When I was in high school, a teacher asked us to draw a self-portrait as we saw ourselves. I watched as classmates shielded their papers, making hasty pencil marks in the darkness of their arms and constructed forts of notebooks and folders around their desks as they worked.
Then there were others who openly held up their drawings for everyone to see - big graphite smiles scratched across loose-leaf paper. It wasn’t the drawings but the way they drew that taught me the greatest lesson about self-esteem and body image.
Licensed as a Marriage and Family Therapist, Rhiannon Beauregard specializes in couples with sexual issues and finds that body image often plays a critical role in maintaining healthy relationships.
“Clients often tell me they’re not feeling happy," she said. "The first thing I ask is what they were doing when they were feeling happy. Often they’ll say they were eating better, taking care of themselves, doing active things or that they were at their smallest size. That’s often when I tell them to ‘act as if’…”
Beauregard stresses that we cannot expect to feel happy if we stop doing the things that give us joy. She encourages her clients to do things that make them happy even if it doesn’t feel right at first.
“It’s really important to take steps to make yourself feel good, especially if you’re not feeling good and healthy," she said. "Act as if you were happy and do the things you love to do.”
According to Beauregard, it is important that individuals are healthy and active so the relationship is vibrant.
“Relationships are very emotional and generally when people aren’t feeling very good about themselves or their relationships emotionally, they’re not feeling very good about their bodies either,” she said.
The connection between physical and emotional health is strong, she said.
“If you don’t feel comfortable in your own body, you’ll be less than willing to share it with someone else - on every level,” she said.
Beauregard believes that healthy body image enables people to give and receive compliments without objection. It makes partners feel strong in the relationship and confront issues. Sexually, body image directly correlates with levels of desire, dysfunction and self-confidence. In short, healthy body image can make us more accessible to our partners and negative body image has the ability to create distance.
Making the decision to improve health and fitness levels can greatly enhance the connection between partners.
“Couples have a hard time finding things to do together given busy schedules and personal projects," she said. "The gym can be a valuable couples retreat - many offer child care - and solidifies the healthy commitment you’re making to your health and to each other,” Beauregard said.
But she said there are ways to get in shape other than going to the gym.
“Exercise has a bad reputation for only happening in gyms," she said. "It can mean going for walks, walking the dog, doing housework, going for a hike, a bike ride, a walking tour. It can be any active part of your lives that gets you moving together.”
In the beginning of your fitness journey, Beauregard recommends planning events that are active, but appropriate and comfortable for both participants. In other words, skip signing up for a 10K if your partner has never ran before. Setting fitness goals can offer valuable insight into what your partner is comfortable with and would like to accomplish.
Food choices are also important. Beauregard suggests making meals that reflect the new healthy changes within the relationship. She also recommends using meals as an opportunity to nourish fitness goals.
“Making lunches or meals for each other can be a valuable symbol of support,” she said.
Ideally, couples would make lifestyle changes together, but this is not always the case. Beauregard recommends inviting your partner to be part of the lifestyle change.
“Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to the gym with or without you,’ try, ‘It would mean a lot to me if you came to the gym with me and, if not, maybe we can do something else active instead,'" she said. "This creates feelings of security in the relationship and stresses that the other person isn’t going to be left behind in your decision to change.”
She also notes that even if your partner doesn’t want to be part of the lifestyle change, acknowledging that they have a role in your fitness is important.
“Emotional and physical care are very much connected," she said. "If you’re really not feeling healthy and having trouble getting motivated, good counselors can help with that,” she said.
As you work towards fitness goals, why not work towards building greater self-esteem as a couple as well? Each day, think of three compliments for yourself and three for your partner. Sharing compliments is a great way to remember what you love about yourself and the person you’re with. You both deserve it.