Rifling through a chest of drawers, I found an old photograph that I’d hidden in the hope I’d never again have to set eyes on it. It was taken 15 years ago on a beach in France, and I was wearing a bikini.
Back then, the photos had arrived on my doormat after I’d sent off the film to be developed. As I shuffled through them, the image of my semi-naked self immediately set off a spiral of self-loathing. I couldn’t bear to look at my body. Even with the photo stowed out of sight, those negative thoughts about my body followed me around like a shadow for another decade and a half.
These thoughts convinced me I did not deserve to be loved or even looked at. With those feelings came a distinct lack of interest in showing my body to another human — someone who could possibly see me in a state of undress and confirm everything negative emotion I’d ever felt about myself.
My body image is my sex life’s worst enemy. It is the voice in my head telling me that I need to lose weight before I go on dates. It is the seed of doubt when I notice someone looking at me in a bar. It is the thought that whirrs in my mind when I’m in bed with someone, drowning out any thoughts of pleasure.
During a recent sexual dry spell — brought on by an episode of extremely low self-esteem — I realised the one thing standing in the way of a fun and fulfilling sex life was my own brain. I had a choice: Did I want to live my life hiding out of sight because glossy magazines, billboards, and my unkind classmates in high school made me feel unloveable? Then came the question: How do I go about dismantling the destructive feelings I’ve had about myself for most my life?
Research suggests that women with poor body image derive less satisfaction from sex due to distracting thoughts about their bodies. Furthermore, women with body image issues are less likely to initiate sex. Short of spending your whole life having unsatisfying sex and never initiating sex, there are tangible, actionable things you can do to try to have better sex more often. According to sex educators, counsellors, fat acceptance activists, and authors, here are some techniques that might help…
Try positive affirmations during sex
For much of my adult life, there have been certain sexual positions I was reluctant to try because I was worried how my body might look from a certain angle. Lisa Williams and Anniki Sommerville from the Hotbed Collective wrote about this very issue in their aptly titled book More Orgasms Please: Why Female Pleasure Matters. “If body confidence is an issue for you, we would like you to try this exercise,” they wrote. “When you are next having sex, for every negative thought you have about your looks, we’d like you to come up with a positive affirmation instead.”
“This could be a nice thing about your appearance (if you really struggle with this, ask a friend to help you: we can be so much nicer to each other than we are to ourselves), or something about how the sex makes your body feel rather than what you look like,” they continued.
Williams and Sommerville recommend replacing a negative thought like “my bum is too big” with a positive affirmation like “I love it when I’m kissed along the knicker line.” They suggest switching “I need to lose weight” with “I love how my hips and waist look when I lie on my side.” “My scars are ugly” can be countered with “this person is in bed with me because of who I am.”
Identify where your body image issues come from
If you think long and hard about where that very first twinge of self-loathing came from, it’s likely those thoughts didn’t just magically appear out of nowhere. Stephanie Healey — psychotherapist and sex educator — told Mashable to “start by unpicking the kind of body image/self esteem issues that people are having and figure out when that started and whose voice that is (the inner critic, is that a parent or a teacher or an ex partner etc).”
In her book Happy Fat, comedian and fat activist Sofie Hagen wrote that “we received negative messages about bodies on a — dare I say — hourly basis.” “From the adverts on television, public transport, social media, all telling women to buy a certain product to become ‘better,’ to have smoother skin, shinier hair, a smaller waistline, redder lips, […],” she wrote.
On Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast, author Marian Keyes spoke about how sexism and capitalism intersect to “teach women to hate themselves.” “When I am overweight, which is a lot of the time, I feel ashamed asking for what I want,” she said. “I have been taught that if I’m not skinny then I am greedy, I am out of control, that I am to be mocked, that I’m a figure of fun. This is all in my head, but I didn’t get those messages from no place,” she continued. “I have learnt to despise myself,” Keyes added.
Remind yourself that all bodies are hot
Flo Perry, author of How To Have Feminist Sex, told Mashable that mainstream media presents us with “such a narrow definition of what is an ‘attractive’ body.” “It can be useful to remember that in reality people find all kinds of bodies hot,” Perry added.
