Is your body image hurting your sex life?
Kelly is a mom, not a super-model. Two nine-month pregnancy stints carrying each of her daughters and dozens of hours spent in labor and delivery weren’t easy on her body, and she has the stretch marks to prove it. But even so, it’s her body, and it’s a good body. She should be proud of it, comfortable in it, and able to enjoy it in every way, including sexually. And yet, Kelly struggles with this, as do many women like her.
Studies show that over 80% of women say that they don’t like what they see in the mirror. In my practice I have spoken with women who are so ashamed of their bodies that they have been brought to tears simply by trying on clothes. Can these women just “flip a switch” and turn off that negative body image when it’s time to undress for a romp in bed? Not at all. In fact some women tell me that poor body image has occasionally caused them to avoid sex altogether.
Research on body image shows that women who deal with shame and anxiety about their body tend to avoid physical closeness and often experience less sexual satisfaction. But women who rate themselves as more satisfied with their body image report more positive sexual experiences. Their secret? These women are generally less self-conscious and less concerned about the importance of physical attractiveness.
Think about it: If you are in a sexual moment, you’re most likely to enjoy it if you’re focused on what’s happening right now, rather than “Does he notice my flabby arms?” or “My butt is so wiggly.”
These negative thoughts that we tell ourselves at the most inconvenient times may come from our childhood. Women who had mothers who were never satisfied with their bodies are more likely to feel the same way. These feelings can stick with us for the rest of our lives.
Other negative messages come from the media: a constant barrage of sound-bites and images that both give us unrealistic expectations of beauty and make us feel insecure about our own bodies. The images we see are full of thin, toned, tanned people. What we don’t see represented are bodies like our own, bodies dealing with the changes caused by pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.
I encourage women to look at other standards of beauty. You can start by finding clothes that you (not a fashion model) feel good in. You also need to celebrate all the ways in which your body is amazing instead of just worrying about the ways in which it falls short. Counter those feelings with thoughts of what your body does well: your soft stomach is a good place for a child to rest her head; your arms are strong enough to hold a baby in one while making a sandwich with the other; your legs let you chase a toddler around the house.
I also recommend doing exercise you enjoy. It can work wonders for your self image, even when it doesn’t actually lead to weight loss. Don’t worry about having a trim tummy. Instead, work toward making your body strong and competent. Women who exercise for fun or adventure are more likely to develop a better image than those who exercise to look good or lose weight.
The next step is to ditch the diet mentality! Restricting your caloric intake can lead to binge eating, which will only make you feel worse about yourself. So take a break from dieting for now. Instead, focus on building healthy eating habits. Start replacing junk food with healthy snacks. Learn to recognize the difference between physical and emotional hunger. Feeling satisfied by food that is good for you will boost positive feelings.
But perhaps the most important thing women need to learn to do is to turn off the negative body talk. How many conversations with your family, friends, and coworkers are about your diet, what you don’t like about your body, or how someone needs to lose five pounds? When someone starts talking about their body in a disparaging way, it’s time to change the subject. Try to limit your exposure to unrealistic images on TV, on the internet, and in shopping malls too. If necessary, pull the plug on media for a month or so.
You don’t have to be ashamed of your body or afraid of sex. Practice countering negative messages about your body with positive ones. Exercise for fun and nourish yourself with healthy foods. Learn to appreciate your body for what it is. When you do, you’ll find that not only will you feel a lot better about the woman in the mirror, but sex will become so much more satisfying.
Dr. Pomeroy’s article originally appeared on the JaxMomsBlog.com