Sexual images have long been used across all forms of media to sell and promote a wealth of products. In addition to this, images of body and beauty ideals have become an integral part of everyday life in the Western hemisphere.
One can scarcely go one day without seeing adverts, films, and even television shows promoting an almost uniformly abstract concept of beauty.
Often such images are referred to as “unattainable”, with “too thin” high fashion models, “unnaturally proportioned” glamour models, photoshopped images, and overly preened celebrities flooding our consciousness through every available avenue.
So extreme is our cultural obsession with beauty and perfection that between 1972 and 1997 the number of women found to be unhappy with their figures jumped from 25% to 56%.
Furthermore, a survey commissioned by REAL Magazine in 2012 found that only 3% of women in the UK are completely happy with their bodies, and 73% think about their size or shape every single day.
With body issues now being as pervasive as the images that are thought to have created them, it is no wonder they are hindering people’s ability to focus on other things, including sex.
These images of perfection have encouraged our society not only to develop an obsession with the physical, but also to associate our value as people with our aesthetic value; a culture that does real damage to self-esteem.
Dr Ann Kearney-Cooke, director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, marks such a lack of body confidence as a real obstacle for the intimacy of sex. Cooke argues that women with poor body image are less likely to initiate and are less able to focus on their own or their partner’s needs during sex, which could ultimately result in a less fulfilling sex life.
Of course body confidence is not an issue exclusive to women – men also reap these damaging side effects on their sexuality. Whilst for women there is at least a dialogue on the subject, even if it is problematically buried within the same magazines that promote unattainable ideals, men’s publications scarcely broach such a topic as body image. Perhaps at least heterosexual men can take solace in knowing that REAL’s survey also revealed that 91% of their heterosexual female participants were happy with their partner’s appearance.
It is generally thought that the security of a loving and fulfilling relationship can prevent low self-esteem becoming a barrier to intimacy. More generally, to tackle the root cause, it is encouraged that self-worth must be returned to our inner selves, and not just our bodies.
The French score highly in this area; in France there is not such a strict standard of beauty, as other attributes such as style and grace are equally valued, and their sex lives flourish as a result. Body confidence issues have arguably fuelled the diet, fitness, plastic surgery and beauty industries, all of which feed off insecurities, but now that low self-esteem poses a threat to the sex life, surely enough is enough?