When Body Image Gets In the Way of Sexual Desire
Body image can have a significant impact on quality of life. Feeling negatively about one’s body can lead to having less confidence to strive for goals, feeling less worthy of the positive aspects of one’s life, and it is correlated with skipping enjoyable activities due to embarrassment over one’s appearance.
One of these enjoyable activities, it seems, is sex. It is not uncommon for me to hear from clients in my practice:
“I don’t like how my body looks, so I don’t feel like having sex.”
Body image issues affect most adults at some point in their lives, if not on an ongoing basis. Recent studies have shown that up to 86% of adults ages 18-34 and 75% of those age 55 and older have reported dissatisfaction with their bodies. These numbers can be even higher among populations dealing with chronic illness diagnoses. The social stigma, physical pain, and changes to one’s physical appearance that can accompany the onset of a chronic illness can all significantly damage one’s self-esteem and body image.
While body dissatisfaction is psychological, it has actual physical effects on the body when it comes to sex. For women, increased anxiety about body image concerns have been shown to be the strongest predictor of difficulty reaching orgasm, and it can also significantly reduce sexual desire and responsiveness. For all genders, negative body perceptions have been linked to lower sexual function (e.g. pain, low arousal or lubrication, etc.) and positive body image has been correlated with increased pleasure during sex.
Body image is a complex issue that, of course, is not easily or quickly resolved. However, there are definitely a few approaches to try that can be effective in regaining sexual function and pleasure when body dissatisfaction has gotten in the way of both.
Find Evidence to Counter Negative Body Talk
The way you see your body may feel like the truth, but it’s actually a belief that you hold that can be changed, even if your body doesn’t. One way to begin to shift a belief is to find evidence to the contrary. To change how you feel about your body, for example, you can look for evidence that your body is wonderful, beautiful, and sexy. Focus on how your body turns your partner on and brings them pleasure, believe your partner when they tell you how good you look to them, or thank the next person who gives you a compliment instead of deflecting it or brushing it off.
Maximize Your Chance for Pleasure
If a negative body image has made it more difficult to experience pleasure through sex, it can be worthwhile to slow things down and explore your sexual needs to find opportunities to enhance your pleasure during sex in new ways. As you explore your these needs, you may notice that you are more likely to feel sexier and turned on while wearing a certain type of lingerie, or that erotic massage helps relax you enough to get in the mood, or that you enjoy yourself more during sex when the pressure to perform or orgasm is removed. Communicate these needs with your partner, and work together to incorporate these elements into your sex life.
Consider Sex Therapy
The tricky part about addressing negative body perception is that we are generally bombarded with the messages that contributed to this perception in the first place on a daily basis, and so reprogramming our conditioning around body image can be quite difficult. If a negative body image is interfering with your sex life and/or relationship, getting professional support can be the most effective avenue toward healing. A relationship therapist or sex therapist will be able to work with you either individually or as a couple to address both sexual issues of concern as well as any emotional disconnection that exist.
Ramseyer Winter, V., O’Neill, E., Cook, M., Rose, K.L., Hood, A. (2020). Sexual function in hook-up culture: The role of body image. Body Image, 34, 135-144.