Talk to someone now. Call our National Helpline on 1800 33 4673. You can also chat online or email

Talk to someone now. Call our National Helpline on 1800 33 4673. You can also chat online or email

Season 2, episode 15

Sex, intimacy and body image

Negative body image can impact almost every aspect of your life, especially your sex life. And while fulfilling intimate relationships is a key component of general wellbeing, the shame hammered into us by societal messages about what bodies should look like is too often carried into the bedroom. It can seriously mess with our sexual experience.

“Self-judgement and self-criticism make us feel low, and when we’re feeling low, we don’t feel particularly sexy,” says sex and relationships therapist, Adriene Cobcroft.

Sex educator and broadcaster Nat Tencic agrees. “You’re literally naked,” she says. “If you aren’t comfortable in your skin, you’re not going to be able to be in the moment and you’re not going to be able to experience pleasure.”

The good news is there are ways to improve our body image and by doing so enhance our sexual enjoyment. When Nik Mitchell learned to embrace his vulnerability and be more body kind, he opened himself up to a fulfilling sexual relationship. Bella Davis learned how to get out of her head and into her body, fully allowing herself to enjoy the moment. Dating app Bumble’s Lucille McCart’s insists that authenticity is key. “I guarantee you,” she says, “No matter what type of body you have, there is someone out there that will find you completely beautiful, but we don’t hear that enough.”

Body image explained

Find out more about this episode’s talent:

Nat Tencic

Adriene Cobcroft

Nik Navy

Bella Davis

Lucille McCart

Bumble

Nat Tencic:

You are literally naked. It’s the most vulnerable you can be with another human being. So, if you aren’t comfortable in your skin, you’re going to be distracted. You’re not going to be able to be in the moment. You’re not going to be able to experience pleasure.

Bella Davis:

I was constantly worried about, oh maybe I need to like move so I can look more aesthetically pleasing and what about this angle or what do I look like? Oh my God, I can’t believe this. No, I just wanted to be over. Let it be over.

Nik Navy:

It was more about how I felt about myself rather than the onus that someone else had put on me.

Lucille McCart:

I guarantee you, no matter what type of body you have, there is someone out there that will find you completely beautiful, but we don’t hear that enough, I don’t think.

Sam Ikin:

Negative body image can flow into almost every aspect of your life, including your sex life – actually, especially your sex life.

Adriene Cobcroft:

You’re probably not going to be spending a lot of time allowing that pleasure and that sensuality, which can then inhibit the other person’s experience of your body as well as your ability to communicate what it is that you want.

Sam:

This is Butterfly, Let’s talk. I’m Sam Ikin and this show is brought to you by Butterfly, your national voice for body image issues and eating disorders. Fulfilling sexual relationships are often considered one of the most important components of general wellbeing. But it’s an aspect of our lives that negative body image can diminish or even eliminate. The continual societal messages about what our bodies should look like are carried into the bedroom and often prevent good sex.

Nat:

We’re constantly bathing in messages that tell us that our bodies aren’t good enough.

Sam:

That’s Nat Tencic, a broadcaster, journalist and a former host of Triple J where she used to talk about sex a lot. She also describes herself as a sex educator.

Nat:

A large part of the messaging that comes from your body needing to be good enough or needing to be thin enough or needing to be sexy enough is yeah, exactly that – sex, attraction, dating. No one will be attracted to you. No one will want to be with you unless you have this perfect Bebe, Elle, Kim Kardashian body or whatever. There’s so much diet, culture and capitalism that’s there too to sell and pray on your insecurities. And I think one of the biggest insecurities we have is not being able to find love or have sex or find someone who will love us for who we are.

Sam:

When it comes to sex and how it fits in society, Nat knows her stuff. She studied it at universities, and she’s reported on it extensively for years. We talked about diet culture and the unrealistic body standards we’re bombarded with every day in social media and the broader media but the really easy access to pornography that we see these days is just adding another complicating layer to all of this.

Nat:

I’m not entirely anti porn just in the sense of that. I am very sex positive, but you know, it changes not only what women think they should look like in the bedroom or the sorts of acts they think they should perform or how they should sit and how they should pose and how they should look and what positions their body should be in. But it also changes men’s expectations, not only of what a woman should look like in the bedroom, but what kind of woman they’re allowed to be attracted to.

Sam:

So that’s just another layer of negative messaging. And we have layer upon, layer upon layer of these messages that tell us that our bodies are just not good enough and it’s causing more and more people to develop a really negative body image. The science is settled when it comes to sex and body image, the less comfortable you are with your body, the less likely you are to want to get naked, let alone have someone else see you naked.

