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Q: So my girlfriend and I have only been dating for a couple of months, and so far it has been the most healthy, honest, balanced relationship of my life. The only issue we come up against is that she has body image issues (she had an eating disorder about six years ago). She has recovered a great deal from that but, of course, struggles with her appearance sometimes. The issue is, I’m worried it is affecting our sex life. I know no matter how gorgeous I tell her she is, she won’t be able to wrap her head around that until she knows and believes that she is beautiful herself. Also, I don’t want to put pressure on her to not have body image issues, because that’s not fair to her and will only make her feel worse. So I guess my question is, how do I ask for sex if I’m unsure how she’s feeling about herself that day? Because if she’s feeling unattractive then I feel like a douche for not being sensitive to that, but if I don’t ask then I’m not being honest about what I need from her at the time. Any advice would be so helpful right now.
It is not your job to anticipate how your girlfriend is feeling about herself that day and to behave accordingly, because that is a path to madness, and anyway if you are not both acting like adults who can talk about their needs without getting upset then you have no business having sex.
Your girlfriend, like anyone with or without body issues, might have a few concrete things that make her less inclined to have sex, and it’s worth talking with her about what those are. For instance, some people just really don’t want to have morning sex, or period sex, or sex right after they’ve showered, or sex when they’re feeling really sweaty. Sometimes people with histories of disordered eating experience light to intense physical pain after eating, because honestly digestion is hard if your body was out of practice for a while and, personally, nothing kills my mood like an IBS attack or heart palpitations or weird blood pressure changes. Sometimes they might need time after eating to sit and process and feel good about having eaten, and sometimes they might want to be distracted from that by eating something else, if you know what I mean. Sometimes all these things might be the case simultaneously and they’ll want to have sex anyway, or none of them will and they won’t, but for the most part there may be some real concrete factors playing into whether or not your girlfriend wants to have sex in a given hour and the only way to know what they are is by talking about them.
But a lot of body issues aren’t related to actual physical bodies, and are not concrete or predictable.
Yes, there will be times when your girlfriend will feel unattractive. During those times, it is still okay to tell her you find her attractive. I suggest using “I think” statements because they’re a lot harder for the irrational parts of her brain to argue with. Sample sentence: I think you look cute/pretty/gorgeous/beautiful/handsome today. Or tell her she looks like an orgasm in a sunbeam. Sometimes hearing that your girlfriend thinks you’re the prettiest is a lot harder than hearing she thinks you have really good hair/boobs/eyes today. If telling her she’s the most beautiful girl in the world keeps falling flat, start smaller. Even if it makes your heart ache. Even if she is.
But if you tell her you think she’s hot and she tells you she isn’t, emphatically, every single time, or gets really upset? That is a sign she still has some work to do. Your girlfriend is an adult human, and this is on her. You are not her therapist. You can be there and support her, but taking on her mental health issues, accidentally or on purpose, is profoundly unhealthy and will fuck both of you — and also your relationship — up.
It is possible, no matter how honest you’ve been with each other, that your girlfriend of only a few months has not been entirely forthcoming about her mental health history. This is not necessarily a bad thing – “that time I was bulimic for fourteen years” is not exactly first, second or third night material, and I personally think that the tendency of modern relationships to strive for total transparency and openness between partners is unnecessary verging on harmful. But the truth, whether you know it or not, is currently affecting your relationship. It is okay to ask whether she is handling her shit, whether she needs to work on some things, and whether you can do anything to help. Do not ask for details unless she offers, and leave room for the conversation to evolve as your trust grows over time. Take it slow. It is her job to handle her shit, and it is okay to ask her to handle her shit, but recovery is a process and sometimes certain body feelings last long after the behaviours associated with them have been fixed.
Which makes the following very important: people with body issues don’t necessarily need to opt out of sex until those issues are resolved.
If you wait until your girlfriend is feeling just really attractive and good about herself to approach the idea of sex, you are, sooner or later, going to stop having sex together. Period.
There is respect for what another person is saying and thinking, and there is enthusiastic consent, and I do not want you to stop practicing those things. Do not have or encourage your girlfriend to have any sex that makes you feel hollow and empty and dead inside, either. But it is a fact that no one with a history of disordered eating and current body image issues is ever going to feel 100% good about themselves 100% of the time. If you wait for that unicorn moment to line up with her sex drive and yours and all the other factors that might go in to whether you have the time/energy/space/lube for sex to actually have it, you are never going to have sex. And by the time it all falls apart and you realize what’s behind your bed death it’ll probably be too late to fix it.
Instead, I am going to make the radical suggestion that not only conventionally attractive beautiful people who feel conventionally attractive and beautiful have sex. People of all levels of attractiveness have sex! (For a reminder, I recommend watching porn. Every body is a beautiful flower and whatever, but find a scene with people you and your girlfriend are not physically attracted to and watch them have an awesome time for a reminder that all bodies deserve pleasure.) Sex is fun and it makes you feel good, and you do not necessarily have to feel good to start having sex. Sometimes sex itself can do the heavy lifting.
You know what makes me feel the most amazing about my body? My partner (and occasionally attractive strangers) wanting to have sex with me. I know that self-esteem and confidence should come from within, and that only I am responsible for how I feel about myself, but the thing that consistently makes me feel the best and forget about any negative thoughts about myself the fastest is the way the person I think is the hottest human on earth looks at me immediately before pinning me to the most convenient surface, and also everything that happens immediately after. She knows I have body feelings and she can tell when I’m feeling unattractive, but in the context of our negotiated relationship my body is hers to use and take and fuck however and whenever she wants unless I give her a hard no. I have yet to give her a hard no. This is what works with what we both need. I have never felt better about myself.
Regardless of whether or not body issues are at play, if sex is understood to be part of your relationship, then everyone involved needs to be committed to keeping it a part of your relationship. Work on the best times to have sex, work on giving and accepting compliments, watch porn and fuck like bunnies when you realize you’re the hottest people in the world, figure out ways to have or ask for or give sex despite and alongside other things that may be going on. It is not douchey to ask for sex in a relationship that sex is understood to be a part of. It is douchey to be honest about your needs and not ask after hers. If they consistently fail to match, it is okay for both of you to reconsider the terms of your relationship, or your relationship itself.
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