I've been seeing my current partner for about 6 months, and there are so many wonderful things about them. But they won't stop “suggesting” things that I should do with my appearance. It started with them saying that I looked amazing when my hair was a different colour, which I didn't mind, but now they're trying to persuade me to pick up a new workout regime because I would be “a whole new level of perfect” if I worked on my body a bit more. Am I wrong to be hurt by this? What should I say?
Do you know what's really a whole new level of perfect (actually, a very basic level of decent)? A partner who respects that your body is not theirs to dictate, control, or “suggest” changes to, in order to please them more.
Being in a relationship with someone does not grant them ownership over your body and what you do with it. You do not in any way belong to them, despite what all the Hollywood depictions of romantic love teach us. Healthy relationships are not rooted in a sense of possession over the other person – what they can do, where they can go, how they can dress and what they should do with their bodies. Just because you've chosen to invite this person into your life, that doesn't mean that your existence now depends on being visually appealing to them.
You are a whole and complete person already. And whatever choices you make about your appearance sure as hell better be about pleasing yourself, because your body exists for you before it exists for anyone else's approval.
And no, it's not inherently wrong to have personal preferences or things we find attractive in others, what's wrong is expecting our partners to mould themselves into those preferences, rather than appreciating that they are worthy of worship as they are. Other people are not objects for us to own and alter to fit into what we want them to be. Seemingly harmless “suggestions” about how to change yourself to be more attractive to them really suggest a lack of respect for your autonomy and personhood outside of them.
It's also worth being wary of any ways that a partner seems to want to control you, however small. Relationships that begin with weighted suggestions can turn into expectations, demands and requirements, with love withheld until they're met. Sometimes the patterns of an emotionally abusive person are so subtle (and so socially normalised) that they're hard to see. But caring for someone doesn't mean controlling who they get to be. Love is not possession. And no amount of other wonderful qualities outweigh someone seeing you as a thing to own, rather than a person.
If you truly think this is an anomaly and the relationship has potential, then all you can do is lay out some very firm boundaries when it comes to those comments. Tell them that you will no longer accept suggestions on what to do with your appearance, no matter how softly they're phrased. Tell them that you look how you look and any changes to that will be on your terms, and not for their approval. Tell them that your body is not up for discussion, unless the discussion is about how utterly flawless you are and how other worldly your beauty is. And read this next part carefully: you should only have to tell them once.
If they get defensive, if they don't listen, if they say they agree but continue making “suggestions” anyway, it's time to go. You have too much important shit to do to spend your life turning yourself into what other people want you to be. Focus on what YOU want to be, and don't give your energy to anyone who doesn't respect that 100%.
Love & bopo,
P.S. If you like this column and want more advice like this, I wrote a whole book of it! You can find Body Positive Power here.