Body image, sexuality & embodiment

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Body image plays a big part in how we perceive ourselves sexually.  In exploring our sexuality, it is essential that we look at our current feelings towards and perceptions of our body. Body image is not the same as body but rather what the mind does to the body in translating the experience of embodiment into a mental representation. This translation from body to body image is complex and emotionally charged process. Issues with body image is something many women struggle with due to the many influential factors present in modern day society.


Our body image evolves over time and is affected by complex and interrelated sociocultural, interpersonal and intrapsychic factors.  Through our developing years we internalize the way others respond to our bodies – how we’re touched or not, criticized or praised.


Parents attitude towards their own bodies also impacts how children will perceive their own bodies.  If mothers are comfortable with and accepting of their own bodies, their daughters will develop a more accepting attitude to their changing bodies. 


The media is the most pervasive and significant sources of indoctrination into prevalent sociocultural attitudes towards the female, and male, body. Media messages are everywhere. The current reality is that about 95% of women are not represented in the media. 


Our culture tells us that our bodies are not good enough – too fat, too thin, breasts too large or too small, too pear shaped, too top heavy.  The underlying message is that of inadequacy. We are left feeling humiliated and shamed over our bodies, with an overriding sense of inadequacy. 


Sexual objectification in media is also instrumental in the creating of body image dissatisfaction. Current media images, reinforce the message that a woman’s inherent value is in their ability to adequately package and sell herself.  They promote a vision of feminine success and acceptability based on sexual objectification and physical desirability rather then female agency.


Impaired body image can also be a long term consequence of sexual and physical violation.  Body hatred and feeling of estrangement are common experiences for adults of survivors of child sexual abuse.  Disassociation is common for trauma survivors in general.  Internalised perceptions of the body being dirty, bad, evil or out of control or untrustworthy can be very difficult to overcome and requires the support and guidance of a trained to work with trauma survivors.  


Restoring a health body image


The goal of working with people struggling with body image to help them become embodied.  To become embodied is to experience the body as the centre of existence, not as a focus but a reference point for being in the world. To be embodied means to feel alive, vital and to perceive bodily states as they change from pleasure to pain, from hunger to satisfaction, from energy to fatigue from vitality to tranquillity. 


If we are centred in our body, we can move through the world with greater ease and self-confidence.  If we can reconnect with our body and learn to trust and respect our own rhythms and messages, we can come to a place of self-acceptance, where the body and self can coexist in relative harmony.  For this to happen the body needs to be one of peace and harmony and not combat and contest. Sex therapy can provide the necessary support and guidance to generate awareness necessary for change so we can have the opportunity to heal, grow and to experience the empowerment of self-acceptance.


Seven strategies for enhancing your body image


1.     Set our own standards of beauty.  Revolutionise our values by defining attractiveness with much broader parameters. Research as shown that women who set up their own beauty ideal have a better body image.  This means finding a clothing style that you feel good in or wearing a hairstyle you like – essentially celebrating the best of what you have.


2.     Start doing what feels good and indulges your senses.  Treat yourself with kindness by pampering yourself with oils/creams, aromatherapy, body brushes, massages – or what ever feels good.   Bath house are a great way to nurture ourselves with the added bonus of being naked with the same gender.  Getting naked with a group of people, and realising no one fits into the perfect category and that you are perfectly acceptable the way you are, is such a liberating experience.


3.     Limit your interactions with people who are critical of your body.  It will only reinforce your own internal critic.


4.     Body work such as Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, Yoga, Shiatsu, Dance and movement can be helpful to reconnect with our body and explore the link between our emotional and physical body.  We come to realise our body is so much more then its physical appearance.


5.     Explore our relationship with food and the meaning food has in our lives.  Many specialists feel they food is actually a metaphor for girls to cope with and express many unacceptable feelings such as anger and rage and their discontent with other aspects of their lives.   Such coping mechanism can remain with us through our adult lives.


6.     Journal writing our experience or drawing our bodies using colour to highlight the parts that cause pain and discomfort, and parts that cause the most joy, can be a valuable part of self-exploration and helps us reconnect to our body.


7.     Move the focus from the negative to positive regard.  Focus on exercising for fun, adventure or general wellbeing, and eating for nourishment, rather then to develop a better body image. We need to move the focus from purely the physical appearance of our bodies. When we go deeper and consider our bodies from a holistic perspective, we acknowledge the emotional, mental and spiritual dimensions of our being.  We are much more then skin deep.


When women can look in a mirror with acceptance and appreciation rather then disdain, when they can honour the vitality, agility and utility of their bodies, and when they can open themselves to the rhythms and range of sensory experiences that are part of living in a body, they will come a long way toward embracing and owning their embodied sexuality.