DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I (she/her) have been dating my partner (he/him, let’s call him Greg) for a few months, and I’m beyond thrilled with our relationship. We’re really well matched in just about every way I could imagine wanting, and at this point I’m starting to really be able to imagine a future together. But of course, I wouldn’t be writing if there weren’t a little snag.
Greg craves my affirmation about his looks, specifically that he’s physically sexy, and I feel a little lost as to how to give it to him. Looks just honestly aren’t a big part of the way attraction works for me. I get turned on by personality, by conversation and interactions, much more than a pretty face or a tight bod. Intellectual chemistry, compatible kinks, a sexy voice, respect for my boundaries, genuine interest in my pleasure…these things are so important to turning me on that the way a partner looks barely even registers. I love Greg’s body, but the things I can put my finger on are, like, I like the way he smiles when we haven’t seen each other in a little while, I like the way his arms feel around me, I like the way his body responds when I touch him. But when he asks me questions about what specific parts of his body turn me on, or which of his outfits are the sexiest, I don’t really have a genuine answer. I love the way he looks, but I love the way he looks because he looks like him more than because he looks like some vision I’d rub one out to (because that vision doesn’t exist for me). That being said, I want to give him the affirmation he needs! I struggle with an eating disorder, in part stemming from the fact that I work in a field where I’m often explicitly judged for my looks, and my experience has been that “beauty is only skin deep”-variety platitudes are a lot less helpful than working on believing that I really am beautiful, even if I don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model. So I know how invalidating it would be for me to respond to Greg’s questions about his physical appearance with answers about his personality. I know part of why he looks for this particular kind of affirmation from me is that he’s deeply insecure about his body, and I want to make sure I don’t give that abusive voice in his head any fuel by accidentally implying that I’m attracted to him *despite* his looks, which isn’t the case at all! Hand to God, if you told me that tonight I could have dinner followed by a night of exquisite passion with either my pick of People Magazine’s sexiest men alive or Greg, I’d pick Greg in a heartbeat.
I am desperately in need of a dude’s perspective. I feel like our culture in general is just lacking good scripts to tell men that they’re good-looking other than praising a few very specific attributes that not all guys have (rock-hard abs, chiseled jaw, the like). If I were dating a woman, I’d know exactly what kinds of language to go for. Pretty, beautiful, breathtaking, ravishing, compliment her hair, eyes, boobs, butt, legs, skin, lips… But I feel a little lost as to where to go for my guy. Even just how to reciprocate when he tells me I’m pretty! Handsome is toothless, sexy/hot maybe doesn’t hit the right notes when he knows attraction isn’t really a visual thing for me, beautiful/pretty just doesn’t quite feel right (although I know he’s secure enough in his gender that he wouldn’t find it emasculating, so maybe that’s a me problem?)
So Doc, help me out! What’s some language I can use to make my guy feel like the regulation hottie he is?
DEAR WORDS’ WORTH: We’re in a weird place, culturally, WW. Just as body positivity is starting to make serious inroads and more people are challenging gender norms, men are starting to find themselves increasingly targeted by the same cultural forces that women’ve faced for generations. And while it’s tempting to say “Hey, welcome to The Beauty Myth boys, hope you survive the experience…”, men’s struggles with body image and feeling desired are very real and can do some serious damage.
Body dysmorphia is on the rise in men, as are cases of disordered eating, use of questionable (and illegal) supplements and drugs and people going to extremes to try to live up to nearly impossible standards. The incel community is a famous example, especially with many folks spending tens of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery — only to be disappointed when their lives don’t magically improve.
Greg certainly isn’t alone; I can’t count the number of letters I get from folks who are absolutely convinced that they’re too ugly to be loved. Even in the NerdLove Academy Facebook group, there’ve been discussions about guys who feel like they don’t measure up to some suitably arbitrary standard that would make them attractive… no matter what women say. Including the women in their lives.
So I understand your frustration.
I also understand the frustration that comes from telling someone over and over again that you find them attractive and it doesn’t seem to sink in. You start to wonder what the point is. Do they not get that it kinda sucks to be asked for your opinion, then basically be accused of lying?
But here’s the thing about that: it actually does help. More often than not, he wouldn’t be asking you for affirmation if he didn’t actually value or trust your opinion in the first place. Yeah, for the guy who’s asking for that affirmation, it can feel like “well, you HAVE to say that…”, but at the same time, the reason why he’s asking is because it at some level, it actually does reassure him.
However, sometimes it doesn’t quite sink in the way you’d hope. Sometimes it’s about the words. Just as conflicting love languages can cause miscommunication, different ideas about desire and attraction can make it harder to give somebody the affirmation that they need. While Greg is asking for affirmation and validation that you find him desirable, the problem is that he’s framing it in a strictly visual and physical sense. This is understandable; after all, we’re not just people, we’re also pieces of meat and sometimes a dude just wants to be objectified. But when your primary mode of attraction isn’t visual or physical, it’s hard to make that reassurance stick because he doesn’t connect what you find attractive with his conception of it.
Part of the way you can bridge the gap is to tell him exactly what you told me in this letter. Slowly giving him that run-down of qualities that turn you on — especially if you do so while also starting to get physical with him — can help penetrate that sense of “But I need to look like Chris Evans/Pine/Pratt/Hemsworth!” in ways that mere words don’t. Hell, make it an act of seduction and bang his brains out right then and there and he might get the point.
But sometimes the secret when you can’t find the right words is to borrow the words from someone else. And while a lot has been made about Shakespeare’s “My Lover’s Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun”, I think the most effective words in your case may come from one Amelia Pond:
“You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful, and then you actually talk to them and five minutes later, they’re as dull as a brick. Then there’s other people and you meet them and you think, ‘Not bad, they’re okay.’ And then you get to know them and… and their face just sort of… becomes them, like their personality is written all over it. And they just… they turn into something so beautiful.”
Sometimes the most important thing that somebody could hear from their lover is that the thing that makes them sexy is that they’re shaped exactly like themselves.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org