Body image and sexuality—two of the biggest challenges for women (and of course for many men too). Put those two things together—worrying about body image in the context of sex—and the combination has the potential for major challenges. But if one, either, or both of these are a struggle for you, don’t worry—you are far from alone.

Body Image and SexualityYour appearance and your feelings about your body are challenged in just about every single thing you do. It’s hard to escape the pressure and expectations about what your body “should” look like that are sent your way literally all day every day by media and society.[1]

And we are impacted by those media messages and societal pressures, that’s for sure. As many as 97% of women[2] and 70-90% of men struggle with body dissatisfaction in one way or another.[3]

The thing is, body image plays a major role in your sexual relationship. And that makes sense, right? Sex is all about the body, so if you don’t feel great about yours, it’s going to be a little (or a lot) distracting and make the experience less enjoyable for not only yourself, but possibly for your partner as well.[4]

Let’s take a look at why body image matters in a sexual relationship and talk about some things you can do to feel better about both of these challenges—body image and sexuality.

Objectification Theory & Self-Objectification

You’ve probably heard of objectification? It’s the idea that a person is being treated as an object, something for the consumption of another person, rather than as a living, breathing, human.

We often think about objectification in terms of the “male gaze” or men cat-calling women. The focus is on a woman’s body and how it looks. And that may be how it started, but objectification has moved well beyond that now.

In media, women are objectified and sexualized constantly. And recent years have shown an increase in pressure for men to achieve an ideal body and they are often objectified in media as well (though still not nearly as much as women).[5]

You were probably pretty aware of that though, right?

Here’s where the biggest problem comes in. Objectification has become so common that we often start to allow our worth to be placed on our appearance.[6] We feel defined by our bodies and believe that we have to achieve some idealized standard of appearance in order to be “good enough” to be loved and valued by others.

And when we adopt that mindset of needing our bodies to measure up to certain standards, we start to objectify ourselves; this is known as self-objectification.[7]

Self-Objectification & Sex

When you self-objectify, it’s like stepping outside your body and trying to see it the way that you think others see it. Rather than living in your body, instead, it’s like you’re watching it and seeing what it looks like. You’re trying to imagine what others see (and maybe even what they’re thinking).

Self-Objectification and SexThis self-objectification habit creates a disconnect between your mind and your body so that you’re not aware of what you’re feeling and experiencing because you’re too busy watching. (More on self-objectification here.)

Can you see how this might then be problematic in the context of body image and sexuality?

Imagine that you’re in the middle of a sexual experience and your mind is on your belly and the weight you’ve recently gained there—maybe wondering whether your partner noticed. Or you’re thinking about whether you shaved sufficiently. Or any number of other concerns that are likely to whirl through your head if you’re concerned about body image and you’re self-objectifying.

Guess what your mind is not on then? It’s not paying attention to things like arousal and desire or to sexual sensations. You’re not noticing how you feel, you’re more worried about how you look. This is sometimes called “spectatoring.” You’re becoming like a spectator in the experience rather than an active participant.[8]

The thing is, awareness of sexual sensations is important to the sexual experience.[9] Being present and in the moment can play an important role in your sexual satisfaction and your ability to orgasm.[10] If you’re distracted, these things are less likely.

In short, self-objectification is going to direct your thoughts away from the feelings and connection you could otherwise be experiencing. In other words, it can be really bad for your sex life.

Body Dissatisfaction & Sex

And unfortunately, it’s not just self-objectification that can take a toll on your sexual well-being. Any sort of dislike relating to your body—shame, appearance anxiety, self-consciousness, body dissatisfaction—can negatively impact many areas of your sexual health.

Here are a few things that can happen:

  • Less sexual satisfaction (how much you enjoy your sexual relationship)[11]
  • Diminished sexual functioning (as in how your body responds—things like lubrication or orgasm)[12]
  • Hindered ability to form and maintain a strong relationship[13]
  • Lower arousal and desire[14]
  • Lower frequency of sex[15]
  • Decreased relationship satisfaction[16]
  • Less happiness and connection with the sexual relationship for your partner as well[17]

The sad truth is that this list could go on.

Basically, the way you feel about your body matters a LOT in your sexual relationship.

What to do to Improve Body Image & Sexuality

There is some good news though. There are some things you can do to make a difference in your body image and sexuality and the way they work together.

Here are two things you can do to improve your experience:

#1: Learn to see your worth separately from your appearance

Body Image and Sexual HealthOK, this may be easier said than done because we are so used to tying these two things together, but the more you can see yourself as worthy and good and not defined by your body, the more you will be able to enter into a sexual relationship ready and willing to be seen, both literally and figuratively.

