Body Image and Sexual Functioning
MICHAEL W. WIEDERMAN
Sexual functioning involves the complex interplay of thoughts, feelings, physical processes, and behaviors. Accordingly, it seems obvious that body image, which represents the intersection of the physical body with cognitive and emotional activity, would be an important component of sexual functioning. Body image is likely to influence sexual functioning as well as be shaped by sexual experiences. Despite what might seem like an obvious notion, it is surprising how little research has been conducted on the relationship between body image and sexual functioning.
It is important to draw certain distinctions. Body image may include selfevaluation of overall physical attractiveness or "sex appeal," as well as specific perceptions and evaluation of one's own genitals. In turn, these possible aspects of body image may be experienced either as a general, enduring disposition or as a more transient effect of a particular sexual situation. For example, one individual may feel self-conscious about his or her overall appearance (or genitals) across sexual situations, whereas another person might experience such self-consciousness only in particular sexual settings or with certain partners.
Sexual functioning is also multiply construed and includes the extent of one's experience as well as how well one functions within any particular episode of sexual activity. To complicate matters, sexual functioning typically entails involvement with a partner. To the extent that there is overlap between one's body image and one's physical attractiveness to others, it may be difficult to determine the degree to which body image, per se, exerts direct effects on sexual functioning. Apparent relationships between body image and sexual functioning may instead be a function of the degree of physical attraction potential partners experience toward a particular individual.