorders have seen a sharp increase in male participants in recent years. According to The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), about one in three who now suffer from eating disorders are male. In my personal experience working with clients I can say for sure although it may vary in its expression in small ways, men deal with just as much pressure to be attractive as women. In fact, I have treated far more complex and nuanced thought disturbances in my male clients compared to my female cases, specific to image and appearance. Female cases present very often in the same or similar ways. “I am not pretty enough,” “I am too fat,” “I am ugly,” “My breasts are too small,” “My stomach is too big,” “My nose is too big,” “No one will ever love me,” “I am too old and wrinkled,”among other self-criticisms. With my male clients, however, it expresses differently. Obsessions in some cases were so severe that they warranted being admitted into a hospital. I’ve treated issues over how one’s hair looks, having acne, having “chicken legs” or “scrawny” arms, “bad posture” (one I hear often), worrying about not being able to put on weight, night eating (very common) and in many cases, over eating and binge eating. Losing their hair prematurely is also a major concern for many men. In the case of one client I worked with years ago, he was so paranoid about premature baldness that he once started a fist fight with a waiter whose great offense was to stand over him while taking his food order. The client had become convinced that in that single moment this unlucky waiter had been “staring at the top of his head for too long.”
The truth is men care deeply for how they look and feel a similar pressure to look and behave in certain ways, just as women do. Despite the movement toward gender equality, experience has taught me that men feel tremendous pressures specific to them. They can feel an intense pressure to portray an air of masculinity (often called being “alpha” amongst one another), strength and independence. They feel insecure about being muscular, pressure to be the perfect mix of tough and gentlemanly, as well as a desperation to be financially successful enough to be the head of the household, the “bread winner.” They also experience distinct sexual hang ups, foreign to women, related to performance. Utterly uninformed by what women really want, they default to stereotypes and learning from porn how to satisfy women. Obsessions over things like premature ejaculation (not being able to “go long enough”), pleasing their partner(s), and their overall performance can be paralyzing in many cases and lead to all types of behaviors that cause intense feelings of shame and guilt later.
Interestingly, there has been one additional area of concern related to appearance that is rarely seen in their female counterparts. Although the women I have worked with are attracted to beautiful men, they are far more forgiving of their partners’ imperfections. On many occasions, women overlook aesthetics in favor of other qualities that are more important to them in a partner, like security, wit, charisma, and humor! With my male clients, there is a distinct pattern of concern related to how their partner appears to others – that is that they are not good looking enough, specifically that they are “getting fat” or “going to get fat” eventually.
In a few instances I have worked with men who were so terrified of their partner not being able to lose the “baby-weight”someday they had decided they were not going to have children…ever!
Despite how crazy or superficial this may sound to some, I promise you this is no laughing matter! The men who are impacted by their partners weight gain take this issue very seriously and are presented with a real challenge feeling the way they do. It’s no secret that when it comes to physical attraction and sex men are more visual than emotionally stimulated, and thanks to testosterone have a more active sex drive than their average female counterpart (obviously there can be exceptions). Some of the men I worked for nearly two decades who were aged 18-35 years old reported thinking about sex countless times throughout the day…every day. Despite our attempts to approach sexuality in a civilized and intellectual way, bringing things like justice and a sense of right and wrong into the equation, we are biologically driven creatures first and foremost. Our primal instinct takes over as it relates to the drive to survive. Just like our built-in urges for food, water, and removing a hand from a hot stove, so too is our knee jerk desire to procreate! Compared to our only few hundred years of modernization (up to few thousand depending on how you define modernized), the other nearly 200,000 years on this earth were spent in the wild, living off the land, uncivilized! Moreover, no man wants to experience a lack of attraction to their partner – or the guilt they feel because of it! After all, this is a person that “they love!” and at one time were very attracted to sexually. I assure you it is not something they use as a source of amusement with their friends. With the common sentiment being never to confront a woman about her weight (without seeming like the world biggest a**hole) men will go to great lengths to try and avoid the topic all together, despite the way they feel, hoping and praying that subtle encouragements to “get back to the gym” because you’ll “feel better” will work.
