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Body Weight And Romance — With Ashley C. Ford

It’s never easy to talk to our romantic partners about their bodies, especially when it’s about weight. The Sugars, along with the writer Ashley C. Ford, answer letters from people questioning their relationships because of major changes in their partners’ bodies.


Dear Sugars,

My partner's weight has fluctuated throughout her life. She's a confident and strong woman who doesn't let appearance define who she is or what she does. Nonetheless, I know it's a sensitive subject to her.

Since we met, she has gained considerable weight. I know she isn't happy about it, but she hasn't been able to change it for the past two years. She eats well. She exercises when she can, both independently and with me. Exercise is a fun part of our relationship. But it doesn't change her weight. Her genes and metabolism are simply not as forgiving as mine. Still, two years is a long time, and now I'm asking myself whether obesity is something I should accept for the long haul or start talking about.

I still love her. And this is not a question of ending our relationship. But we've never talked about how her weight affects me. I'm squished sitting next to her on public transportation and plane rides, so much so that sometimes I've had to move one seat over. We don't go hiking or camping or kayaking as often as we used to because she is more uncomfortable and more limited than before. And sex is more constrained. On the one hand, I can work around these inconveniences. I know our relationship and how we spend time together will change over time. On the other hand, I'd like to advocate for myself and the things I want to share with her, including a long and healthy life together. It's her body and she doesn't need me to pressure her about it, especially because she's already doing the best she can.

She's been clear in the past that this is something she would like to manage herself. But I still want to talk to her about it. Is that wrong? Do you have any advice for how I can talk about how I feel, or should I keep my feelings to myself?

I should mention that her body isn't the only one that's changed since our relationship began. Since we met, I've had an elective double mastectomy with masculine reconstruction. My body is still full of estrogen and I still identify as a woman and a lesbian. But I also identify as genderqueer non-binary, comfortable with masculinity while not being male, and transgressing the confining social construct of woman. My partner has supported me and cared for me during this change, even though she misses my breasts and doesn't like the scars. Our relationship is unchanged, and still full of love and care.

 For me, the changes in my body since we met have been a dream come true. For her, they were the return of something she wishes she didn't have to deal with. Maybe that makes it harder for us to talk about it. 

I wish we could talk about these body changes without it feeling so heavy. I wish I could be as supportive and caring and helpful to her as she is to me. Thanks for your advice.

 Signed,

Benched

Cheryl Strayed: Benched, my advice would be to really try to deepen your intimacy with your partner. Tune into each other, and ask, “How are you doing? How are things?” I wouldn't go straight in with the weight. I would say to your partner, “Let's talk to each other about where we're at in our lives.” Share your own struggles with your partner. They don't have to be about weight. And if she does say, “I'm concerned about my weight gain. I'm not feeling good,” I do think it's OK for you to say, “I've worried too. I miss hiking and kayaking with you. I have worried about your health.” I think that those kinds of conversations, where the person whose weight is in question is leading the way, are going to be a lot more successful than saying, “I need to tell you that I think you're too fat.”

Steve Almond: The question is, how do we gracefully and sensitively speak about this huge subject that is right in front of us? People are ashamed, but at the same time they want to unburden themselves. They want to be able to get it out into the open and talk about it so that it isn't festering and suppressed.  You should find a way to talk about it, Benched. But it cannot be punitive, judging, managing. It has to be loving and supportive.

Ashley Ford: Well into college I was relatively thin. I didn't think there was a big deal to be made about our bodies, until I started gaining weight. While in college, I was eventually diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome. It was terrifying, and my body just continued to expand, and there was really nothing I could do about it. And I had to come to terms with the fact that unless I wanted to be a person who lived at the gym and only ate vegetables, my body was never going to meet a societal standard. And so I thought, if I'm going to be big, I can't also be difficult in relationships.  I went into my current relationship with my fiance thinking, how long until he has a problem with my body? I just kept thinking that there would come a time where I would be too much physically, and that time just never came.

Almond: I think we are culturally conditioned, and women in particular, to say, as my body goes, so goes my self-esteem. But I think people who are clued in to what they need and want in a loving relationship are not looking at body sizes. They're looking at, how does this person feel about themselves, and what is their level of confidence in themselves? It sounds like your fiance picked up on the fact that you're a badass, and you're doing what you want. And that really blows a lot of the superficial stuff off.

