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Body Image and sexual satisfaction

Keywords | Summary | Correspondence | References


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Nowadays, media floods us with pictures of extremely attractive women and men, of whom we know rationally that they do not correspond to the unvarnished reality at all, but on an unconscious level these photos set standards of eternal beauty. The aim of this work was to find out how men and women differ in their body image and whether there is a connection to sexual satisfaction. In our study the data from 99 women and 57 men could be evaluated. Women are more negative than men in terms of their attractiveness. There was a significantly positive relationship between sexual satisfaction (both for partnership and for one's own sexuality) and a positive body image. Still it remains unclear whether sexually satisfied people have a positive body image because they have a body that their partner loves, even if this does not correspond to the usual ideal ideas?


Mass media and ideal body shapes

According to current figures from the Federal Statistical Office, 41% of people in Germany live in single households, in large cities as many as 54%. Having no partner any more seems to be gradually becoming the norm. Researchers are racking their brains over the reasons for this; one possible cause may be today’s exaggerated ideal of beauty: on the one hand, you want a partner who corresponds to an ideal that has been shaped by the media (which usually does not even exist in everyday life); on the other hand, you compare yourself to this beauty optimum – and then come off badly.


Nowadays the body is also a product, it can be worked on and improved [1]. Barbie dolls have been around since 1959, creating a standard for an optimised appearance from childhood onwards. For some years now, perfected, lifelike “dolls” made of silicone have been available (see fig. 1).  For adults, platforms such as “Instagram”, “Beauty Blogger”, “Fitness Blogger” etc. have been added to tried and tested media such as TV shows, cinema films or magazine advertising, which construct female and male beauty ideals. Modern man is inundated with images of extremely attractive women and men, of which we rationally know that they do not correspond to reality, but on a more unconscious level these photos set standards of eternal beauty, slimness and sportiness, which we now try to emulate throughout our lives [2]. More pronounced than with men, women have to struggle with strict beauty guidelines. One example of this is the “double standard of aging”, i.e. the ageing of men and women is measured with double standards; grey hair is considered attractive for men and unattractive for women [3].


Nowadays, the mass media provide images of optimised body shapes everywhere, but the specifications are so strict that the average person can only comply with them – if at all – at enormous expense. Due to the excessive demands on one’s own body and the true appearance, a mental discrepancy arises. If such exaggerated body ideals are not achieved, a negative body image can develop [4], which may also be reflected in sexual activity: Women (and men) who do not meet this standard often have problems showing themselves naked in front of their partners. Those who do not like their own body believe that their partner will also judge them negatively. To have such pessimistic thoughts during sexual acts disturbs arousal and the ability to reach orgasm not only during the partnership, but under certain circumstances also during masturbation.


The aim of our research was therefore to find out how men and women differ in their body image and whether there is a connection between body image and sexual satisfaction.


Body image

Daszkowski wrote in 2003: “Body image” is “…part of a person’s identity and encompasses his entire relationship to the body, i.e. the mental image that a person forms of his physical appearance, including all positive and negative aspects” [4]. The body image is composed of (a) perceptual, (b) cognitive, (c) affective and (d) behavioural levels [5].


The perceptive level conveys sensory information, e.g. the tactile and spatial image of one’s own body. Even at this simple level, a difference can be found between one’s own body perception and the actual appearance [26]. The affective body image deals with the feelings we associate with the appearance of our body. The cognitive level describes the thoughts, beliefs, ideas, evaluations and attitudes towards one’s own body. These three components can lead to a positive or negative assessment of one’s own body [5], which has behavioural effects. Vocks and co-authors [6] distinguish between avoidance and control behaviour, for example.


However, satisfaction with one’s own appearance can be quite independent of weight, body shape or imperfections. For example, people who consciously pay attention to their physical needs and adopt positive behaviours such as healthy eating and sufficient exercise can be quite satisfied with their body, even if outwardly they seem to deviate from the typical beauty ideal [7]. The German aphorist Lothar Hüther aptly said: “It is the imperfection that makes for perfect beauty”. Likewise, there are people for whom beauty is not overly important and who are satisfied with their body simply because it works well.

