Barbie and Ken

Posted on May 2, 2013


When the mirror tells us we’re older, I will hold you.  I will be here to watch you grow in beauty and tell you all the things you are to me.  Steven Curtis Chapman

“Oh, is your self-worth tied to your body mass?”  Sheldon Cooper

Barbie (Barbara Millicent Roberts) celebrated her 54th birthday on March 9, and Ken (Ken Carson) will be 52 this year.  Since they are both plastic dolls, the years have been kind to their physiques (as long as they are not exposed to extreme heat).  Many have pointed out Barbie’s unrealistic measurements.  Since the dolls are built to 1/6 scale the math is fairly straightforward.  The general consensus (you can look it up on any number of sites) is that Barbie is 5’ 9” and her measurements are 39 – 18 – 33 with a size 3 shoe (hopefully, Ken is good at foot rubs).  There are numerous posts and articles available that rail against the potential harm of setting expectations for a body shape that does not generally occur in nature and would be unhealthy if someone were to achieve such a shape (she would fit the weight criteria for anorexia).  This is not the purpose of this blog.  As usual, I want to talk about marriage.

A pastor I know had once asserted that you were in trouble if all you fell in love with was a body.  His point is well taken.  Most couples begin their relationship based upon some level of physical attraction.  There is nothing wrong with that.  We are wired to notice the attractiveness of others.  Noticing is a normal part of courtship.  Having said that, what we find physically attractive is based largely upon culture and our early experiences.  Each of us has an arousal template of what we find sexually appealing which has been influenced by a variety of factors in our life (e.g. early sexual experiences, childhood abuse, magazines, movies, TV, family, church).  In the beginning of Terminator 3, there is a scene where the terminator arrives naked in the present day and starts scanning the people to find someone whose clothes will fit him.  As he scans the people, he compares their size to the template in his programming to determine who is a match for him.  Roughly speaking, we do the same thing with our arousal template.  We have formed an idea of what is attractive to us and when someone fits the template our brain records the match.  Of course, we don’t think of it in these terms, we just know that we are attracted.  And so begins courtship.

This is only the beginning of the relationship.  There needs to be substantially more than getting a hit on the arousal template to sustain a relationship.  Even if the two of you do like Barbie and Ken on your wedding day, you are unlikely to still look that way 20, 30, or 40 years later.  If measuring up to a standard of physical beauty is the basis of the relationship, the relationship is likely to only decline over time.  Additionally, if the quality of your sex life is contingent upon maintaining your physiques, that too is destined to decline.  One could make an argument that it is better not to marry if this is the standard.  You would only find yourself investing in an asset that is going to depreciate over time.  The flip side of this problem is that not only will your partner no longer meet the standard, but you will not either.  It is an anxious way to live if the condition of your body is the sole determinant of your worth as a partner.

Fortunately, human beings are designed to emotionally attach to each other.  From cradle to grave we need to have someone in our lives to whom we matter.  If we are secure in that attachment (i.e. confident that our partner cares for us and will be emotionally available to us), we can weather life and relationships much better than if that attachment is not secure.  Autonomy and closeness are not opposites, they are two sides of the same coin (Susan Johnson).  The more we feel secure in our primary relationship, the more we can safely venture out into the world knowing we have a secure base to which we can return, the more we can feel safe when we are apart from our partner.  Over time the attraction to our partner is not based upon matching the arousal template we developed early in life, but rather it is based upon the security of the attachment.  Sex is an attachment behavior.  My editor (aka my wife) has suggested that perhaps it is adaptive that we get presbyopia as we age (this is that farsightedness that requires us to start needing reading glasses).  If our close up vision gets fuzzy, we can’t see each other’s wrinkles.

Does this mean that we can just let ourselves go once we find a life partner?  No.  It is good to maintain our bodies but do it in healthy ways and for healthy reasons rather unhealthy ones.  First, exercise is good for our mental health.  Greater concentration, increased serotonin production, increased endorphins, and better sleep from exercise all improve our brain functioning and our mental health.  Second, maintaining ourselves physically benefits our physical health.  From reduced risk heart disease to type 2 diabetes maintaining our weight and physical activity is beneficial.  Third, there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good about how you look for your partner and for yourself.  However, there are also less healthy reasons to maintain ourselves physically.  First, the feeling that you must maintain your physique to keep your partner is a slippery slope that can lead to dangerous patterns and eating disorders.  If our partner’s love and acceptance is based upon maintaining our looks, that can be a fearful way to live.  To be secure is to know that your partner will be there for you come what may.  Second, some individuals exercise or diet excessively to quiet the voice that says, “You will never be good enough.”  Childhood messages about ourselves can create the mental tapes that repeat the negative messages about ourselves.  Our worthiness of love is not related to body mass.  Third, we might try to maintain our bodies as a form of denial that we are aging and will continue to age.  Aging is a natural part of living.  As long as we are alive, we will continue to age.

The bottom line is this.  Both relationship and sexual satisfaction in marriage is about attachment, closeness, and emotional connection, not about maintaining physical beauty.  You cannot, should not, and probably don’t want to try to look like Barbie and Ken.  Your life is likely to be much happier if you work on maintaining and deepening emotional intimacy.