“How Can I Enjoy Sex When I Don’t Like How I Look Naked?”

Q: I’ve lost a lot of weight in the past year. I mean, basically the net weight of a couple of pre-schoolers. I’ve got a little ways to go to get to my goal (which is whatever weight I land at while I train for a couple of half marathons). As I am impressed with my ability to essentially leap tall buildings in a single bound, I am utterly miserable with how I look without my clothes on.

My sex life with my SO wasn’t great over a year ago, and now it is basically nonexistent. I am terrified that he sees what I see: loose skin”¦everywhere. I feel less sexy now than I did before, which is unexpected. It is to the point that if he catches me getting out of the shower or mid-dress, I cry. I know that he loves me and is proud of me (and would very much like me to be naked all the time), but I am struggling even being seen in my underwear. With my clothes on, I feel strong and pretty badass. Without, I am a self-defeating pile of sobs and misery. I feel like I am living two realities defined by a few swaths of fabric. What can I do to get to a place where I can be comfortable with having sex and maybe, I don’t know, enjoy it again?

A: First of all, thank you for trusting us with such a personal question – how you see and feel about your body can be a really hard subject for many of us to talk about, and I know that other Persephoneers will be able to relate to part or all of your question. (And some have even posted about similar subjects.)

And before we really get started answering, I just want to mention my own experiences with body image and body image issues, since that’s the frame of reference that I’m coming from. While I can’t relate to having lost a large amount of weight and the way my body changed because of that, I have struggled with food (i.e., not eating it) and loathing my body for years, with the worst period being during a few years of college. So while I can’t relate to your situation, I can relate to an extent to your feelings of misery when you look at yourself.

I think it’s great that you’re thinking about your weight loss not in terms of a specific number-related goal, like pounds or size, but whatever you settle at while you train for some half-marathons. I wonder if you might be able to use that way of thinking to help here. For me, something that is very helpful is trying to think more about what my body can do and how it feels than about how it looks. It makes me feel good about myself when I think about how good I am at doing planks or how much fun I have when I dance around. You can do this just in general or in the context of sex – how great it feels when you have an orgasm or when your partner is pleasing you and how cool it is that you can please your partner, too. If it’s been a while since the two of you have been sexual together or since you’ve really enjoyed it, being sexual by yourself might help remind you of the great things your body can do and wonderful feelings it can give you during sex. I think masturbation is awesome for a lot of reasons, and one of the nice things about it is that it’s an opportunity to completely focus on yourself without the consideration of being naked in front of someone else.

I’m also a big fan of finding the things that make me feel good about my body and making that a part of my life as much as possible – Zumba, cute dresses, and looking at body-positive collages and pictures all make me feel more friendly towards my body. If there’s anything that you know can trigger similar positive attitudes for you, take some time every day to actively seek them out.

While I do think that ultimately feeling positive about and at peace with (and maybe even loving) your body has to come from inside you, I also think there may be ways your partner could help. You said that he loves you and is proud of you and that he would love to see you naked all the time, so trying to see your body the way he sees it might be helpful for you. This might sound a bit cheesy, but here’s something that we have done. We light some yummy-smelling candles and put on some peaceful, relaxing music, and we get in bed (we do it naked, but I think you can do this however you feel comfortable – maybe in something like a nightgown or a tank top and pajama pants). Let’s say we’re going to focus on me; future Mr. will snuggle me and touch me (in a loving but not in a sexual way) and tell me everything he loves about my body and then everything he loves about having sex with me. It offers me an opportunity to think about and look at my body in a different way, from a point of view of love and admiration instead of with the critical and insecure eye that I almost always use. He’ll notice things I never even thought about, and he finds attractive and endearing things I’ve always hated. Sometimes we have sex afterward and sometimes we don’t, but it feels very intimate and it helps me keep that body-positive voice from being drowned out by the negative one. And it doesn’t need to be a big production either – whenever you feel the need, feel free to just straight-up ask your partner out of the blue what he likes about your body, and chances are he’ll have plenty of examples to offer.

And it’s important to remember that you don’t need to go straight from no sex at all to full-on, totally-naked sex. If you don’t feel confident while naked, there’s nothing wrong with keeping on those clothes that make you feel badass. You might be surprised just how much can be accomplished while you’re fully- or mostly-clothed, and it can help you to disassociate having sex from being naked (and thus from feeling unhappy and self-conscious) so you can enjoy the former even if, for now, you’d prefer to avoid the latter. Focus more on what your body can do and how it can feel, and you might find it a lot easier to accept how it looks.

Finally, we wouldn’t be good nerds if we didn’t suggest a few books: Feeling Good About the Way You Look and The Body Image Workbook both offer step-by-step programs for improving self-perception, with an interactive approach that can help you to think about things from different perspectives or help you sort out your feelings. While I haven’t read these particular books, I’ve heard some good things about them and I’ve used similar workbook-type books to help me think through some of my own body image problems.

Ultimately, there may be no surefire secret to approaching this problem, but hopefully what we’ve offered can give you a good start. Persephoneers, do you have any advice to offer too?

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Keep the great ques­tions com­ing! (Hee.) Got a ques­tion to ask, sub­ject you’d like us to dis­cuss, or myth you’d like us to bust? You can e-mail us at FriskyFeminist@persephonemagazine.com or send us an anony­mous mes­sage via the spiffy new Ask Us! fea­ture here.

