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Q. My boyfriend criticizes my body when we sext: I’m a 25-year-old straight woman. My boyfriend of eight months and I have been quarantining separately for about 10 weeks because we’re in an area with many COVID-19 cases. We’ve turned to sexting to maintain our relationship while apart, and I’ve noticed he sometimes says things that I perceive as critical about my body over text. I had severe anorexia a few years ago and while I consider myself recovered, my weight does tend to slip down in times of stress—like during a pandemic! I have not shared this with my boyfriend except for a blanket statement that I’ve struggled with food, weight, and body image because I’ve been burned in the past by discussing how my eating disorder has affected me; there are so many misconceptions about what kind of person gets an eating disorder (perfectionist, self-obsessed, vain, etc.), and I’d rather save this conversation for when we’re further along. I was on the thin side when this pandemic started and have lost a visible amount of weight in the past few months. It’s enough that the family members I live with are concerned that I could be seriously underweight, and something even I, a person with varying degrees of body dysmorphia, can recognize. I’m working with a therapist, holding on, and doing the best I can under the circumstances, but I don’t see myself back at my usual size too soon.
My partner and I had sex for the first time—my first time ever!—the last time we saw each other, and I know that my body now is not the one that he loved then. This morning, I sent him a photo showing a lot of leg and he commented that I “shouldn’t hold it like that because it’s too sinewy.” He has made a few other offhand comments about photos with the bony parts of my body that weren’t readily visible when we had sex a few months ago—think the occasional “hot but your hipbones look a little stabby” if I position myself in a way that really emphasizes them. He isn’t trying to be cruel, and I don’t think he understands that this weight loss is not intentional on my part and it’s hurtful to point out the changes in my body. I know he wouldn’t say these things if I were stripped down in front of him! I don’t feel comfortable really digging into my past with him yet, and I get that this might be a misguided attempt to get me to put on my lost weight, but it’s not helpful. I haven’t made any direct comments asking him to stop critiquing my body because, in a way, I am presenting it for appraisal when I send a nude photo. But I’m getting to the point where I cannot imagine being comfortable enough with him to have sex of any kind. How do I address this with him before it drives even more of a wedge between us? Do I need to disclose more of my history, or is he violating a general expectation of kindness in a relationship and presenting a total red flag?
A: Your boyfriend is trying to be cruel. “Hot but your hipbones look a little stabby” is not a statement of concern or an attempt to offer support. It’s an idle, consumeristic rating of your body from a recliner: “You could have pleased me better.” It’s a far cry from “I’ve noticed you’ve lost weight lately, and I just wanted to check in to see if you’re doing OK. I don’t want to pry or make assumptions, but if you ever want to talk to me about anything, I’m here.” You’re not “perceiving these statements as critical” because you are hypersensitive or lack perspective. They’re critical, cold, caustic, and demeaning. They would be cruel even if you had no history with body image issues, so there’s no room for your boyfriend to justify his behavior through a claim of ignorance. Besides, he’s not ignorant—you’ve flat-out told him about this history. Just because you haven’t shared every painful detail doesn’t mean you’ve been unclear or that he didn’t know better. The fact that he wouldn’t have the courage to say these things in person because he wants to hide behind his phone doesn’t make these statements any less cruel or damaging. And the fact that you now can’t imagine being comfortable enough to have sex with him speaks volumes about the state of your relationship.
I think you should let this drive a wedge between you; I think you should break up with him. If only eight months into a relationship, and during a time of profound stress, he’s already started rating and reviewing your body like it’s a malfunctioning consumer product, I think you know everything you need to know about his character. Please don’t feel that the fault is somehow yours for not sharing the painful details of your history with anorexia, as if he somehow just “goofed” into speaking to you this way. This was not an accident (it’s happened more than once); it was not well-intended (it speaks to how he sees you as a person); it was not something a kind and loving person would say to you. You deserve better than this, and you do not have to settle for the kind of relationship in which you have to “teach” your partner not to be cruel.
Perhaps most crucially, I hope you can release the idea that sending a nude picture of yourself to a partner is “in a way … presenting it for appraisal.” I don’t think it is! I think it’s a gesture of intimacy, of eroticism, of shared pleasure and delight, not an implicit request to be rated or ranked or picked apart. You don’t say that you scrutinize any pictures he sends you for “flaws” or imperfections or ways in which you think he can improve. I think this is an opportunity to expect any lover of yours to treat you the same way you treat them.
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