Co-author: Dr. Meghan M. Gillen
We recently worked on a review article about body image and sexual well-being. Although body image has been a central focus of our research for a combined 35 years, we haven’t sat down to read everything we can find about links between body image and sex in recent years. However, as we worked on this paper – reading, writing, evaluating – we found ourselves thinking, “This makes so much sense! It is so obvious! Why don’t people talk about this more?”
So, here goes. We’re going to talk about it here. Because although we’re sure we’re not the only people that believe that body satisfaction is important, we also know that some consider body image concerns “superficial.” But, maybe everyone believes that a rewarding, positive sex life is worth striving for. So, how are they related?
Before jumping into the research, it’s worth noting that there are not a lot of studies that explore the links between body image and sexual well-being. (Sexual well-being is an umbrella term we’re using to encompass experiences, satisfaction, communication, and health-related behaviors.) Most of the research has examined how women feel about their bodies in relation to their sex lives. And, the little research that does exist presents a pretty clear picture.
First of all, although marriage is often thought to be the death knell of sexual frequency, research actually suggests that married folks have more frequent sex than their single peers. And, we’ve found one reason why this might be. Perhaps not surprisingly, research suggests that individuals in romantic relationships have less body image self-consciousness during sex and less difficulty achieving orgasm. After all, if you don’t feel like getting undressed…well, it’s hard to have sex with all of your clothes on. Although it’s hard to know which is the chicken (body satisfaction?) and which is the egg (sexual frequency?), it’s likely that a cyclical relationship exists between body image and sex. The more comfortable you feel about your body, the more likely you are to seek out sexual experiences, and the more likely you are to feel comfortable in your own skin (and out of your clothes).
Women who are satisfied with their bodies also seem to be more willing to try new sexual experiences. This may include a willingness to have sex with the lights on or…. use your imagination! Further, women with relatively high body satisfaction are more willing to initiate sex and seem to have a higher sex drive.
On the flip side, women who are more dissatisfied with their bodies seem less comfortable communicating with their partners about sex. This may contribute to their dissatisfaction in the bedroom, but more troubling, it may also contribute to unsafe sexual behaviors. Because, inherently, safe sex requires communication – about contraception and even HIV status. Women with poor body image have even been found to be less willing to demand condom use from their partners.
A theme that runs through these findings is the importance of women’s sense of agency when it comes to their sex lives. When women feel satisfied with their physical selves, they seem to experience a greater sense of general self-worth that translates into a greater enjoyment of and engagement in physically intimate acts.
A fellow body image researcher, Thomas Cash, has referred to sex as “taking a social-evaluative risk.” Sex tends to involve baring all in the most literal sense. However, it should be noted that the majority of this research does not consider women’s actual physical appearances or weight status, but their perceptions of their bodies (i.e., their body image). These perceptions are influenced by the culture that women (and men) reside in and the value placed on women’s appearance, but they are malleable. Research increasingly presents possibilities for increasing body positivity. Improving women’s — and most likely men’s — body image has consequences for not only their sense of self, but their sexual well-being.