While shame may vary its definition among communities, one common thread resonates across all groups—body image is a source of shame. In my early career, I had the privilege of working with individuals battling eating disorders. During group therapy sessions, we delved into topics like trauma, spirituality, and family of origin, yet we overlooked the profound impact of body image on our sexuality and the expression of our true selves. It is crucial to acknowledge that body image affects people of all genders and sexual orientations, ensuring that we address this critical aspect of our lives.
What is body image?
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, body image is “our thoughts, perceptions, and attitudes about our physical appearance, which can be negative or positive.” While not everyone feels negatively about their body all the time, on average over 90% of people will experience negativity or disgust toward their body at any given moment. Women are more likely than men to express and experience negative body image messaging from others. Men have a tendency not to discuss the impact body image has on how they feel about themselves.
A recent study completed in the UK showed that one in five adults felt shame because of their body image in the last year. The same study showed that 19% felt disgusted with their body overall. The impact on mental health is astonishing—a negative body image leads to an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking. 13% of adults have had suicidal thoughts relating to their body image. These statistics are alarming—how can you allow meaningful connection and intimacy when so much mental space and energy is being devoted to hating yourself?
What can impact your body image? There are multiple areas in your life that can create positive or negative changes in how you view yourself and the body you live in. Options include, but are not limited to:
- Media and Advertising
- Family and friends
- Cultural differences
- Gender and sexuality
It is crucially important to examine whether or not the message received was mentally healthy. For example, if you have repeatedly seen friends or loved ones on social media commenting about how great someone looks after they lost a significant amount of weight, you might feel pressure to lose weight to look more similar. This is negative messaging and can trigger unhealthy body image thoughts, potentially leading to distress and shame.
How does it relate to shame and sexuality?
We will only ever have one body to live in, so not loving it, or even liking it, can be devastating to your mental and sexual health. It can be difficult to feel comfortable sharing our body or expressing love, affection, and desire physically when there is concern about what you look like with and without clothes on.
**This article will not take into account body dysmorphia or gender exploration as those alone contribute hugely to the creation of sexual shame**.
There are three types of shame, two mentioned here are relational and internalizing. Relational sexual shame pertains to experiences involving others and emphasizes emotions connected to interpersonal interactions. Internalized shame encompasses feelings of embarrassment, revulsion, a sense of being different or abnormal, and a feeling of being lesser, often illustrated by a sense of shame related to one’s own body.
Body image is associated with self-worth. When you have a negative body image it can be difficult to think you are worth having an intimate connection. Feeling self-worth implies you have value and can contribute, whereas the feeling of shame, is the opposite. When that is linked to an already low body image, it can be near impossible to feel like anyone would desire you. Worse—if someone does show interest, you may want to distance yourself even farther from them. You might think things like “How can you even like me?” or feel self-doubt such as “Someone must be playing a joke on you”.
What can you do to improve body image and decrease shame?
There is an overwhelming amount of mixed messages in the world that if you aren’t the perfect size or don’t look exactly right you are inherently bad or flawed. To counter those messages, try:
- Interacting with those that give you positive messaging. Friends or family who give you praise and affection just for being who you are can help distance yourself from negativity!
- Unfollow or remove triggering social media accounts
- Practice radical acceptance. You may not always love who you are, but accepting yourself for who you are as an entire human allows for growth.
- Limit body comparisons to others.
- Identify all the ways your body allows you to achieve your goals. Struggling with your stomach? Digesting food allows you to complete that difficult hike you want! Don’t like your hips? Those hips allowed you to have the baby you love so much!
- Model self-love to those around you to assist them in overcoming their harder moments too. Giving back to those you care about is a huge self-esteem boost!
- Aim for neutrality. You don’t have to love everything. You don’t even have to like everything! Can you just feel neutral for your body being what it is?
Releasing a negative body image and shame happens by recognizing your fundamental beliefs. Frequently, we absorb familial, religious, or cultural values without critically assessing their relevance to our lives. Overcoming shame involves accepting that the innate longing for sexual intimacy is a natural aspect of our human existence.
This concludes our sexual shame series…please share on our IG page @kissandtellmag which of the 5 in the series was your favorite…part 1, 2, or all 5?