Body Image & Sex
Updated: Nov 18, 2022
Where you relationship to body and relationship to sexuality meet.
I spent ALL of last week writing, recording, thinking, and talking about sex.
To be honest, a week was way too short. There’s just too much to talk about, too much shame and confusion that needs to be cleared up, and way too many links to body image and body liberation to fit into such a short amount of time.
Most importantly though, our relationship to our bodies are often too deeply interwoven with our relationship to our sexualities. It’s why I went back to school to get my clinical sexology certification — because I was working with clients on body image, and sex just. kept. coming. up.
As such, I’ve decided to dive more deeply into some of the many ways in which sexuality and body image can intersect today.
I’m gonna start with myself, and then tell a few (anonymous) client stories. Please bear in mind that these are just examples, and that everyone’s story is completely unique and valid! The point of sharing specific stories is simply to paint the picture of how complex, layered, and interesting this topic is, and how important it is to unearth what’s *really* going on if you want to heal and improve your own relationship to your body & appearance.
You can watch my TEDx talk for the whole story, but the short version is that I was sexually abused as a kid and then sexually harassed and coerced a lot once I hit puberty, and I spent most of my teens and twenties in a state of wanting to look “perfect” so that men would want me and approve of me, but not hurt me. I believed that my worth was based on how I looked, how much “hotter” and more “perfect” I was than other women, and how much men desired me.It’s fucked up, and it doesn’t even really make any sense of course. But that’s the thing about trauma, shame, and internalized oppression. It doesn’t have to make sense. My brain made up a story to explain everything that had happened to me, and it more or less went like this:
I must be so powerfully attractive that boys and men have to do bad things— things they know they shouldn’t do.
Relationships are transactional, so in order to get what I need (connection, belonging, attention, intimacy, love) I must give them what they want: to be turned on and sexually satisfied.
The only value I offer the world, and therefore the only way I can get my needs met, is to continue being powerfully attractive.
The only reason I’m so powerfully attractive is because I am “faking it” by obsessively monitoring every single tiny detail of my appearance all the time, and managing it with things like: sucking in my stomach, wearing push-up bras, using makeup, doing my hair, wearing “flattering” clothes, posing, checking the mirror constantly, etc.
I am in constant danger of losing my value (and therefore having my needs for connection go unmet), due to the likelihood that I will age, change body shape/size, and/or otherwise accidentally blow my cover as an “imperfect” person.
Men would get very angry at me if they found out I wasn’t actually “perfect,” at best taking away their approval/kindness/belonging/friendship, and at worst trying to hurt me.
Women would use it against me if they found out I wasn’t “perfect” to trample and trash me socially, in an effort to improve their own social status.
I must keep everyone from noticing I’m not perfect at all costs.
I hope you can see that this was very sticky.
I hated my boobs for being imperfect because they weren’t as perky as I knew they were “supposed to be.” I hated my thighs for being thick, and my cellulite for marring the surface of them, because I knew that in order to be perfect they were “supposed to be” long, lean, and smooth. I hated my belly for not being flat, because I knew flat bellies were the standard for a “hot girl.”
As I healed my relationship with my body, I had to heal my relationship with sex, and men, and my trauma, and myself.
As I healed my relationship with my boobs I had to recognize that the point of my body wasn’t to be what men wanted. As I healed my relationship to my thighs I had to acknowledge that I didn’t owe my body to anyone, and that I actually had complete agency over it. As I healed my relationship to my belly I had to overcome the feeling that softness and femininity were weaknesses and vulnerabilities for which I would be punished or exploited.
Likewise, as I healed my body image I also had to stop having the kind of sex I had felt was required of me: performative cisheternormative sex that centered around a man’s desire, pleasure, and climax.
I had to reclaim sex for me: pleasure for me, arousal for me, my body for me. I had to get to know myself, slowly, gently, and without objectification or spectatoring.
All of this had to happen together. There was no healing body image without sex, or healing sex with body image, because both of these things were centered in my body. Both of these things were about control, safety, pain, fear, trust, surrender, and vulnerability.
Now let’s move on to a few client stories.
