Editor's note: This column contains explicit references to disordered eating, restrictive eating, and weight and may be triggering to some readers.
Having a positive attitude toward your body is hard. We are constantly bombarded with images, videos, posts, and media that make it easy to start comparing ourselves to the “ideals” depicted. It doesn’t help that the media often portrays what we “ought to” expect in romantic relationships specifically, which can set a pretty high standard for those of us who don’t have a full makeup team following us around between photoshoots.
Arguably, the pornography industry sets this bar the highest. While porn is often touted as a harmless stress reliever, body image booster, and safe sex educator, it can negatively impact the way we see our bodies and the bodies of our partners. For too many viewers, watching porn serves as a harsh reminder that their body does not meet the Westernized beauty standard. Watching the perfectly-posed performers on a screen only reinforces the knowledge that we can never measure up.
Researchers suggest that porn can be harmful not only to your own body image, but also to the way you see your partner. One study found that women whose partners viewed porn began to objectify themselves based on what they assumed their partner thought of their bodies — describing themselves in terms such as “fat” and “old.”
Additionally, researchers found that college-aged women whose previous partners used pornography were “experiencing greater negative affect and relationship anxiety and lower self-esteem and body appreciation.” There was also a correlation found between a partner’s pornography usage and women’s internalization of social beauty standards, as well as their likelihood of exhibiting signs of eating disorders.
While much of the early research about the correlations between pornography usage and body image centered around women, this is a struggle that transcends gender or sexuality. After viewing magazines with photos of hypersexualized women, college men in a study reported lower self-esteem and confidence levels than those in the control group.
These negative perceptions may be the result of any number of factors, but researchers suggested that “the objectified female models might activate the awareness that such women would expect that their sexual partners conform to a male-appropriate appearance ideal … perhaps including a lean, muscular physique.”
Another study that included heterosexual and non-heterosexual participants found that both groups reported watching pornography, and both groups reported struggling with negative body image. However, one group’s numbers were significantly higher overall.
According to their findings, gay men consume pornography at a greater rate than heterosexual men, and they “are more concerned with thinness … [and] indicated poorer eating attitudes and a greater desire to be thin.”
Admittedly, this could be for any number of social or internal factors. However, the connection between pornography consumption and disordered eating seems to be noteworthy. Researchers noted that while none of the heterosexual participants reported trying any diets or weight loss programs, over 26% of the gay participants did. This desire to be thin is not unusual, yet it can be detrimental to the way we treat our bodies.
While struggling with self-esteem and body image is a relatively common human experience, these negative thoughts are often exacerbated in those who watch sexually explicit materials, or those who are in a relationship with someone who does. These studies are not meant to claim absolute causation, but they may suggest that the correlations are strong enough to take notice of.
On the surface, pornography may appear to be a harmless and healthy distraction from midterms. But in reality, it can perpetuate unrealistic expectations and harmful mindsets, both for ourselves and for those we care about. As we fight to realize more inclusive and less damaging ideas about our bodies, this is an area we must seriously address.
Reach columnist Elise Peyton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @e_peyton113
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