In today’s beauty-dominated media, particularly for women, you might expect that women who feel bad about their bodies also feel less sexually satisfied. Feeling that they don’t measure up to cultural ideals, women who aren’t willow-thin should, we might anticipate, feel inadequate in the bedroom.
Although obesity is linked to poorer health outcomes, normal or slightly overweight women who don’t fit the mold of the fashion model should have no reason to feel that there’s something wrong with them. Yet, everywhere you look, beauty is equated with thinness. Victoria’s Secret, long known for its idealization of Barbie-like figures, has now begun to advertise workout wear. Apart from the fact that their outfits are impractical (short-shorts for yoga, for example), the models sporting these scanty items are as unrealistically thin as those photographed cavorting in corsets and garter belts. It’s great that women are being encouraged to exercise, but the ads continue to emphasize the need for a woman to be a perfect “10” in order to be attractive.
Men are far from immune to the media’s portrayal of perfect physiques. Although there are plenty of ads picturing 20- and 30-something men with slight paunches having a rich and rewarding social life, the iconically handsome male is shown with "six-pack" abs and rippling biceps. And while researchers in the field of body image tend to focus on the female form, they’re starting to recognize that men can also suffer from disturbance over their appearance.
This question, then, is appropriate to ask for both sexes: Can distress about your bodily appearance translate into less satisfying sexual functioning?
To discover some answers, University of Guelph’s Robin Milhausen and her colleagues (2014) conducted a survey measuring body image and composition as well as sexual satisfaction and functioning. Their sample consisted of 143 Canadian emerging adults (18-25 years old) all of whom were involved in heterosexual monogamous relationships. Milhausen and her team set out to control for relationship satisfaction, known to be a factor related to sexual satisfaction. They also measured actual body fat among participants.
Numerous studies have shown that body image concern is higher in women, that negative body image is associated with a number of psychological and relationship problems, and that people with poorer body images are more likely to engage in sexual risk-taking. Their sexual self-esteem tends to be lower, they engage in less regular sexual activity, and they have higher rates of sexual dysfunction. Body composition affects both body image and sexual satisfaction, though body image has a stronger relationship to sexual satisfaction than does a person’s actual amount of body fat, although there are some conflicting findings on this last point.
No studies prior to Milhausen et al.’s actually looked at all of these possible relationships among body image, body weight, and sexual and relationship functioning, and none had examined both males and females. The field was ripe for an investigation which could help to tease all these inter-related factors apart.
The participants’ average age was 20 years old, and most were in college. Over half had a body mass index (BMI) in the "normal" range. Each participant came into the lab for body composition assessment and completed a series of questionnaires measuring sexual satisfaction, sexual function, body image, and relationship satisfaction. Regarding body image, participants indicated how much they liked their bodies; whether they tried to avoid showing their bodies to others (e.g. by wearing baggy clothes); and how self-conscious they felt about their bodies during sex (such as whether they felt they looked larger while lying down than standing up).
The results of the analyses showed clear sex differences:
Milhausen and colleagues looked at several possible explanations for their findings, all of which seem plausible: First, for women but not men, concern over body image is such an accepted fact of life that women don’t feel there’s anything wrong with themselves for feeling that they don’t measure up to society’s ideal standards. This is a rather sad fact of life—women have become so used to thinking of their bodies as inadequate that it’s simply a part of who they are.
Another possibility is that since these women were all in relationships, they weren’t as worried about how their appearance would affect their sex lives. In fact, the statistics the authors compiled took relationship satisfaction out of the analyses so that it no longer played a role. Men, however, didn’t benefit in terms of allowing the fact that they were in a relationship to negate their body image concerns. Even in a secure romantic relationship, men’s worry that they’re not attractive can interfere with their ability to enjoy sex with their partner.
Actual amount of body fat did play a role in influencing sexual satisfaction—heavier men and women were generally less satisfied with their sex lives. However, for men, body fat had its influence via body image. Women who were heavier felt more self-conscious during sex than women who weighed less, but this didn’t affect their sexual satisfaction. Men who felt heavier not only felt worse about themselves, but also had less sex and were less sexually satisfied.
The upshot of the study is that body image concerns in men are very real, and can affect their sexual functioning and happiness. If men only engage in sexual activity when they feel they’ll look attractive, it stands to reason that they will feel less sexually fulfilled. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the Milhausen et al. study also showed that the strongest predictor of sexual satisfaction was satisfaction with the overall relationship—for men and women. We need to start admitting as a society that negative body image can be detrimental to men’s mental health. However, the good news is that once you’re in a relationship, working on the quality of that relationship can enhance the fulfillment of both partners—in and out of the bedroom.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Reference: Milhausen, R. R., Buchholz, A. C., Opperman, E. A., & Benson, L. E. (2014). Relationships between body image, body composition, sexual functioning, and sexual satisfaction among heterosexual young adults. Archives Of Sexual Behavior, doi:10.1007/s10508-014-0328-9