Fig. 1: Perfected silicone doll, which creates a standard in childhood as to how one should look like in order to be a desirable woman later on (12“ Seamless action figure with realistic full silicone body by Jiaou; Photo: E. Kasten)

A positive body image goes hand in hand with respect and acceptance of one’s own body and usually also includes a good sense of self-worth. In particular, by rejecting unrealistic body ideals, as they are often portrayed in the media, one can protect both the body image and one’s own self-esteem [8]. Having a positive body image not only plays a role in physical, mental and emotional health, but also has an influence on many areas of life, such as sexuality. Conversely, a negative body image does not only affect problematic people, e.g. overweight people, but dissatisfaction with the body can also arise with a “normal” body.


Gender differences

In people who are free of physical or mental disorders, gender has been identified as the strongest determinant of body image. Even the first scientific studies showed that women have a more negative body image than men. Regardless of the actual digital display of the scales, women often feel overweight and want to lose weight. Men who are dissatisfied with their bodies often feel that they are not muscular enough and want to get stronger [9]. Recent studies have also come to similar conclusions. For example, the publication by Iqbal et al. [10] showed that men have a much more positive body image than women; especially in women, a negative body image correlated with a too high body mass index (BMI) [11]. This means that a woman’s body weight remains central to her self-image, and women experience more body image problems than men, and they are more concerned with their bodies [12, 13]. However, it cannot be overlooked that men’s dissatisfaction with their bodies has increased in recent years. As already mentioned, men want to increase muscle mass and strength more than anything else, and they are typically more concerned with their body shape than their weight [14,15].


Theory of self-objectification

Especially in the media, women are often presented as a collection of isolated body parts, such as legs, breasts, vulva or buttocks; this is called objectification or even sexual objectification. Such images or video clips promote unrealistic images, but contribute to the definition of what “beauty” is within the framework of socio-cultural norms. Women are judged here only by their appearance (and not by their character, diligence or intelligence). The problem here is: In the course of their socialisation, women begin to internalise this perspective and to objectify themselves by constantly evaluating themselves more and more about the concept of their own beauty, they try to optimise their appearance and believe that they are only worth something if they define themselves through good looks. According to the theory of self-objectification, “a current objectification or objectification of women in society leads them to internalise an external perspective of their person and thus to perceive themselves as objects that are evaluated by others” [16]. Self-objectification leads to self-insecurity and to a constant monitoring of the body’s external appearance; moreover, as mentioned, women see their bodies more critically than men. The internalisation of perspective can lead to problems such as a negative body image or, especially during puberty, after pregnancy or in old age, also to feelings such as shame and fear about the appearance of one’s own body.


Sexual satisfaction and body field

Most of the studies that measure sexual satisfaction relate to sexuality in pairs. Accordingly, people who live in stable partnerships have been the most frequently asked about their sexual satisfaction [17]. But sexual satisfaction also exists, for example through masturbation, in people who are not in a relationship. More recent studies therefore work with more precise concepts such as “sexual distress”, i.e. difficulties experienced in sexual relationships as well as in one’s own sexuality, and “sexual well-being”, i.e. satisfaction with the emotional aspects of the sexual relationship, as well as with one’s own sexual function and the subjective meaning of sexuality. Both concepts include partnership sexuality, but the advantage is that the experience of one’s own sexuality is now also taken into account. Masturbation in particular is an equivalent form of sexuality, especially for young people today, which has increased drastically for both sexes as a result of pornography that is freely accessible on the Internet at all times. 80% of the respondents under 30 years of age agreed with the statement: “Masturbation is an independent form of sexuality which can also be practised in stable partnerships, regardless of how often the partners sleep together” [18].

Fig. 2: Difference in the scale „Rejection Body Rating“ between women
and men.

A large number of studies show that body image is an important factor in terms of sexual satisfaction. According to a study by Træen et al [11], a negative body image results in low sexual satisfaction for both sexes. In the work of Claudat & Warren [19], shame and uncertainty about how one’s own body looks during sexual activity correlated negatively with sexual satisfaction. In the study by Pujols, Meston and Seal [20], it was found that a low frequency of disturbing thoughts about one’s own attractiveness can predict well-being during sexual activity. This means that the more women value their own bodies, the higher the number of fulfilled sexual activities. A study by Babayan, Saeed and Aminpour [21] found that sexual satisfaction is influenced by a positive body image, as well as by frequent sport and an appropriate number of sexual interactions. People who have a positive body image enjoy a higher level of self-esteem, pay more attention to their own needs and place more emphasis on improving their physical well-being. Young people with a positive body image in particular have earlier and more frequent sexual experiences, engage in a wider range of erotic activities, feel more sexually desirable, report fewer orgasm difficulties and enjoy sexual intercourse more than people with a negative body image. The latter report more sexual anxiety and problems, as well as lower sexual esteem than people with a positive body image [22].


