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Wants to feel more confident about self

Dear Alice,

My boyfriend and I have been together for two years. He always compliments me and is very good to me. My problem is that I feel funny undressing in front of him and I can't wear sexy nighties in front of him. I have a very low self-esteem. When I look in the mirror, I see fat. I want to be able to wear sexy things for my boyfriend and feel good about myself. What can I do??

Dear Reader,

Sporting sexy things for your paramour is one of the many perks (no pun intended) of relationship life. And it’s a great testament to your relationship that your boyfriend compliments you, but it sounds as though you're having a hard time believing it for yourself. Feeling self-conscious and having negative body image are very common, but there are different ways for you to try and work through some of that so you can feel more confident in whatever you're wearing (or nothing at all). By reflecting on the source of these feelings for you and talking more with your boyfriend, you may be able to learn more about why you feel this way and how to overcome these feelings. 

You’re certainly not alone in feeling self-conscious — many people are uncomfortable with their bodies or fear how they may be perceived by others. Negative body image could be due to any number of reasons, whether because of Western beauty standards and their representation in media, or perhaps haunting negative comments made by others. Depending on where in the world you live, there are certain “ideal” body types that are spread through the media and often internalized, leading to negative beliefs if you don’t fit that ideal. These messages didn't originate with you: they’re the voices of young peers, family members, television, magazine and billboard ads, and other mass-produced images of a standardized and very specific idea of beauty. Research has shown that mass media is very powerful in influencing negative body image and that once a person has internalized negative beliefs, they can be difficult to change. Considering all of this, improving body confidence may seem daunting. However, feeling sexier in your body is possible, though it may take a bit of work and perseverance.

Body image can also be influenced by the nature of a relationship, and this phenomenon is aptly called relational body image. It's sometimes thought that someone in a relationship won't scrutinize their body in the same way that a single person might, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case. While people in relationships generally feel more confident about their appearance, they aren't immune to the thoughts and feelings you've described. Those with partners that are supportive and complimentary of their bodies are more likely to be confident, while those with partners who comment negatively about their bodies are less likely to be confident. Thinking about how you feel when he compliments you may help. Have you noticed how you react when he compliments you? Are you able to hear and believe positive comments about your appearance? You mentioned that your boyfriend treats you well; it may be helpful to start an honest conversation to communicate how you feel self-conscious. What compliments make you feel good about your body? What compliments make you feel sexier? By initiating this conversation with your boyfriend, you may be able to reassure yourself that his compliments are truthful, and you can begin to create an environment that increases your confidence.

Aside from communicating with your boyfriend, you could try to develop a deeper and clearer awareness of your body. Trying to gain some insight into why you feel self-conscious and how and when it manifests could help you understand the root causes of your feelings. Some people feel liberated to find connections between early experiences and current thinking, which may clarify potential distortions in self-perception. Gaining more insight into how others view you may also help you to gain some perspective about how you’ve been viewing yourself. You can also use affirmations, or other positive body image activities, to help develop this insight and begin to practice body positivity.  

Another route to help challenge your belief systems and thoughts about your body is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy, which involves a close look at your reactions to challenges, and the creation of healthful coping mechanisms, could be especially helpful for someone with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). BDD goes beyond the normal feelings of negative body image, and instead causes someone to feel so negatively about their appearance that it causes great distress and a decrease in their quality of life. While BDD can only be diagnosed by a medical provider, some common symptoms include difficulty maintaining intimate relationships, and excessive comparison to others. CBT, along with certain medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may improve BBD symptoms. Of course, individual reactions to these methods may vary, so it's best to reach out to a medical provider for an individualized plan of action if you feel it may be appropriate.

It may also be good to reflect on specific emotions you feel when it comes time to undress in front of your partner. What emotions do you feel when you imagine yourself wearing something sexy for your boyfriend? What emotions do you notice yourself feeling when he compliments you? Another benefit of therapies such as CBT is that they may help you change the thoughts that lead to these emotions. Sometimes, negative self–esteem can be as much about someone's emotional state as their thought process.

You can also try to "fake it 'til you make it" — some psychologists do believe that changing behavior is what leads to feeling better. If you do the things that you'd like to do, even if they cause discomfort, you may eventually become "de-sensitized," meaning that the negative feelings may become less powerful over time. Those feelings may even be replaced by more positive ones, especially if you’ve had good experiences when you take such risks.

Whatever strategies you decide to employ, seeking support from your boyfriend, friends, family, or even a mental health professional, may be another good way to develop the confidence you desire. Hopefully, throughout the process you can show yourself all of the self-compassion and self-love that you deserve. Best of luck on your journey to feeling more positively and confident about yourself!

Take care,

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Last updated Jun 30, 2022
Originally published Nov 13, 1998

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