Body image, like sexuality, is one of those very broad terms that most of us use without taking time to question what we mean when we say it. Most social and scientific research on body image focuses on how we think and feel about the shape and weight of our bodies, but body image can incorporate much more than that, including:
- The value we put on physical appearance (our own and other peoples)
- How we experience our bodies (what happens when we look in the mirror, touch ourselves, smell ourselves, etc...)
- How we imagine our body looks
- How we imagine other people look at our bodies
And as with sexuality, body image is completely entwined with social ideals and norms of beauty that are always tied to a particular time and a particular place. There is no objective "ideal" body shape, size, or look. There is no "right" way a body should move or smell. Body image is inseparable from a particular society's understanding of race, gender, and class, to mention just a few social constructs that intersect with body image. While arguably the impact of body image is experienced by most of us in deeply personal ways, it's something that is social and socially constructed. None of us are born hating our bodies, it's something we learn.
Body image and sexuality are often thrown together in the media, but what do we know about the relationship between sexuality and body image?
Body Image Can Impact SexualityWhen we think about body image and sexuality, we tend to think about it as a fairly simple relationship: If you grow up with positive messages about your body, you'll be more comfortable with it. You'll also likely be more comfortable having sex, and therefore have better sex. If you feel bad about your body, the opposite will be true.
But it isn't that simple. Our body image and our sexuality can impact each other in unexpected ways. Consider a study that examined the connection between body image and risky sexual practices which found a notable gender difference (which they limited to just two options, male and female). The study found that while men with more positive body image were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, women with more positive body image were less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
So a positive body image can have different effects on different people, and the relationship between sexuality and body image is not so straightforward.
Sexuality Can Impact Body ImageSince the 1960s, feminist therapists and sex educators have been working with women to help them have more positive sexual experiences, specifically helping them learn how to sexually satisfy themselves and teach their partners how to sexually satisfy them. One of the things this work, and the many books it has spawned, reveals is the way that sexual exploration and sexual behavior can have a positive impact on body image.
Positive body image and sexual satisfaction do not always come togetherMany people assume that those with positive body image reap the rewards in the bedroom. But the connection between the two is more complicated.
A study of women age 35 to 55, for example, showed that poor body image was related to a reduction in sexual desire and sexual activity. But the same study found that when the women were having sex, their satisfaction was very high. A substantial 72 percent of women in the study reported being physically and emotionally satisfied in their sexual relationship, and 71 percent reported general sexual satisfaction.
Body image is general--sexual satisfaction is specificOne possible explanation for the above finding is that body image doesn't account for the unique and personal experience of having sex. Some people may be shy and self-conscious about their bodies when they are out in the world, but they may be uninhibited and comfortable while having sex with a partner they trust. Thus, a woman who is bombarded with messages that her aging body is no longer beautiful may feel the weight of that through a decrease in how "sexy" she feels or how often she wants sex. But when she's having sex, the satisfaction may be unrelated to her body image.
- Koch, P., Mansfield, P., Thurau, D., Carey, M. "Feeling Frumpy": The Relationships Between Body Image and Sexual Response Changes in Midlife Women, Journal of Sex Research, Vol 42(3), Aug 2005.
- Gillen, M., Lefkowitz, E., Shearer, C. Does Body Image Play a Role in Risky Sexual Behavior and Attitudes? Journal of Youth and Adolescence, February, 2006.
- Kliger, L. & Nedelman, D. Still Sexy After All These Years? : The 9 Unspoken Truths About Women's Desire Beyond 50, Perigee, 2006.
- Tiggemann, M. Body image across the adult life span: stability and change, Body Image, 1(1), January 2004