You Need Help: Your Girlfriend Has Body Issues And You Want to Initiate Sex

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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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Carolyn Yates is the NSFW Consultant, and was formerly the NSFW Editor (2013–2018) and Literary Editor, for Autostraddle.com. Her writing has appeared in Nylon, Refinery29, The Toast, Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, and elsewhere. She recently moved to Los Angeles from Montreal. Find her on twitter.

Carolyn has written 878 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. Dear writer,

    Having body issues can go extremely deep in a persons mind and according behaviour. I think you’re right to go slow. Is she open to try and explore her boundaries together with you? Why not keep it light? Ask her what she IS comfortable with and take it from there.

    Accept that these things take some time but they get better with an understanding and loving partner who keeps on keeping on in her statement that you are, indeed, the most perfect person alive. I should know, my gf has perfected this method. 😉 Keep loving and talking and you’ll both get there.

    Take care!

  2. Omg thank you Carolyn! This article was exactly what I needed to hear after dating someone with body image issues and not knowing how to ask for sex without wanting it to seem like I was just using her for sex or pressuring her to do something she didn’t want to do. I think I may have made the mistake of not asking for what I needed and not expressing my thoughts of how hot I thought she was out of fear that it would be taken the wrong way. We are no longer dating but it’s so good to know that it’s not douchy of me to expect sex from a relationship where sex is understood to be a part of. I will definitely use this advice in the future and just try to be more adult and tell my partner my needs and ask for theirs and not hold back initiating sex and compliments if that is our agreement. Thanks for uncomplicating things.

  3. “You know what makes me feel the most amazing about my body? My partner (and occasionally attractive strangers) wanting to have sex with me.”

    This is exactly how I feel!!!

    I have BDD and my closest friend has it as well. She doesn’t understand how I’m able to be ‘sexual active’ and now I can put it into words. I’m going to share this with her!

    Great article, Carolyn!

  4. this is really great advice, carolyn! i cosign all of it, especially the part about exploring sexuality as something EVERYONE is entitled to because i think that was something i had a hard time understanding growing up in our culture which effectively teaches us sexuality is something reserved for only those deemed conventionally attractive enough to own it. that.is.bullshit. and learning that really allowed me to feel sexual even if i thought i wasnt “good enough” for sex. good enough = total bullshit.

    i just wanted to add that as someone who has struggled with disordered eating/body image issues for what seems like forever, it is important to know that often we are acutely aware of when and how we are being difficult and we want more than anything to change it and be better. expressing thoughts about body dissatisfaction and guilt surrounding food was generally just code that I felt sad and overwhelmed and hated myself. it can seem impossibly hard to negotiate a fulfilling sexual relationship when your own body feels so charged and dangerous and out of control. i started dating my girlfriend about five years ago at the height of a full blown eating disorder and i wanted to wish her away for at least the first few months of our relationship. i knew how hard it was going to be with my issues to enter into my first same sex relationship. i wasnt stable enough or ok enough with myself to do it, but i loved her pretty much from the start and i refused to miss out on yet another great thing because of my stupid fucking eating disorder. and she was willing to stay despite all my baggage so i stayed too. and it was incredibly hard work and there were many ups and downs but guess what? we are still together! you are obviously a caring and patient person just by virtue of asking this question, but this is just a little advice from someone who has been dealing with this very issue for years but from the other side: patience and communication is key. it is important to hear your partner’s complaints and hangups about her body and frame them as a symptom of something so much bigger than she can handle on her own and probably often wants to change but cant. maybe this is something you already appreciate, but i know in my relationship, that was something that was talked about and recapitulated for at least the first year maybe longer. the conversation had to shift away from “but i think you are beautiful/but i love you/i think you are sexy” to “what is going on? are you feeling guilty/lost/undone?” and it helped so much. trust me, i could always find ways to dismiss any and all compliments i was an impenetrable shield when it came to positive comments about my appearance so none of that ever helped. what did help was being confronted with questions about how i was really feeling and being called out when i tried to use my body as a scapegoat for all the other fucked up shit in my life. im not suggesting you become her therapist (and i hope she has one of those! a good one! that she trusts!) but become the kind of partner that can really understand what is underneath the “shit talking” as we call it. and that? is sexy. and makes someone who is insecure feel safe and understood. i wish you and your girlfriend the best of luck and also i congratulate her for pulling herself out what was hopefully the worst of her eating disorder. that is so so hard and i hope she stays well.

  5. When time machines are invented, I am cataloguing a book of every single ‘You Need Help’ and sending them back to every single lesbian/queer lady type in recent history. Even the ones that don’t directly apply to situations I’ve been in have messages that, if I had thought like that a year or so ago, would have made things make way more sense. Ah well, live and learn!

  6. As a person with body issues, I thank the writer of the question and Carolyn for this beautiful post. Hearing (reading) that every body deserves sex, even if the owner of that body is not feeling sexy, is something I need to tell myself over and over. I have an inverse relationship of size and worth ingrained so deep into me (being fat = unworthy) that it’s hard to take a step back and see that someone may find me attractive and want to have sex with me.

  7. I think it’s also important that you can take things easy and go a bit slower when you’re partner is feeling like shit about herself! Personally, there’s nothing I find more off-putting when I’m hating on myself than being told my body is ‘sexy’ or being looked at with overtly lusty eyes (you know the ones). But that doesn’t mean I’m not dtf. It just means I need to take it a bit slow, and ease into it. Like start with lots and lots and lots of making out. The longer the make-out session, the more intimate I feel and the less pressure and expectations to be ‘sexy’ I feel. And then back rubs are always super good for getting me to have a solid, positive relationship with my body and with my partner! My relationship with my body is so fucking delicate sometimes that I don’t know if I can let someone into that relationship without blowing the whole thing up (in a bad way). So I need to be able to take the edge off, you know? Laughter is important! Also, my partner often compliments me on non-body things as well, such as “you’re so sexy when you get angry about gender-related things!” or “whenever you read out-loud from your thesis I just want to jump your bones” which makes me feel like I’m still desirable even though I feel like a sack of unformed, blobous flesh!

