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Body Image and Sexuality

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The average American woman wears a size 16-18, while the average fashion model wears a size 0-00. Just about all magazines airbrush these models’ images, making them even slimmer and more clear-skinned and fluffy-haired than they are in real life. This creates a false standard of beauty that is impossible to attain.

So it’s not surprising to learn that women, in general, struggle with body image issues. More than 8 out of 10 women in the United States are not satisfied with their bodies. Throw a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis into the mix, and feeling good about your body may seem like even more of an uphill battle.

Healthcare providers usually tell women with a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis about the common side effects and experiences of medications and procedures. Altered body confidence and diminished self-esteem are not usually on this list. But it can be a soft “side-effect” of a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis and/or treatment.

Most women expect temporary shifts from metastatic breast cancer treatment, such as hair loss, weight loss, and possible loss of libido due to chemotherapy. But permanent changes, such as scarring, breast reconstruction, or having no breasts, can affect the way some women see themselves. This, in turn, can also affect desire for sex.

How can you change the way you feel about your body? In some ways, improving your body image is like strengthening a muscle at the gym. The strength won’t come overnight, but as you gradually try new routines, flexing your “self-esteem muscle” can get easier and become a new way to take care of yourself. Positive body image is also not just linked to better quality of life; it’s also linked to a better ability to function emotionally.

Try these tips to start changing the way you think about your body:

  • Redefine beauty. The media and society’s pressures can skew the way we think about beauty. Challenge yourself to redefine your beliefs about beauty. Ideals can be different for everyone. What qualities do you find beautiful? Strength, assertiveness, generosity? Are you comfortable with the idea that beauty begins inside, not out?
  • Do a media “fast.” Every day, we are bombarded with media images of glamourous celebrities who require a full-time staff to keep up their appearance and air-brushed models who represent an ideal that is simply not attainable. Just as eating junk food will not improve your health, a steady “diet” of these images will not help improve your body image. If you watch a lot of TV or read fashion magazines, taking a break for a week or two puts the focus back on you and your own definition of beauty.
  • Acknowledge how you are feeling. Are you feeling frustrated with your body or experiencing a sense of loss? Just sit with any unpleasant feelings and acknowledge them for a while, without judging them and without pressuring yourself to feel differently. A feeling is just a feeling, and feelings can change.
  • Exercise, if you have the energy to do so. Exercise is linked to better body image and better self-esteem.
  • Talk about it. Share your feelings with your close friends or partner, in an online forum, or with a healthcare provider. They may offer fresh perspectives, solutions, and resources.
  • Say something kind to yourself every day. “My butt’s too fat.” “My skin doesn’t look good.” We commonly criticize ourselves when we see ourselves in a mirror. Catch yourself in the act, then give yourself a compliment instead, such as “I have a perky butt” or “I am an amazing mother.” Or simply say, “I love you.”
  • Accept compliments. Do you brush off positive things people say about you? When someone praises you, do you believe them? Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to accept a compliment and you feel like people are talking about someone else, not you. Experiment with feeling open to the good things people say about you.
  • Accentuate the positive. Woman often have a certain body part they don’t particularly like, such as thighs, stomachs, breasts -- or lack of breasts -- and ignore the rest. What is your favorite body part? Do you have a ballerina’s long neck, for example, or stunning baby blue eyes? Compliment yourself and play up your favorite body part.
  • Control what you can. Tending to your appearance is not vain; it’s an important part of self-care. Instead of concentrating on things that are out of your control, control what you can. Choose clothes that are visually appealing to you and comfortable. If it makes you feel more confident, apply make-up. Pamper yourself with a professional manicure or pedicure.

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