The notion of body image has to do with how we feel emotionally about our appearance rather than how others view us or how we look objectively (height, weight, eye and hair color). It’s a complex and many-colored concept that can be affected by things like past experiences (your mother's long-ago comment about your “cute pudge,” for example, or, more difficult, sexual abuse), by cultural norms, by physical disease or injury, and by our own level of confidence and self-esteem.
According to researcher Marta Meana, Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, in her talk at a recent International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH), negative body image is the third most common “disincentive to sex” for married women—even if we enjoy sex; even if we might feel like it at the moment. A negative body image is pervasive and potent. Many of us are embarrassed about our bodies to the extent that those feelings invade our most intimate relationships. Case in point: the woman whose husband, in 22 years of marriage, had never seen her naked body.
Granted, it takes a stout disposition to feel confident about our bodies in the face of our youth-crazed, celebrity-obsessed, skinny-jeans culture. Even when advertisers target a “mature” demographic, the models look like 30-year-olds with graying temples. The mantra that “30 is the new 50” perpetuates that unrealistic image against which real people like ourselves, with cellulite, love handles, saddlebags, sagging breasts, and fatty backs stand no chance.
However, for those of us who do manage to feel good about the way we look, it seems that a positive body image is strongly linked to more frequent and more satisfying sex. In at least one recent study, researchers at the University of Austin found “significant positive relationships between sexual functioning, sexual satisfaction, and all body image variables.” Body image variables included things like weight concern, physical condition, and “cognitive distractions during sexual activity”—those irritating thoughts about our bodies that invade our intimate moments.
Another study of older women found that those who perceived themselves as less attractive also reported a decline in sexual activity. (They did, however, report that sex was still satisfying when they did engage in it.)
As we age, then, we’re confronted with an opportunity and a challenge. While we may be more accepting, mature, and confident, we’re also experiencing physical changes that are deemed undesirable by our culture. We can enjoy our evolving maturity and freedom, or we can cop to the cultural myth that labels aging unattractive and unsexy.
If you find yourself distracted by thoughts of your midriff rolls during sex or have the urge to dress--and undress!--in the closet, try these remedies:
- Get naked in private. Walk around nude. Familiarity with your naked body might help you become more comfortable with it.
- Get fit. No matter the size of your jeans, exercise makes you look and feel better. It’s also a good way to become more aware of your body—and maybe more appreciative of how well it works.
- Think positive. A survey conducted by Glamour magazine with Ann Kearney-Cook, PhD, revealed that most women think about their bodies negatively every, single day. And sometimes these thoughts are shockingly negative. This is powerful negative reinforcement. Be aware of your negative thinking and make an effort to break the cycle.
- Practice acceptance. Self-confidence is a turn-on all by itself. There’s nothing sexier than a woman who is comfortable in her own skin.
While making love with my partner I worried that he would see a hair here, or a flabby spot there, and be turned off. I noticed that he was never self-conscious about a skin blemish or when he gained a few pounds. So I started copying him and concentrated more on the sexual pleasure I felt. I began enjoying sex a lot more, and he noticed. He said it made him more excited, and the result? A great new circle of passion and sex.
from Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era, 2005, Boston.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.