Every day, women are bombarded with conflicting messages from advertisements, social media and magazine stands:
“Learn to love yourself!”
“Lose 10 pounds in five days!”
“How to get toned in a month!”
It’s no wonder that self-esteem is a complex and often fraught concept in our society. In this environment, it can be difficult to maintain a positive view of your body and sexuality.
Many women find their self-esteem negatively affected by media portrayals of a culturally idealized womanhood. Too often this means white, thin, nondisabled and cisgender. Buying into the one-size-fits-all beauty standard may create barriers to intimate relationships and recognizing your sexuality. While advancements have been made in media representation of bodies of different physical abilities, sizes, races and ethnicities, there is still progress to be made.
A note: Though many women face these issues, feeling bad about yourself is not unique to women, and can affect men, as well as gender diverse and transgender individuals. The term “women” is used in this post, but the suggestions can be applied more broadly.
In order to better understand how to improve your sense of self, it’s helpful to fully understand the different aspects of self-image. Suneela Vegunta, M.D., a Women’s Health specialist physician at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, distinguishes between body esteem and sexual self-esteem:
- Body esteem is the perceptions and beliefs you have about your body parts, facial attractiveness and sexuality.
- Sexual self-esteem is self-assurance associated with sexual activities, the perception of your own sex appeal, and your overall desire to engage in healthy sexual behaviors and sexual experiences.
Body esteem can be influenced by many factors, including the opinion of family and friends; a history of physical, sexual or mental trauma; physical development; and social media. Taking media messages to heart can lead to negative body esteem. Women with negative body esteem are more likely to focus on their perceived faults until they become all-consuming. This can lead to body obsession.
Instead, you can define beauty yourself. While it can be difficult to divorce your perception from societal and media messaging, an authentic, personal version of beauty can transform your body esteem and overall well-being.
Sexual self-esteem can be affected and shaped by life experiences. Some women experience negative feelings about their bodies and become self-consciousness during sexual activity. This can lead to avoiding sexual activity, an impaired ability to experience arousal and achieve orgasm, and even an unwillingness to advocate for yourself when sexual activity becomes painful or uncomfortable. For example, women with low sexual self-esteem may hesitate to ask a partner to wear a condom during sexual intercourse, which, of course, can lead to many unintended consequences.
Sexual self-esteem contains five elements. Think about your own sexual experiences and consider whether there is room to grow in your confidence around these elements.
- Skill and experience. The capacity to desire and be desired by a sexual partner, as well as availability for sexual opportunities.
- Attractiveness. The sense of your sexual attractiveness, regardless of other individuals’ perceptions; believing in self-beauty and attractiveness.
- Control. The capacity to direct or manage your thoughts, feelings and sexual interactions.
- Moral judgement. Agreement between your thoughts, feelings and sexual behaviors and your moral standards. Moral judgment also includes the ability to self-evaluate thoughts, emotions and sexual behavior.
- Capacity to adapt. Agreement or compatibility between your experiences and sexual behaviors and your personal aims or aspirations. This is the ability to adapt personal sexual behavior experiences with others’ personal goals.
Several scenarios can impair your sexual self-esteem, including past negative sexual experiences, cancer and subsequent treatment, and physical disability. If you are struggling with sexual self-esteem, you may recognize a thought process or behavior known as “spectatoring.” Spectatoring is a frequent thinking pattern among women who struggle with sexual self-esteem. It refers to the tendency of women with negative views of their sexual bodies to fixate on negative aspects of their body during sexual experiences.
Spectatoring is a distraction that is linked to increased avoidance of sexual activity and decreased sexual functioning, which can influence arousal and orgasm. It becomes difficult to be present in the moment and have fulfilling sexual experiences when you are focused on physical faults and are viewing your body as if from the outside.
Sexual self-esteem can become even more complex for women with physical disabilities. Women with disabilities are at higher risk of lower self-esteem and lower body image, leading to lower sexual satisfaction. Having a physical disability may cause some people to resist entering into relationships due to low sexual esteem. Consequently, they may feel discouraged when it comes to their sexuality. Although many women with disabilities accept and love their bodies, they may still have to deal with the societal expectation of how women “should” look.
For example, women who survive breast cancer may face a period of adjustment in accepting and adapting to their post-treatment bodies. After mastectomy, the perception of one’s own body and self-esteem may change. These people may feel fear or uncertainty about returning to sexual activity. For many people, returning to satisfactory sexual activity and regaining a sense of attractiveness are important goals following effective breast cancer treatment.
Improving body esteem and sexual self-esteem
While several factors can negatively affect your body esteem and sexual self-esteem, there are tools to improve both.
Factors that positively influence sexual self-esteem include appreciation and acceptance of a new body image — both by a woman as well as her partner(s) — strong emotional bonds, and the ability to develop a positive sense of attractiveness.
Below are some suggestions to enhance self-esteem and sexual self-esteem. Women with physical disabilities provided these strategies to Mayo Clinic Women’s Health Department:
- Be kind and compassionate to yourself and love the way you are.
- Engage with media that positively represents sexual health and promotes body esteem.
- Become aware of negative behaviors such as spectatoring.
- Familiarize yourself with what makes you experience pleasure during sex.
- Speak to yourself as a beautiful person.
- Make body positivity the rule (no apologies, no shame).
- Appreciate your sexuality.
- Be bold and assertive; don’t be afraid to be yourself.
- Be with people who have a positive effect on you.
- Learn to accept compliments.
- Practice saying no.
- Take inventory of your feelings and practice communicating these feelings to others.
- Get to know yourself on a more intimate level.
- Safely explore your interests both sexually and nonsexually.
- Communicate honestly about sex beforehand with your partner(s).
- Learn to develop routines and habits that get you in the mood.
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