It’s no secret that the relationship each person has with their body impacts many areas of satisfaction and confidence throughout their lives, especially when it comes to sex. There is no stage more front and center than that of a sexual experience to highlight any insecurities a person has about their body. Unsurprisingly, the feedback loop between body image and sexual satisfaction can offer a pernicious spiral (if you’re governed by negative body critiques) or a whirl of pleasure (if you are content in your own skin).
The quality of a person’s body image shapes their attitudes about sex in several ways. It dictates how interested they are in sex, versus how much energy they expend to avoid it. They may be hesitant to initiate sex or be averse to certain sexual acts or positions, for fear of how their body may look. Should they make it to a hot and steamy moment, a critical inner voice can leave someone sexually anxious and wondering if they are measuring up to their partner’s ideals, or distracted and unable to focus on pleasure. It’s difficult to enjoy the moment if your negative inner voice is louder than your moans! A negative body image can thwart a person’s belief that they are even worthy of sexual pleasure, making it seem elusive or difficult to connect in the moment, or leaving them subject to sexual deference or the notion that they are a vehicle for their partner’s pleasure without an expectation of reciprocity.
Women are often given feedback (often unsolicited) about their bodies. Images in mainstream media, and the commentary on them, set off a cacophony of critique (both positive and negative) about the status of people’s bodies. That’s obvious. But what about the not-so-obvious influences on body image? It is a common practice for many people to comment on how someone looks right off the bat. Friends, family, and acquaintances often mean well, but when feedback hits a nerve, comments that may seem banal in the moment can linger in the corners of your memory and pop up just as you’re disrobing. Extra insidious is the carried body shame people can inherit from their parents. The most prevalent transmission of negative body image is from mothers to daughters. How girls see themselves as growing women is shaped by how they see their mothers when they are young, and how they hear their mothers discuss their own bodies. Borrowing from mom, young girls often mimic what they see and hear and can carry forward body insecurities that they may not have had otherwise.
It is possible to get back to the business of pleasurable sex, without making any drastic physical changes. It may seem daunting to intervene on bodily insecurities, especially if you’ve been self-critical for a long time. That critical voice started as a self-protection strategy, but when it stops serving you (like when it gets in the way of you enjoying sex!), it is necessary to challenge it.
First, identify any external critics, and set some boundaries with them. If you notice parents, siblings, friends, or partners speaking negatively about your body or their own (if that is triggering for you), ask them to refrain from doing so around you. If they choose not to honor your request, you may consider setting some other boundaries to keep yourself emotionally safe. If your partner is critical of you or your body, let them know how their comments impact you. If they don’t stop, consider ditching them. Really. It is 2020 in a few weeks—body shaming is so last decade, and seriously, who has time for that?! Being naked with someone (physically and emotionally) is a gift because it requires vulnerability. Make sure the person on the receiving end of your vulnerability respects you and your willingness to share yourself with them.
Next, get out of your head! Dropping down into your body is key in both sexual and nonsexual moments. Practice some somatic mindfulness exercises, Kegel exercises, intentional breathing, or sensory exploration, and stay in the moment. This will help you retrain your focus on the language of your body, making you more apt to notice signals of pleasure and to be able to stay with those sensations in the heat of the moment, and less likely to get distracted by negative thoughts.
Honor the parts of your body and appearance you love equally with the parts of your body with which you have a more complicated relationship. Reframe negative thoughts as opportunities for gratitude. How has your body served you? Protected you? Given you experiences? Notice what you have learned, gained, or how you have grown, and develop an active affirmation practice that repurposes negative thoughts as positive statements about yourself.
Also, remember that sex is often messy, imperfect, playful, and an experience between two people. Bodies in sexual motion get squishy and jiggly and make noises and scents, and that is to be expected! Sex is not a show, and perfection (however you define it) is neither required nor desired. Every person, every body is different and imperfect, and that is something to be championed. Time and time again, research demonstrates that the qualities partners most often find sexually attractive are confidence, enthusiasm, and authenticity. A body that is loved, from the inside out, is free to experience the gift of pleasure.