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Body Image

Sexual Liberalism and Body Image Acceptance

Why body acceptance matters in sexual satisfaction

Education and prevention efforts in eating disorders have influenced change in the public mindset regarding body image perceptions and promoting healthier standards of beauty. The roller coaster road of weight expectations and the ideal body size and shape over the past century is well documented in various journal and media outlets. Size 12 for women in the 1940’s and 50’s as the fashion ideal became size 5 by the 60’s and size 0 or 00 by the millennium. Men’s self concept regarding body image continues to be influenced heavily by media representation of the muscular ideal: broad shoulders, small waist, tight abs.

The drive for thinness and pursuit of the perfect or idolized body contribute to eating and body related disorders for both women and men. Current research has been increasingly focussed on exploring male body image and body dissatisfaction.

“Results confirm and extend recent findings on the relevance of muscularity for male body image. At the same time, they indicate a prominent role of drive for thinness for body-related attentional biases assumed to perpetuate body dissatisfaction even in men.” (2016. Male Body Image and Visual Attention towards Oneself and Other Men Martin Cordes, Vockes, et. al. Osnabrück University. Germany.) Attentional bias is the increased, if not obsessional tendency to pay attention to specific things while simultaneously ignoring other of its prominent aspects. This includes decisions that we make based upon perceptions. (Cherry. 2016. Focussing excessively on specific body parts and comparing them to others is an example of how attentional bias applies to eating and body image disorders.

Cordes, Vockes, et. al cited several recent studies regarding the effects and cognitive and behavioral consequences for men who experience high body dissatisfaction and drive for muscularity. “[In] its most extreme form it may be associated with adverse psychological and behavioral consequences such as low self-esteem, exercise dependence, eating pathology, and the abuse of anabolic- androgenic steroids (e.g., Chittester & Hausenblas, 2009; Hildebrandt, Harty, & Langenbucher, 2012; Pritchard, 2014). An excessive drive for muscularity is also a core component of muscle dysmorphia, a body image disorder (Pope, Gruber, Choi, Olivardia, & Phillips, 1997) that is characterized by the persistent and pathological belief that one’s body is insufficiently muscular and lean (Olivardia, 2001).”

The media has an ongoing opportunity to contribute to the denouncement of images and attitudes that objectify women and men and promote unhealthy body weight and shape. Some media outlets have embraced this cause, however, most women’s and men’s fashion and health magazines still maintain thin ideals and continue to have a significant influence on body image perception. Studies have found that women and men who do not compare themselves to models in magazines have a generally higher body image and body acceptance. The decision to not peruse fashion magazines i.e. do not buy them and do not keep them in your household, particularly if there are children, provides a simple solution for some or at least aid in not giving obsessional and self-defeating thoughts the opportunity to escalate.

Because of the extraordinary efforts in the eating disorder community to shift perspectives, many people now accept that being too thin is unhealthy and that eating foods rich in unsaturated fat, protein and complex carbohydrates are essential for physical, mental and sexual well-being. Aggressive efforts in elementary and secondary education and at the college level continue in promoting the message that acceptance of a healthy weight and size and eating normally are significantly associated with physical, mental, emotional, and relational health.

Body Acceptance and Sex

Clinicians, researchers and writers who understand eating disorders are fully versed in how negative body image is associated with more sexual shame, risky sexual behaviors, and low desirability and arousal response. (Eisenberg, et al. 2005.)

At a time when disparaging of women and men’s bodies does not seem to be curtailing and often are tolerated what better way to counter attacks then to comment on the personal and beneficial side of body acceptance.

No one person or entity can take away one’s authentic self representation. For all the disparaging remarks made in the public arena particularly recently, I counter with, “ For those so quick to criticize another’s body, how really satisfied are you with your own body?”

Criticizing others’ body shape and size is usually a reflection of self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy and negativity regarding one’s own body. Such body discomfort is often linked to discomfort with sex and sexual expression and practices. Generally, people who are happy and content with their body tend not to be overly critical of other peoples’ body size and shape.

Women and men who have greater body acceptance also are generally more sexually comfortable and more open to sexual experimentation and exploration. Many might consider this to be a worthwhile and certainly pleasurable payoff.

V. Swami, Et. Al, based on their own research which supports and extends prior studies, hypothesized that, “Positive body image—characterized by favorable attitudes toward one’s body, body acceptance, respect for the body, and protection of the body from negative influences will be associated with positive sexual schemas that allow for more liberal or unconventional sexual expression.” (Associations Between Positive Body Image, Sexual Liberalism, and Unconventional Sexual Practices in U.S. Adults. 2016. Archives of Sexual Behavior.)

The researchers sampled 151 women and 164 men from the United States who completed measures of sexual liberalism, attitudes toward unconventional sexual practices, and indices of positive body image (i.e., body appreciation, body acceptance by others, body image flexibility, and body pride), and provided their demographic details. The results reported that, “Higher body appreciation was significantly associated with greater sexual liberalism in women and men. Furthermore, higher body appreciation and body image flexibility were significantly associated with more positive attitudes toward unconventional sexual practices in women and men. (Swami, et. al. 2016.)

As patients recover from the symptoms of an eating disorder and move past the loathing and shame that surrounds their self-concept, delving in to what lies beneath the defeating and destructive symptoms and cognitive misrepresentations become possible. Healthy relationships, pleasure, and living an authentic life are attainable. Fat and the fear of fat are merely representations. Being a normal weight means the acceptance and pursuit of a normal life.

From this perspective, the old psychoanalytic adage applies: conscious fear is the unconscious wish. Does this mean that the person with Anorexia truly desires to be fat? In a metaphoric manner of speaking, Yes!

Metaphorically, fat is a representation for all that is forbidden. Food is pleasure. Eating too much is associated with self-disgust, gluttony and selfishness. Many people in the early stages of recovery and often for a long time, have similar views about eating and their bodies as they do about sex, sexuality and sexual pleasure.

Comfort in one’s own skin refers to body acceptance, sexual comfort and psychological wellness.

The unfortunate references in our culture and acceptance of body shaming of others as sport indicates a deepening of personal dissatisfaction, envy, arrogance and the narcissistic need to topple the other gal or guy. Those who engage in such sport tend to be very “small” people of sorts and certainly manifest tremendous insecurity.

Who cares what size someone is if they are happy and healthy. Clearly, this is irrespective of people who are morbidly obese and unhealthy.

The issue is never the issue when it comes to criticizing the genetic makeup of someone as fodder for one’s own insecurity.

Judy Scheel, Ph.D., LCSW, CEDS

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