MENTAL HEALTH ∙ 4 minute read

How can I get over my body image anxiety during sex?

By Mike Rampton

Body image anxiety is rampant among young men. It’s a major cause of sexual dysfunction, commonly tarnishing sexual experience. We speak to men who are faced with the problem and discuss ways of combating body image anxiety.

Craig (not his real name) has a problem. He’s a physically healthy, pleasant-looking man in his late twenties who is convinced that he’s too ‘scrawny’ (his word) for anyone to find him attractive.

“Whenever I sleep with anyone, I find myself thinking about how much they’ll regret it afterwards,” he says. “I’ll be thinking in the back of my mind about how I’ll be a memory they’re embarrassed by, like, ‘I can’t believe I slept with that weak bastard.’”

This inner monologue has led to neither himself nor the people he has slept with getting the most out of the experience. “I feel distracted, and then I’ll get pissed off with myself, like, ‘I’m having sex with this woman but thinking about myself,’” he says.

Craig’s strategy has been to lift weights at home, go to the gym weekly and follow ‘gymspiration’ accounts on Instagram in a bid to transform himself into the shape he thinks he should be, but he remains convinced he’s a turnoff.

He is not alone. Large numbers of men are reporting mental health problems in relation to body image. According to the Mental Health Foundation, approximately 1/4 of UK men say they have felt depressed or anxious about the way their body looks over the last year alone, and 1/7 would go as far as to say they’ve felt ashamed.

Narrowing the gender gap in the wrong direction

It’s one of the few areas where we’re narrowing the gender gap, but we’re doing it in the wrong direction — men are catching up with women, if not overtaking them, in terms of body image anxiety. Whether we’re feeling too fat, too skinny, not muscular enough or just somehow not right, huge numbers of men are stressed about their bodies. Height, weight, shape, size — if it’s there, it can be worried about.

Even ridiculously handsome men struggle with it. Richard Madden, the perfectly formed star of The Bodyguard and Game of Thrones, has spoken of having fat rolls pinched on set and being told to go to the gym.

He confessed to Vogue that he was worried he and other actors, presenting unrealistic, impossibly honed versions of themselves on screen, were adding to the pressure felt by so many men. Asked about on-screen nudity, he said, “We’re projecting a very unrealistic body image. I find myself with actor friends — after we’ve done a kind of barely eating, working-out-twice-a-day, no-carbing thing for these scenes — looking at each other going: ‘We’re just feeding this same shit that we’re against.’”

The problem with Hollywood’s flawless physiques

The flawless physiques we see on screen — whether we’re talking Hollywood or Instagram — take huge amounts of work, months-long fitness regimes, personal trainers and ludicrous schedules. The men on Love Island spend all day working out in-between dramatic trysts — that’s not real life. Dwayne Johnson does not lead a typical existence.

We know these chiselled bodies aren’t as easily attainable by ‘regular’ guys with jobs, commitments and the desire to occasionally have a few crisps. And we know that being the most jacked doesn’t necessarily equate with being found the most attractive. Plenty of women, like journalist Daisy Buchanan, would take Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt over Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratt.

‘Looking at Pratt’s impressive physique, I want to ask him, “But when do you find the time to read?” she writes in the Telegraph. ‘“Do you ever go for delicious, boozy six-hour dinners, or do you now only eat those weird protein balls they sell in the kiosk at Waitrose?”’

Sensibly, rationally, we all know Pratt’s now-jacked body is not the norm, and a sizable number of women prefer less-beefy guys. But was it always this way? There’s long been pressure on men to have a good physique, but if this GQ cover of David Beckham from 2002 is anything to go by, in the past, the ideal male body was considerably less muscular. Yet it’s still easy to feel like we don’t measure up.

The relationship between porn and penis size anxiety

Speaking of measuring up, there’s also pornography, which seems to be distorting men’s ideas of what a ‘normal’ penis looks like. A 2017 survey of 2,000 men and women by International Andrology found a direct correlation between watching a lot of porn and being dissatisfied with your penis size.

The consequences of this concern can manifest themselves physically, even in mild cases. Anxiety and stress can both be huge factors in erectile dysfunction (as we discuss in detail in our Book of Erections) and body image issues can be a cause, especially in younger men.

Feeling embarrassed to be seen naked, stressing about ‘performing’ inadequately and worrying that you don’t measure up are all things that can snowball. Like in Craig’s case, fixating on your perceived shortcomings can affect everyone involved. Poor body image has been also associated with risky sexual behaviours, a general lack of sex drive and, even though it might seem counterintuitive, premature ejaculation.

“Our research suggests that almost a fifth of UK adult men say their body image has negatively affected their sex life over the last year,” says Richard Grange from the Mental Health Foundation. “Negative perceptions about your body can affect people’s sexual confidence and confidence to be naked with a partner. Feeling ashamed about how you might look, for example, can impact your ability to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship.”

If, like Craig, this is something that affects you, help is definitely at hand. It might be something you can do yourself, it might be something you need friends’ or professionals’ help with, but either way, it’s out there.

Self-improvement over self-destruction

“A desire to lose weight or develop more muscles is in itself not a problem,” says Grange. “The problem comes when this is being driven by, or leads to, negative feelings like depression or anxiety.”

It’s the difference between feeling excited about what you’re doing, and the potential results you might attain, and feeling terrified of not doing it or achieving them. It’s all about how you approach it — getting bigger arms or toning that tummy should be something nice you want to achieve rather than the be-all and end-all.

Consider getting help

“If your body image is a significant cause of stress, or if you’re being bullied about how your body looks, consider talking to a friend or a health professional,” says Grange. “It’s especially important to do this if you’re feeling any pressure to make drastic decisions — for instance, starting extreme dieting or trying drugs and supplements — or if you’re having thoughts of harming yourself.” If you think you may have an eating disorder, there are organisations like MaleVoicED that can help. 

You can also get treatments to help give you back your confidence and combat sexual health issues. Delay Wipes, Delay Spray and Priligy all work to improve premature ejaculation. For erectile dysfunction, first-line medications include sildenafil, tadalafil and Viagra Connect.

Lay off the ’Gram

“Be aware of how you feel when using certain apps,” says Grange. “If you find them stressful in relation to your body image, consider uninstalling them. Look at the people in the accounts you’re following on social media and be mindful of how you feel about your own body and appearance when you look at them.

“Consider muting or unfollowing accounts or hashtags that cause you to feel negatively about your body or encourage you to compare yourself unfavourably to others.” If the only men you ever see in your media consumption are impossibly shredded, that may well have an impact on you. 

Embrace your penis

Men in the US reportedly spend a whopping $5 billion a year on penis enhancement products, even though typical penis enlargement surgery only enhances the size of the penis when flaccid. Men place an enormous emphasis on size, while 7/8 heterosexual women are perfectly happy with what their partner’s packing.

Jim (not his real name) tells Numan: “I spent over a decade worrying about my penis size, regularly measuring it, occasionally trying to stretch it, taking glances at other men’s dicks at the urinal and getting funny looks. Then I met someone who finally managed to get it into my head that the vast majority of penises (including mine) do the trick whatever their size, and that good sex is so much more than just penetration.

“Now I realise, it’s so much better to focus on pleasuring your partner — listening to what they like — than focusing on yourself and how you feel about your own body. Being more present makes for better sex, for both parties.”

The numan take

Issues with body image can cause mental, emotional and sexual problems, but by working to avoid surrounding yourself with unattainable images, reframing your fitness goals as aspirational rather than essential and talking through your problems, everyone should be able to feel more comfortable with their body.

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