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It’s Not Your Body, It’s Your Body Image

How body dissatisfaction is related to sexual dissatisfaction.

Co-authored with Marissa L. Bowsfield, M.A.

How happy you are with your appearance and how confident you feel in your own skin influences how comfortable you are being sexually intimate. This makes sense — people tend to feel most anxious about their bodies during activities that put the body on display, and we can all agree that sex is one of those times! If you are unhappy with how you look, you are less likely to enjoy sexual encounters with your partner.

You might think that it is only women who don’t fit society’s “thin ideal” or men who don’t have a well-defined six-pack who experience body dissatisfaction, and thus lower sexual satisfaction. But that assumption is wrong. In our research on 124 cohabiting couples, body dissatisfaction interfered with their sexual relationship regardless of body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight). How people look on the outside doesn’t matter as much as how they feel on the inside.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Source: Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

What is the link between how you feel about yourself and your own and your partner’s sexual satisfaction? When you light the candles and the clothes come off, all your fears and insecurities about your body and what your partner thinks of it may be amplified. If you think your thighs are too fat, your stomach is too flabby, or you are afraid to let your partner squeeze your untoned butt, you might try and hide those body parts, feel self-conscious and distracted, and direct your partner’s attention away from the bits that make you feel awkward. All those actions likely interfere with full sexual enjoyment and reduce sexual satisfaction for you and your partner.

You might also be uncomfortable with certain sexual activities. For example, Andrea talked about how she would never have sex while on top of her partner, because she didn’t like how her breasts looked, and it was easier to hide their appearance if she were lying down. Daniel complained about how his wife didn’t let him see her naked for their entire 23-year marriage, and she would only change her clothes in the closet and have sex with the lights out. Some people may even avoid sex altogether, because the thought of letting their partner see or touch their bodies is so distressing.

Although most couples don’t experience such extreme consequences of body dissatisfaction, many people do describe how their mind becomes preoccupied with thoughts about how their body looks and worries about what their partner is thinking. Thinking about yourself and what is happening during sexual activity is called “spectatoring.” In a way, it is like you are on the outside observing what is happening, and often being very judgmental. Spectatoring makes it hard to be in the moment and to enjoy the sensual experience with your partner. This may even make it difficult to become aroused, to orgasm, or simply to enjoy pleasurable sensations.

Feeling unhappy about your body and appearance affects your sexual relationship in negative ways. We also know from our research that how you think your partner feels about your body matters; if you have concerns about how you look, it might be helpful to talk about your fears and concerns with a caring intimate partner. Check out your assumptions, and you might find out they are unfounded.

You can also work on changing how you feel about yourself. Becoming more accepting and less critical about your appearance can help you to feel less anxious during sex, and that will benefit you and your partner. Research suggests that if you reduce critical language in your everyday conversation, it can enhance body image. For example, instead of saying, “My stomach is so disgusting!” consider more accepting language, such as, "My stomach may not be as flat as it used to be, and that is OK.”

It isn’t easy to change self-perceptions and anxiety about how you look, but mindfulness and self-compassion can help. Being more mindful and less self-critical can lead to more pleasurable, fun, and satisfying sexual experiences, where the focus is on sensation and mutual enjoyment, rather than on physical imperfections.

Marissa Bowsfield is a Ph.D. student in Clinical Psychology at Simon Fraser University. She has been studying relationships and sexuality for six years.