As a therapist specializing in eating disorders and sex, I know that relationships with our bodies are profoundly complicated. And in a culture that has a narrow definition of beauty and is fat-phobic, we can feel that our outward appearance reflects who we are. How you feel about how you look is a significant part of your identity, and when you feel bad about your body image, it can have negative implications for your sex life.
How Cultural Expectations Affect Body Image
You can parse out what our culture values by seeing what it celebrates. For instance, turning 18 or 21 in America is a big deal because you can now vote or drink alcohol, and you’re becoming an adult. However, a woman’s first period is considered private—or worse, shameful—and isn’t discussed at all. Women are taught from the onset of menstruation that it is a process that should be hidden at all costs, so girls grow up knowing menstruation as a painful curse rather than the power to create life.
Further, with our extremely digitized culture, most people see examples of sex long before they engage in it. So, rather than starting with a clean slate, teens grow up feeling that they know how sex should look, and try to imitate that rather than discover intimacy for themselves. This preconceived notion of how sex should look takes people out of the experience of their pleasure and instead makes them concentrate on conforming to a societal ideal.
Body Shame Is Hard—But Not Impossible—To Escape
The idea that sex should look a certain way—or the notion that that’s even possible—maintains traction because it’s based in shame. Everyone feels some shame about their body, attractiveness, amount or quality of sexual experience, and skill. So, rather than being vulnerable and experimenting with a partner, it’s much easier to accept and imitate society’s very vanilla, very hetero- and male pleasure-centric template for sex.
Shame affects women, especially, because our culture has enormous constraints on how the female form should look. Those who develop eating disorders will have more trouble in the bedroom, unfortunately. An eating disorder takes you out of your body because you are willing yourself not to feel hunger, which means you are disconnecting from your body. And, when you are in starvation mode, it’s nearly impossible to feel desire or sexual pleasure. When you focus on the many ways you don’t meet the societal ideal of beauty, you can’t focus on whether or not you like the activity at hand.
Good sex happens when two people know exactly what they want, communicate it to each other, create time to make their fantasies happen, and have some overlap of sexual interests. Unfortunately, not tuning into your sexual response system prevents this from happening.
Getting Past Shame
So, how do you get rid of the internal thoughts that bind you to shame? The first step is recognizing them as they arise. Instead of thinking about how you wish you had someone else’s body, when you see the person who has that body, start a conversation with yourself. When were you happiest with your body? And, during that time, did you still have complaints about your body? The answer is: probably. Our culture conditions us never to be satisfied with ourselves. So, know that even the person who inhabits that body is filled with insecurities or feels flawed. The next step is to cultivate a positive body image, which can take many different forms and is easiest if you work with a therapist.
Your capacity for sexual pleasure is vastly more limited when you focus on how your body looks, what you saw during porn, or whether or not your erection can last for hours during sex. When you can move beyond cultural expectations toward creativity and self-acceptance, your sex life will improve significantly. If you’d like help conquering shame and creating your best sex life, contact me to jump start your journey and see life-long results.
Bio: Dr. Nazanin Moali is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in the Los Angeles area. She works with various individuals to understand and improve their sexuality. Dr. Moali conducts personal consultation sessions in her Torrance and Hermosa Beach offices, or via a secure, online video-counseling platform. Click here to download the 101 Ways to Keep Your Relationship Hot checklist. Download her new ebook, How to Increase Your Libido – For Women, here.