Dear Sugars,

I've been with my boyfriend for a little over two years. I'm 31 and he's 34. Neither of us has been married before, though I've been in a couple of long-term relationships before. This one is different. It feels like a true meeting of equally loving equals. We help each other to be whole. We’re stronger together. Also I love him to death and he feels the same way. I knew after about a week with him that I wanted to marry him. We talked about it right from the start, and now we have tentative plans to get engaged soon.

Here's the thing. You knew there had to be a thing. A few months ago. I went through a period of questioning the relationship. He had put on some weight, and his face looked different. I wasn't feeling as attracted to him. I know how shallow that sounds, but I've always been told that physical attraction is important in a marriage, and I thought to myself, if I'm not feeling attracted to him when he's 34, how am I going to feel when he's 54? I did some soul-searching and realized how important the relationship was to me. It was strange. When I made that decision in my heart, my libido followed, because I found myself attracted to him again. It felt so right that I felt even more connected to him than I had before. That was a few months ago, and now I find myself questioning our relationship again.

His physical changes have gotten more pronounced, and I can't help but think of my sister and my best friend, whose husbands both gained at least 50 pounds after they got married. Neither my sister or my friend has any plans to leave their marriages, and they're both still happy and in love. But my sister confessed to me that if she had met her husband at his current weight, she might not have fallen in love with him. They both say they're still attracted to their husbands, but not as much as they used to be. I'm so glad that my sister and my friend love their partners for who they are, not what they look like. That's the kind of person I want to be too. But I'm not married yet. At this point, I'm still supposed to be deciding if I want to make a life commitment, right? It seems like a questionable choice to commit to someone if I'm not sure of my attraction to him and seeing how things played out between my sister and friend and their husbands.

I don't have any illusions that I can say to my boyfriend, “Honey, let's get some exercise,” and he'll get in shape. If he wants to get in shape, it has to be his choice, not mine. I've been told by a few friends that I have a tendency to sabotage myself. I didn't really know what that meant, and still don't, but I think it means that deep down I don't feel like I deserve happiness, and subconsciously make choices to ensure I don't get it. I've struggled with depression my whole life, so if my brain was playing tricks on me it wouldn't be out of the blue.

 Could this be self-sabotage? Because being madly in love with someone for more than two years and then backing away because he's put on a few pounds sure sounds like I'm either a terrible person or I have some issues. I've lost perspective. Please tell me what you think.

Signed,

Scared to Choose Wrong

 Strayed: Scared, one thing that's absolutely true about any long-term relationship is, the person is going to change in appearance over time. They just are. Whether that's weight or wrinkles or gray hair or hair loss or disability. I think that you're going down a very dangerous path when you so hitch your wagon to this idea of the erotic ideal, and that partner is supposed to maintain that as closely as possible over time. I would caution you against acting on a few pounds in each direction.

Almond:  When you write, “I knew after about a week that I wanted to marry him," that's pretty quick. I love that you had that intense bond, but it can take a long time to figure out if you’re really simpatico and that you value someone for the right reasons. You have to ask yourself, "Do I love this guy, through sickness, through a beautiful gym body, through putting on a few pounds?” Long term love is not the initial spark. It is, how long is the fire going to keep burning?

Ford: I agree, and I would also ask, how does he feel about his weight? I know that can be a hard conversation to have with a partner. But if you're talking about spending a lifetime with somebody, this is peanuts. You need to be able to at least broach the subject and have the conversation about how he feels about his body. Because sometimes a person putting on weight is not just indicative of being in love and comfortable. It can be indicative of something else.

Strayed: Scared to Choose Wrong is saying, physical attraction is important in a long term relationship — isn't this the time for me to be questioning that? And it is! I think that your questions are valid. But our bodies change over time. Our interests and personalities, to some degree, change over time. Part of being in a long-term relationship is being open to the idea of seeing your partner anew. And this is true in the physical realm as well.

Ford: I get the feeling that this person might also be thinking, "If I gained weight, how would my partner look at me?" I want to make it clear: the truth of the matter is, for people with bigger bodies, we are actually not hard to love. We are actually desirable. We are as fabulous and as wonderful as we want to be.

New episodes of Dear Sugars are released weekly. Do you have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugars@nytimes.com

Katherine Brewer Twitter Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Katherine Brewer is a producer of podcasts and new programs at WBUR.

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