What You Need to Know About Body Image & Healthy Sexuality
You quickly glance in the mirror to give yourself a once over before you head out the door and then it happens. The negative thoughts start to take control. No matter what you try to do to hide it, all you can see are those big thighs and flabby arms. Or maybe it's that flat chest and curveless figure. Or whatever the reoccurring thoughts are that you have running through your mind when you look in the mirror or as you compare yourself to all the other women in the room. You have an unhealthy body image and it might be impacting you more than you realize.
What is body image?
Simply put, your body image is how you see yourself and think about your body. This can include the way you think you look, how you move, and your overall appearance.
Some people have a healthy body image. They understand that beauty is broad and can look many different ways. They accept their appearance and are able to appreciate how they look and what their body is able to do.
But there are others who struggle with their body image. They see all the things they think are negative about themselves and their appearance. This can include things like their weight, height, and shape. People of all shapes and sizes struggle with their body image. Some of them aren't seeing things with a realistic perspective and some have an unhealthy idea of what they think they need to look like.
Why do we struggle with body image?
Our struggle with body image starts at a young age. A study conducted in the UK found that body image issues have been found to start as young as 3 years old. Half of those surveyed heard body anxiety concerns from children between the ages of 6 and 10 years old. 71% of these childcare professionals believed that this anxiety was starting to happen at younger ages.
It starts with movies, media, and magazines. And while it's always been a problem, social media has found a way to highlight it even more. The constant barrage of "sexy" images tells us what's deemed attractive by the world. It sets the standards that we're judging ourselves against.
But here's the thing, there is no standard we can obtain that means we instantly have a healthy body image. One study of female models found that while they had a more realistic idea of their body size than many other women, they still struggled with body image issues. These women, who many compare themselves to and use as the standard of perfection or what sexy is, also struggle with their own body image.
Creating a healthy body image isn't about making physical changes, it's about making changes in the way a person thinks.
Signs you have an unhealthy body image
Some of you reading this right now might know instantly that you struggle with your body image. You recognize it in your daily life, the way you think about your body, and how you feel about yourself when you look in the mirror. You clicked on this title because you want to believe that you can feel better about yourself and more confident in your sex life.
Some of you might not know if body image is what you're struggling with. You may have clicked the title because you know that something could be better in your sex life and you're wondering if this is what could make the difference. The following can be signs that you're struggling with your body image:
Thinking you're not attractive enough
Feeling like you would be sexier if you had ___________ or were ____________ (skinnier, curvier, taller, shorter, fill in the blanks with what comes to your head the most)
Shutting down compliments or using sarcastic comebacks when given compliments about your appearance
Believing people are just trying to "be nice" when they compliment your appearance
Feeling closed off during sexual experiences because you're thinking about how you look
Feeling negative when you think about your body
Having your work, relationships, or hobbies impacted by the feelings you have about your body
Feeling like you never look "good enough" no matter how hard you try
How your body image impacts your sexuality
Our world is not great at embracing healthy sexuality. There is a tendency to oversexualize it or jump to the other extreme of believing it's something "dirty" that we shouldn't discuss. But for many people, their sexuality is an important part of their humanity and part of who they are. It's important that we are able to find a way to talk about it that aligns with our values.
For some women, having a poor body image directly correlates to having a lower sex drive. Because it impacts the way they feel about themselves, it impacts the way they're able to interact with their partner. They think things like, "My partner doesn't really think I'm attractive, they're lying." or "I'll enjoy sex more when I lose weight."
They struggle to shut off the negative thoughts about themselves spiraling through their heads which makes it feel almost impossible to relax enough to enjoy sex. They're too busy thinking about what that body part must look like at that angle or how to move to minimize something they're self-conscious about. If you hate the way you look, it's hard to believe that someone else is enjoying it.
So, it makes sense that you're not going to be excitedly anticipating sex with your partner when the experience looks like that. But it doesn't have to remain like that.
What you can do to have a healthy body image & improve your sexual experience
There are steps anyone can take to improve their body image which can help improve their sexual encounters.
1. Notice what you like about your body
If you're used to shutting down compliments and focusing on all the things you don't like, this may feel like a challenge, but I encourage you to lean into it. What parts of your body do you like? What do you think is really sexy? It doesn't have to be the stereotypical sexual body parts.
Once you identify what it is you like, focus on it. Wear clothes that highlight it.
2. Accept compliments from your partner
Stop assuming you know what your partner is thinking. Remind yourself that just because you struggle with feeling good about your body image doesn't mean your partner doesn't love it just like it is.
Accept the compliments your partner gives you. Don't brush them off, let the words sink in.
3. Figure out what turns you on
There are a lot of ideas out there about what's needed to turn a woman on. But in the end, it's not about setting the right mood in the bedroom or your partner making sure all the laundry is folded, kitchen cleaned, and kids put to bed—it's a mental piece inside your own head. Understanding what this looks like for you is key.
Do you need to create some space, take a bubble bath, shave your legs and have 20 minutes of peace to think some sexy thoughts? Or, maybe it helps you to start the conversation early with your partner and let the sexual tension and excitement build up before starting.
Whatever the thing is for you, make space and prioritize it with your partner.
4. Do some reading
There are a couple of books that I recommend when it comes to body image and sexuality.
Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel
Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski
5. Work with a therapist
Therapy can help you address and overcome negative body image challenges. Our team of therapists at The NEST Clinic is ready to help you step into confidence in who you are including how you feel about your appearance.
In addition, therapy can help you explore any other challenges that you're experiencing in your sex life. We have a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner on staff that can work with you on situations like low libido, hormone fluctuations, and birth control among other areas.
Together, your treatment team can help you feel your best and fully enjoy your sex life.