Finding the person who loves you unconditionally should be a huge confidence booster, right? Well, according to a new study, that’s not actually the case for all relationships, particularly ones in which one partner is considered more attractive than the other. (Side note: Could puppy pics be the secret to a stronger relationship?)
The researchers behind the study, which was just published in the journal Body Image, wanted to examine how romantic relationships may predict women’s likelihood to develop disordered eating. Ultimately, they found that women in relationships with men who are perceived as more attractive feel more pressure to be thin and diet. On the flip side, when the woman in a relationship is considered more attractive, they don’t feel that same pressure. The kicker? Men don’t feel pressure regardless of which partner is considered more attractive. Ugh.
Over 100 recently married (and brave) couples agreed to be evaluated based on their attractiveness. Each person who participated filled out a thorough questionnaire that asked questions about body image, whether they were happy with how they looked, and how much pressure they felt to be seen as thin and/or attractive. A full-body photo of each person was also taken and evaluated for attractiveness (rated 1 to 10) by an independent group of people. In the end, the women who were rated less attractive than their husbands were more likely to feel worse about themselves and had a higher motivation to diet. Womp womp.
But as Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., told us earlier this year: “The point of a relationship is to balance things out and find equilibrium as a couple. Two separate human beings join as one entity and to find happiness in the world.” In other words, each partner in a couple isn’t supposed to be *exactly* like the other. Differences in attractiveness are not only common, they’re 100 percent normal.
But what can we do to fix the dieting situation? Well, doctoral student Tania Reynolds, who was one of the lead authors of the study, emphasizes the importance of male partners taking the time to verbalize their support of their female partners. “One way to help these women is for partners to be very reaffirming, reminding them, ‘You’re beautiful. I love you at any weight or body type,'” Reynolds said in a press release. Of course, these sentiments should be givens in any relationship, but perhaps there’s value in making sure to say them out loud and be extra clear about it, rather than just assuming that body acceptance is understood. And if your partner criticizes your body in any way, it might be time to reconsider the relationship. (FYI, here’s how sleep-deprived arguments with your partner are hurting your health.)
The authors hope that by recognizing these patterns in relationships and by educating others about predictors and warning signs, the medical community might be able to offer assistance earlier rather than later to women who develop disordered eating or body image issues. “If we understand how women’s relationships affect their decision to diet and the social predictors for developing unhealthy eating behaviors,” Reynolds said, “then we will be better able to help them.”