Body Image and Sexuality: How Can We Unlock Desire When We Feel Undesirable

Here is a little fun fact about me, if I didn’t work almost exclusively with people struggling with eating disorders I would have totally specialized in sex therapy. 

Now that I have put that out in the internet universe, I want to tell you why I still spend training time reading about, studying, and getting continuing education in sex therapy.

I have noticed an overlap in eating disorders/body image work and sexual struggles. Since we are talking about Body Kindness for the next few months I couldn’t ignore one of the biggest manifestations of Body Un-kindness.

I meet with so many people who can’t be intimate with their partners because of how they feel in their bodies.

I expect to see this with trauma or in marriages where there are unresolved issues. However, I know so many people that have amazing marriages but can’t seem to be naked around their partner. The very thought of doing so brings up deep shame and feelings of uncomfortable vulnerability.

In our comparison and thin-praising culture, it is easy to see how this ends up happening. We start to compare ourselves to people our partners have seen in the past and we feel like we can’t possibly measure up. The safest answer to feeling vulnerable and exposed is to cover up and hide.

Sex is such an important part of the relational experience. I am a believer that no topic is too awkward, so I want to give some advice to partners:

  1. Talk about sexuality. Listen to what your partner has to say about their sexual experiences. We are too quick to generalize and many articles you may find on the internet will tell you things like “people who struggle with anorexia are sexually restrictive while people who struggle with….” These are generalizations and are not meant to be a substitute for having a conversation with your partner about this issue.
  2. Your partner has good body days and bad body days (and sometimes bad body minutes and seconds too). Patience is key. If they were 100% comfortable having super passionate sex with all the lights on two nights ago, it doesn’t mean that they won’t go back to hiding under the covers tonight or just not wanting to be touched or seen at all.
  3. There could be underlying and compounding factors or maybe it is just body image based. If there has been trauma or teasing then this is something you will have to have compassion around. Don’t assume that every person who struggles with an eating disorder has experienced trauma though.
  4. Don’t be pushy. Look, sex is great for some people but pushy sex is never great. If your partner is saying they just can’t be intimate right now. Listen to them. Trying to manipulate them or make them feel bad will never lead to anything good and it will foster disconnection and drive away intimacy.
  5. This has nothing to do with you and your own desirability or sexual ability. Many partners end up having to do their own work around feelings of rejection when sex is not happening. I encourage you to do this, so that you can approach your partner from an understanding of what they are going through and not from your own hurt.

If you are a person struggling with an eating disorder or body image stuff and it is standing in the way of the sex life you want to have, I would like to give you some tips many of my clients have found helpful:

  1. Get mad at ED! If you love sex and truly long for it to be a regular part of your self care routine (yes, sex can be self care!) put this down on the list of things your eating disorder has taken from you. Get mad and get determined to not let this be another enjoyable part of life that ED has stolen away! This is another motivation to stay in recovery and not allow ED to take away things you value.
  2. Start Small. You don’t have to push yourself beyond what you are comfortable with. If a back rub under the covers is all you can bring yourself to enjoy right now, that is a great and pleasurable experience. Start with a scalp massage or other less vulnerable sexual activity.
  3. Know your sexual values. Here I go with the values again! It’s true though. In my work as an eating disorder counselor in Tyler, Texas– I often try to get client’s to live consistently to their values. We are less miserable when we are able to do this. What do you value about sex? In what ways do you find sex meaningful to you? Keep these values written on a piece of paper by your bed (or on the ceiling- or headboard…kind of kidding) and take a peek at them when you are letting your negative self talk keep you from enjoying what you want.
  4. Stay Present. Don’t beat yourself up. Take a few breaths and try to stay focused on the here and now. Focus on your breathing. Focus on what you can see. Focus on what you feel. Focus on what you are hearing. Don’t allow yourself to have “what if…” thoughts or past focused and shaming “you should…” thoughts. Be here now.
  5. Have Fun! Yes, sex is fun. Think of ways to add some fun and spice to your sex life. Buy the book Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield, she has some great tips in chapter 11 about how you can spice things up.
  6. Speak Up! Tell your partner what is on your mind and what would help you feel more comfortable. None of us are sexual mind readers and communication is key here. Most couples who struggle sexually also tend to struggle communicating needs, and they begin to participate in a lot of silent communication. Often, your partner is not thinking what you think they are thinking and the only way you will know what they are thinking is to ask.
  7. Get help. Find a therapist that is comfortable working with body image/eating disorders and sexual struggles. It can be a very freeing experience to get the right help.
  8. Know that this struggle is common. What you are going through is something I hear often, know that you are not alone, or weird, or horribly defective.

I hate Eating Disorders, they seem to take away everything that makes life joyful and meaningful. If ED has robbed you of feeling comfortable with desire, I am sorry. I think it is great you are looking for a way to turn this around. Recovery is possible.

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