“Click off the front page of Pornhub even and you’re bound to find videos amateurs have uploaded with bodies just like yours with millions of views. There are people all around the country right now jacking off to your typical mum-bod.”
Follow people who look like you
Is your Instagram feed full of photos that don’t look like you? Does it make you feel shit every time you scroll? Consider curating your social feeds with people who look like you and who are actively embracing their bodies. Perry suggests following “people on social media that look like you that are further along their body positivity journey.””Whatever you look like there will be someone who looks like you on instagram posting beautifully shot hot pictures of themselves,” she said. “If you fill your feed with these pictures you’re bound to feel more sexy.”
Hagen recommended following the Adipositivity Project, which is a collection of beautiful nude portraits of fat people that aims to change “commonly accepted notions of a narrow and specific beauty ideal.”
If you watch porn, think about the types of bodies you’re seeing on a regular basis. Healey said “mainstream free access porn content has a certain look and body type, and I’d encourage other images such as MakeLoveNotPorn to see a wider range of bodies being sexual.”
Cull social media accounts that make you feel bad
In curating your feed with glorious, gorgeous bodies that look just like yours, try to pinpoint which accounts are making you feel bad about yourself and unfollow all of them. Do not feel bad. If it’s a friend who posts constant #thinspo posts or weight loss before-and-after pics, put your own wellbeing first: Hit mute, unfollow, block.
Hugo Minchin — counsellor and co-founder of Talk to the Rainbow, the centre for LGBTQ+ therapy in Bristol — told Mashable social media is “full of idealised portraits of picture-perfect human beings.” “Comparing oneself to a fitness model, a porn star, or an influencer is unrealistic. We are all unique and ultimately self-esteem starts with yourself,” Minchin added.
Relationship expert at eharmony Rachael Lloyd recommended reminding yourself that social media isn’t real. “It’s important to take a step back and realise your friend’s social media posts are the airbrushed life she wants you to see – rather than the full picture,” said Lloyd. “Always bear in mind that this filtered lifestyle isn’t an achievable goal and aiming for those dizzying, like-induced highs is unrealistic.”
Don’t posture and perform during sex
Watching porn or any on-screen depictions of sex can leave us with deep-set notions about what sex should look like and specifically how our bodies should look when we’re in the throes of passion. Williams and Sommerville hit the nail on the head in More Orgasms Please: “[S]creen sex will make you believe that you have to fling yourself around the room naked, or dress up as Catwoman. While both these things are great if you have the whim, great sex can still happen under a duvet in the dark.”
If it feels difficult to unlearn the sex poses that mainstream pop culture and porn have ingrained in our minds, start out with self-sex (aka masturbation). Not every position you use to masturbate needs to be like the ones you see in porn.
Have a go at mindful sex
Thoughts about your body can be extremely distracting during sex.
Sex expert Kate Moyle at sex toy company advocates trying mindful sex or ‘mindsex’ techniques. This can involve “taking your attention back to the pleasurable physical sensations that you are experiencing.”
“You only have a certain amount of attention available at any one time, so if you are anxious this will interrupt your physical experience,” Moyle added.
Williams and Sommerville gave some practical tips for this: “Focus on the orgasm and not on what you look like. Think about your breathing, squeeze and release your pelvic floor, tweak your own nipples, concentrate on each sensation, notice how your partner’s skin feels, think about every move the two of you are making and how they feel,” they wrote.
Share a sexual fantasy
Almaz Ohene — sexual health education facilitator at Sexplain — advised writing “a sexy story” with your sexual partner. Tapping into your creativity and creating a story about the two of you “can be a way of sharing some steamy moments together without having to get physical,” said Ohene.
“Think about the sexy experiences you’ve had together and take things from there. In a few sentences, describe the characters and whose perspective we’re hearing it from,” Ohene said. “Describe where the story will take place and any plot-driving details. You can take the story in whatever direction you like – which means it’s also a low risk way of revealing some of your desires,” she said. “You just might find yourselves trying out some of thing things on the page, once you’re back in the swing of physical sex acts again.”
One thing I wish I’d known when I first hid that photo of myself: You do not need to lose weight in order to be desirable. We are all worthy of sex, pleasure, and attention.