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Jun 11, 2019

Negative Body Image and Sexual Wellness: Addressing the Connection in Counselor Education

          If you are reading this, it is likely that you identify as a human being. So, what does it really mean to be human? When we think of the human experience, some of the first things that come to mind concern our relationships with our bodies— particularly, our sexuality and body image. I, for one, strongly believe that our relationships with our bodies affect our relationships with everything and everyone around us. Negative body image can sometimes result in poor sexual wellness. These issues are often seen as just another expectation of the human experience, and are addressed as such in counselor education programs. Because negative relationships with our bodies are so common, counseling programs often address these experiences as smaller, secondary details of larger issues (which they sometimes are), but counselors and counselor educators must be prepared to address body image and its effect on sexual wellness as primary concerns with their clients, students, and colleagues.

            Body image refers to a person's emotional attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of their own body. Negative body image can manifest in harmful self-talk, perfectionism, emphasis on flaws, potential hindered confidence, and the belief that the only way to be comfortable or happy is to have a certain body shape or appearance. Naturally, negative body image can have major consequences on our mental and physical wellness, including our sexual wellness. Negative body image is often associated with high-risk sexual behavior including unprotected sex and overall lack of contraceptive use, lower sexual assertiveness, and increased consumption of alcohol or other substances prior to sex which can result in ineffectively articulating physical and emotional boundaries. Addressing our relationships with our bodies should be a crucial aspect of counselor education and clinical practice, considering how large a role it plays in the day-to-day human experience.

            According to Gallivan (2014), approximately 80% of women and 34% of men are dissatisfied with their bodies, 50% of Americans are unhappy with their current weight, 70% of women with a “normal” weight wish to be thinner, and over 80% of 10 year olds are “afraid of being fat” (pp. 3-4.) Those that identify as transgender or do not subscribe to a gender binary face additional barriers toward a positive body image. Undoubtedly, the prevalence of negative body image is influencing feelings of sexaul satisfaction in the United States. Negative body image is so common that it often goes overlooked as a key aspect of one’s sense of personal identity, but this does not have to be the case in counselor education. Here are a few tips and ideas about addressing the connection between negative body image and sexual wellness in counselor education:

1.  Talk about it!

The easiest way to start addressing negative body image and sexual wellness in the classroom is to simply talk it over. Since coursework in human sexuality is not required in every state and coursework in body image/eating disorders is not required in any state, try to incorporate open conversations about sexual wellness and body image in all counseling courses. Since conversations about sexuality and body image can sometimes be uncomfortable, the only way to begin to feel comfortable addressing these topics is to start talking about it.

2.  Addressing body image is addressing worldview

You can learn a whole lot about your clients by addressing their body image. The ways in which a person talks about their relationship with their body may be helpful in addressing what is important to them, their relationship dynamics, their sense of self-worth, expectations, and overall worldview. For counselor trainees and established counselors and counselor educators, talking about body image and sexual wellness can open doors for many important conversations.

3.  Living with negative body image is hard

The goal of counseling is almost always to help clients establish what it means to be the best version of themselves, so how can we help our clients do that without addressing what it means to live in their bodies? In order to help our clients feel well, it is key to start with the body. Are we checking on our clients to make sure they are caring for their bodies and general health, discussing how their relationships serve them, and guiding them toward positive self-talk? Living with negative body image is exhausting, and in order to address any aspect of the client’s life that they want to work on, I believe it is best to begin with body image and sexual wellness conversations. No matter what else is going on in the client’s world, their body will always be part of the equation.

In addressing body image and sexual wellness, it is difficult to discuss one without the other. Because our relationships with our bodies play such a crucial role in every aspect of our lives, these conversations should become more commonplace within counseling and counselor education. Body image and sexual wellness are not special interest topics; they are the baseline of the human experience and should be addressed as such.

In honor of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, it is important to remember the iconic message of RuPaul Charles: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”— Everything begins and ends with the way we relate to ourselves.

References

Gallivan, H.R. (2014). Teens, social media, and body image. Retrieved February 10, 2019 from

https://www.macmh.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/18_Gallivan_Teens-social-media-body-image-presentation-H-Gallivan-Spring-2014.pdf 


Contributing Author
DevynSavitskyPic


Devyn Savitsky
is a PhD student in Ohio University’s Counselor Education and Supervision program. She currently serves as an executive board member of the Ohio branch of the Association for LGBT Issues in Counseling (ALGBTIC). Savitsky’s work primarily focuses on eating disorder and body image education, the influence of media on self-image, and gender and sexuality concerns.

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