Body image can really mess with our heads — in bed. For women, the way they see their bodies can have a big impact on their feelings of sexual desire and their ability to become aroused. Men also can suffer feelings of body self-consciousness, but it often doesn’t interfere with their sexual function as much as it does with women. In fact, according to research (and as I’ve seen in my practice), next to relationship distress, negative body image is one of the biggest disrupters of sexual enjoyment, desire, and responsiveness in women.
There are two kinds of body image issues that impact a woman sexually — what she thinks of herself and what she believes her partner thinks of her body.
How she sees herself
If a woman feels like her body is unattractive, it leads to lower sexual self-esteem, which then often leads to avoidance of sexual activity. Once one area of the sexual cycle is interrupted often several areas of the sexual cycle are disrupted — desire, arousal, and orgasm.
The more she critically views her body, the more anxiety she will feel about being seen and touched — and the less able she’ll be to lose herself in the moment and become aroused. Specific concerns about her body, like worry about the size of her body parts or her weight (the most frequent female rule of measure) are the strongest predictors of orgasm problems.
How she thinks other see her
If a woman thinks that her partner (or other potential partners) finds her attractive, her sexual functioning will be higher. However, if she believes, regardless of the truth, that others view her body in a negative light, her desire will be disrupted as well as her ability to become aroused.
For instance, in menopause, while hormones are part of the explanation for the loss of libido, a woman’s sense of desirability may be a factor as well. Older women complain of not turning the heads of men and often feel deflated as to their attractiveness, resulting in lower libido. That feeling is their subjective turn-on. Researcher Marta Meana says that for women, “being desired is the orgasm.”
To address body image issues and get back on track sexually, there are a few things you can try:
Believe your partner! Many men say they are frustrated because they find their partner infinitely sexy and yet she doesn’t think the same about her body and thus rejects him.
Decrease negative self-talk before and during sex. Practice becoming aware of the critical voice inside while anticipating sexual moments. When you hear those thoughts, remind yourself that you are entitled to sexual pleasure and that sex will bring more closeness and bonding with your partner.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is non-judgmental being. For a few minutes every day, practicing being in the now; observe whatever thoughts your mind brings up without accepting them as true. Don’t let yourself judge the feeling or thought, just let it reside in your mind and be curious about it. As we question our thoughts and feelings, we learn that they are only thoughts and feelings — they are not concrete reality.
Do some Kegels. Use the squeeze of a Kegel exercise to distract your mind from its negative wandering and come into your body. Often, the difficulty involved in squeezing your pelvic floor is enough to stop your mind from having many other thoughts at all.
Remember to breathe. Practice feeling yourself breathe when you are having sex. Take two deep breaths. Focus on that sensation for a second or two, instead of the negative thoughts. Daily meditation can help teach you this for less stressful circumstances.
Focus on your partner. Pay attention to how your body turns on his body. Watch as he becomes more and more aroused, notice his pleasure at being with you. Acknowledge the physical evidence that he does find you desirable. Even a man with ED often expresses his desire with bodily tension and words of adoration.