How does the way you feel about your body affect your sex life? Here, women share their honest thoughts, and sex experts provide some insight into what’s really going on.
“I love that feeling of being so naked and intimate with someone after sex,” a friend recently told me after I asked if she ever felt self-conscious in those bare moments. “I probably feel at my most beautiful and it reminds me that I really like my body,” she added with an unwavering matter-of-fact confidence. Although I know it wasn’t right to be astonished by her words – I wish every woman felt this good about herself – the truth is that I don’t know many women, including myself, who can honestly say they think the same. In fact, I’d actually argue that the relationship a woman has with her own body is often put to the test when it comes to sex. And, in turn, this must surely affect our sexual desire and enjoyment, right?
For me, it works both ways, depending on a given day. If I’m feeling good about my body – perhaps I’m glowing after a morning run, or I’m at that very horny stage of my cycle – my body confidence reaches Aphrodite levels before, during and after sex. However, if I’m having a day where I’m feeling a bit bloated or particularly self-critical, I develop negative feelings about my body that only intensify during sex – so, even if I want to have it, I avoid approaching it altogether.
I recently realised this after walking away from having sex with a guy I’d found very attractive because my jeans felt uncomfortably tight after a week of eating out. That was literally the one thing that put me off. I didn’t feel my ‘best’ physical self, and I didn’t want that to spiral. Considering I’d been a single woman in a long, lonely, wintry lockdown, this act of self-denial spoke volumes. A few days later, I saw an Instagram post that continued the tricky conversation.
“Last week I slept with a guy for the first time since June 2020,” wrote an anonymous woman on the Lockdown Love Stories account, after saying she’d battled with liking her body and had finally reached a point of accepting herself in lockdown. “When we finished, he poked my stomach and said ‘quarantine belly’,” she continued. “I hate the fact that now I’ve given him the power to make me not want to eat, to want to workout everyday, to weigh myself every morning. I guess the truth is he’ll never know that every time I’m naked his words scream in my head.”
This is, of course, body shaming at its most cutting, and it makes my blood boil that this woman had to experience this. But, sadly, her words resonate because, ultimately, they pose the question: is the discomfort and negativity we sometimes experience in our bodies during sex about the other person’s expectations and judgement of our bodies rather than our own? Do we give them this power?
“When we feel negative about our body image at any given moment, it can result in a sense of paranoia about others’ perceptions of our bodies, of how we look to others, and result in us assuming others may be sharing our negative thoughts about our bodies,” Dr. Steven Mahan, a clinical psychologist at The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, tells Stylist. “This, in turn, understandably affects our willingness to be naked and show our body and be sexually intimate with others.”
“Media, the film industry and advertisers have a lot to answer for regarding this anxiety,” Billie Quinlan, co-founder of women’s sexual wellness app, Ferly, adds. “It’s incredibly hard to be fully present in the moment when our minds are distracted, worrying about whether our partners are going to judge our bodies or reject us once we ask for our needs to be met. Yet being present is an essential state of mind if we’re to fully experience our pleasure.”
Sharing her own experience, Kate*, 33, says: “My negative relationship with my body has always affected my sex life. When I was in a longterm relationship, I knew that my partner thought I’d put on weight (which I had). I felt less sexy and not at all confident, and that in turn made him not want to have sex with me – which made me feel even worse.”
After breaking up, Kate started having casual sex with someone who complimented her body and wanted to have a lot of sex with her: “I’ll admit, it made me like my body more and feel sexier. I do think it is to do with the partner for me. I know I should be able to feel good about myself, but I need it to come from somewhere else. Growing up, I always assumed I was horrific because of the boobs and vaginas in the media – and then there was porn. However, I am more accepting of my body now, but it’s taken over 30 years.”
Suze, also 33, feels similarly: “In the throes of passion, I do usually feel confident, but it also depends on the partner’s reaction to me. Like, if they have positive affirmations or compliment my body. Both verbally and physically – you can tell if that desire is there and that in turn makes me feel confident and sexy. But, when I think about it rationally, I know that a partner could not give a fuck about a squidgy belly.”
When it comes to being naked after sex, Suze says that she always becomes more critical of her body: “I wouldn’t just lay there tit-naked – I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I never want them to touch my stomach because I don’t like it. And I don’t like walking around the room naked even though I’ve had sex with them two minutes before.”
For Ally, 31, she generally feels good during sex but becomes more self-aware in specific situations: “To my surprise, I usually become much less self-conscious about my body during sex. I know we’re both just happy to be there and our brains are just screaming “OMG THEY’RE NAKED THIS IS FANTASTIC”. I don’t assume they’ll be scrutinising my body the way I do when I’m alone at home. And if they are… ‘BYE!’ The only time I feel self-conscious is if I’m with a guy and I’m on top. I can’t look them in the eye. But that’s maybe less about bodies and more about feeling vulnerable?”
Clearly, the way you feel about your body can really affect your sex life. A 2016 study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health found that dissatisfaction with one’s body predicted decrements in desire, arousal and even orgasm. And, in a recent study of the state of women’s sex lives, Ferly reported that 30% of its surveyed users experience anxiety before, during or after sex. Then there’s the omnipresent issue of porn: a study published by the Journal of Health Psychology last year found “compelling evidence” that watching pornography is associated with negative sexual body image.
It’s not OK to deprive ourselves of good sex because of this, so how do we try and overcome these negative thoughts and feelings?
“Loving our body for what it does, rather than focusing on how we feel that we look ‘in comparison’ is a great tool for celebrating our bodies,” sex therapist Kate Moyle says. “Daisy Buchanan and I discussed this on my podcast. Building a nurturing relationship with our bodies and getting to know ourselves both sensually and sexually can help to grow our self-confidence, and it can help better equip us with the tools and information to tell our partners what it is exactly that we like and don’t like in that moment.”
“Where possible, be open with your partner about how you feel,” adds Dr. Mahan. “It is important to remember that our own negative criticism of ourselves is rarely shared with others. Mindfulness meditation can also help you to become more aware of your negative thought processes in the moment and help to protect and boundary negative thoughts. Being more mindful of our judgements will then make space for a more compassionate, self-loving narrative. And meeting with a psychologist to explore the root of our negative body image will be helpful for those with chronic negative feelings.”
Considering the narrative we’ve always been fed about women’s bodies and sex, it’s little wonder that this is where many of us are at. It would be naïve to simply say we need to love our bodies more to get the pleasure we deserve out of sex. Self-love isn’t always easy. But the power to feel beautiful is ours for the taking. Try not to let go of the reins.
If you’re struggling with your body image and having concerns about your eating, Beat is a charity that provides help. Call the helpline on 0808 801 0677, visit the website, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Name changed at contributor’s request