Nik:

If you’re not ready to be vulnerable, then there’s nothing sometimes that anyone else can do or say if you’re not in that place to kind of put yourself out there. It’s very hard to get past that regardless of how supportive or wonderful the other person might be. My name is Nik, I’m from Melbourne, Australia, and I’m a musician/performer and an advocate for body image concerns and eating disorder awareness. It has definitely been a hindrance and a block in a lot of ways. And then it does creep in a little bit. Obviously, sexuality and intimacy is a very visual experience in a lot of ways. Obviously, things like that do play into your own inner dialogues throughout the experience and you want to find a spot where you can be quite free in the moment and go with the moment. But I think that also, if you do have those kinds of things going on in your head, it can be quite hard to just go with it because you do have this kind of inner dialogue going on.

Sam:

The shame that’s implanted in us from societal messages about our bodies can form all sorts of barriers to good sex, things that could diminish the experience, things that include having sex with the lights off, wearing clothes, avoiding eye contact and things like that.

Nik:

There are so many stereotypes as to what a gay man should look like and, you know, muscular ideals and thinness and all the other kind of stuff that comes with that, so for me there was a societal factor. There were also comments from people in various forms; negative comments from people throughout my childhood and throughout my adolescence and into my twenties now, but I would say that it was more about how I felt about myself rather than the onus that someone else had put on me in terms of comments and things like that. That was definitely a factor, but I would say the major factor was the societal expectations that I felt and what I thought everyone wanted.

Sam:

Like with all mental health conditions, including eating disorders and body image issues, Nik discovered that talking helps.

Nik:

The biggest thing has been having conversations with people and sharing my experience and understanding that everyone else has very similar experiences to a certain degree on whatever level it may be. Putting myself out there I think is at the core of is at the core of that and that is the hardest thing to do when you are in recovery, or you are going through things. But can lead to the most rewarding experiences at the same time. Whatever the decision is, it’s putting yourself out there in some form, whether it’s putting yourself out there talking to friends about it, putting yourself out there with a new partner, putting yourself out there with an old partner. At the core of it is just being vulnerable and allowing yourself to fumble your way through what you’re trying to say.

Sam:

By opening up and being honest and acknowledging the struggle, Nick was in a better position to connect more authentically with his partners. Authenticity builds trust and trust is a really important component in overcoming body image concerns.

Nik:

I had to understand how I felt myself before I could communicate that with someone else from my experience. I had to understand where I was coming from and why I was feeling certain ways before I was able to talk about it because I didn’t have the words. I didn’t understand how I was feeling but saying it out loud and talking about it to other people was something that made it real, made it a real thing, made it a tangible thing, not something that just lived in my head.

Sam:

From my own point of view, I grew up feeling ashamed of my body for as long as I can remember. I spent most of my twenties completely avoiding any kind of intimacy or any kind of sexual experience because I was just so ashamed, and I couldn’t believe that anybody else would want to share an intimate moment with me. And until I started researching this episode, I thought I was on my own. But it turns out I’m not, in fact not even close.

Bella:

I wasn’t intimate with someone until I was 22, physically intimate, allowing them to see all of me until I was 22 and it was still something I struggled with. I feel like now, at 25, last year was the first year I was actually able to enjoy intimacy with myself and with another person. I was constantly in my head like, which I think a lot of people struggle was I was always thinking about how my body looked instead of actually enjoying the moment. And I was constantly worried about, oh maybe I need to move so I can look more aesthetically pleasing and what about this angle or what do I look like? Oh my God, I can’t believe this. No, I just want it to be over. Let it be over. And even when I was 22, the lights were always off, and I was always paranoid. And even with myself even seeing myself nude was something I feared as well.

Sam:

This wonderful person is Bella Davis. You’ll find her on Instagram, but before you look her up, her feed is not technically “not safe for work”, but you do see a whole lot of Bella in her posts. She’s unapologetically real, unfiltered, and often naked with strategically placed text or props, helping her not violate Instagram’s rules and regulations. But looking at her feed, it’s really difficult to imagine the young woman that she described just before she’s become such a confident and popular icon for body positivity.

Bella:

Last year, I would say, is the first time I’ve been able to enjoy intimacy and not be so stuck in my head and not paranoid about what I look like. I’ve just been like, this is me and I’m worthy of enjoying intimacy just as I am. And that’s honestly because I feel like I’ve accepted my body, that I’m able to do this now. Toxic beauty standards, the beauty industry, the diet industry massively affected how I felt about myself. When I was a kid, I was looking through magazines that I could just never see someone with the same body type as me, someone with the same leg, someone was cellulite, someone with lumps, someone with bumps. And I thought, well that’s not ideal and that’s not idolised so I have to look different. I have to look like these people, I can’t look like myself. So the media, Instagram, social media has definitely impacted the way I felt about my body. Um, massively.

