Let me preface this by saying I know this question doesn’t make me look great, but I do genuinely want to figure out a way to address this issue. I’ve been with my girlfriend for four years, and in the past year and a half she’s put on a lot of weight, about two sizes in clothes. She’s still pretty and isn’t obese or anything, but she used to have a mind-blowing body and now I’m not nearly as attracted to her. Our sex life has been affected, as we don’t have sex as frequently or as enthusiastically – because I’m not as enthusiastic, to be honest. And our relationship overall feels boring and stuck because of this. I’m panicking, because I genuinely saw us being together for the long-haul, and now I feel like we’re distant. But I know it’s ridiculous for weight to cause a relationship to end. What do I do here?
You came to me with a genuine question, so let me ask you one in return: if you met your partner now, and there was no chance of a romantic or sexual connection, would you want to be their friend? Would you want to hang out with them and talk to them, are you interested in their thoughts and ideas, are you drawn to their charisma?
If you are thinking about settling down long-term with your girlfriend, the answer needs to be yes. Because yes, physical attraction is important, but in the long-run, appearances and bodies change. In the short-term, people get dodgy haircuts and grow unfortunate moustaches. And over time, people’s bodies change because they put on weight and lose weight, they get pregnant, and they get sick or suffer injuries. And the inescapable fact facing all of us is that people age, and that changes us, too.
Your partner has put on weight, and her appearance has changed – and yours will too, over time. Or you’ll go through periods of illness, stress, grief, and a myriad of other reasons that will mean at certain points in your life, you won’t feel sexually engaged or you may not be at your most attractive.
Loving each other as individuals, not just as sexual partners, is what's going to sustain you
It’s at these points, that genuinely liking your partner as a person, not just a body, is going to see you through. And I don’t mean in some romantic, butterfly-in-the-stomach, breathless worship sense where you think your partner is a magical goddess. I mean, knowing your partner intimately, knowing their flaws-and-all self – if sex was off the table, would they still be the person you choose to spend most of your time with?
Relationships go through sexual dry spells, and many people go through periods of not feeling crazily attracted to their partner, and in these times, loving each other as individuals, not just as sexual partners, is what’s going to sustain you. And I’m concerned that if your whole relationship and sex life has become stagnant because some of your physical attraction is lessened, that connection might not be there.
While you’re examining that connection, it’d be worth examining what ideals of beauty you’re valuing, and how narrow they seem to be. Going up two sizes doesn’t indicate a shocking amount of weight gain. If you’re only ever going to be content with “mind-blowing” beauty, you’re not just going to hurt your partners, you’re going to limit yourself by devaluing great people.
The beauty, film and pornography industries work together to socially condition us with ideals of beauty – but these aren’t innate, and can change. We can change them. In the 1990s, we worshipped the gaunt skinniness of “heroin chic” models, now the “on-trend body” for women is one of curves all over (still unattainable for many, but now in a different way, hurrah!) These shifts happen through exposure, representation and celebration – and you can shift that yourself. Start looking at and reading about body positivity, and deliberately selecting media that allows you to appreciate other types of beauty – and bring this to your view of your partner. What makes her sexy now, and how can you appreciate it?
Regarding your girlfriend’s weight gain, it’s worth having a conversation with her about it – one that focuses on her feelings, not yours. Trust me, she knows she has put on weight. But a sudden increase in weight could by a side-effect of a few things, including illness, medication, stress or depression, etc. If this is the case, she could welcome your support in addressing the issue and she may be planning on losing the weight. You could support her by suggesting therapy if necessary, helping her out generally so she has time to go to the gym, or exercising and eating healthily together.
Many women feel incredible amounts of pressure to achieve and maintain a 'mind-blowing body' – and it's not always healthy, physically or emotionally
But I will also say, weight gain isn’t always a sign of something negative, and when within a healthy range, shouldn’t be viewed as such. Weight gain can be the sign of a medication doing its job to fix a hormonal imbalance or thyroid issue, for example – or it could just be self-care. Many women feel incredible amounts of pressure to achieve and maintain a “mind-blowing body” like your girlfriend had – and it’s not always healthy, physically or emotionally. Over-exercising and undereating are not healthy. Maybe your girlfriend has reprioritised her confidence and self-worth so it’s less focused on her body, and so she’s shed some unhealthy practices in order to embrace herself, even if that also means embracing a few extra pounds.
If you can’t embrace that with her, then maybe you shouldn’t be with her. She will find someone who will love her at this size, and at others. Ask yourself what you will find, and what you’re really looking for.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She’s currently undertaking a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.
If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe