Whoever you are, wherever you were born, and whatever you do, there's one thing that you have in common with everyone else in the world: you live in your body. It's the gift you get when you're born, and the site of every experience that you'll ever have, both positive and negative. But because of society's obsession with how our bodies look, we can forget to appreciate them for what they do for us. Particularly when it comes to sex and relationships, negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about your body can really hold you back, and even contribute towards sexual difficulties. In fact, research suggests that women who feel more negatively about their bodies have lower sexual desire and arousal, are more likely to avoid sex, and experience decreased pleasure, orgasm, and sexual satisfaction. (1)
So let's take a look at some of the causes and other consequences of negative body image, and some proven techniques that you can use to gain body confidence and pursue pleasure, because, to paraphrase renowned sex educator Emily Nagoski: 'In a world that makes you feel ashamed of your body, to pursue pleasure for its own sake is an act of rebellion.'
There are many, many reasons why you might be struggling with body image issues, and you can rest assured that it's a very common issue. In fact, a recent study by the UK House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee found that 61% of adults and 66% of children feel negative or very negative about their body image most of the time, with even higher percentages for specific groups including women, people with disabilities, and transgender people. (2) That's a shockingly high figure for an issue that affects both individual mental health and the wider public health.
One of the biggest influences on how we feel about ourselves and our bodies is the sociocultural environment in which we live, because that's where we get the images we have in our head about how we are 'supposed' to look. Western society is built many different systems of oppression that are all linked together, including capitalism, sexism, racism, and ableism, all of which have a vested interest in promoting body shame, and stigmatizing fat bodies or bodies that society deems unattractive or unacceptable. Unsurprisingly, then, the same study by the Women and Equalities Committee in the UK found that there were some issues that came up repeatedly when people were asked what contributes to their body dissatisfaction:
Social media use in particular has been repeatedly linked to poor body image and the desire to undergo cosmetic surgery, because of what's known as 'social comparison', i.e. comparing yourself negatively to friends or celebrities who have what society deems an 'ideal' body type, even though these images are often edited, or at the very least highly curated. Moreover, social media is also a place where people are often bullied and harassed for how they look, and exposed to content that promotes diet culture and eating disorders. A recent internal study by Facebook of their Instagram platform found that they made body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teenage girls, and that the social comparison that is built into the DNA of the site could be a cause of several mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders. (3)
There is also research to suggest that your early family environment has an impact on your body image, for example if your caregivers - even without meaning to be - were critical of your appearance while you were growing up, or if they made you feel like certain parts of your body were ugly, unacceptable, dirty, or not to be touched, all of this could impact on the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that you have about your body, which can in turn influence your sex life. (4, 5, 6) Other life experiences or psychological factors that can be associated with negative body image include puberty, ageing, disability or physical injury, sexual trauma, menopause, giving birth, low self-esteem, and perfectionism.
If you experience body image concerns, you'll already know that it's something that can severely affect your quality of life. Some common symptoms include:
The negative effects of poor body image can last your whole life, and even be passed on to future generations, unless you take steps to combat it. To that end, several movements have developed that are rejections of and rebellions against sociocultural body ideals, including body positivity, and its younger sibling, body neutrality.
Body positivity is a movement that challenges the unrealistic sociocultural ideals of beauty, bodies, and appearance generally, and aims to build self-esteem by encouraging self-acceptance and self-love. (7) It's a highly popular movement, encouraging people (mainly women) to cast off their body concerns, and, whether via social media or out in the world, to present themselves unedited, unfiltered, living their lives in their real bodies without shame, embracing body hair, bellies, stretch marks and cellulite as normal and healthy ways of expressing their self-love. Unfortunately, some aspects of the body positivity movement have strayed from their original intentions, and have been criticized for not being inclusive of all bodies, genders, and ethnicities. Another criticism of body positivity has been that aiming for a purely positive view of your body is unrealistic, requires a lot of effort, and encourages people to spend too much time thinking about their bodies when that might be hard for them.
Enter: body neutrality. If being 'body positive' feels too far out of reach, or you think it might require you to spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about your body, body neutrality (also known as body acceptance) might be an easier way to approach your negative body image, because it mainly encourages you not to think too much about your body and how it looks at all. Body neutrality is about coming to accept your body for exactly what it is, focusing on the things it does for you without you even noticing, like breathing, blinking, and keeping your heart going - as well as its other qualities that have nothing to do with aesthetics. It takes the pressure off from having to love the parts of yourself that you might currently find challenging to love. This is a much more inclusive approach, because it focuses on inner beauty, and it requires you to value and respect your body for what it is, and not on how it looks. For some people, body neutrality will be enough, and others may decide to pursue body positivity; the choice is completely individual.