Sam:

Bella’s rise to Instagram fame started a few years ago during Australia’s very first lockdown.

Bella:

I was just seeing all this dieting and diet ads, and people exercising, and I couldn’t even get out of bed. I was just so bored, and I was sick of people trying to make me feel bad about not doing anything productive anyways because I wasn’t feeling very productive or very motivated. Then on my feed, it was just full of perfectly posed images which are great, but it’s just not my reality. And I was just like, screw it, I’m going to upload a photo of my body just being a body, just sitting down. It kind of started from there. I didn’t even plan on it being the way it is or being this whole thing that it is now.

Adriene:

One of the most attractive things, if you think about the other person, is seeing somebody who’s super comfortable in their body and who knows what they like and what they want and how they want to be touched. And, you know, if you are busy self-judging and self-criticising, you’re probably not going to be spending a lot of time allowing that pleasure and sensuality in – which can then inhibit the other person’s experience of your body, as well as your ability to communicate what it is that you want in your intimate exchanges.

Sam:

That’s sex therapist Addie Cobcroft. She says that while consuming content traditionally flawless bodies is a big part of the problem when it comes to negative body image. But consuming content that shows bodies that look like yours have the opposite effect.

Addie:

If I find role models who have bodies like mine or who are body image activists or if we’re looking at our social media feed, Instagram, for example, if I’m looking at a whole lot of bodies that are different to my body who are framed in maybe a popular culture kind of way and my body doesn’t look like that, I’m judging myself against that body. It’s going to be hard for me to love my body. It’s going to be harder. Whereas if I’m looking at bodies that are more like mine that are comfortable where there are wrinkles and skin folds and creases and cellulite and boobs hanging over the top of your bra and love handles everywhere, if I’m if I’m seeing that I’m normalising it. I’m also getting messages that that body is an attractive body, it’s a lovable body, it’s sexy, that’s going to help my the relationship that I have with myself, my body and my sexuality. And it’s also going to show me that other people can love bodies like mine and can find them attractive. If I’m somebody who is looking to partner up with somebody else, and I come with the belief that I can be attractive to other people, that’s going to help you find other people who are into you. And if you’re already in a relationship, it’s going to help you to open yourself and be more comfortable, and to allow that intimate space to deepen with your partner or partners.

Sam:

Accepting the body that you’re in right now with all its flaws is possibly the first step to overcoming the body image barrier in the bedroom.

Lucille:

I guarantee you, no matter what type of body you have no, no matter what your face looks like, no matter any of these things, there is someone out there that will find that completely beautiful, but we don’t hear that enough, I don’t think.

Sam:

One of the biggest changes in the way that people find love and intimacy in the modern world are app-based dating services. They’re literally based on photos and that’s it. Only photos.

Lucille:

I know I’m not the only one who spends the majority of a Zoom call looking at myself in the corner and looking at how I look like we all do that. It’s a natural sort of phenomenon. It’s like when you walk past a mirror, you have to sneak a little look at yourself, that’s normal, but it’s probably not healthy.

Sam:

And this is Lucille McCart, she’s from the dating app Bumble where women make the first move.

Lucille:

There’s no point of me putting a photo from 10 years ago when I was a lot thinner and younger and trying to, you know, present as that version of myself. That’s not me. I don’t look like that anymore. The world of online dating doesn’t need to be scary, and you don’t need to go and get your photos airbrushed, in fact showing the real you is more likely to get the right people swiping, right? If you don’t love your body, that is something that can really hold you back physically and mentally, because even if your partner tells you that they think you’re beautiful and they think you’re fantastic and they have no issues with your body, if you don’t believe it yourself, it’s very easy to be like, well you’re saying that because you want to be intimate with me or you want to do that. You can make a million excuses, which is why it is so important, whether you’re single or in a relationship that you work on this relationship that you have with yourself because it will hold you back if you’re single and it will hold you back in a relationship as well. When we asked people who are single and dating, have you experienced body image anxiety, 73% of women said yes, which is not surprising, but nearly 60% of men also said yes. Body image anxiety has impacted them too because men suffer from the same socialising that we do. They see those men on the cover of Men’s Health, they see the influencers. If you live in Bondi, you see all the Bondi rescue guys down on the beach with this certain body type.

Sam:

Most of us have a kind of 6th sense when it comes to authenticity and authenticity helps to build trust. It’s a big part to do with the success of a lot of performers or stand-up comedians and when it comes to love intimacy and relationships, authenticity is just as important. If you’re suffering from body image issues having your sexual partner be someone that you can trust is kind of a big deal.

