Swat Ed is The Phoenix’s biweekly sex education Q & A. We accept all questions and they are kept completely anonymous. If you’re looking for medical advice or a diagnosis for that weird thing on your genitals, get in touch with a medical professional! For everything else, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s subject matter is body image.
I have recently begun having sex and I am struggling with the way I feel about my body. I don’t want to get into details but there’s definitely some ways that it doesn’t look good. My boyfriend wants to go down on me but I don’t feel comfortable with him seeing me like that. I try to keep the lights off all the time but he wants them on and I usually end up caving and then feeling really stressed. I’m not really enjoying how anything feels and I think part of the reason is that I am just too tense and stressed out.
-Don’t Look At Me
This is a really common problem to have and you are not alone in it. I think that there are two areas to be addressed here: body image issues in general and body image affecting the way you have and feel about sex.
The ideals that our society projects around bodies leave just about all of us with insecurities about how we look, with and without clothes. Let’s see if we can break down a few of them. In general, it is not the norm to have perfect, unblemished skin. Just about everyone has moles, freckles, acne, scars, stretch marks, and often skin irritation or little bumps. It’s completely normal. It is not the norm to have a perfectly lean body with skin over muscle except for breasts, butt and thighs. Most women have natural fat pads on their lower abdomens that mean the stomach does not look absolutely flat. It’s completely normal. If you want to exercise and eat attentively to improve your health, that’s great. However, your looks do not hinge on your body mass index.
There is a massive and beautiful natural diversity in genitalia. It’s normal for breasts to be different sizes on the same person, to have stretch marks, and to be any shape from teardrop to V. Vulvas can have long inner labia, or barely visible inner labia. Clitorises can be so tiny you can barely see them, or an inch long. They can be any color and different colors on the same one. Penises are a variety of sizes, can be circumcised or uncircumcised, and can be a lot of colors too.
The point that I’m getting at is that the body parts that might seem wrong or different to you are definitely normal. The reason they seem abnormal or unattractive is because you’ve been socialized to compare everything to an airbrushed ideal. As obvious as this is, it’s important to reiterate it to understand that the negative feelings are the wrong thing here, not your body. Fixing the way you feel has nothing to do with changing your body, it has to do only with expunging those feelings.
To deal with this, I would recommend several courses of action. To begin with, there are some awesome online resources. The r/sex FAQ lists a number of online galleries in the Body Image section that are simply pictures of ordinary people, naked. This can be a really good way of reminding yourself that the naked people you’ve seen before — in porn, in movies and TV — are artificially selected and do not represent the real diversity of real people. Another thing to do is think critically about how you view your partner’s body. Do you scrutinize them and clinically deduct points based on perceived imperfections? Chances are that you hardly notice what might seem really obvious to you on your body. If you’re not looking judgmentally, your partner probably isn’t either. Finally, to handle the anxiety of the moment, it can be helpful to out-logic your own brain. When the voice in the back of your head is whispering that your partner thinks you’re unattractive, you can simply say, “If he thinks I’m not sexy, explain why he is at this exact moment having sex with me.” Telling this to yourself authoritatively can be a great way of taking back control over your emotions.
Having addressed sexual body image and ways to feel more comfortable in your skin, let’s look at how body image changes the way we have sex. As you commented, the tenseness and lack of comfort in the moment are probably making it a lot harder to enjoy anything. Stress contributes to literal muscle tension that can make vaginal penetration uncomfortable or outright painful, and psychological relaxation plays a massive role in the female orgasm.
Incorporating the suggestions I listed above should help reduce that stress. There are a few additional things you can do as well. One is to drag out foreplay and undressing. Sometimes, as partners grow more used to each other, they progress from fully clothed to naked really quickly, which can be a lot to handle if one person is less comfortable with nudity than the other. So try only removing clothing when you really want to, instead of rushing from stage to stage. If you’re anticipating and excited for the next step of sexual activity, you won’t be as worried about how you look. You can also think about what positions you’re using. Porn depicts positions that are unnaturally contorted in order to show as much as possible to the camera. To start out, being face-to-face with maximum skin and eye contact can be really relaxing. It doesn’t put your whole body on display, and the close presence of your partner is extremely comforting. You can always transition to different ones as your confidence grows. Being in the dark can be helpful as a stepping stone, but you shouldn’t be permanently dependent on it. Since your partner doesn’t seem to be as much of a fan, you could propose dim light or candlelight as a middle ground.
All of these strategies won’t work overnight, so remember to be happy with progress. This might mean backing off from full nudity or certain sex acts if it’s not something you’re comfortable with, and that’s completely fine. A relaxed, comfortable and mutually pleasurable makeout session beats stressful, uncomfortable intercourse every time.