When a Negative Body-Image Blocks Sexual Pleasure

sexual pleasure

Sex brings our bodies onto the center stage of our own awareness and the awareness of our spouse/partner. For this reason, our relationship to our body (how we feel and think about our body in general, as well as how we think and feel about particular aspects of our body) is highly relevant to whether we experience sexual pleasure or whether sex is something that is, at best, tolerated for the benefit of a loved one.

Many of the individuals and couples I’ve worked with have a love-hate relationship with their body. It isn’t hard to fathom why this might be the case: Throughout our lives we’ve been inundated with images of what beauty and sexiness is supposed to look like, even if the masses don’t live up to these manufactured versions of physical or sexual attractiveness. From an early age these messages set up residence in our psyches where they exert an enormous influence on our self-esteem and body-image. Rarely do we challenge the veracity of the beauty/sexy prototypes force-fed to us. Instead, they take hold of us and become the unreachable, internalized ideals that taunt and mock us.

“I remember as a kid seeing these beautiful women in my mother’s magazines and on television. I would watch my parents’ faces as they looked at these thin, gorgeous men and women, and I realized that beauty equaled power. I always wanted to be like them, but my genetic makeup had its own agenda. It took me many years to accept that my short and chunky stature wasn’t going to change, no matter how many hours I spent at the gym…” ~ Marie, age 37

“To this day I have to have sex with the lights off. My wife never did anything to make me feel this way; in fact, she’s always been encouraging and supportive of my struggles with body image. She says she loves my body, but I guess her love hasn’t undone my disdain for how I look.” ~ Randy, age 32

The above quotes aren’t the feelings of a subset of individuals who’ve been abused or traumatized as children and subsequently struggle with body image issues as a result. While childhood physical and sexual abuse can obviously lead to complex, negative reactions about one’s body and sexuality, the focus here is on the societal messages we’re all inundated with throughout our lives—messages that set into motion a wide range of self-image conflicts that can negatively impact sexual intimacy and sexual pleasure.

Blocks to Sexual Pleasure: Be Aware of the Comparison Trap

So much unnecessary suffering occurs when we compare ourselves to others. It’s always a slippery slope when our self-esteem is contingent upon feelings of superiority whenever we compare ourselves to someone else. Why is this so problematic? One reason is that there will always be someone who is taller, thinner, more fit, stronger, richer, more engaging, funnier, etc. So sooner or later, your feelings of superiority will hit a wall and you’ll be left feeling inferior.

And getting a boost in the self-esteem department because you perceive yourself as somehow better than or outdoing another person is a hollow victory, like chasing your own tail. When this dynamic is at work, you’ll always have to be vigilant of how others are doing, a continual monitoring of another person’s successes or failures in order to qualify yourself as legitimate. Talk about giving your power away to another person!

Yet even if you realize the futility of self-other comparisons as a pathway to feeling good about yourself, it’s difficult not to engage in this process at some level, especially when it comes to our relationship with our bodies and physical appearance. This comparison trap may be conscious and deliberate (“I’m more attractive than the new neighbor”) or so automatic you don’t even realize it’s occurring. This automated comparison occurs between what we look like (our perceptions of ourselves) and what we’ve been taught we should look like. Sadly, this leaves a significant number of people feeling ashamed of their bodies, even to the point of feeling uncomfortable when seen and touched by a loving/compassionate other.

Better Sex in Marriage: Overcoming Body-based Shame and the Impulse to Hide

The energy cloaked in shame is to retreat and hide, to not be seen by another. This might involve a psychological hiding of sorts (you are ashamed to disclose something about yourself to your partner, maybe a sexual fantasy you find exciting but fear your partner would judge you for) or a literal hiding (keeping a part of your body covered during sex because you’re certain your lover will react negatively to seeing this part of you). Inherent to this shame-based energy is the feeling that you are somehow wrong, defective, undesirable.

Shame’s mantra: To be seen is to endure humiliating rejection.

The impulse to hide involves a constrictive-restricting energy, a movement away from another—this energy is in direct opposition to the energy required for emotional and sexual intimacy. Intimacy is all about being seen by another. During sex, this clearly involves both emotional exposure as well as a literal exposure of one’s body. It is here that our body hang-ups interfere with the free-flowing openness required of intimacy.

Instead of relishing the pleasurable sensations of touch, a hand on your stomach or a rub of your leg becomes a cruel reminder of just how imperfect your body is. The body tenses up in these moments, a tension you may or may not be aware of. Your body’s tension-contraction response can be very confusing for your partner, and if s/he does not have an understanding of how your body-image struggles manifest, s/he may personalize what is happening and think that s/he is the problem (i.e., “You’re pulling away because you don’t desire me”).

A dangerous cycle can be set into motion where you then interpret your partner’s reaction (e.g., frustration; pulling away) to your body’s negative response (tensing; pulling away) as confirmation that your body is indeed flawed or not desired. This cycle can take on a life of its own and result in mounting misunderstandings, mutual hurt and frustration.

This is why communication is essential.

When one or both of you are susceptible to shame-based reactions during sexual/physical intimacy, it becomes important to share these struggles openly with one another. Remember, your body is constantly expressing itself during sex, whether you realize it or not. During sex your body communicates pleasure, arousal and excitement, and, when body-image conflicts are activated, displeasure, discomfort and a tension-withdrawal energy. Rather than allowing distressing body reactions to predominate without explanation, it can be helpful to describe why these reactions are occurring. Effective couples communication is an ongoing process and can circumvent painful misinterpretations and inaccurate mind-reading of each other’s experiences.

All best,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)