You are not defined by what you look like. Your body is yours to live in and to feel all the feels of life. It is not someone else’s to look at and consume. Rather than trying to live up to idealized standards for weight or breast size or where your hair grows, instead, try to get comfortable with appreciating your body for what it is, what it can do, not what it looks like. When you can convince yourself of that, that your body is good and wonderful, no matter what it looks like, the less body shame and self-consciousness you are going to have.

Here is an article to help you learn how to stop feeling defined by your body and I also highly recommend this book if body image is a real challenge for you.

#2: Practice mindfulness

Learning to love your bodyMindfulness means two things—awareness (paying attention to what you’re feeling or what you’re sensing) and nonjudgment—noticing how you are feeling but not judging those feelings.[18] If you’re finding yourself falling prey to self-objectification in the sexual experience, try practicing mindfulness both in that moment and in your life regularly.

That means that when you start to recognize thoughts about your appearance creeping in, you notice them, but you let them float away. In that moment during sex when you start to feel anxiety about your body, turn your attention to what you are feeling rather than what you are thinking. That will help you refocus your brain and stay present in the sexual experience.

Here is an article that can help you learn to practice mindfulness during sex.

Sex as Intimacy

The thing about sex is that it is highly revealing of the self—not only is someone seeing you in a literal sense, but you are also showing up in a very vulnerable, intimate way and allowing them to “see” you in a figurative sense. So, you can see why your feelings about yourself matter so much. Feeling comfortable with yourself will allow you to enter into that sexual relationship in a way that’s going to promote real intimacy, connection, and satisfaction for both of you. Body image and sexuality may be challenging, especially together, but it’s worth the work of getting to a good place with them.

How to find a happy balance of body image and sexuality

[1] Coyne, S. M., Padilla-Walker, L. M., & Howard, E. (2013). Emerging in a digital world: A decade review of media use, effects, and gratifications in emerging adulthood. Emerging Adulthood1(2), 125-137.


[3] Quittkat, H. L., Hartmann, A. S., Düsing, R., Buhlmann, U., & Vocks, S. (2019). Body Dissatisfaction, Importance of Appearance, and Body Appreciation in Men and Women Over the Lifespan. Frontiers in psychiatry10, 864.

[4] Price, A. A., Leavitt, C. E., McCann, K. G. Y., Kunzler, L., & Holmes, E.K. (2022) Body Image & Sexual Well-Being: A Dyadic Examination of Body Image and Sexual Inhibition, Obsession, and Harmony

[5] Buote, V. M., Wilson, A. E., Strahan, E. J., Gazzola, S. B., & Papps, F. (2011). Setting the bar: Divergent sociocultural norms for women’s and men’s ideal appearance in real-world contexts. Body image8(4), 322-334.

[6] More Than a Body:

[7] Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly21(2), 173-206.

[8] Trapnell, P. D., Meston, C. M., & Gorzalka, B. B. (1997). Spectatoring and the relationship between body image and sexual experience: Self-focus or self-valence?. Journal of Sex Research34(3), 267-278.

[9] Leavitt, C. E., Lefkowitz, E. S., & Waterman, E. A. (2019). The role of sexual mindfulness in sexual wellbeing, Relational wellbeing, and self-esteem. Journal of sex & marital therapy45(6), 497-509.

[10] Leavitt, C. E., Maurer, T. F., Clyde, T. L., Clarke, R. W., Busby, D. M., Yorgason, J. B., … & James, S. (2021). Linking sexual mindfulness to mixed-sex couples’ relational flourishing, sexual harmony, and orgasm. Archives of Sexual Behavior50(6), 2589-2602.

[11] Calogero, R. M., & Thompson, J. K. (2009). Potential implications of the objectification of women’s bodies for women’s sexual satisfaction. Body Image, 6(2), 145-148. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2009.01.001

[12] Steer, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2008). The role of self-objectification in women’s sexual functioning. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(3), 205-225.

[13] Ackard, D. M., Kearney‐Cooke, A., & Peterson, C. B. (2000). Effect of body image and self‐image on women’s sexual behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders28(4), 422-429.

[14] Fredrickson, B. L., & Roberts, T. A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of women quarterly21(2), 173-206.

[15] Meltzer, A. L., & McNulty, J. K. (2010). Body image and marital satisfaction: evidence for the mediating role of sexual frequency and sexual satisfaction. J Fam Psychol, 24(2), 156-164. doi:10.1037/a0019063

[16] Zurbriggen, E. L., Ramsey, L. R., & Jaworski, B. K. (2011). Self- and Partner-objectification in Romantic Relationships: Associations with Media Consumption and Relationship Satisfaction. Sex Roles, 64(7-8), 449-462. doi:10.1007/s11199-011-9933-4

[17] Price, A. A., Leavitt, C. E., McCann, K. G. Y., Kunzler, L., & Holmes, E.K. (2022) Body Image & Sexual Well-Being: A Dyadic Examination of Body Image and Sexual Inhibition, Obsession, and Harmony

[18] Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry18(4), 211-237.

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