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paperispatient

I recently earned my MA in women’s studies. I enjoy reading, working out, playing Scrabble, watching cheesy movies, and cooking yummy vegetarian meals with my partner and Frisky Feminist co-author, Future Mr. paperispatient.

15 thoughts on ““How Can I Enjoy Sex When I Don’t Like How I Look Naked?””

  1. Great suggestions as usual!

    One thing that has helped me is looking at my body naked in a large mirror. Also, Drawing the blinds on a day that your partner will be gone all day and doing household chores in your underwear can help with body comfort.

    Spending time naked, even by yourself, can help you adjust so that eventually you’ll be able to share that with a partner. I know that doing things naked or next to naked is scary, and that we have cultural feelings about nudist-like situations, but it can help. Even if you dodge the group nudity. :)

      1. Lol! Tru fax!

        I personally spent a lot of time wearing a sheet as a toga during the day time, and used night time (my house mate/partner worked nights) when no one was going to knock in my neighborhood to do the full out nude thing. While plenty of people saw me wearing sheets, I don’t think anyone saw me as I was at birth. . .

    1. Spending time naked, even by yourself, can help you adjust so that eventually you’ll be able to share that with a partner.

      For me, that has been very true! Physically, I just feel more comfortable naked (I think it’s pants, I just hate wearing pants), and while I couldn’t do it much when I was living in the dorms in college, being naked by myself whenever I could be (and basically all the time once I had my own apartment) has definitely helped nudity be more of an ordinary, comfortable thing for me.

  2. For what it’s worth, I lost a lot of weight and gained a lot of confidence during puberty, but what helped me most of all was doing a form of exercise that allowed me to focus on how strong and effective my body was – in my case, playing sports. By doing something that required my body to function, and doing it well, focusing on that skill made me feel about a hundred times better. I really think the same process happens with dance or any kind of exercise; if you focus on the power and capability of your body, I’ve found it tends to start feeling a lot better.

    I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of flexing in front of the mirror; just reminding yourself, “My body can do this. Fuck yeah, my body.” For me, it really helps to reconcile internal with external.

    1. I think it’s a great idea for LW to focus on her awesome half marathon training.

      I’m going to venture to say it might be a little bit different for her than for you, though. It shows in her letter that she already is proud of what her body can do, and it’s not translating into confidence in the bedroom so far. My guess is that this might be partly because women have been bombarded with so many more images of how they ought to look, and so they can get particularly good at judging themselves harshly against an external standard, if you see what I mean.

      But I don’t know the LW, and I could be way off here!

      1. Oh, that’s almost certainly true – but for me, even when I was proud of what my body could do, I didn’t then go “well that makes me more attractive”. I certainly think the pressures on how her body should look are stronger than any were on me, but sometimes even when you’re proud of your body, that doesn’t necessarily equate to taking the next mental step and going “that inherently makes me more attractive, because I’m strong.” And I think that women are discouraged so much from thinking that physical strength in women makes them more attractive, so it’s easy to forget that being strong can be a source of physical confidence.

        But I’m just rambling, haha.

  3. Along the lines of the advice above – to find ways of having sex without being, or being seen, naked; and to focus more on sensation than visuals – you could also consider doing sex-related things: in the dark, using minimal lighting, or with one or both of you wearing blindfolds.

    (Although perhaps not the latter two at the same time, knocking candles over while blindfolded isn’t a good idea:) ).

    1. Yes, I agree! So much of sex and love isn’t about the way we look to our partners (or the way they look at us). Smell, touch, taste, hearing–all those things matter just as much. Sexy can be what someone says and/or (especially, perhaps) the way they say it, or the way their body feels in your arms.

      Like you, I’m smaller than I used to be, and older… So when I stop to think about it, I know my arse and boobs sag now, and my neck is beginning to look depressingly middle-aged. But there’s nothing (short of surgery,  which I WILL not countenance) I can do about that, so too bad. The fact that I’m physically in full working order matters far more.

      In any case, we’re more than the sum of our parts: I’m sure your SO loves you for who you are, not what you (think you) look like. When he does look at you, he sees the woman he loves. He sees all of you–your mind and your personality, as well as your body. But he can tell you that better than any of us can :)

      1. Sexy can be what someone says and/or (especially, perhaps) the way they say it, or the way their body feels in your arms.

        What a lovely way to put it! On a semi-related note, one big thing that made me feel comfortable with my body during sex (I’d say that’s when I have the fewest issues with it, actually) was actually noticing the “imperfections” or “flaws” in my partners’ bodies and sort of finding them sexy – or, finding sexy and really appreciating the fact that we were close enough or comfortable enough (or just plain horny enough, if it was a casual partner) that they were letting me see them completely naked and letting me touch them and do other things with them. That was a huge part of me being able to say, “My boobs might be this way and this part of me might be that way, but neither of us are ‘perfect’ and we’re going to have a great time, so too bad.”

        (Does that make sense? I haven’t had my coffee yet!)

  4. Going off of what paperispatient said about wearing clothes during sex, maybe buying some new sexy lingerie? If you feel confident in clothes, you might feel more comfortable getting busy if some things are still covered up.

    I just bought a garter belt and stockings, and they make me feel super sexy.

    Also, me and manfriend have been having sex issues recently (lots of stress related stuff) and his therapist suggested Sensate Focus.

    http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/sexinfo/article/sensate-focus

    It’s very similar to what the author described, but it might help you relax too!

    Best of luck :D

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