Lucille:

Don’t treat it like your social media profile or your Instagram where you’re trying to present this like perfect aesthetic version of yourself because you’re not going to bring in the right people that way. You’re not going to bring in your people.

Nat:

People really dig authenticity, and they really can smell when you are being genuine. If somebody is not interested in that and you’re putting forward your genuine self, good. Again, you don’t want them anyway. You think rejection hurts, but rejection when it comes to these apps, when it comes to this sort of thing, it’s positive. Again, you get it out of the way early, that’s the best possible thing. You can do

Lucille:

Write things on your bio that, you know, maybe other people might not get, but are really unique to your sense of humour. That way you’re filtering out all the people that won’t get you from the start. You know, it’s not all about the photos, the written stuff is important as well. If you get less matches but the matches you get are better people that are better suited to you, that’s so much better. It’s not about the numbers game of, “I’ve got all these people matching with me and I’m really hot.” It’s like, okay, “Well, if I get two matches and they’re both people that are really funny and really compatible with me that I can have fantastic conversations with, then that’s a huge win.

Sam:

You know, so one of the biggest takeaway messages from this is that you have to be comfortable in your own skin. But we’re talking about body image issues. That’s the whole reason why we’re doing this podcast. It’s a lot easier said than done. So how do you do it? How do you feel comfortable in your own body? Especially when you’re about to be intimate with someone and you’re both naked? Well, luckily, we have a sex coach with us.

Addie:

And easy exercise to find how do I feel about myself,  if you close your eyes – I’m a huge fan of closing your eyes because it cuts out so much of the distraction – or soft, focus your gaze and listen to yourself having a few different statements rolled through. So, it might be, “I’m ugly”, and how does “I’m ugly” feel in my body or “I’m fat” or “I’m gross”. I notice that when I do it, I get this sinking feeling in the centre of my chest that sort of lands in the pit of my stomach. I’m even almost getting a bit of a murky brown tone to it. When I feel like that, I feel like hunching my body in and closing myself off. Whereas when I think I’m beautiful, I’m attractive, I have gorgeous eyes. I can feel my shoulders opening and widening. There’s a little flutter in the pit of my stomach and there’s a lightness. It’s like my head becomes airier than it was before. And if I notice that when I’m feeling beautiful, that’s the way my body is. I don’t even need the voice to tell me I am beautiful. I can just concentrate on that little flutter in my stomach, the broadening across my shoulders, the lightness in my head and I can mentally create that in a physiological feeling. And when I’m feeling those kinds of feelings, I’m going to feel more beautiful, I’m going to feel more attractive and that’s then going to be something I can take into my relationships.

Sam:

So, the things that we know that help our mindfulness, noticing those negative thoughts, understanding the social and personal roots of a poor body image, reframing negative perceptions and self-compassion. But another really important thing that a lot of our guests raised during this episode is compassionate partners and how they can help to change a person’s story about their body.

Addie:

If you are the partner or if you are asking your partner to give you those messages to actually check to make sure that I’m giving the right message. So, I might want to feel like somebody thinks that I’m beautiful, but for the next person, they might want to hear that they are sexy and hot, or they might want to hear that they are raunchy and outrageous. Whatever it is that makes me feel like I am the person that I want to be in my intimate sexual space with that other person, ask them to literally deliver you those messages. And likewise with feelings, developing that sense of safety. You know, it might feel slightly more challenging to create an internal feeling associated with your partner giving you the message of I’m beautiful than it does when you’re on your own.  We’re broadening the experience and there’s an added complexity when there’s two people there.

Sam:

Obviously, we can talk about sex all day long, but we’ve run out of podcast. Fortunately, if you need a little bit of help with negative body image – or a lot – the best place to start is the Butterfly Helpline. They’ll have some really good advice for you right there on the phone and then they’ll help you find the right path to continue your journey to recovery. The number is 1 800 33 4673 or 1 800 ED HOPE. Please also check out the Butterfly website. When you go there, there’s a whole dropdown menu for body image. Check out the top resource. It’s called Body Image explained. And, unsurprisingly, it explains all you need to know about body image. I need to thank our guests for this episode, Bella Davis, Nat Tencic, Addie Cobcroft, Lucille McCart, and Nik Navy. You guys are amazing. Find them. Follow them, reach out to them. Their details are all in the show notes. Butterfly: Let’s talk is produced as a partnership between Butterfly and Ikin Media. And you can find out more about us at Ikinmedia.com.au. Drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you. And if you want to help the podcast, rate us five stars, leave us a lovely comment. Do all the things that you do in the podcast apps. We appreciate it so much. I’m Sam Ikin. Thank you so much for joining us.

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