Unfortunately, as most of us have probably figured out by now, we live in an effed up society where women and femmes are expected to conform to a strict set of rules about how to look (not to mention how to dress, talk, act, work, parent, not parent, and generally live our damn lives). And being constantly bombarded with these toxic messages can cause us to experience negative body image and low self-esteem. This is a big topic to unpack but because we’re us, we’re going to focus on how negative body image can affect us in bed, not just at the beach.
So we (virtually) sat down with Jennifer Gunsaullus, PhD, sociologist, intimacy coach, and the author of the forthcoming From Madness to Mindfulness: Reinventing Sex for Women (which has a chapter about body image, btw).
Here’s what she had to say:
Q: Can negative body image affect one’s sex life? If so, how?
A: Negative body image can absolutely undermine one’s sex life. At the core of body image concerns is shame implanted in us from societal messages, and carrying any shame into the bedroom can negatively impact sex. The less comfortable you are with your body, the less likely you will be to get naked, or want to have someone new see you naked. You may limit the sexual positions you’re willing to engage in, depending on how you think your body looks doing them, and also be more likely to only have sex in the dark or under the covers. Negative body image can serve as an ongoing distraction during sexual encounters because you’re experiencing sex as an object instead of a subject, making the interaction less present, intimate, and pleasurable. Carrying shame could also make you feel less worthy of receiving pleasure from another.
Q: If negative body image is hampering someone’s sex life, what can they do about it?
A: I suggest various activities around mindfulness and self-compassion. First, you need to be able to notice when you’re having negative thoughts and how they’re making you feel. Then you can start to choose to view that as just a (bullshit) story you’ve inherited, and that it doesn’t have to be your truth. It’s important to be present with these negative feelings, give them space, and have compassion for yourself for the suffering that you (and many others) experience around body image. Being taught that you should dislike parts of your body, and believing your body is an enemy, really is emotional suffering. These steps can help break the reactive downward spiral pattern of negative body image. It takes time to build skills in applied mindfulness and self-compassion, but over time you can start to rewrite your body image story and be kinder to yourself.
Q: What role can someone’s sexual partner(s) play in helping them improve their negative body image?
A: Since body image concerns can be insidious in their ability to instantly undermine your self-worth, it can be helpful to have a partner who is just as committed as you are to changing your story about your body. This doesn’t mean that they are there to constantly give you compliments when you say bad things about yourself; but it does mean that they can be there to help you notice when you’re spiraling with negative thoughts, and kindly remind you to have a choice in reframing your perspective. And they can also remind you that they love you and respect you and are very attracted to you. It’s then up to you to start slowly accepting those statements as truth.