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Hate your body? 4 ways to get your sex life back

By Ian Kerner, Special to CNN
November 29, 2012 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Feeling overweight or physically unattractive can be hurting your sex life, research shows.
Feeling overweight or physically unattractive can be hurting your sex life, research shows.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Feeling fat, unattractive can impact your ability to feel sexy, research shows
  • Be honest with yourself about what's at the root of your disinterest in sex
  • Use these tips to put the love back in your love handles

Editor's note: Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, writes about sex for CNN Health. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

(CNN) -- It's been a week since Turkey Day, but are you still feeling the potentially fattening effects? Has a sense of bloat invaded your bedroom?

If recent research is any indication, dissatisfaction with your body -- feeling overweight, unattractive or physically unappealing -- could be putting a crimp in your love life.

The study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, looked at the way men and women view their bodies during sex, a concept known as body appearance cognitive distraction during sexual activity.

More than 660 people answered questions about their satisfaction with their bodies during sex, as well as their satisfaction with the way they believed their sexual partners viewed their bodies.

Ian Kerner
Ian Kerner

The researchers found that being generally dissatisfied with one's body and being unhappy with particular body parts predicted body appearance cognitive distraction during sexual activity. For women, their partner's perceived opinion of their body ("He must think my stomach is too fat or my breasts are too small") also had a negative effect on sexual self-esteem.

It's certainly not uncommon to worry about the way our bodies look, from a spare tire to some cellulite. But when these concerns carry over from the dressing room to the bedroom, they can have a real impact on the ability to feel sexy.

According to a 2011 survey by the makers of the herbal supplement Fembido, 52% of women say that a lack of confidence about their bodies makes them reluctant to be intimate. Admittedly, any survey conducted by a drug company interested in enhancing female desire should be taken with a grain of salt, but previous research has shown that this cognitive distraction can affect sexual self-esteem, assertiveness, arousal, pleasure and even orgasm.

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Developing a healthy body image

"Bodily concerns can reduce both the frequency and quality of sex," explained Justin Lehmiller, a Harvard University social psychologist and sex columnist. "For one thing, people who do not feel attractive or sexy will be less likely to initiate sex and more likely to turn down offers for it."

So how can you put the "love" back in your love handles? Start by gently asking yourself (or your partner) what's at the root of disinterest in sex.

"Hiding behind being too tired, too busy or too stressed for intimacy are common excuses when the real reason may have to do with body image," said Amy Levine, sex coach and founder of Ignite Your Pleasure. Once you've admitted that you may be feeling less than attractive, work on increasing your self-esteem with these tips:

Get to know your pedals and brakes.

According to the dual control model of sexual response, we all have gas pedals (things that excite us) and brakes (things that inhibit us). Your personal pedals could be a particular fantasy, the scent of your partner's cologne or a flash of long legs, for example. And your brakes could be the fear of not pleasing your partner or, yes, the idea of disgusting him or her with your round belly or thinning hair.

The good news: "By being mindful and learning to enjoy the way your body responds to touch, you can train your 'brakes' to ignore body image and other thoughts that can impede sexual arousal and orgasm," sex educator Emily Nagoski writes.

Tune in to tune out.

Music may help take you out of your body and increase arousal, recent research suggests. One study conducted by a music psychologist commissioned by the music site Spotify found that 40% of people say that music was more important to their sexual arousal than their partner's physique and even his or her touch. So queue up some Marvin Gaye, Barry White or Kings of Leon -- top picks for a sexy playlist, according to Spotify.

Boost self-esteem slowly.

Although the visuals of sex add to many people's arousal, they can slam on the brakes for those who feel less than attractive. Ease your way into things by slowing moving from pitch-black surroundings to dim lighting. Consider wearing a sexy chemise or other lingerie to cover body parts that concern you, Levine says, and then slowly removing it as you feel more comfortable.

Do the math.

Studies show that many men are dissatisfied with the size of their penis, while many women worry about the size of their breasts. But the truth is, "most men actually report being happy with their partners' breasts, and most women are happy with the size of their partners' genitals," Lehmiller said. "This tells us that a lot of people are worrying about their appearance for no good reason."

And remember, the brain is our biggest sex organ. It pays to worry less about the size of your belly, butt or breasts -- and redirect that attention to sexy talk, fantasies and other "brainy" activities instead!

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