There are three aspects to body image: judgment (the level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with your physical attributes), the emotional impact of your judgment, and the “investment” you make—the level of self-worth you draw from your appearance and the lengths you’ll go to enhance or manage it.
Keep this definition in mind as we go forward: judgment, impact, and investment. It will help you understand the influence your body image has that leads to self-consciousness in bed.
There are many factors that contribute to a negative body image—growing up in a judgmental family that stressed dieting, children who made disparaging comments about the way you look, a competitive girl culture that thrives on judgment, encourages rivalries and magnifies the importance of appearances, and of course, being objectively overweight or obese.
But there’s a bigger reason for your body self-consciousness—a much bigger reason: the extent to which you buy into, compare yourself to, and try to achieve the media’s ideal of feminine beauty. There is no other factor that comes close.
The main reason most women have such a poor body image is because not only have they accepted the media’s beauty ideal, but they also have invested heavily in trying to achieve its anatomically impossible standards.
This is not some feminist polemic espoused by scholars with a political agenda. . Let me explain how researchers discovered this.
“I don’t deserve the pleasure of sex because my thighs are too big.”
It started with academic research on eating disorders. Researchers suspected that eating-disordered women were somehow affected by the relentless, ubiquitous, inescapable images of below-normal-weight women on TV, magazines, movies, and the Internet.
After years of research, a clear picture emerged: the media’s presentation of a single standard of below-healthy-weight beauty and the compulsion toward conformity it generated was the main cause in the development of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
The relationship was simple, clear, and replicated across nearly every study ever done: the more you internalize the media’s below-normal-weight ideal, the more you invest in trying to conform to it, the more likely you will develop a diagnosable eating disorder.
That all might be interesting, but if you’re like most women, you don’t have an eating disorder. What does this have to do with you and the problem of being too self-conscious to be intimate?
In the past ten years, body image research has focused more on “healthy” women or rather women who do not have diagnosable eating disorders. The thinking went something like this: If the media’s relentless presentation of a single standard of beauty is a leading cause of eating disorders, what else might it be a leading cause of?
So, researchers got to work on it. The next wave of body image research, conducted by experts like Dr. Thomas F. Cash in studies published in 1998, specifically excluded eating-disordered women.
“I have turned down sex even though I was in the mood because I felt ashamed of my body.”
As stated before, there are several contributing causes to body shame—your family, the judgments of both men and women, how much you compete with other women, and how objectively overweight you are.
But researchers found that the strongest predictor of body dissatisfaction in healthy women is the same as it is for eating-disordered women—the extent to which you internalize the media’s standard for thinness.
The more you agree with the below-healthy thin ideal, the more you compare yourself against it, the more you invest in trying to achieve that standard, the more dissatisfied you will be with your body.
In the next post, we’ll look at the loop of sex and self-image, and how actually having sex helps. In the meantime, maybe we should take a lesson from the French.
If you missed the last post, read it here.