If you're ready to stop letting the way you feel about your body prevent you from living your life to the fullest, there are some concrete things you can do to help shift your perspective and work towards a healthy body image.
We can often be so much harder on ourselves than we are on other people, and this is particularly present when it comes to thinking about our bodies. If you love someone, it's likely that you care so much more about their happiness than you do about the way they look - so why do we not apply that same care and compassion to ourselves? Positive self-talk is something that can be done gently, in small doses, because it can feel alien to a lot of people, especially those who grew up with negative beliefs about their bodies. And if this seems a bit too 'new-age' or unscientific, rest assured that it actually works; a recent meta-analytic review of the effect of stand-alone interventions on body image found that talking about your body in a less negative way - both to others, and to yourself - leads to improvements in body image. (8)
To develop this self-compassion, the first step is to try to notice, without judgement, the way that you talk to yourself about your body, and then slowly start to replace negative statements with statements of gratitude or neutrality. So instead of thinking 'I hate the way my stomach looks today', a statement of gratitude might be: 'I'm grateful to my stomach for digesting the food I need to live/to my hands for letting me paint/to my arms that help me take care of others'. And a neutral statement might be acknowledging the things that bother you without judgement, like: 'My knees find it hard to go down stairs,' or 'I have trouble raising my left arm above shoulder height.' You could also try incorporating some affirmations, if that feels manageable for you. For example, when you experience negative thoughts or feelings about your body, you can use an affirmation like: 'I deserve to experience pleasure and joy. No one that I love or who loves me cares about how I look.'
We've already seen how damaging social media (and the media in general) can be when it comes to promoting unrealistic beauty ideals, so one of the best things you can do is what psychologists call 'protective filtering', which is really just about being aware of the kinds of images, messaging, and social accounts that make you feel bad about yourself, and filtering them out as much as possible. Now, that's not to say that you should avoid every situation, person, or TV show that might possibly make you feel bad - that's not realistic, or healthy - but it is possible to place a limit your exposure to those things that make you feel 'less than'. Go through the accounts you follow on social media and unfollow or mute anyone - friends and family included! - that consistently make you feel bad about your body shape.
The medical community has a lot to answer for in terms of how much emphasis has been placed on body mass index (BMI) as a measure of health. While there are health implications associated with obesity, BMI on its own is not a reliable measure of health and is particularly unreliable when it comes to pregnant women, athletes, and older people. Not only that, but the BMI definitions were developed in reference to a white population, and don't take ethnic diversity into account, so can overestimate risks for Black communities, and underestimate risk for Asian communities. (10, 11) So the key takeaway here is that, rather than relying on measures of health that overemphasize weight, place the focus instead on developing a healthy lifestyle overall, including your mental, cardiovascular, emotional, and sexual health.
Next - focus on enjoyment. This is relevant to all things, but particularly when it comes to exercise (and sex!) you're much less likely to want to do it if you're telling yourself that you 'should', because then it becomes a chore - and we all know how much we hate doing chores. Similarly, if you're using exercise as a way to punish yourself for your diet or to 'work off' the food you've eaten, your unconscious mind is likely to rebel against you, and you'll find ways to put it off, because why would you want to do something that makes you unhappy or that you don't enjoy? So ditch the treadmill and find a form of physical activity that you actually enjoy - there's research to suggest that yoga, dance, and sport could prompt positive body image, but there's no need to be limited to those. (11, 12) The important thing is to find something that brings you pleasure, lets you express yourself, and allows you to lose yourself in the flow of the movement, that makes you aware of your body in a non-objectified way, and helps you to feel competent and at one with yourself.
Sensate focus, and the mindful, non-judgmental attitude that it helps you to develop towards your body, is one of the most effective techniques used in sex therapy all over the world. It was designed to help reduce sexual anxiety by focusing your attention only on the sensations that you notice in your body (in terms of temperature, pressure, and texture), so that you can turn down the volume on your inner critic and allow your body to respond naturally. You might notice some similarities between sensate focus and body neutrality, because neither approach asks you to love your body, only to pay attention to it and respect it, without judgement. This is how sensate focus can help you improve your body image, by helping you become more connected with your body, viewing it less as an enemy to be conquered, and more as a friend to be treated with kindness, patience, compassion, and respect. Blueheart uses Sensate Focus as its main technique to help take the stress out of sex. Take the assessment and start a free 14-day trial today, so you can see if it works for you.