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Sunday, June 9, 2024

How a Woman's Negative Body Image Can Affect 1ntimacy in a Relationship and How Therapy Can Help

Both men and women can be affected by a negative body image, but it's more common among women (see my article: Is a Negative Body Image Ruining Your Sex Life?).

What is a Negative Body Image For Women?
A negative body image refers to body dissatisfaction and a preoccupation with what women perceive as "bodily flaws" and "imperfections."

A Woman With a Negative Body Image

This means women are often unhappy about how they look, so they think they must change their body in terms of size and/or shape.  

How Does a Negative Body Image Develop For Women?
Western culture tends to value girls' and women's bodies that are young and thin.  

This is easily observed in social media, like Instagram, in magazines and many other forms of media (see my article: How to Stop Negatively Comparing Yourself to Others).

Girls and women get the message early on that, in order to appear attractive, they must strive to maintain a youthful and thin appearance or they won't be desirable.

A Woman's Negative Body Issues Can Start at a Young Age

Unfortunately, many girls get the same message in their homes where one or both parents, grandparents or siblings criticize them for not having what they consider the "ideal" body.  

Women's romantic and sexual partners might also be critical of a woman's body--even if they try to frame their criticism as "I'm just trying to help you."

All of this criticism about body image can cause self consciousness, shame and guilt as women strive to live up to a standard of beauty that is often unattainable for most people.

How Can a Negative Body Image Affect Mental Health?
Girls and women who feel unattractive because their body doesn't look a particular way are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, low self esteem and eating disorders.

They might develop anxiety about social situations where they fear they'll be judged.

A Woman's Negative Body Issues Can Affect Her Mental Health

They might also avoid going to the beach because they feel too ashamed of people looking at them critically in a bathing suit.

They might also avoid dating and/or sexual encounters because they fear their body will be judged.

All of this social avoidance can leave them feeling isolated and lonely.

How Can a Negative Body Image Affect Emotional and Sexual Intimacy in a Relationship?
A negative body image can have a negative impact on emotional and sexual intimacy in a relationship.

Women who feel ashamed of their body might avoid having sex for fear of being judged by their partner or, if they have sex, they might be too anxious and self conscious to enjoy it. 

A Woman's Negative Body Issues Can Affect Her Relationship

If they do have sex with a partner, they might just go through the motions and hope to get through sex as quickly as possible.

They might also project their dissatisfaction with their body onto their romantic and sexual partners, which can cause women to believe that their partner feels disgusted by their body when, in fact, this often isn't the case.

All of this can lead to poor relationship and sexual satisfaction for both partners. 

In many cases, the woman might be too ashamed to talk about her poor body image issues so that the partner might assume that her emotional and sexual avoidance is due to her finding him less attractive and desirable.

Clinical Vignette
The following clinical vignette shows the impact of a woman's negative body issues and how sex therapy can help:

June and Mark
When June was growing up, her mother would monitor everything that she ate from the time June was 10 years old.  

Her mother was also preoccupied with her own food consumption and weight. She would exercise several times a day to burn off the calories she ingested.

Her mother would often caution June not to eat too much, "If you eat too much and get fat, the boys won't like you."

June's older sister, Marie, who was tall and thin, would also criticize June when they were both teenagers, "You're too fat. You need to go on a diet."

Even though June's doctor told her and her mother that June was a normal weight for her age, June continued to hear criticism about being fat from both her mother and sister while her father remained silent on the topic.

By the time June was in her early 30s and in a serious relationship with Mark, she worried that he would find her unattractive--even though he reassured her many times that he found her very attractive.

Due to her negative body image, she never initiated sex, which was a source of contention between her and Mark. 

Even though she knew objectively that Mark wouldn't reject her because he never did, on an emotional level she feared that he wouldn't want to have sex with her if she was the one who initiated. She felt that if he initiated sex, she knew he wanted to be sexual and she wouldn't have to face his rejection, even though she knew this was irrational.

No matter how much Mark tried to reassure June that he loved her and he found her very attractive, she couldn't overcome her fear.

During sex, June felt so ashamed of her body that she just wanted them to get through it as quickly as possible so she could cover herself up. 

After a while, Mark felt less inclined to initiate sex, so weeks and months went by where they weren't having sex.

When they began talking about moving in together, Mark brought up their nonexistent sex life and suggested they get help in sex therapy before they considered living together.

Although June felt hesitant to attend sex therapy because she didn't know what to expect, she agreed to attend these sessions with Mark to salvage their relationship.

During sex therapy sessions, their sex therapist told them how common it is for women to have a negative image of their body.

She also explained to them that sex therapy is a form of talk therapy and there would be no physical touch, nudity or physical exams during their sessions.

Their sex therapist worked with them as a couple and she also had individual sessions with June and Mark.

During June's family history session, June realized how her upbringing affected her perception of her body.  

Their sex therapist also helped June to challenge these views through Ego States Therapy, also known as Parts Work Therapy, by asking the critical part of herself to step aside and relax so that the positive parts of herself could be strengthened and help to affirm her body image (see my article: How Parts Work Therapy Can Empower You).

Their therapist also helped June to use mindfulness and self compassion to deal with her negative perception of her body (see my article: How Mindfulness and Self Compassion Can Help With Body Acceptance).

She also helped June to focus on sexual pleasure during solo sex and sex with Mark instead of focusing on her body as the couple resumed having sex again.

Gradually, June developed body self acceptance and a positive erotic self (see my articles: Keeping an Erotic Journal For Sexual Self Discovery and What is Your Erotic Blueprint?).

After a while, June felt comfortable enough with her body to initiate sex with Mark so that sex was more pleasurable for both of them.

The work was neither quick nor easy, but both June and Mark were motivated to attend sessions and make changes.

Over time, June and Mark's emotional bond and sexual relationship were strengthened.

Whenever June felt the negative part of herself that was critical of her body creeping in, she gently asked it to step aside so the healthier parts of herself could take precedence.  

After a while, the part of herself that was critical of her body came up less and less until it stopped altogether.

Mark also learned in sex therapy how to be more sexually affirming of June in the way he related to her.

Their successful work in sex therapy enabled them to move in together and have a satisfying emotional and sexual connection.

Men and women can have negative feelings about their body.  For men, this might include shame about penis size, height and other physical characteristics and distortions.

This article focuses on women's negative body issues, which can develop at an early age, because negative body issues are more prevalent among women.

A negative body image which is affecting emotional and sexual intimacy is a common issue  that is dealt with in sex therapy.

Getting Help in Sex Therapy
Whether you are single or in a relationship, if you're suffering with a negative body issue, you're not alone.

Get Help in Sex Therapy

If a negative body issue is having an impact on how you feel about yourself as a sexual being, sex therapy can be helpful.

Sex therapy is a form of talk therapy (see my article: What is Sex Therapy?).

There is no nudity, physical exams or physical contact during sex therapy (see my article: What Are Common Misconceptions About Sex Therapy?).

Many individuals and couples are helped in sex therapy for a variety of issues (see my article: 

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

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.