Hello, Internet! Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the fastest dating advice column column in the world.

This week we’re dealing with questions of belief—belief in yourself and belief in others. One reader is wrestling with the belief that his body is so disgusting and unlovable that he struggles to date, while the other can’t quite believe that her girlfriend is telling the truth about their relationship.

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It’s time to talk a little about the stories we tell ourselves and how they affect how we see the world. Let’s do this.

Hi Doc,

I’m a gay man in the second half of his twenties. I’ve had a few semi-successful long-term relationships and by and large have had an active sex life. However, over the past few years my poor body image and constant worrying have caused me to retreat from interactions with other gay men. I haven’t been on a date in almost two years and have started avoiding sex as well. My eating disorder, which has long been in the background and mostly controllable, has lately become much more prominent and worrying.

In my past relationships I had a poor enough body image that sex was uncomfortable and sometimes even unpleasant. I often carefully watched the movement of their eyes for any sign that on they noticed deficiencies in my appearance, or constantly worried that some position or act would cause a particularly unflattering aspect of my appearance to be more prominent. I was greatly averse to being touched on certain parts of my body, and would always insist on the lights being off. I also usually came to envy my partner’s appearance, which inevitably led to resentment and feelings of inadequacy.

All my friends tell me to just put myself out there and things will get better, but that hasn’t proven true so far. At this point though I don’t know what to do. The more time passes the worse I feel, and anything positive a guy says about my appearance just makes me upset or depressed. I’m moving to another state for graduate school in two weeks, and while some part of me wants to give dating another go in the new environment, the rest of me is screaming that it’s a horrible idea. I had a date scheduled for when I got there, but ended up cancelling a few days ago. I can’t imagine any guy excited to go on a date with someone who dreads having sex.

Am I completely crazy? I’m not really sure what to do anymore.

- Confused and Upset

You’re not crazy, CaU. You’re dealing with something that women have experienced since pretty much always and more and more men—gay and straight—are having to deal with: being told over and over again that you have to look a certain way to be attractive.

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We live in a society that continually polices how people are “supposed” to look, carrying messages both subtle and overt. It’s easy to pretend that the media doesn’t influence us (which is A) bullshit and B) what advertisers love for us to think) but when you’re bombarded with idealized and frequently literally impossible images of what men are “supposed” to look like, it’s going to seep into your brain. And when you couple that with the other societal messages—how being fat means you’re stupid and lazy, how certain types of hair are unacceptable, how certain ethnic facial features are desirable while others are ugly...

Well, if you don’t match up, you’re going to feel bad about yourself. And of course, the worse you feel about yourself, the more people can sell you products to fix those “flaws”. Do this diet, take these pills, join this gym, wear this make-up, use these products in your hair and soon you will look like that impossibly photoshopped model in magazines.

Except those models don’t actually exist. The people you see in magazines are benefiting not just from low-carb diets but steroids to make their muscles pop, diuretics to dehydrate them and make their skin thinner to get that body-builder look, make-up to emphasize their abs and pecs while hollowing their cheeks, flattering lighting to provide shadows that fall just so. That’s before photo editors use the airbrush to smooth their skin and smooth out wrinkles and folds, the warp tool to sculpt away inconvenient bulges and even altering their proportions. Moreover, the buffed and waxed bodies you see on TV and in movies only exist on the screen. Hugh Jackman, Chris Pratt, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Evans, Stephen Amell… they only look like that while they’re filming. As soon as the cameras stop rolling, they step away from the insane three-times-a-day gym routines and the beyond-restricted diets and start looking like people again.

So the first thing you need to do is to quit using these people as a basis for comparison. You are being sold a fantasy. Comparing yourself to any one hot dude taking his shirt off on TV and being upset that you don’t (or can’t) measure up is like being upset that you can’t do everything Superman can do.

The next step is simple: you treat yourself better. Start with basic diet and exercise. Not to achieve the “perfect” body, mind you, but because eating well and exercising affect our mood and our emotional well-being. Most of our diets these days tend to be processed food with excesses of fat, salt and sugar; these put us on continual addiction cycles with highs and troughs that utterly fuck with our brains. The high that comes from, say, a bag of Cheetos (my personal weakness) gets matched with an equivalent hangover and withdrawal.

Similarly, our bodies are designed to move—something that we don’t do enough of with our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Increasing the amount of physical exercise. Whether it’s simply walking, playing a regular pick-up basketball game or joining a gym, exercise not only improves your health but serves as an antidepressant, stimulating an increase of endorphins in your brain.

Plus: doing something good for yourself in general makes you feel better about yourself.

You also want to dress better, with clothes that actually fit. Clothes make the man in a very real way; the way you dress directly affects how you feel but even how you act; it’s a psychological quirk known as enclothed cognition. Humans are bad at pretending; when we act or dress a certain way for long enough, we start to believe it. When you dress to hide yourself—as many people do—you reinforce the idea that there’s something shameful about you. It becomes one more way that you tell yourself that there is something unattractive and unlovable about you, over and over again.

Dressing in better fitting, more stylish clothes helps to reverse that. We associate snazzy dressers with being better, more interesting people. Dressing better yourself—which may feel awkward at first, like you’re wearing a costume—sends that same message to your own brain. You’re dressing well; cool, attractive people dress well. Therefore, you must be cool and attractive. Just remember to work with your body instead of trying to hide it or trying to achieve a look that is designed for someone who’s been hand-picked by the fashion industry.