  8. This conversation needs to be had in so many types of relationships. I have a lot of dear friends in these situations, and I myself really empathise with both the writer and their partner. Thank you for a well written and very humanising article on both sex and body issues. It really means a great deal.

  9. Excellent points and good advice, Carolyn, many of which tbh i wasn’t expecting. Also i really loved your personal approach part – which ime works and is awesome. Thank you for such a wonderful article.

    To which i would add only one thing – the first time one is met with anger about mere suggestion of soomething sexual – break of hard and at once. Because dealing with power games and leveraging one’s conditions for emotional control is not what you deserve – and not what anybody deserves.

    • That’s pretty presumptuous and fairly callous. I think assuming anyone who is angered by a sexual suggestion is playing power games is pretty over the top, considering the myriad responses people have to prior abuse/assault. I know more than a few victims and/or survivors who have had people who knew their history bring up sex too soon in a relationship, before that level of physical trust had truly developed, who were rightly fairly angry that their partner at the time was so insensitive and self serving. The same is true for some friends with body issues who made their partner aware that sex would be complicated and need planning or time and had that request ignored.

      The assumption that the partner asking for sex is already right without any regard for the circumstances is outright hateful toward abuse survivors, people with body issues, and others who have legitimate reasons for not wanting to have sex who had already put limits in place or who are propositioned for sex before that conversation has had a chance to take place.

  10. Carolyn! This article is exactly what I needed to hear but didn’t realize. As a person who struggles with body image/confidence issues (especially in regards to sex), and as a person who has dated people with similar if not more intense sensitives re: having sex and feeling okay body wise, this was very affirming, as well as informative. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU. So many great points!

    PS. “Sometimes sex itself can do the heavy lifting.” I didn’t think that this was true until very recently… but thank goodness for delectable sex that gets you out of your own head for a moment (or many moments).

  11. The grossest thing in the world is when people call sex a “need” and it’s discussed that way by both the writer and by Carolyn. I think that’s one of the foundational problems with this article and the relationship in question. You have sexual desires. Having them fulfilled may or make not be a deal breaker for you. That is valid. But they are not needs. A lack of orgasms does not kill you. Intimacy comes in many forms, both physical and otherwise.

    Talking about your sexual desires as needs makes it far easier for you to see completely normal conversations about sexuality and desire as dangerous or scary or invasive. Normalize sexual desire and remove power from it so that you don’t feel that expressing that desire is inherently aggressive or insensitive. When you think of a desire (a car, a cup of coffee, a sex act) as a need, it’s easy to also frame that desire as a demand within conversation, either explicitly or implicitly. A desire is something you would like (another slice of cake) and a need is something you cannot easily function without (water, oxygen, money in a capitalist society, the medication that keeps your illness managed).

    Considering sex a need may seem totally normal, and it is spoken of that way in society, but it’s part of the problem that leads to sex being an entitlement. I don’t think the writer feels that way, but the fear surrounding having open discussions about sex comes from that societal belief that sex is something owed in a relationship and that if sex is discussed, it’s inherently pressuring. Open conversation now about what things are good ways to initiate sex and what are bad, when is good and when is bad, where limits and lines are – that’s not wrong. That’s important. That’s valid. And it’s the only way to show your partner the respect you desire. But you have to stop thinking of sex as a need – you don’t need it, you want it, and it’s something you can be given if your girlfriend also shares that desire.

    Sorry for the nitpicking rant but our associating sex with primal urges and intense needs normalizes coercive behavior while making people who want the best for their partners terrified of honest discussion in response.

  12. I really identify with the letter writer’s girlfriend. Sometimes the idea of sexy times or even of being desired cripples me with fear. (I was raped four years ago.) And when I am in that place expressing that fear or asking my girlfriend to stop can be really hard.

    I’m in a LDR and a couple years ago I was feeling crappy a lot and at the same time my gf was sexting me a lot so I came up with a code for when I wanted her to stop! It was a lot easier than explaining (especially via text), and she knew exactly what I meant and why I wanted her to stop. Sometime when the letter writer’s gf is feeling well, they need to talk it out. And maybe part of that talk could be a question the letter writer asks before initiating sexy times, or a signal they give each other.

  13. I’d also add (just because the letter-writer didn’t mention it), like, has yr gf actually said/implied that she didn’t want you to bring up sex on bad days, or was that just assumed…? Because if she hadn’t and you’re conspicuously avoiding the topic, that ironically might feed right into body issues, cause brains are terrible and all. (Not, just to reaffirm, that anyone’s *ever* obligated to have sex b/c it would help with a partners’ body issues, and if a partner is pressuring you to do so, yknow, they are Wrong)

    On the other hand! While it’s fine to bring it up and ask about it, like, if she doesn’t want to? Take it gracefully, let her have space or non-sexual attention as desired. Let it drop for at least a few days, longer if it’s clear. Because being asked repeatedly is necessarily going to feel pressuring.

    If you want to talk more about sex in your relationship, it can help to do it somewhere it’s clear sex isn’t about to happen. And just… cultivating an atmosphere in your relationship where you both can express your limits, and say no, w/o fear of reprisal, is just so important. Even if you’ve never given her reason to, yknow… saying no can be really hard.

    -a girlfriend w/ body issues and a lot of hangups abt sex

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