Greater body esteem is associated with greater sexual harmony among romantic couples, according to new research published in The Journal of Sex Research. The findings provide evidence that feeling comfortable with your body is important both for your own sexual well-being as well as the sexual well-being of your partner.
“Body image is something that so many people struggle with that challenges with it feel like something that are really important to better understand through research,” said study author Amber A. Price, a relationship educator and PhD student at Brigham Young University.
“It’s hard to pin down an exact number, but some research shows that as many as 97% of women may be dissatisfied with some aspect of their body and for men, it’s becoming increasingly common to feel dissatisfied with the body too with the majority of men feeling at least some dissatisfaction.”
“The thing is, if you’re in a sexual relationship and your focus is on what your body looks like, rather than what it feels like, you’re going to miss the opportunity to enjoy the experience and to develop deeper connection with your partner,” Price explained. “Research has shown that for years.”
“What we wanted to better understand is how one person’s body image might impact their partner’s experience in the sexual relationship as well. Like, if I have poor body image, is my partner’s sexual experience going to change?”
The researchers examined data from a nationally representative sample of 2,177 newlywed couples, which was drawn from two waves of the Couple Relationships and Transition Experiences (CREATE) study.
Price and her colleagues used an Actor–Partner Interdependence Mediation Model, a statistical method that helps researchers understand how individual factors, such as personality or behavior, affect both the person themselves (the actor) and their partner in the relationship. In particular, the study sought to unravel how body esteem was related to sexual passion and relationship satisfaction.
The researchers found that greater body esteem, both for individuals and their partners, was linked to greater sexual harmony. In other words, those who agreed with statements such as “I like what I see when I look in the mirror” and “I’m pretty happy about the way I look” were more likely to agree with statements such as “My strong sexual interests are well-integrated into my relationship with my partner” — and their partner was more likely to agree with the latter statement as well.
“What we found is that for those who felt good about their body, this had a positive effect on not only their sexual experience, but their partner’s also. So feeling good about your body is one important part of enjoying sex. This was true for both men and women,” Price told PsyPost.
In addition, those with greater sexual harmony tended to also have greater relationship satisfaction, and women’s sexual harmony was positively associated with men’s relationship satisfaction.
“Research about body image is usually about the sexual relationship and not the relationship as a whole, but our finding showed an association between body image and relationship satisfaction even after accounting for the sexual part,” Price noted. “So not only does your body image have the potential to impact your sexual relationship, but your overall happiness with your partner might be tied to how you feel about your body.”
Low body esteem, in contrast, was associated with greater sexual inhibition.
“If either men or women had poor body image, the woman’s sexual experience was more likely to be inhibited (meaning she held back from authentically enjoying the experience),” Price explained. “This shows that she not only needs to feel confident with her own body in order to feel comfortable enjoying sex, but she also needs her partner to feel comfortable with his body.”
“It’s almost like she’s mirroring his level of comfort or following his lead and she might feel like if he’s uncomfortable with his body, maybe she should be too. Maybe she feels like if he’s judging his own body, he might be judging hers too.”
The study sheds new light on the relationships between body esteem and sexual passion styles. But like all research, the findings have some caveats.
“This study used newlywed heterosexual couples, so it’s hard to know how this translates into other types of relationships,” Price explained. “For example, these newlyweds were fairly young (average age in their late 20s), so would the outcomes be the same in couples later in life? Maybe they’ve gotten more comfortable with their body or maybe age and the bodily side effects that come with it would make it even more of a challenge?”
“Worrying about what your body looks like rather than what it feels like or how it functions can be really harmful to your relationship, especially your sexual relationship,” Price said. “Shifting the focus away from appearance and instead towards connection and being present can really help you not only your own enjoyment in the sexual relationship, but your partner’s too. It’s worth working on how you feel about your body!”
The study, “Body Image and Sex: A Dyadic Examination of Body Esteem and Sexual Inhibition, Obsession, and Harmony“, was authored by Amber A. Price, Kimberly G. Y. McCann, Lyndsey Kunzler, Chelom E. Leavitt, and Erin K. Holmes.