When we conducted our Big Sex Survey, we were saddened—but not totally surprised—to see that many respondents struggled with body image issues that affected their sex lives.
One in three Gen Z and Gen X people who identified as women said that their body image made it difficult for them to enjoy sex; and these numbers rose to almost half of Millennial women. Almost one in five Senior women said the same.
Male-identifying people experienced issues with their body image too. Both Gen Z and Millennial men reported not feeling confident during sex, and having issues with their body image as well.
Although we didn’t have enough survey respondents who identified as non-binary to get an accurate reading on how body image issues affect gender-diverse individuals, the work done by organisations like Trans Hub tells us that these communities can struggle just as much—if not more so—with their body image.
While it’s relatively normal to sometimes wish that you could change minor things about yourself, for a lot of people body image issues can seriously affect the way they view themselves.
Today we’re going to talk about how body image can affect us in the bedroom, and what we can do about it; but we’re aware that this issue is bigger and deeper than we have space to discuss here. We’ve ended this piece with some further recommended reading for you, but we’re also keen to hear about your own experiences with body image and what works—or doesn’t work—to help you.
Talk to your partner about how you feel
If you’re in a relationship—or even if you’re just regularly hooking up with someone—and you find that your body image is affecting the way you feel when you’re with them, speak to them about it. (And if you don’t feel that your partner would be receptive to having a supportive conversation with you about body image, it may be time to give them the boot altogether!)
We suggest this for two reasons: the first is that if your partner can tell that you’re holding back during some situations, they may worry it’s because of them—and although you don’t necessarily need to share your body image issues to make your partner feel better about themselves, it may help your overall relationship to let them know that what’s going on isn’t about them specifically.
The second reason is that there may be something your partner can do, say, or change to make you feel better. This could be reassuring you that they love your body no matter what, or it could be something along the lines of understanding why you prefer to keep the lights low when you’re intimate or why you don’t like to have sex in a certain position.
Overall we always suggest that in a relationship, it’s kind to treat your partner the way you’d want to be treated. If you would want your partner to open up to you if they were struggling with their body image, so you could try to help or at least hear them out; we suggest giving them the opportunity to do the same for you. You deserve that kind of support.
Participate in what you do enjoy
Body image can sometimes make us lose interest in things we like. In this situation, our advice is to focus on the things you do like—make a list of them, if you have to—and bring them into the bedroom as much as possible.
If oral sex is something you’re not into right now, could you replace it with mutual masturbation like fingering or hand jobs? If you don’t feel comfortable getting on top of your partner during penetrative sex, are there other positions you could try that do make you feel comfortable? And if the thought of any sexual activity makes you feel anxious or uncomfortable, are there other forms of intimacy you could engage with? Watching or reading erotica with your partner, engaging in some ‘aural sex’, masturbating together, or even just giving each other massages and cuddles can be extremely fulfilling.
Take yourself out of your comfort zone where you can
That having been said, we want to encourage you to take yourself out of your comfort zone in ways that feel healthy and positive to you. This does not mean that you force yourself into doing things you don’t like in the hopes that you might grow to enjoy them! It means you find small ways to challenge your thoughts around sex and intimacy, and expand your own comfort levels in a way that feels right for you.
You don’t have to go all-out and start having wild, swinging sex under a spotlight. But if you’ve always felt more comfortable having sex in the dark, you could add some candles or a low, soft light to the room. If you feel nervous about receiving oral sex, you could leave your underwear on and allow your partner to kiss or touch around that area without removing them.
You can enlist your partner in supporting you on this, and be open with them about the kind of support you want. Would you prefer some gentle hand-holding and loving touches when you’re trying something new? Or would hearing your partner say, “Heck yeah, you look SO amazingly sexy right now!” do it for you? Think about what you’d like and verbalise it when you can.
Okay, so self-love practices can feel a bit hokey sometimes. It’s always so much easier to say, ‘love yourself!’ than it is to actually, you know, challenge and unpack what may be decades of messaging from society and the media that says your body isn’t the ‘right kind’ of body. But we do believe that some of the below suggestions have merit. Try the ones that feel right and comfortable for you, and see how you go.
Engage with new, positive forms of media
The media we consume can have a serious and palpable affect on the way we feel about our bodies. If we’re bombarded by images of people who look nothing like us and told that their bodies are aspirational, it’s no wonder why we examine our own bodies and think that we’re lacking.
Take a look at the media you consume—that’s television, films, social media, books, magazines, and even advertising—and cull everything that makes you feel bad about yourself. Delete those influencers, unsubscribe to that magazine, and block those ads. Then set yourself the task of replacing those forms of media with things that do make you feel good. This could mean following some new, body-positive Instagram accounts; reading books by people from your community or cultural group; or checking out some new magazines that don’t highlight celebrity diets or workout regimes.
You might find that this is a change you only want to make temporarily (those influencer accounts can be addictive, we get it) or it could be a long-term choice. Whatever it is, we encourage you to make it with your own well-being and happiness in mind.
Talk to a professional about it, where possible
Sometimes body image issues can get so big, and affect us so much, that we can’t handle them alone. Mental healthcare still has a deserved reputation for being expensive and inaccessible, but we like to think that it’s gotten a little better over the past few years—lockdowns, especially, made it much easier to access mental health support online or over the phone, something which can be really helpful to those living in more regional areas.
Speaking with a professional about your body image can mean that you have someone to hear you out in a confidential and private environment, where you can explore issues and topics that are important to you. You might want to talk about what you feel is at the heart of your body image, or you might just want some tips for handling future situations in which you feel negative or down on yourself.
Start by speaking with a GP, who can set you up with a mental healthcare plan—this is, basically, your ticket to seeing a mental health professional. Ask for a referral to someone who offers bulk billing if possible, and don’t be afraid to shop around and try out different professionals if the first one isn’t right for you.
Here are some suggestions for further reading on the topic of body image. This list is, of course, non-exhaustive!
- The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk
- Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
- Gross Anatomy, by Mara Altman
- The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, by Sonya Renee Taylor