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Natsu Dragnel
Natsu Dragnel

Embracing Body Neutrality Improve Your Sex Life?

The way we feel about our bodies in any given moment can range from “ugh” to “meh” to “Lookin’ good!” — sometimes all within a single day. Body image is related to our own perceptions, thoughts, and feelings (which can change from minute to minute), including how we think we measure up to others, whether it’s someone in our spin class or people we see in our social media feed. But it also affects how we see ourselves as sexual beings.



People face many pressures to look a certain way, says Tracey Wade, PhD, professor in the college of education, psychology, and social work at Finders University in Adelaide, South Australia, who has published a paper on body neutrality.[1]


“Unfortunately, society and mediums such as social media (TikTok, Facebook, Instagram) may treat people differently if they don’t conform to a narrowly defined accepted body,” says Dr. Wade.



According to her research, that pressure and constant comparison to some “perfect” ideal can contribute to poor body image. Feeling dissatisfied with our bodies — especially if you’re a woman — often starts in childhood and continues throughout our lifetime, and is considered so common, the concept is referred to as “normative discontent.”[1]


But even though having a poor body image is a common experience, it’s still a harmful one — and it’s associated with depression, eating disorders, and sexual dysfunction.



When it comes to sex, “we’re somehow supposed to just drop all of those expectations or feelings of inadequacy and just have joyful, abandoned sexual encounters,” says Karen Adams, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford Healthcare in Palo Alto, California, who diagnoses and treats women with sexual dysfunction.



The fact that many women may have a hard time doing that should not be surprising, she adds.



Body Image Is Part of Our Identity


Body image is more than just how we think and feel about our bodies and our appearances, says Charlotte Markey, PhD, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the author of two children’s books on body image as well as a soon-to-be released body image book for grownups called Adultish: The Body Image Book for Life.



“It is a part of our identity and because of that, it affects who we feel in terms of engaging with others physically. Are we comfortable with ourselves? Are we comfortable being touched by another person?” she says.



Why Body Neutrality Is Different From Body Positivity


Body positivity advocates for acceptance of all bodies, no matter what shape, skin tone, gender or physical abilities, with the basic premise being that beauty is a construct created by the current culture that shouldn’t determine self-worth.[2]


This movement started decades ago, and the idea behind it was basically to love and accept yourself just as you are, explains Adams. “I think that the body positivity movement was very well intentioned and meant to be empowering, but it created more of a burden for many women. It became, ‘Not only do I not love my body, but I feel like I should, and so now I feel bad about not loving my body, too,’” says Adams.



The term “body neutrality” began appearing online around 2015 and grew in popularity when Ann Poirier, CSCS, a certified intuitive eating counselor, started using the phrase. Poirier defined body neutrality as “prioritizing the body’s function and what I can do rather than its appearance.”



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In other words, it encourages you to appreciate your body for what it does rather than how it looks, says Adams. For example, rather than focusing on how your legs look, think about how their strength allows you to walk or get out in nature, she notes.



Body neutrality is more freeing — it’s okay to love it sometimes, and it’s okay to be dissatisfied with it, too, she explains. “It’s about being okay with any feelings that come up about your body, rather than always trying to be positive when that may not be very realistic for you on a particular day, at a particular time,” says Adams.



There’s no pressure to squash negative thoughts and immediately replace them with a positive mantra. Instead, you’re encouraged to mindfully notice all thoughts about your bodies, whether good, bad, or neutral, and allow them to exist without judgment, she explains.



Negative Body Image Can Mess With Your Head — and Libido


“Poor body image issues can affect all areas of sexual functioning,” says Wade.



In women of all ages, there’s a strong link between body image and how they experience sex. Research in post-menopausal women suggests that having a better body image is positively associated with higher sexual function, and lower scores were linked to sexual dysfunction.[3]


Studies in younger women also indicate that negative feelings about one’s body lowers desire, arousal and sexual function.[4]


Self-objectification and self-consciousness seem to be key factors driving these issues, says Wade. “Self-objectification means we view our bodies from the outsider’s perspective and therefore are not in touch with our own desires and feelings. When we are self-conscious, with disliking or liking our bodies, we are focused on self and not the other or the surrendering to the experience,” she says.



Women Who Experience Sexual Trauma Face Challenges


“Ideally, sex is supposed to be adult play — it’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be joyful. But for many women who have experienced sexual trauma, it can be burdensome, or stressful or scary,” says Adams.

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Feeling neutral about their body or about sex can be especially challenging for these women, she says. “I think we always have to acknowledge that as we kind of dig into this topic a little more deeply,” says Adams.



How Body Neutrality Can Improve Your Sex Life


There are a few ways that adopting a body neutrality viewpoint could help you in the bedroom, says Adams.



 



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Getting ‘Out of Your Head’


Body neutrality can help with “spectatoring” (another term to describe the self-consciousness that Wade spoke of above), which is when you watch and judge yourself during sex, explains Adams.



“In body neutrality, the focus is on what your body is doing and how your body is allowing you to feel pleasure rather than critiquing what your body looks like at any given moment. The reason why that’s so important for sex is because the more you can get out of your head, the better your sexual experience can be — you can get into whatever sensation you are feeling,” she says.


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Reducing Anxiety


The pressure to meet societal standards can create anxiety and self-doubt, especially when it comes to intimacy. “Beauty ideals are unobtainable for the majority. However, if women don’t keep that in perspective and feel bad for not achieving these ideals, they may feel shy or self-conscious about sharing themselves physically with others,” says Dr. Markey.



Body neutrality allows you to step back from the constant comparison and critique, creating a mental space that fosters relaxation and self-acceptance. By focusing on the sensations and pleasures of the moment, anxiety diminishes, allowing you to fully engage in the sexual experience.



Building Confidence


Body neutrality empowers you to view your body as a tool for pleasure rather than an object of scrutiny, notes Adams. This change in mindset can boost your confidence in the bedroom.



When you focus on what your body is able to do and feel rather than how it looks, you are more likely to feel assertive and ready to explore with your partner.



Enhancing Communication


An essential aspect of body neutrality is fostering open and honest communication about desires, boundaries, and preferences, says Adams. “And so, you seek your own pleasure, you ask for what you want, take what you would like to have, and make that an understanding between you and your partner,” she says.

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This ties back in with body neutrality, where you’re not so much spectatoring as you are enjoying the sensations, she says. You’re asking for more of what you want and less of what you don’t find pleasurable, notes Adams.

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How to Start Embracing Your Body Neutrally


While the principles of body neutrality aren’t complicated, Adams points out that the societal norms and pressures that women face can make practicing it feel pretty radical. “I think trying to embrace a body neutral approach is worth striving for and a good goal, but because there are many, many layers to how we experience body image and ourselves as sexual beings, you probably shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to make the change immediately,” she says.

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