My husband and I love our nightly ritual of watching movies on Netflix, but often, the films we watch leave me feeling self-conscious about my body. Seemingly every movie we watch portrays women as skinny, attractive, and craving sex, making me wonder whether I am those things myself. Many people understand how explicit sexual media, such as pornography, might influence body image or sexual satisfaction, but sometimes, non-explicit sexual media falls off our radar. Non-explicit sexual content can influence our sexuality in negative ways, but it is preventable and curable. The Family, a Proclamation to the World states that sexual relationships between spouses are “divinely appointed” and “sacred”, therefore we need to be aware of and responsible for anything that influences sexuality.
The American Psychological Association recently found that the media depicts females as more sexualized than males. For example, women in media can be seen wearing revealing clothing, posing in ways that show off their bodies, or implying sexual readiness through facial expressions and body language. In research, this portrayal is referred to as objectification or sexualization. Objectification occurs when women or men are seen and valued for their physicality instead of for their personality or identity. For example, men are often portrayed as strong, fit, and sexually assertive while women are portrayed as thin, flawless, and “ready-to-go.”
An example of ostensibly “harmless” female objectification can be seen in the movie, A Christmas Story. In the movie, Ralphie’s dad wins a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg clad in fishnet tights. Even though A Christmas Story is a silly, lighthearted movie, the lamp in this scene is a prime example of objectification because it not only focuses on a woman’s body part, but it makes the woman’s leg an object with the sole purpose of visual gratification. Other examples of objectification can be seen in social media posts that emphasize how an influencer looks in a bikini instead of about who she is on the inside.
This seemingly benign objectification actually has a significant impact on women’s self-esteem and body image. Social media has shown to make women self-conscious about their body-image, leading women to compare themselves to “sexy,” desirable women. A research conducted in 2019 found that even when women try to look at only body-positive social media content, they still end up objectifying themselves.
In recent years, some outlets have also tried to decrease body-image issues in consumers by advertising not only skinny bodies but plus size bodies as well. Companies have begun using models who are more “realistic” to their consumers, and these advertisers are often praised for being sensitive and inclusive. However, a recent study found that instead of improving body-image as they had expected, advertising plus-sizes actually made consumers even more worried about their weight. Perhaps the reason plus-size advertisements had a negative impact on body image was because it made the audience focus more on body types; in other words, it led to even more objectification.
Even with the many well-intentioned efforts that have been put into changing how bodies are portrayed in the media, the media still seems to have a potent negative impact on body image. Having poor body image is detrimental to mental health, self-esteem, and sexual satisfaction. Dr. Stephanie Buehler explained in an article on PsychCentral how body image can affect your sex life. From her experience as a sex therapist, she suggests that if you feel self-conscious about your body, you will probably not want to be seen naked or partially dressed in front of your partner. You are also less likely to initiate sex and will feel out of tune with your body’s sexual desires.
While both men and women can suffer from self-consciousness about their bodies, this self-consciousness interferes with women’s sexual functioning more than it does for men’s. According to Laurie Watson, a sex therapist, body image can be one of the biggest interrupters of sexual desire, responsiveness, and enjoyment for women. Sexuality is affected by body image because women worry about not only what she thinks of herself but how her partner thinks of her body. Focus is taken away from emotions or connection and is given to physicality, making the person feel uncomfortable.
Being aware of the effect that media has on body image and on sexuality can help couples understand the difficulties they are facing in the bedroom. In Psychology Today, Watson explains how to address the issue of body-image and get back on track with your sex life. First, she suggests being mindful. Mindfulness, or the practice of being present and non-judgmental of your thoughts and feelings, helps improve self-esteem and has shown to improve sexual satisfaction. Second, Dr. Watson suggests focusing on your partner. Noticing what turns on your partner during sex can give you concrete evidence that your body is desirable and can boost your self-esteem. Third, decreasing negative talk about yourself before and during sex can positively impact the overall sexual experience. When you hear negative thoughts in your head, remember that you deserve to have sexual pleasure.
In addition to healing sexual difficulties, couples can prevent further objectification and body-image issues by controlling their non-explicit media intake. Here are some suggestions for ways to ensure the media is not hijacking your view of yourself. First, when watching TV, be mindful of what stereotypes are being presented and whether they are or are not true. Second, while using social media, pay attention to how you feel about yourself, and be brave enough to unfollow an account or turn off your phone when you find yourself comparing your body to unrealistic standards. Third, speak up when you see or hear something that objectifies men or women. Fourth, talk to your partner about how objectifying messages may have seeped into your sex life and how you feel about your body. Following these tips can help you take charge of your sex life instead of letting outside influences have control over them.
Written by Charice West, edited by Alan Hawkins and Stephen F Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
 Zurbriggen, E. L., Collins, R. L., Lamb, S., Roberts, T., Tolman, D. L., Ward, M. L. & Blake, J. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the sexualization of girls. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report-full.pdf
 Claudat, K., & Warren, C. S. (2014). Self-objectification, body self-consciousness during sexual activities, and sexual satisfaction in college women. Body Image, 11(4), 509-515. https://10.1016/j.bodyim.2014.07.006
 Oakes, K. (2019, March 11). The complicated truth about social media and body image. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190311-how-social-media-affects-body-image
 Cohen, R., Fardouly, J., Newton-John, T., & Slater, A. (2019). #BoPo on Instagram: An experimental investigation of the effects of viewing body positive content on young women’s mood and body image. New Media & Society, 21(7), 1546–1564. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444819826530
 Mazziotta, J. (2015, December 14). Study claims plus-size models in advertising may contribute to obesity and make women more self-conscious. People. https://people.com/bodies/plus-size-models-in-advertising-may-make-women-even-more-self-conscious/
 Buehler, S. (2018, July 8). 5 Tips To Improve Your Body Image — And Sex Life. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-tips-to-improve-your-body-image-and-sex-life/
 Watson, L.J. (2018, December 20). Is Body Image Affecting Your Sex Life? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/married-and-still-doing-it/201812/is-body-image-affecting-your-sex-life
 West, Charice (2020) "How Sexual Mindfulness Can Improve a Couple's Sex Life," Family Perspectives:Vol. 2 : Iss. 1 , Article 11. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/familyperspectives/vol2/iss1/11/