Self-image sabotage

I'm a single mother and I want love, but I hate the way my body looks.

Published October 7, 2003 7:37PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm 43, the mother of two lovely little kids, and have been amicably separated from my husband since I ended our marriage almost two years ago. I am also very overweight and have a history of depression. I am not interested in getting involved in another serious relationship or marrying again, but I would love to date and to have a sexual relationship with someone. But I cannot imagine any guy actually being attracted to me. (Just to give you an idea of my size, I'm 5 feet 3 inches tall and wear a size 22/24 -- I'd compare my body size to a slightly bigger but shorter Kathy Bates -- not her face, but her body.)

About six months ago my depression lifted significantly for the first time since adolescence -- I'm feeling a real sea change in myself. But despite my new ability to experience happiness and feel hope about some aspects of myself and my future, I still hate the way my body looks. I do believe my friends and family when they say I have a lovely face, and I have a good sense of style.

I know that my own lack of confidence is an enormous barrier to forming any kind of relationship. Add to that the more practical issue of my limited sources of meeting eligible men, and I feel doomed to life as a dried-out, fat, asexual divorcee. I fantasize about some guy seeing me with my friends and being drawn first by my infectious laugh and dry wit and falling for me before noticing my -- shall we say, generous -- proportions. But just being seen laughing with my friends is in itself unlikely -- all my friends are also mothers of young kids and all part of intact couples, and we're not exactly out painting the town every Saturday night.

Sometimes I think I'll experiment with the personals, but I always crash back to reality when I think about the likely results. If I were the one to place an ad, I would be honest, but where's the line between an accurate description and the immediate turn-off? I've considered responding to ads, but I have a feeling that even when the guy says looks are unimportant, he still doesn't have someone my size in mind. I've toyed with the idea of going to those sites that have personals for "BBWs and their admirers," but I'm creeped out by the idea of guys being attracted to me because of my weight rather than in spite of it.

These new feelings of contentment and hope actually seem to be making my situation feel worse; before I didn't even dare to imagine what I might have. Now I feel like a cockeyed optimist -- hoping against all probability and frustrated by my glimpses of just-out-of-reach romantic and sexual satisfaction. I know seeking therapy is probably your first suggestion. And it might help me to learn to see myself as desirable, but that particular issue hasn't budged much yet, despite years of being shrunk. Do you have any shorter-term suggestions or ideas?

Fat and Frustrated

Dear Fat and Frustrated,

Congratulations on coming out of your depression. That must be an indescribable and priceless sensation. The fact that you want to have a relationship with a man is also a good sign, as is the fact that you have the courage to put that wish coherently in an e-mail and send it out to the world.

While I feel optimistic, I can't tell you exactly what to do. The short-term ideas you have are all good ones and I think you should try them. But I sense some habits of thought that may be standing in your way, and that is what I would concentrate on. If you've heard all this before, forgive me; but please give it a try.

Now, you say you cannot imagine any guy actually being attracted to you. I say: You must imagine a guy being attracted to you. Imagine him obsessed with you. Imagine him enthralled, enchanted, overwhelmed with thoughts of you. Imagine him completely in your control. Imagine him drawn to you. Imagine this freely and without reservation. Imagine this without your censorious common sense intervening to say it could never happen. When common sense intervenes, banish it from your thoughts. Imagine these things in a state of pure imagination. Imagine them because it is what you want and you have the inalienable right to imagine what you want.

Do this for its own sake, but do it with intensity and abandon.

You say you "fantasize about some guy seeing me with my friends and being drawn first by my infectious laugh and dry wit and falling for me..." Stop right there, before the "noticing your generous proportions" part. Just practice the fantasy where he falls for you.

You say you would compare your body size to a slightly bigger but shorter Kathy Bates. Well, I say do not compare your body size to a slightly bigger but shorter Kathy Bates. Do not compare your body size to anyone or anything. Stop standing outside yourself comparing. Your mission is to get back inside your body. Climb down from that tall watchtower on the edge of your self and crawl back inside where you belong. Instead of looking back at yourself with the gaze of the media and your family and your friends and your whole imagined menagerie of censorious eyes, you need to live inside your body and gaze out at the world and see what is there with a serene purity of outlook. When you look out at the world you will find kindness and evil in equal measure and you can concern yourself with that.

The reason I am suggesting you do these things is that I think you have a habit of sabotaging your fantasies about the satisfaction of desire before they have a chance to take root in your will. You say, "Sometimes I think I'll experiment with the personals, but I always crash back to reality..." What I am suggesting is that you refuse to crash back to reality. Reality is plenty stronger than you. It doesn't need your help. You don't need to crash back to it. Reality will crash you back to earth all on its own when it wants to. The world will fight you plenty when you try to get what you want. You do not need to do its work. In the meantime, I say exercise your imagination.

It's going to be a long haul. There are lots of practical choices you can make to meet your objectives. They include the ones you mentioned as well as controlling your weight, but that's only one of them, and not the crucial one. But the crucial one both for your episodes of depression and for your relationships with other people is the struggle to control your thoughts.

No one choice is final; you choose this, you choose that; you keep trying; you play the odds. You meet men here, you meet men there. You win, you lose, you keep playing. You tread water carefully. You keep your feet off the bottom, you don't let yourself sink into the cold water of depression. If you relapse, you swim like crazy and get better again. You watch your kids. You keep the lights on and the bills paid. And when the man comes to the door, you answer the door and you look him up and down and you tell him how good he looks to you.

After that, you're on your own.

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By Cary Tennis

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