Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars take on a sensitive issue for millions of Americans: physical appearance — and specifically, how much someone weighs. A young man writes to the Sugars, wondering how to talk about his girlfriend's weight. It's an especially complicated issue, given how society has historically treated women related to their appearance.

They're joined by Lindy West, a writer, editor and performer whose work focuses on pop culture, social justice and body image. She's the author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.

SeparatorDear Sugars,

I am a 24-year-old college graduate in my first serious romantic relationship. My experience with girls before this was extremely limited. I've been dating my girlfriend for over six months now, and she is wonderful.

However, her weight has always been a minor issue in the back of my mind: She is not fat but she has a few extra pounds and this can be seen more when she's wearing fewer clothes. I love her and would never ask or demand her to change just for me, but I've been thinking more and more about how her weight bothers me a little bit.

I'm a very thin guy and have naturally gravitated physically toward thinner girls. Until now, I have avoided talking about the matter with my girlfriend except in general terms about others, or the few times she has brought up and engaged with me directly on the matter. When her doctor told her she needed to lose some weight to be healthier, she was upset, although she did not disagree.

So I spoke to my therapist and my roommate, and although they're both men, they both thought that if it was something on my mind and was making me a little uneasy that I should bring it up with her. I did, and she did not respond with as much understanding as I hoped.

She felt hurt and a little violated, like the one guy who's supposed to love and accept her and find her beautiful just the way she is was attacking a part of her identity. She was shocked, confused and taken aback. She tried to explain how some issues are so sensitive, touchy and personal for women that they should never really be brought up for the sake of the satisfaction in the relationship. In all fairness, I did bring it up a little suddenly and not in the most tactful or direct way, but I didn't know how else to start a hard, uncomfortable conversation I was not looking forward to.

She has genes that make it easier for her to gain weight and harder to lose. She has recently started going to the gym, and I was trying to support and encourage her to go more consistently.

My question for you is: Was I wrong for not being sensitive to how women think? Should I have let it go if I considered it a smaller issue in our relationship? Would it have made a difference if I spoke to another woman to ask her thoughts beforehand on if and how I should bring this up with my girlfriend? Did I need to?

I love her and she is very big on being honest and open and comfortable in trusting each other. Our relationship never hinged on her weight, but I just want to come out stronger.


The Question of Weight

Cheryl Strayed: The Question of Weight, you sound like such a sweet and innocent and naive young man, and I think you made a big mistake. Indeed, you are supposed to love and accept her and find her beautiful just the way she is.

I think you stepped into something that has a deeper and more complicated social and cultural history. Women are under scrutiny in enormously harmful ways when it comes to their bodies and their appearance and their weight in relation to their value to men, especially in romantic relationships.

And I think that, honestly, if you found her to be chubbier than you want her to be, you maybe should have not dated her to begin with, or you should have decided that it was worth ending this relationship with this person.

Steve Almond: I have a slightly different take on this. I think he's coming to us in his first serious relationship with insecurities of his own about his body. There's something in him that feels a little bit unmanned by her being larger. It's not just about her body. His attitudes toward this woman, who isn't thin, somehow is triggering within him a kind of self-doubt about his own body image that he hasn't quite recognized.

Cheryl: The Question of Weight, I have strong feelings about what you did because I know how it feels to be that woman who is being told by a man, "You don't meet this ideal that I've constructed and that society has helped me construct. And even though I love you and you're wonderful and I don't have any complaints about you, I've decided that I'm going to ask you to be physically perfect for me, too."

I don't know what's going to happen in this relationship. I do think that this was hurtful to your lover, and she's probably going to carry this into your sex life, as well. I do think that honesty is really important. I think kindness is too, and generosity. I think that, Question of Weight, your relationship might be permanently damaged because of this. But whether it is or not, I encourage you to examine those messages that you've received about what women should look like, and how you might open your mind a bit.

Lindy West: What comes through in this letter is that their relationship isn't "real" until she can fix herself. That's how I felt about myself; I needed to fix this problem that made me not a real woman and not worthy of the respect that every other human being deserves. Everything was on hold until I could make myself thin. There was just this really low-grade despair all the time, because the narrative that you're fed is that as a woman, your job is to be pretty and small — small physically and small in your presence. And then you wait for someone to pick you. I was always very aware that I didn't look like the kind of girl who got picked, and so I was sort of resigned to the fact that I would be alone.

But what you learn when you grow up is, what you look like is irrelevant compared to what you are like. If you're confident and fun and engaged with people and you go out and are yourself, that's extremely attractive. And that proved true for me.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more discussion about how weight and physical appearance can affect relationships.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email and it may be answered on a future episode.

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