How Can I Get Over My Body Image Anxiety During Sex?

"You could be a stone-cold fox and still only notice your scars, wrinkles, and that random dark spot on the underside of your left knee."

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Apr 10 2018, 3:45pm

Dear Tonic,

How do I get over being anxious about what my body looks like during sex? I try to just enjoy what it feels like, but whenever I catch a glimpse of my stomach scrunched in a weird way, I feel really unattractive and it makes me want to run and put on a baggy sweater. It's now hard for me to reciprocate the mood, let alone initiate, when my partner wants to have sex. Besides never having sex until I'm ripped, what can I do?

When you are an anxious person, you tend to pull out particular details from your environment that support your worries while ignoring the elements that do not. This is called mental filtering. You could be a stone-cold fox and still only notice your scars, wrinkles, and that random dark spot on the underside of your left knee. It's a really shitty super power that anxious people have. One way of resetting this attention bias is to actively make a point to notice the positive stuff that you normally ignore.

You could make it a point to write down 3 things per day that you appreciate about your body. Not just appearance-wise (though you definitely should include appearance), but also things like how well your body helps you survive the world. Are you a mother? How insane is it that you were able to literally create a human in that body! Your body is supremely amazing, and by intentionally pointing out the ways in which it looks, feels, or functions well, you can help turn the volume down on that background track that constantly tells you that you don't look good enough.

You may also need more exposure to the sight of your own naked body. My wife and I had a little pre-kids tradition called Nudie Tuesdays. Once I got back from work, neither of us were allowed to wear any clothes in the house. It wasn't purely sexual. We would just go about our evening working on projects, making dinner, and watching television. Of course, that much exposure to one another naked often led to some shenanigans later on, but by that point, we were both sufficiently desensitized to any worries or discomforts about our bodies that we were able to purely focus on one another.

Just like the way many of us hate the sound of our own voice played back on a recording, we often avoid the sight of our own natural naked body. You just need some practice. There is something special about coming to terms with the fact that this is your body and nobody else's. It will change over time in a million ways and that's okay. It's always you. Spending time alone or with your partner in the buff consistently over time is a great way to get on better terms with it.

Another great way to shift your perspective about your body is to recognize the natural beauty in others. While the media at large is still really terrible about presenting a realistic beauty standard, social media can be great place to gain exposure to realistic bodies. Go on Instagram and have a look at some of the accounts that pop up when you search for "body positive" or "body appreciation." See the diversity of people and body styles in the images and recognize the beauty in each one. Nobody is "perfect," but looking at the comments, you will find people who honestly appreciate the way that these people look. You are no exception.

The last piece of advice that I have for you is to shift your mindset when it comes to sex. A lot of problems arise from treating sex like a performance. We build up so much pressure to perform, to look perfect, and to read one another's minds. Instead of focusing on how you or your partner looks, try to actively absorb yourself in the moment. Practice more mindful sex and dive into the small details about how your body feels, what the connection feels like, and how much fun you are having. This can definitely take some practice and those little nagging worries will rear their heads. When they do, simply acknowledge them and try to redirect your attention to the action at hand. Re-absorb yourself in the beauty of the moment.

Need More Advice? I have anxiety, but my partner doesn't. Are we screwed?

Dr. Robert Duff is a clinical psychologist who focuses on mental health for real people. He is also the author of the bestselling series Hardcore Self Help.

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