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How Poor Body Image Can Undermine Sexual Satisfaction

A few ideas for breaking a sex and body image downward spiral.

Key points

  • Ninety percent of women and 20 to 40 percent of men report body dissatisfaction.
  • Poor body image can lead to unsatisfying sex by diverting attention away from pleasurable sexual sensations and erotic cues from a partner.
  • Appreciating what your body has accomplished and surrounding yourself with people who aren't image obsessed are some helpful tactics.

Szabolcs Toth/UnSplash
Szabolcs Toth/UnSplash
Source: Szabolcs Toth/UnSplash

It’s no secret that the media promotes extremely unrealistic cultural ideals around beauty. We’ve becomes so accustomed to actors, actresses and social media influencers showing off perfectly fit bodies that those images become normalized in our heads. We start thinking…..“I should look like that, too. But I don’t.”

Ninety percent of women and 20 to 40 percent of men report body dissatisfaction. At the same time, there is a significant link between poor body image and low libido, and low sexual satisfaction. Understanding the mechanism by which poor body image robs a person of satisfying sex is a helpful first step in stopping it from happening.

Everyone, women especially, are socialized to view themselves as objects to be looked at. This leads to “spectatoring,” an extreme form of self-consciousness where a person judges and monitors themselves during sex almost like another person observing them from the outside. This is especially true in situations where a person’s body is exposed, such as at the beach in a bathing suit or during sex. Spectatoring ruins the joy inherent to sex by diverting attention away from any pleasurable sexual sensations as well as a partner's erotic cues. The effect then takes a deep, downward spiral. A person’s psychological disassociation from their body keeps them from enjoying sex, which in turn fuels further feelings of doubt and insecurity. In men, this can also lead to performance anxiety and erectile dysfunction.

To enjoy sex requires being truly in the moment and present in one’s own body. During sex and orgasm, the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for not being in the moment — that is, the part responsible for thinking, judging, and worrying, is meant to quiet. In contrast, poor body image keeps negative thoughts and judgments spinning in your head. The exact part of your brain that should be quieting is, instead, spurred into action.

Sometimes people with poor body image cope by starting to avoid sex altogether. This further perpetuates the problem, leading to reduced sexual interest, less intimacy with a partner, and a lack of sexual responsivity.

In severe cases, poor body image eventually can lead to diminished intimacy and relationship quality with a partner. The effect goes both ways, however. A strong relationship, as well as high self-esteem stemming from other sources in one’s life, can help guard against these consequences.

You may be keenly aware that your body image is getting in the way of your ability to have sex or you may just be thinking about it for the first time now. Either way, here are some ideas for improving your body image so that it doesn’t ruin your self-esteem or your sex life.

How to Improve Your Body Image

  • Become a “critical thinker” when viewing social media. Know that often what you see isn’t real. Filters, cropping, lighting, and editing are nearly always used and significantly transform how a person looks. Also, many of those people are paid to look that way. It’s their job. It’s not a realistic portrayal of what people should look like in real life.
  • Surround yourself with positive people who don’t talk about their bodies all the time. Hang out with friends who have different interests and passions besides just how they look.
  • Do things that remind you of how good you are. Develop a sense of confidence, self-acceptance, and openness from other things that you excel at. Beauty is a state of mind, not a state of your body.
  • Appreciate all the amazing things your body can do. This is especially relevant for mothers who may feel shame about their post-pregnancy bodies. Think about the miracle that your body accomplished by literally creating a life.
  • Be kind to yourself — treat yourself the way you would a friend. And do something kind for your body — like taking a bath, a nap, find a pleasant place to read, or go exercise. The more you send your body the message that you care for it, the more you’ll start to love and appreciate it.

No person should ever feel guilty or ashamed of their body. Our bodies perform astonishing acts, and we shouldn’t let the media diminish that. Everyone deserves to have amazing sex that’s not hindered by anxious thoughts and feelings about your own body. Everyone deserves to have relationships that aren’t plagued by one person’s body images issues. Appreciating how poor body image undermines a person’s sex life is an important first step in meeting those goals.


Pujols, Y., Meston, C., & Seal, B. (2010). The Association Between Sexual Satisfaction and Body Image in Women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine., 7(2), 905-916.