Body Image and Your Sex Life

In today’s beauty-dominated media, particularly for women, you might expect that women who feel bad about their bodies also feel less sexually satisfied. Feeling that they don’t measure up to cultural ideals, women who aren’t willow-thin should, we might anticipate, feel inadequate in the bedroom.  Although obesity is linked to poorer health outcomes, normal or slightly overweight women who don’t fit the mold of the fashion model should have no reason to feel that there’s something wrong with them. Yet, everywhere you look, beauty is equated with thinness.

Victoria’s Secret, long known for its idealization of Barbie-like figures, has now begun to advertise workout wear. Apart from the fact that the outfits they’re selling are impractical (short-shorts for yoga, for example), the models sporting these scanty items are just as unrealistically thin as are the ones shown cavorting in corsets and garter belts. On the one hand, it’s great that women are being encouraged to exercise, but the down side is that the ads continue to emphasize the need for a woman to be a perfect “10” in order to be attractive.

Men are not immune to the media’s portrayal of the perfect male physique. Although there are plenty of 20- and 30-something men with slight paunches portrayed in ads as having a rich and rewarding social life, the iconically handsome male is shown with such features as six-pack abs and rippling biceps. Though researchers in the area of body imagetend to focus on the female form, they’re beginning to recognize that men can also suffer from disturbances over their appearance.

The question now seems appropriate to ask for both sexes: Can distress about your bodily appearance translate into less satisfying sexual functioning? To discover answers to this question, University of Guelph’s Robin Milhausen and her coworkers (2014) conducted a survey measuring body image and composition as well as sexual satisfaction and functioning.  Their sample consisted of 143 Canadian emerging adults (18-25 years old) all of whom were involved in heterosexual monogamous relationships.  Milhausen and her team set out to control for relationship satisfaction, known to be a factor related to sexual satisfaction. They also measured actual body fat among the participants in the sample.

Numerous studies have shown that body image concern is higher in women, that negative body image is associated with a number of psychological and relationship problems, and that people with poorer body images are more likely to engage in sexual risk-taking. Their sexualself-esteem tends to be lower, they engage in less regular sexual activity, and they have higher rates of sexual dysfunction. Body composition affects both body image and sexual satisfaction, though body image has a stronger relationship to sexual satisfaction than does a person’s actual amount of body fat (there are some conflicting findings on this point, however).

No studies prior to Milhausen et al.’s actually looked at all of these possible relationships among body image, body weight, and sexual and relationship functioning, and none have examined both males and females. Therefore the field was ripe for their investigation which could help to tease all these inter-related factors apart.

The participants’ average age was 20 years old, and most were in college. Over half had normal body mass indexes (BMIs). Each participant came into the lab for body composition assessment, and completed a series of questionnaires measuring sexual satisfaction, sexual function, body image, and relationship satisfaction.  Regarding body image, participants indicated how much they liked their bodies, whether they tried to avoid showing their bodies to others (e.g. by wearing baggy clothes), and how self-conscious they felt about their bodies during sex (such as whether they looked larger while lying down than standing up).

The results of the analyses showed clear sex differences.  For men, all three components of body image were associated with sexual satisfaction. Also for men, amount of body fat predicted poorer body image with regard to how they felt about their bodies and whether they tried to avoid showing their bodies to others. Men who were self-conscious about their bodies during sex also had lower sexual satisfaction. For women, however, body image had no relationship with sexual satisfaction. Instead, women’s sexual satisfaction was related to the frequency with which they had sex and their overall relationship satisfaction.

Milhausen and colleagues looked at several possible explanations for their findings, all of which seem plausible. First, for women but not men, concern over body image is such an accepted fact of life that women don’t feel there’s anything wrong with them for feeling that they don’t measure up to society’s ideal standards. This is a rather sad fact of life. Women have become so used to thinking of their bodies as inadequate that it’s simply a part of who they are.

Another possibility is that these women were all in relationships, so they weren’t as worried about how their appearance would affect their sex lives. In fact, the statistics the authors conducted took relationship satisfaction out of the analyses so that it no longer played a role.  Men, however, didn’t benefit in terms of allowing the fact that they were in a relationship to negate their body image concerns. Even in a secureromantic relationship, men’s worry that they’re not attractive can interfere with their ability to enjoy sex with their partner.

Actual amount of body fat did play a role in influencing sexual satisfaction; heavier men and women were less satisfied with their sex lives. However, for men, body fat had its influence via body image.  Women who were heavier felt more self-conscious during sex than women who weighed less, but this didn’t affect their sexual satisfaction. Men who felt heavier not only felt worse about themselves, but also had less sex and were less sexually satisfied.

The upshot of the study is that body image concerns in men can be real, and can affect their sexual functioning and happiness.  If men only engage in sexual activity when they feel they’ll look attractive, it stands to reason that they will feel less sexually fulfilled.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the Milhausen et al. study also showed that the strongest predictor of sexual satisfaction was satisfaction with the overall relationship- both for men and for women. We need to start admitting as a society that negative body image can be detrimental to men’s mental health. However, the good news is that once you’re in a relationship, working on the quality of that relationship can enhance  the fulfillment of both partners- both in and out of the bedroom.



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