Body Image & Sex

We live in an objectifying world that has taught us to feel shame about our bodies and to shame others about their bodies. We’ve all internalized messaging from patriarchal society about our worth and success being tied to the appearance of our bodies, and real systems of oppression have been built based on mainstream cultural ideas about idyllic default body types. All sexes and genders experience body shame and body oppression, though it’s an overwhelming problem for women and girls. When it comes to sexual pleasure, body shame is a significant disruptor. When we have internalized objectification, we evaluate ourselves from outside of our bodies instead of being in our bodies, experiencing sensations. We become preformative and move our bodies how we think others want to see us move instead of moving them for ourselves. Our mental and physical energy is being drained because of our concerns about how our bodies look, and it interferes with our ability to orgasm. In this way, body shame contributes to the orgasm gap between genders. Unlearning the cultural stories that suppress our sexuality takes work, but there are many small changes that you can make to help you shift from body shame to body acceptance. The goal of this newsletter series is to share some information to encourage rebellion against body shame so that you can have more fun with sex and experience more pleasure! 

What is body image?

Body image is how we think and feel about our bodies, which is influenced by our internal emotional and cognitive processes, as well as external factors (e.g., family, peers, culture/media, past experiences, etc.) Our body image can fluctuate between positive and negative experiences. Having a healthy body image means that you believe your body is good regardless of how it looks or works. Accepting, appreciating and respecting your body does not necessarily mean that you are fully satisfied with your body. You can have a healthy body image and still want to make changes to your body; but you do not think you are less worthy of love and respect because of the body you have. 

What is the difference between body positivity and body acceptance or neutrality?

“Body positivity” is a phrase that was born out of the 1960s movement for fat liberation, led by fat and queer black women and femmes. Since then, it has become a mainstream phrase and movement, popularized through commercialization and social media proliferation. Undoubtedly, the body positive movement has had a positive impact in helping folks learn to love and celebrate their bodies. However, in recent years, advocates for marginalized bodies have criticized the movement for being co-opted by all bodies, suggesting it no longer protects and uplifts the bodies it was created originally for and by. A 2020 study in the Body Image Journal titled “Are We There Yet? Progress in Depicting Diverse Images of Beauty in Instagram’s Body Positivity Movement” provided evidence to support these concerns. The study examined body positivity posts on Instagram and found that 67% of the posts featured white women, with men and ethnic minority women seriously under-represented, and only 43% of posts depicting larger bodies, which is not representative of the general population. 

Terminology evolves. In response to their concerns with the mainstreaming effect of body positivity, advocates have put forward alternative terms such as body acceptance or body neutrality. As some advocates have pointed out, people who are fat, disabled, trans, BIPOC, etc., often receive messages that their bodies are wrong and the term “positive” may feel invalidating to their lived experience. Body acceptance and body neutrality give folks permission to feel “unhappy” about aspects about their body, while also figuring out how to accept it. It’s about taking a curious, non-judgemental approach to investigating why you feel certain ways about your body and trying to reframe so that you can find peace with the existing in the body you have. Whether body positivity or body acceptance or neutrality is a healthier attitude for you to adopt comes down to personal preference.

What’s the connection between body image and sexual wellness?

When it comes to your sex life, body image issues emerge in two ways: what you think of your body and what you believe your partner thinks of your body. There’s a large body of sex research that has shown that the internalized attitudes of others can be as important to sexual functioning as one’s own feelings or evaluations of their body. 

During sex, have you ever moved your partner's hands away from your “trouble spots” or asked to have sex with the lights off? You’re not alone. Many people report having negative thoughts about their bodies or their sexuality during sex. These negative thoughts can cause people to pull away from sexual cues, such as pleasurable touch or looking at an engaged and turned on partner. Feelings of guilt, fear, anger, self pity, and so on can deprive erotic thoughts and create the classic mind/body block that impedes the flow of sexual energy, contributing to a lack of arousal and desire. If you think about the dual control model of sexual response, self-critical thoughts and feelings activate your brakes.

Extensive research led by Dr. Lorri Brotton on the intersection of mindfulness and sexual satisfaction has shown that women who are able to alter self-focus so that it is not self-critical, experience improved sexual response. Her research underscores the importance of interoception: a person’s ability to detect their own internal bodily sensations and focus on those rather than their negative thoughts. Through her research, Dr. Brotton has shown that mindfulness training helps women become faster at tuning in to their bodies and helps them differentiate between different sensations in their bodies with less self judgment and more self acceptance. While her study has focused on women participants, these lessons are applicable to all. 

How can we develop a healthier body image?

Beating body shame requires changing how we relate to our bodies and to every body around us so that we lead with compassion and radical love. Here are some suggestions for how to get there: 

  • Get to know your body: Many people avoid looking or touching their bodies because society has conditioned them to believe that their bodies are bad or wrong. There are many self-loving rituals that you can explore to familiarize yourself with your body and practice body appreciation including self-massage, sensuous bath, genital exploration, mirror dancing, etc. 

  • Filter your social media: Be intentional about your media intake – don’t follow people who make you feel inadequate and trigger insecurities. You can also use social media to intentionally bear witness to more diverse bodies in joy, pleasure, desire, nature, rest, love, movement and nourishment.

  • Explore sexological bodywork: This trauma-informed healing modality helps people address body image issues and expand pleasure in their bodies using touch, sound, movement, breath and interoception. Check out the Association of Certified Sexological Bodyworkers for more information about hiring a practitioner. 

  • Learn more about Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size: These are alternative models to diet culture that are about body nourishment and care and personally defining well-being to your unique body.

  • Experience your body as an instrument: Moving your body in some way, whether that be through sports, exercise or walking, will help you experience your capabilities, make you feel strong and help shift you away from a focus on how your body looks to how it feels.

  • Reconnect with your senses: Tuning into your senses will help you deepen your connection with your body. There are various mindfulness exercises that can help, body scanning being a prominent one.

  • Speak lovingly to yourself: We can reprogram our self-talk so that it is consistent with body acceptance. To do this, we need to first become self-aware of our negative self-talk. We can establish a new narrative by deciding how we want to speak to ourselves, scripting it, and reading it out loud. Repeating this will set neural pathways for new thought patterns. 

  • Define sexiness for yourself: Mainstream culture has trapped many of us into a very narrow and limited idea of what is sexy. There are so many possibilities of sexiness out there! Often, what feels so pleasurable to our senses is not the default idea of sexy. Give yourself the permission to identify the unique things that you are attracted to that are out-of-the-box.

  • If you have a partner who suffers from negative body image issues, there are various ways that you can help them. Often, a person’s desire can be activated when they perceive their partner’s desire for them. Physical touch and appreciation and words of body affirmation will go a long way in helping your partner relax and let in more sensation. Sometimes, people worry that letting go completely will mean their body does something involuntary (e.g., spasm, fart, pee, etc.) that they will feel ashamed of. You can help eliminate such feelings by watching for signs of your partner being close to losing control and encouraging them to lean into those sensations and celebrating them when they go over the edge. 

    Remember that everyone has challenges with their body image at times. The only way to beat a rigged system of body shame is to change how we relate to our bodies and to everybody around us with compassion and radical love. 

    Written by Natalia Jaczkowski


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