Along the same lines: hit up your grooming. Take care of your face and skin, work with a stylist or barber to find a flattering haircut. If you have a wide face or a soft jawline, consider a neatly trimmed beard. The act of caring for yourself carries the message that you’re worth caring for.

And that’s the most important thing: you have to learn to love yourself. You already have lovers who appreciate and lust after your body—you’ve said this yourself—but you have to learn how to see yourself with their eyes. You’re going to see what you expect to see. When you’re looking for signs of disappointment or disgust in your lovers’ eyes, you’re going to see them… even if they’re not actually there. You’ll take a random squint or blink or facial twitch and ascribe apocalyptic meaning to it when in reality all they’re doing is trying to hold back a sneeze or a poorly-timed fart. You will subject yourself over and over again to needless heartbreak and dismay, unable to accept that your partners aren’t lying to you when they say they want you.

Dressing in ways that make you feel hot are part of how you learn to love yourself, but it’s not the only part. You have to learn how to silence that annoying voice, the sound of your jerk-brain that tells you that you’re ugly or subhuman. And you have to consciously choose to do that by being kinder to yourself. As cheesy as it sounds, regularly looking at yourself in the mirror—flaws and all—and declaring out loud that you’re cute as fuck helps. Do it regularly.

Yeah, it feels weird. Yeah, it sounds like woo-woo feel-good hippy affirmation bullshit. But you’re doing the exact same thing right now; the only difference is that you’re telling yourself that you’re an unlovable troll. It takes time and conscious effort to retrain your brain but it can be done.

And finally, you need to remember: looks are a part of attraction but they aren’t the only part… or even the most important part.

Take some time off from dating and spend it learning to love yourself, so that you can let others love you as well. You have the ability to control your narrative. You can decide what story you tell about yourself.

You’ll be ok. I promise.

Good luck.

Hey Doctor NerdLove!

I’m a woman in my early 20s and have been in a relationship for 2 years with a great girl. I have a bit of a stupid question, but it’s been bothering me: I understand that attraction to others while you’re in a relationship is totally natural, and especially for celebrities because it’s a complete fantasy. Some people are nice to look at and that’s all there is to it.

The thing is, the one and only celebrity crush my girlfriend has ever mentioned is a dead ringer for her ex. The Ex. Her first love, the one she lost her virginity to and I’m sure it was just so special, the one who broke her heart and left a lot of loose ends. In the beginning of our relationship, there was some weirdness where I was pretty sure she was still in love with her, but she assured me that’s not the case and gets hurt if I say anything to that effect. She’s had girlfriends since then, but doesn’t keep track of them and isn’t really in touch with them. I feel like her crush is a way for her to keep wanting her ex “safely”. Am I being paranoid? How much attachment to your first love is normal, anyway? (I didn’t have that magical first experience, so I’m not in the know about this.)

Thanks!

Unsure

Yes, Unsure, you’re being paranoid. Sorry to be blunt about it, but this is getting into jet-fuel-can-melt-steel-beams territory.

Could it be that she’s lusting after this celebrity because they’re her ex’s doppelganger? Sure, it’s possible. Or it could be that she has a type, and that type happens to include both her ex and her celebrity twin.

But is it meaningful? That’s a different question, and the answer is: no. Sometimes a fantasy crush is just a fantasy crush.

Breaking up with someone doesn’t mean that you now hate them or that you’ve cut off all emotional attachments to them. This ex of hers was someone significant in her life, and it’s entirely possible to have warm feelings, affection—hell, even some tingly pants feels—for someone without necessarily wanting them back.

You, on the other hand, are going around looking for evidence that your girlfriend doesn’t love you or is about to leave you so of course you’re going to find some. Confirmation bias means that you’re going to be seeing secret signs of impending infidelity and ignoring, y’know, everything else.

This is, what we in the advice biz call a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more you don’t take “I’m dating you” for an answer, the more likely it is that you’re going to push her away. You’re so busy trying to read the tea leaves and looking for secret signals that you haven’t considered that maybe she’s just telling you the straight up truth.

It would be one thing if she were stalking her crush on Instagram, chatting with her every day on Snapchat, hesitating to call you her girlfriend in case word got back to her ex. But focusing on celebrity crushes as evidence? C’mon. If one of your friends came to you with this as their theory, you’d tell them they were cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

Your girlfriend has told you over and over again that no, she’s not still in love with her ex and that she’s not waiting for her ex to come back. I’m not surprised she gets hurt when you say otherwise; she’s trying to tell you that she’s chosen you and you are yelling “LIAR!” at her in response. You’re setting her up to an impossible task. How, exactly, is she supposed to prove she doesn’t love someone, especially when you’re pulling the most random of bullshit as evidence that she’s lying?

Either you trust your girlfriend, or you don’t. If you do, then you need to actually listen to her when she says that she’s not in love with her ex. If you don’t, then you need to break up with her so that she can find someone who does.

Good luck.

Have you dealt with body-image issues before? How have you navigated a partner’s uncomfortable crush? Share your stories in the comments and we’ll be back in two weeks with more of your questions.

Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered write doc@doctornerdlove.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.

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Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new book Simplified Dating is available exclusively through Amazon.One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.

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