Here are some ways to begin to address these issues…
Focus on You!
Human beings are very predictable creatures. Regardless of what you see in your partner that you do not like or approve of, or any concern that you have about their actions or decisions, has to do more with you than anything else!
It’s tempting in a situation like this to say, “If they would just lose the weight, then everything would be perfect!” I absolutely promise you, however, that is not the case. When your only recourse for changing how you feel is to force someone or something outside of your control to behave the way you want them to, you are in very serious hot water! Where you ultimately have control is on the inside! Getting your mind in the game! Shift your focus from them, what they do and say, to you! Think about how you can improve how you feel each day without needing someone else do something you want them to.
There are many reasons that our partners appearance might be unravelling us. Far too many to go into here. In order to “fix the problem” first we must begin to accept that this is our problem and not theirs. They may or may not feel bad about being overweight, and there are many reasons – some that we surely can’t see- why it is that they have gained the weight to begin with! The point is, it’s more than just about calories in and calories out. Before we start thinking about how to manipulate them to bend to our will and go on a diet, we have to take responsibility for our thoughts & feelings. This means doing all we can to feel better NOW!
2. Control Your Focus
Where you have full control and complete authority is over what you give your attention to! The nature of perception in the brain is such that whatever you look at gets bigger. The fastest way to begin to change this situation is to look away from it, and focus on something that makes you feel better, rather than worse! No one wants to harbor these types of feelings about their partner. In addition to resenting them for gaining weight, we can feel terrible for having such superficial thoughts about someone that we love. That can lead to all sorts of shame, guilt, self-criticism – guaranteed to make matters worse, not better! In order to master this, try beginning a meditation practice. There are 1,000s of free guided meditations available on line that are fun and engaging! Spend 15 minutes a day for 2 weeks actively working to allowing your attention to be guided by someone else. This will eventually begin to slow down your thoughts (a.k.a. the nervous system) offering you more power and control to select with ease where you put your focus!!
3. Finding the Positive Again
Patterns of thought can quickly become automatic. Depending on how long this has been going on, eventually it can become so overwhelming that it’s the first thing that comes to mind in the presence of your partner, or whenever you think about them at all. It’s critical that rather than allowing your mind to run on autopilot you be very deliberate about what your thinking is doing around them, and whenever you notice your mind veering back onto this topic. Instead, take the time to make a list of the things about them that you first fell in love with. What do you like about them? Surely, it’s not only that they were thin when you met! By inflating the things you love and ignoring the things you don’t, your perception will begin to shift. If you keep doing this day after day, I guarantee their weight will be less bothersome.
4. Be A Model, Do You!
Never ask someone to do something you haven’t, won’t or don’t! Regardless of how fit you are already, expecting your partner to make changes that you are unwilling to make yourself is a total set up for you both. Where you have the most influence in your love relationship is in what you do, not what you say! When you begin to do the personal development work on yourself the benefits are extraordinary! You’ll watch as the world around you changes.
What we often don’t understand is that what we feel determines the direction of our thoughts. You’ll probably notice that whatever the imperfection is that you see is in your partner, it bothers you sometimes more than others. That’s because your thoughts are mood dependent! It’s the mood that you’re in at that moment that will select what you’re thinking in relationship to your partner. When you work on managing your own health and wellness, your mood will naturally improve. As you begin feeling better more often, and working to create more positive thought wiring in the brain each day, you’ll almost instantly notice a change in how you see them for the better!
5. Find Fun (Not Eating Out!)
In our go-go world it can be very tough to take the time to actually connect with our partner. When we do make time to connect, the easiest way to do it is over a meal, to go out to eat. Rather than doing the same old thing, try and find a fun and engaging activity that gets you moving and having to interact outside the normal ways that you typically do now. Having fun together is a very powerful experience that can keep things very positive for days to follow!