Struggling with a negative view of your body is something that most people experience in some capacity throughout their lives. Considering the advertisements around cosmetics, the power of diet culture, and the ever-growing presence of social media, it’s certainly not surprising. You may be well acquainted with how negative body image can affect your confidence, self-worth, and overall health. But did you know it could also affect your intimate relationships?
Insecurity about sex and the body can take shape in many forms. It may be feeling the vulnerability that comes with sex that causes it or the way you may feel your body is on full display. One very common insecurity among people of all gender identities is genital insecurity. Shame surrounding this part of the body is already incredibly common, so it’s no surprise that can translate into feeling inadequate.
If this is something you experience, it’s wise to take the next step of examining the implications for your life these insecurities may be causing. Learning more about a problem is the best way to begin resolving it, after all!
The Impact of Negative Body Image on Sex Positivity
You may think that how you feel about your body is just between you and your body, but the effects of a negative body image are far ranging. A negative body image can directly impact your relationship with a partner. In Becoming Cliterate, Dr Laurie Mintz reports that, “the worse a woman’s body image is, the more likely she is to avoid sexual situations and, when in them, to be more hesitant to tell a partner what she wants” (98). Yikes! Avoiding sex with your partner is not the route to connection. Research shows that “sex seems not only beneficial because of its physiological or hedonic effects … but because it promotes a stronger and more positive connection with the partner” (296). Avoiding sex because of body image issues will hurt your connection to your partner, in addition to depriving you of the physical and pleasurable benefits of sex. And hesitancy to voice your needs to your partner? That’s a surefire way to have less pleasurable and orgasmic sex, and leave your partner frustrated that they can’t read your mind.
It’s important to note that it doesn’t seem to matter what your body actually looks like. What’s most impactful (especially when it comes to your sex life) is not a number on the scale, your BMI, nor anything related to your actual body size: your thoughts and perceptions about your body have a unique impact on the sex you have. You’re not the only one who suffers because of a poor body image, your relationship does too.
Body image can also impact your sex life in the form of spectatoring. Dr. Mintz defines spectatoring as “watching yourself have sex, accompanied by an anxious, internal, self-conscious dialogue. The internal chatter can include worries about one’s body (“I wonder if he thinks I look fat”) or about one’s sexual performance”. Watching yourself have sex is not the same as being a present, engaged participant in sex. The self focus that defines spectatoring makes it harder to focus on the immersive, sensual side of sex. The pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson who coined the term in the 1970s reasoned that spectatoring during sex can create changes in your nervous system that actually block you from fully participating in the sex you’re having and that the accompanying distraction and muscle tension prevents orgasm and arousal.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Dr. Mintz also reports that women who have a “loud” self monologue during sex are less likely to orgasm and more likely to fake their orgasm. Studies have found men who are insecure about their genitals face similar problems, with less ability to focus on the sex they are having and more trouble staying aroused. So there you have it: a poor body image can lead to worse sex and less orgasms. What a buzzkill!
Here’s the light at the end of the tunnel: Dr.Mintz shares that “the more a woman likes her body, the more she initiates sex, the more sex she has, and the more orgasms she enjoys” (98). Research also shows the more positive a woman’s body image is, the more adventurous she is during sex and the more comfortable she is providing pleasure to her partner. A positive body image is a win-win in the bedroom: you orgasm more and have more sex, you and your partner are more likely to try out new things and explore, and your partner even gets more pleasure. All because of changing the way you think about your body.
Improving Body Image Through Art
Most people want to have great sex. Improving your negative body image is one way to do that- but even though it might not cost anything, it can be hard to figure out how to overcome those negative feelings. It’s not always as easy as waking up and deciding to love your body, unfortunately.
One of the greatest tools available to break down negative ideas and standards is learning, and using that knowledge to correct harmful beliefs. This absolutely connects to shame around sex and body image. Learning that there is no right way for a vulva or penis to look and understanding how your body works can break down shame or negative body image thoughts. It also empowers you with the facts to think critically about the messages surrounding your body, so you can decide for yourself what is helpful and true.
The combination of art and knowledge is currently a very popular way people are beginning to break down stigmas and insecurities surrounding sex and body image. From a London museum opening in 2019 focused entirely on vulva art and their history and anatomy, to countless instances of artists on social media having entire pages dedicated to vulva art. These different groups cite similar reasons behind their art: making vulvas known and breaking down stigma surrounding them. When people see themselves represented in art, they feel empowered to see the beauty in their own bodies, or at least begin to break down their own shame.
There are many independent artists who use their skills to spread body positivity and awareness to others. Artist and educator Hani works to combine sex positivity with learning through creativity with her brand, Gashtrays. She offers a class that allows participants to sculpt vulvas or penises out of clay, creating a literally hands-on learning environment. This event helps individuals recognize the unique beauty of all types of bodies, and through this recognition, connect with their own. The incorporation of sculpting into this event allows for it to be a fun experience in a relaxed environment, the way connecting with your body should be.
While the main focus of much of this art is specifically body image and sex related, it’s worth mentioning that engaging in art, whether you are creating it or observing it, has been linked to better moods and relieving stress and symptoms of depression. While art is not a substitute for a doctor, it can help you feel better about yourself, and be happier and healthier overall. This can help you reduce negative self talk and self image surrounding any part of your body. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a master, art can help you express feelings about your body and yourself. Body Positive art can be a life changing positivie expereince, leading to better sex, an improved self image, and a fun piece of decor. an experience worth trying.
It’s worth noting that how you feel about yourself and sex is a lifelong journey, and probably not one that’s going to change overnight. Don’t beat yourself up if things take time, you’ll get there eventually! During that time, here are some additional resources worth checking out that can help you on your journey.