There are multiple physical reasons for not desiring sex with your partner, ranging from hormonal changes and poor dietary or sleep habits, to medical conditions and prescription medications. But one reason that is rarely talked about is poor body image.
Carmen, a female client who recently turned 50, confessed that she hadn't had sex with her husband for several months. When I asked her why, her reply was,
I just hate my midlife body. I've put on about 20 pounds and I don't feel sexy anymore. I hate looking in the mirror, and I think this is affecting how I feel about getting intimate." Did her husband feel this way about her too, I asked? "He tells me I'm attractive so, no, it's really coming from me.
This was an important distinction I wanted her to articulate. What was standing in Carmen's way of rekindling her sexual life with her husband was her own attitudes and emotions about her appearance, not her husband's. Sometimes we can't change our body. But we can change our body image.
Your body image is not what you see in the mirror. It's how you think and feel about yourself physically and how you think others see the shape, weight, and qualities of your body. It doesn't matter how many times your partner tells you you're sexy. If you don't feel sexy, you may not have sexual desire.
Research definitely supports a direct connection between how you think about your body and your sexual feelings. Weaver and Byers (Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2006) found that a woman's subjective body image is significantly related to her sexual functioning beyond the effects of actual body size and level of physical exercise. Holt and Lyness (Journal of Couples and Relationship Therapy, 2007) found a significant relationship between body image and sexual satisfaction for both males and females. And many studies have found a link between body-image self-consciousness and increased sexual anxiety.
On the flip side, a variety of research studies show that men and women with high body satisfaction have more frequent sexual experiences, engage in a wider range of sexual activities, feel more sexually desirable, and report fewer sexual problems than those with low body satisfaction. In other words, the more positive your body image, the greater your sexual satisfaction.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to boost your body image. Here are five strategies that can help.
Expand your definition of beauty.
Evaluate whether your notions of beauty include people from all cultures, ages, and different levels of physical ability. Ask yourself whether your notion of the perfect body makes sense. Sometimes it's extremely helpful to start noticing people from your own demographic group whom you think are attractive. What you probably admire is the way she carries herself, not her full figure. Or the way he smiles, not his thinning hair. Your liberal definition of attractiveness -- when applied to others, but not yourself -- may surprise you!
Have realistic expectations.
Set realistic expectations for what you want to see and feel with your own body. Go through magazines and television shows and ask questions about what is being portrayed. Also, remember that models and celebrities have to look good as part of their job -- and they spend hours and lots of money primping, working out, dieting, and having medical procedures to help them do it. Accept and be okay with the fact that your body may look different from the high-maintenance media image. Besides, realistically, is any body free of cellulite, wrinkles, a few extra pounds, or some blemish? Look behind the flattering camera angles and airbrushed photo image of celebrities and your answer will be no.
Build confidence and self-esteem.
Remember that it's how you feel about yourself that's important -- not the actual weight, height, or physical body mass that you possess. If you feel comfortable and confident in your body and about yourself, you'll develop a positive body image. Focus on what you do well -- such as being an amazing parent, boss, caregiver, friend, golfer, cook, artist, or whatever. Being beautiful or handsome won't make an impact on the world. Being kind, smart, talented, creative, visionary, or inspiring will.
Feeling good about your body must come from you. No matter how much your partner may say that your body is beautiful and sexy, it's self-affirmation that's important. Don't worry: You don't have to stand in front of the mirror and talk to yourself! Nor do you have to stick Post-Its on your computer screen with positive statements to repeat. But here's a simple behavior you can adopt. When you notice a negative thought, simply restate it in a positive light ("I can't" becomes "I can") or replace it with a self-compliment. So, "My thighs look fat in these jeans," becomes "I'm funny and that's one of the qualities people say they notice about me." It's hard to be kind to yourself at first, but it gets easier with practice.
Work on achieving good health.
Sex is a physical activity just like any other sport. The better shape your body is in, the healthier you'll feel and the better sex you'll have. If you have excess weight on your body, sex may be more difficult physically, and you may feel more fatigue and less energy during love making. Losing extra pounds can do wonders for your stamina and will make a noticeable difference in your sex drive. Set a modest goal to: (a) lose 5 pounds, and (b) exercise 15 minutes day. These are small, doable behavioral changes almost anyone can accomplish. You should notice a change in your libido, self-esteem, and body image.
Follow Dr. Terri Orbuch on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drterrilovedr