Q. My wife has put on weight since she started working from home. I absolutely love it. However, she is determined to lose the lockdown pounds. It feels wrong for me to say I don't want her to. It's her body. But I'm worried that I'll fancy her less.
A. When lockdown began, most of us embraced the opportunity to escape our everyday anxieties about our appearances, and it's not uncommon to hear about people having gained weight.
In April a survey by King's College London and Ipsos Mori of 2,250 people in Britain found that 35% were eating more, or less healthily than usual. In a follow-up survey in June, 49% of people said they had put on weight. Under these unique circumstances, gaining a few pounds shouldn't be a big deal, but women tend to worry about weight gain more than men do. It's a sad fact that the studies confirming that women's dissatisfaction with their bodies is associated with poor self-esteem, depression and sexual inhibition are too numerous to mention.
Body image starts in the mind, not the mirror, but viewed in context negative female body image is a normal reaction to the abnormal expectations around women. Although Ella Sbaraini, a Cambridge academic, recently discovered that in the 18th century older women were prized as "ripe, mellow fruit", 21st-century norms seem to prize the string bean over the ripe pear. Women consistently perceive themselves as being bigger than they should be.
However determined your wife is to lose the weight she has gained, the great paradox about weight is that the more that women try to lose it, the more they seem to put it on. Research by Professor Mike Lean at the University of Glasgow found that dieting causes changes in gut hormones that lead to increased appetite and weight gain. That won't bother you, but it sounds as if it may bother her, and that could have an impact on your sex life. Women who feel body-conscious find it harder to relax during sex, and this impedes their ability to orgasm. Your support is important, but getting her to accept herself is more so. Part of that is showing her you'll fancy her whatever her size, even if she loses weight.
There are ways to boost your wife's confidence and help her to feel more comfortable in her skin. Cindy Meston at the University of Texas in Austin argues that we cover ourselves with clothes to such an extent that our naked bodies become unfamiliar to us. She suggests that spending more time naked can help women to silence their inner critics and become more comfortable about their bodies.
She recommends not wearing clothes around the house, if practical, and dancing naked in front of a mirror. If that sounds a bit "woo woo", sleep naked and do plenty of naked cuddling. Skin-to-skin contact is important for wellbeing because touching and stroking triggers the release of oxytocin. It is often referred to as the bonding hormone because it is produced during contact between mothers and their babies, and it is released in large quantities during sex.
Sex is one of the main ways that adults satisfy their need for the calming effects of oxytocin. The other is food. Research conducted by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg at the University of Skovde in Sweden explored how people who are stressed or anxious use overeating to try to boost their levels of oxytocin. Because oxytocin stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that plays such a crucial role in mood, overeating becomes a way of self-soothing when the going gets tough.
Perhaps that explains why your wife and many others can no longer zip up their trousers. More sex will help your wife to feel better about herself. And a daily dose of oxytocin will increase your sex drive and strengthen your relationship. If it were available on prescription we'd be queueing up for it.
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