NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Sexual Wellness: Is a Negative Body Image Ruining Your Sex Life?

A poor body image, which causes you to feel anxious and insecure in bed, can ruin your sex life.  This is a common problem which people often find hard to overcome on their own.  

Specifically, many women worry about their weight, shape or specific parts of their body being too big or too small (e.g., stomach too big, breasts too small, vulva the wrong shape, etc).  Many men also worry whether their penis is too small or their stomach isn't flat enough, and so on, but it usually doesn't interfere with men's sexual arousal, so this article will focus on women (see my article: Women's Sexuality: Tips of Sexual Self Discovery).

Is Your Body Image Ruining Your Sex Life?

How Does a Poor Body Image Interfere With Sex?
Women who feel ashamed of their body often don't initiate sex.  Even if they go along with a partner who initiates sex, they don't get aroused or enjoy sex.  

They're often preoccupied with how they feel about their body or how they imagine their partner feels about their body, which can lead to their becoming more of an observer of their sexual activities than a participant. This form of observing during sex is called spectatoring, a term that was coined by the famous sex researchers Masters and Johnson.

Many women have also been conditioned to worry about whether their vulva or vagina smells.  There are so many "feminine hygiene" products on the market that prey on this insecurity.  In reality, these products sometimes cause physical problems that women didn't have before.

If a woman is worried that she smells, she might be reluctant to allow her partner to perform oral sex or to have sex at all.  Many gynecologists refer to the vagina as a "self cleaning oven" that doesn't need extra cleaning with special products marketed to women.

Sexual intimacy with someone you love involves sharing yourself on the deepest level physically and emotionally.  If you're worried and distracted about how you look or smell, you're not going to be fully present to your own sexual experience or the sexual pleasure of your partner (see my article: Sexual Wellness: Savoring Pleasure).

Problems with body image and body shaming often occur at a young age.  Even well-meaning parents can create problems by being overly concerned about a young girl's weight, what she eats or how she looks in clothes.  This creates the insecurity with body image that continues into adulthood.

Aside from early experiences at home, magazines, TV, movies and social media also contribute to the problem of body image by presenting girls and women with idealized images of what a woman "should" look like. Since these images are unrealistic (or even photoshopped), this leaves many women comparing themselves to the image and feeling inadequate (see my article: How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Others).

For women with body image problems, aging makes matters worse. These women often become even more dissatisfied with the way they look when younger women's bodies are idealized in the media or they experience their spouse or significant other admiring a younger woman's body.

Overcoming a Poor Body Image
Changing how you feel about your body isn't easy, especially if the problem has been ingrained since childhood, but there are some things you can try on your own to improve your body image:
  • Become Aware of Your Negative Self Talk: Change starts with awareness.  Start paying attention to the negative thoughts and feelings you have about your body and challenge yourself.  Instead of believing your negative self talk, tell yourself that you're entitled to experience pleasure--whether it's with a partner or it's solo sex (see my article: Overcoming the Internal Critic).
  • Ask Yourself Whose Eyes You're Looking Through: Young girls who were given negative messages about their body image often grow up to be women who see themselves through the eyes of others who criticized them, including family members or social media.  They internalize this criticism at such a deep level that they believe it without questioning it.  So, it's important to ask yourself if you're looking at yourself objectively or if you're looking through the eyes of those who were critical.  
  • Spend Less Time on Social Media: Spending too much time on social media contributes to anxiety and depression. When you see images of women with idealized bodies, you're likely to compare yourself unfavorably to those images, which might be photoshopped or photographed from certain angles that are more flattering.  Also, seeing images and reading social media posts of people's "wonderful lives," which might not be so wonderful in reality, can make you feel envious and frustrated about your own life. 
  • Practice Self Compassion: Many women who have compassion for others don't practice self compassion (see my article:  Developing Self Compassion).
Getting Help in Therapy
If a poor body image has become an obstacle to your sexual enjoyment and you're unable to change this on your own, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience in this area.

Rather than depriving yourself and your partner of pleasure, you could work with a skilled psychotherapist who can help you to overcome a poor body image.

Once you're free of your negative self image, you can feel good about yourself and enjoy the sexual pleasure you deserve.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.