According to Basson [23], people get three types of feedback during sexual arousal: genital, emotional and cognitive. Sexually healthy men get accurate feedback about their pleasure through swelling of the penis, which further increases sexual arousal. Women usually lack a comparably accurate awareness of lubrication and genital swelling as a physical measure of sexual arousal. Especially when negative emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, shame or self insecurity are added during the arousal phase, the feedback is negative. These negative emotions are often associated with a negative body image. Basson claims that the body image influences these feedback loops between autonomic nerve reactions, affect, cognition and cognitive assessment of the erotic situation, which in turn has an effect on sexual arousal and the subsequent ability to orgasm [15,23].


Data of our study

In the study we conducted, the data of 99 women and 57 men were evaluated. The age of the participants ranged from 18 to 60 years, the average age of the female participants was M = 29.50 and the male participants were on average M = 28.96 years old. The calculated BMI of the entire sample had an average value of 22.78 kg/ m2. The minimum was 15.55 kg/m2 and the maximum 36.42 kg/m m2 . 102 participants were in a stable partnership (65.4%), 54 participants stated that they were not in a partnership (34.6%). Several questionnaires were used to test the hypotheses. The “Questionnaire on Body Image” (FKB-20) by Clement and Leo [24] is used to diagnose body image disorders, but also to record subjective aspects of body experience (attractiveness, athleticism, health, clumsiness, hypochondriac anxiety, vanity, vitality and erotic body occupation). A German version of the “New Sexual Satisfaction Scale – Short Form” (NSSS) by Štulhofer, Buško and Brouillard was selected for the survey of sexual satisfaction [25, 26]. The NSSS focuses on two subscales: (A) Ego-focused subscale (sexual satisfaction through personal experiences and sensations) and (B) partner and sexual activity-focused subscale (sexual satisfaction resulting from the perception of the partner’s sexual behaviour and reactions and the variety and frequency of sexual activities).


Our first hypothesis was that women have a more negative body image than men. The Mann-Whitney-U-Test showed a significant difference between the two groups (Z = – 2.82, p = .00025). According to the literature cited above, women also had a more negative body image overall than men in our data. They assessed themselves more negatively with regard to their external attractiveness, their well-being and the feeling of coherence in their bodies.


We also analysed the assumption whether there is a connection between neuroticism, i.e. emotional instability, and body image. The Spearman rank correlation showed a comparatively small but still significantly negative correlation (rs = – .224, p <.005) between neuroticism and a positive body image, i.e. emotionally unstable people tend to be more likely to overcritically evaluate themselves and build up a negative image of their own body compared to emotionally stable people. Neuroticism thus contributes to predicting dissatisfaction with one’s own body [27]. Emotionally stable people are likely to use better coping strategies (such as rejecting unrealistic body ideals from the media) to regulate their self-esteem than people with a high level of neuroticism.


There was also a significant positive correlation between sexual satisfaction, both for the partnership and for one’s own sexuality, and a positive body image. The Spearman rank correlation showed a significant positive correlation between the ego-focused subscale A and a positive body image when tested one-sidedly (rs = .359, p < .000). There is a medium effect strength according to Cohen. This means that people who are sexually satisfied also have a positive body image.


As after every scientific study, several questions remain unanswered. In particular, whether physically attractive people are more satisfied sexually, because they find it easier to find a suitable, loving partner who adores them? Or maybe a person who (regardless of his real attractiveness) is satisfied with himself, his body and his appearance simply radiates more optimism and inner stability and therefore has better sex?


Maybe sexually satisfied people also have a positive body image because they have a partner who loves their body – even if that body is far from perfection? Good looks are important and have many advantages in life, but sex should be based on love and not just on physical attractiveness.

Address of Correspondence

Marlene Schneider
MSH University of Applied Sciences and Medical University
Am Kaiserkai 1
DE- 20457 Hamburg
Prof. Dr. Erich Kasten
MSH University of Applied Sciences and Medical University
Am Kaiserkai 1
DE- 20457 Hamburg

Conflict of Interests



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