Client story #1
One client of mine had saved herself for marriage, and got married at the age of 36. She was madly in love with her partner and expected the sex to be amazing but then on their wedding night they tried, and couldn’t get it to work. He eventually lost his erection, they both felt embarrassed, and went to sleep. She came to me for coaching months later, when sex had become a devastating poison to their relationship, regularly leading to rejection, disappointment, fights, shame, and loneliness.
The worst part is that this client didn’t even come to me to work on sex.
She came to me because her body image, which had never been super positive, had completely crumbled since their wedding night.
She found herself obsessing over her body in the mirror, compulsively checking certain spots, falling into hysterical fits of jealousy, paranoia, and self-loathing whenever she saw a thin or attractive woman, and googling plastic surgery.
She came to me because she hated her body and couldn’t stop thinking about how ugly and fat she was. It took months before she started opening up about what was going on in the bedroom, and we could start to unpack the layers of frustration, disappointment, grief, shame, guilt, and unmet needs for intimacy that were coming up there. But the sticky stuff around sex is what led to her body image meltdown, and it needed to be tended to, explored, healed, and improved directly for body neutrality to be an option again.
Client story #2
Another client hated her body for being so “womanly,” a term she defined as having breasts, hips, and thighs that were soft. She described her ideal body as boyish, flat, tight, toned, and straight up and down. When we dove into the discussion of what it meant to be a woman, it became immediately apparent that she associated being a “woman” with having a very specific set of sexual experiences: femme, straight, cis-gender, submissive, receptive, soft, and sensual.
This client had identified as a lesbian for a long time, and was more recently exploring the idea that she might be transmasculine. She told me that she felt most comfortable in the masculine role in her relationship; that she always wore the strap-on to fuck her softer and more femme partner, never the other way around.
During our first call together she described the thought of being penetrated by her partner in that way “fucking terrifying,” associating it with softness, weakness, and vulnerability, and also worrying that her partner would respect her less.
This was especially fascinating because she saw the act of penetrating and pleasuring her partner as a gift, an honor, an act of worship, and a profound responsibility.
There was so much to unpack.
Throughout our work together, we looked at gender roles, performance, and expression. We broke down what a woman’s sexuality can look like, feel like, and include, and explored gender identity, pronouns, transmasculinity, the shame of “failing” at a gender expectation that never fit you to begin with, and the grief of consistently not being seen for who you are. All of this was the work of body neutrality.
Client(s) Story #3
Lastly, I’ve had nearly a dozen clients over the years at various stages of eating disorder recovery who were struggling with a complete and total lack of desire, lack of arousal, lack of orgasm, and lack of interest or experience the whole realm of sex.
Some of these clients discovered in our work together that having an ED had given them permission to avoid the whole “disgusting affair” of sex altogether, and we needed to talk about sexual disgust. Some discovered that their ED was an attempt to squelch down and control their “insatiable” or “unacceptable” sexual feelings, and we needed some re-education on what is normal, and some trauma-informed mental health support. Some had to grieve the damage their ED did to their reproductive and sexual health; some had to untangle why they’d rather turn to food than sex to fill a specific need.
All of these clients had to untangle and heal their relationship to sexuality along with their relationship to food, in order to heal their relationships to their bodies.
I could go on and on. I have so many more stories like this, of clients peeling back the curtain on body image and realizing we needed to talk about their relationship to sex and sexuality.
That’s actually the unique thing about the process I take clients through: we don’t spend much time talking about food, weight, or bodies. I am always seeking to help them peel back the curtains and see what’s underneath, because that’s where the real healing needs to happen. That’s where the real work of body neutrality is located.
Sometimes it’s about unmet emotional needs, or systems of oppression, power, and privilege, or layers of shame, fear, and disconnection. Sometimes it’s about sexuality.
Whatever it is we deal with that shit directly—we bring it out of the shadows, unpack it, dismantle it, heal it, and create space for acceptance and joy around it.
The work I help my clients requires them to show up with enormous courage, curiosity, honesty, vulnerability, and trust. I wish it was as simple as telling them they’re beautiful just the way they are, but (as you probably already know) that doesn’t accomplish anything.
Sending you so much love as you peel back the curtains for yourself.
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