Positive body image linked to better — and safer — sex

Having a positive body image isn’t just associated with greater sexual desire and self-esteem — according to a new scientific review, it’s also associated with better sexual communication and safer sex.

“As a body image researcher, I’ve always been interested in the connection between body image and sexuality. It seems intuitive and both body image and sexuality are important parts of adults’ lives. Yet, there is not much research on this topic, particularly among men,” said study author Meghan M. Gillen, an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Abington.

“This review piece was written to summarize what has been found in this area, and to highlight the contributions of Dr. Thomas Cash to this field. Dr. Cash is a prolific body image scholar and former editor of the journal Body Image.”

The review indicated that having a positive body image is associated with improvements in one’s sex life. Women who are more satisfied with their appearance tend to initiate sex more often and report more orgasms during sex, while both men and women with a better body image tend to be more comfortable discussing sexual topics with a partner.

Studies have also found that women with greater body shame and dissatisfaction report more unprotected sex and are more likely to mix substance use and sexual activity.

“Positive body image is associated with a variety of adaptive sexual experiences such as safer sex, sexual desire, sexual functioning, communication about sex, and comfort with sex. Body dissatisfaction is associated with a variety of negative sexual experiences,” Gillen told PsyPost.

But there was an exception to this trend. A 2003 study found that women who were pursuing breast augmentation reported higher dissatisfaction with their breasts. Despite this dissatisfaction, they reported higher sexual functioning compared to women not pursuing breast augmentation.

The review also highlighted some gaps in the literature. The research thus far has mostly focused on young heterosexual women and few studies have used longitudinal designs.

“It’s important to keep in mind that these associations are correlational. That is, we don’t know if, for example, if more positive body image causes more positive sexual experiences, or if more positive sexual experiences cause more positive body image,” Gillen explained.

“More research is needed to understand the associations between body image and sexual well-being among men, as well as in special populations such as individuals who are pregnant, postpartum, disabled, disfigured, or ill.”

The study, “A review of research linking body image and sexual well-being“, was authored by Meghan M. Gillen and Charlotte H. Markey.