Advice for those who struggle with body image issues in the bedroom with their partners.

A while back, Mar left this comment on a post about body image:

Have your negative body image issues ever affected your relationship with your romantic partner? This is what I am struggling with right now. I go through these cycles of feeling flabby, outright fat, you-name-it, totally unattractive. My partner loves my body irrespective of where in my body image cycle I am. But my body image issues affect me and by extension then him in terms of the physical aspects of the relationship. And it’s a huge issue I am not really sharing with him: I mean, who wants to constantly hear their partner talk themselves down?

We ended up corresponding via e-mail a bit, and she added this important point to her original question:

I also often wonder what could be the appropriate role for the partner, if there is one, that could help me fight through my issues – beyond just loving me no matter what I happen to think of my body. I sometimes suspect that my negative body image is rather unaffected by what my partner says about my body, meaning even seeing him clearly be attracted to me and having him verbally reassure me doesn’t seem to often get me out of my body-loathing funk if that’s where I am at in my body image cycle – which is a bit puzzling to me since I would think my partner to be the main person for whom I would want to have a flatter stomach, leaner legs, or whatever other narrow images I have in my head.

I have grappled with these same issues for years. For as long as I’ve been sexually active, in fact. And they’ve eased up as I’ve gotten older and more self-aware – and especially as the love in my marriage has ripened and grown – but they still flare up now and again. So I’m happy to share some of the ideas and actions that have helped me most.

First and foremost, in many, many cases, we are the only ones who expect our own bodies to resemble the socially-sanctioned version of “sexy.” Even though the images of women created by mass media are of a narrowly-defined type of beauty, the people who love us – be they men or women or both or otherwise – really can see past that. On an individual basis especially, our lovers love us AS us … not as a substitute for a hot celebrity bod.

Furthermore chemistry isn’t all about body shape, firmness, and proportions. You are sexually compatible with another human being because of hormones, emotions, and the intricacies of intimate interaction. Yes, the surface-level considerations of how your body looks play a part initially. But once you have connected based on visual attraction and moved on to sexual interactions, it’s really more about what your body can DO and how your body interacts with your lover’s body that have lasting meaning.

Another thing that I bear in mind is that I need to trust that my husband tells me the truth. If he says he still loves me when I’m not loving myself, I should believe him. I don’t expect him to look like Daniel Craig. Why would I dismiss him when he says he doesn’t expect me to look like Penelope Cruz?

While these are fabulous ideas that make perfect sense intellectually, there are still times when drilling these reminders does nothing. Mar is right: Most of the time these painful body image barriers refuse to come down, even in the face of praise and affection and even outright lust. Intellectualizing and reasoning your way out of self-loathing CAN work, but sometimes it just won’t. I wish I had easy solutions, but the real bottom line is this: Just as you are unlikely to find true love with another human until you learn to accept your own humanity, you are unlikely to find lasting sexual spark with another human being until you learn to accept your own body. And I definitely don’t have quick tips or bullet points for that. The whole blog is about THAT. But I can tell you from personal experience that my own bedroom hang-ups have eased as my body image has improved, and that getting comfortable with myself was the only thing that made me become more confident and comfortable sexually.

If you struggle with feeling unattractive and it inhibits you sexually, I would encourage you to talk with your partner about it. I know that, “It’s not you, it’s me,” is a horribly cliched phrase, but it might benefit your partner to know that what you’re dealing with is internal and not triggered by something she/he/they has done wrong, or that your attraction to her/him/them has diminished. This can create a difficult dynamic, I know, but try to keep those lines of communication open. Eventually your partner will start to blame herself/himself/themself for infrequent or awkward intimacy, and then you’ll both get sucked into suffering.

Finally, it’s up to you to decide the role of your partner in bedroom-related body image barriers. Would it help to get a constant stream of positive verbal feedback about your sexiness? Would it help to receive more sensual messages through casual-but-intimate touch – kisses on the neck, caresses on the hip? Although the brunt is on you, your partner will likely want to help somehow, so give some thought to what would benefit you most.

Body image is intensely personal. Intensely. And that’s why it’s incredibly difficult to cope when your feelings about your own body affect your relationship with someone else’s body. There’s no easy way to overcome bedroom body image hang-ups, but working to do so over a longer time-line will benefit you, your partner, and your relationship immeasurably.

Image courtesy Giulia Di Sacco.

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