by Michelle Martinez

This is why self-love isn’t always enough to heal poor body image

September 20, 2019 | Body Love

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I was a guest on The Pleasure Positive Podcast to discuss this article, so if you prefer to learn via audio, check out the episode on Apple podcasts here!

Have you ever been in a relationship where you knew someone loved you deeply, but they didn’t desire you sexually?

Or the reverse: when you knew someone desired you sexually, but they didn’t love you?

Neither one of those situations feels great when you’re hoping to have a meaningful, intimate relationship with someone. I think it’s safe to say that most of us want to be loved deeply for who we are, and ALSO desired sexually.

Since your relationship with yourself is the longest-term, most intimate relationship you will ever have, both of these components are also necessary when it comes to having a thriving relationship with ourselves.

Self-Love vs. Self-Lust

“Like my hands in the air |Fingers kiss the sky | Smile on my lips, and I don’t know why | I think I’m love, I think I’m in love | I think I’m in love…with myself” -Lizzo, “En Love”

The self-love movement fills me with such gratitude to be alive right now. People everywhere — women, men, non-binary, straight, queer, people of all colors, all shapes and sizes and abilities — are choosing to love themselves fiercely.

Their empowered attitudes get the rest of us wondering if we, too, could learn to stop being so self-critical. We think,

…maybe it isn’t my destiny to feel disappointed every time I look in the mirror…

…maybe I don’t have to allow body-shaming and other mean-spirited comments to ruin my entire day…

…maybe it’s possible to not feel personally attacked and diminished whenever a part of my physical identity is ridiculed or made fun of.

Self-love teaches us to be sweet, compassionate, nurturing, and accepting toward ourselves. When it seems that no one else is there for us, self-love says, “I am still here for you and I’ll never leave you.”

This is such an important and life-changing skill. The power of self-love cannot be overestimated. It can carry you through depression, grief, trauma, bullying, fear, and everyday disappointments.

Big fan of self-love.

But here’s the thing.

Sometimes we suffer even when we feel lovable….

…because we don’t feel fuckable.

What exactly is self-lust (and why is it important)?

Self-lust: Feeling and owning your own sex appeal; Believing and experiencing how uniquely attractive and worthy of sexual desire you are

(That’s the official definition I made up for purposes of this article.)

If “lust” conjures up feelings of sexual objectification, wrongness and sin (it is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins in the Catholic tradition and a serious spiritual transgression in many other faiths), feel free to mentally replace that term with “self-desire” or “self-attraction” or something else along those lines.

The idea behind self-lust is simply to recognize and appreciate your unique brand of sexual magnetism and worthiness.

Why is this important?

It’s important to cultivate self-lust, because it will be very difficult to accept and enjoy the desire that someone else feels towards you if you do not feel that way towards yourself.

You will be suspicious of it, you’ll doubt it. You may even end up pushing someone away so you can be with someone who confirms your belief that you’re actually not sexy.

When you are able to look in the mirror and say “I would totally have sex with me,” it opens channels of self-confidence and aliveness that self-love on its own may not be able to access.

(Even if you’re not that interested in having sex these days, it is still important to get in touch with your own sexual magnetism and sexual energy, because sexuality is humanity’s deepest, most primal form of self-exploration and self-expression and I don’t want you to miss out on that!)

If you are worried that self-lust will lead to utter narcissism and an obnoxious obsession with your own image, I understand.

However, as I have explored this concept in my own life, I’ve made an interesting discovery…

Learning to appreciate my own sex appeal has had the side-effect of being able to more freely acknowledge and appreciate the unique beauty of more people around me.

Rather than seeing beauty from a competitive, scarcity mindset (e.g. “If I admit she is gorgeous, then my own beauty must be diminished”), this mentality allows me to experience the abundant, infinite ways we can be attractive human beings and that I am worthy of being part of that abundance.

Self-lust operates just like self-love: the more you can give yourself, the more capacity you have to share it with others.

In other words, the more secure and self-assured you feel about your own attractiveness, the more freely you will notice and enjoy the expansive, glorious spectrum of beauty in others. No competition or comparison necessary.

Societies will always try to impose and justify made-up standards of what types of bodies and faces and skin tone and muscle tone are most desirable, but as body activist Hanne Blank said,

“There is no wrong way to have a body.”

A Body Built for Sex

When I was in my early 20s, I worked as a server at a small, dimly-lit, super-intimate restaurant in Seattle. The kind of place where regulars would convene at a bar that sat only 8 people and the gregarious bartender would mediate conversations about politics, philosophy, and sex.

In an otherwise very sexually-liberal-minded environment, one of my female coworkers happened to be a conservative Christian, who was committed to not having sex until marriage. Let’s call her Ashley.

One night, upon hearing this news, a male coworker remarked, “It’s such a shame. She has a body built for sex.”

It’s worth noting at this point that Ashley had a very curvaceous body type. (Also worth noting: I do not.)

I had been processing that idea — that some bodies are “built for sex” and others are not — for YEARS. It’s an idea that I had been slowly internalizing since adolescence (perhaps even earlier) without realizing it.

When he said those words, the real meaning behind all the “how to have a sexy body” messages I’d absorbed suddenly came into full focus. I was finally able to articulatethe lie they were counting on me to believe:

Some bodies are built for sex and others are not.

And by extension:

Some bodies are worthy of sexual desire and some are not.

Some bodies are worthy of sexual pleasure and some are not.

Some bodies are worthy of the epic journey of sexual exploration and expression and others are not.

I can’t remember if I actually said the words out loud, but my internal response at the time was, “Fuuuuuuck that. All bodies are built for sex!”

“All bodies are built for sex” has become my North Star. If I am limited to one message to share with the world, that’s what I want it to be.

Now, a decade later, my body confidence and worthiness are basically immune to what anyone else says. I have no insecurities about my proportions. I feel just as deserving of sexual desire, sexual pleasure, and sexual expression as anyone else, all the time.

Just kidding.

I have another story for you that took place just three months ago.

My Sex Appeal is Energetic

“My intention is to stop objectifying myself. I want to stop reducing my value and attractiveness as a person to my body and my general appearance. I want to learn to love my body unconditionally and start valuing it for all the beautiful experiences and pleasure it makes possible for me.”

This is what I said earlier this summer at a women’s tantra retreat, when it was my turn to share an intention for the week.

I have struggled for twenty years — maybe longer — with my own body objectification. I wanted to establish a relationship with my body that honored it as part of me, and an important part of who I am, but also release the belief that it is the primary determinant of how attractive I am.

Over the next couple days, we did several group practices and rituals for which clothing was entirely optional, and most people took full advantage of the opportunity.

As I scanned the other women and their bodies in the shala, I thought, “Oh my god. Literally everyone here is sexier than me.” Feelings of worthlessness started creeping in.

In that moment, I did still love myself. I knew that people would want to hang out with me. I can be funny and a good conversationalist. I have talents and interesting hobbies. I know that in a crisis, people are there for me, and if I died, I’d be deeply missed. I loved myself, and who I was.

But self-love felt inconsequential. It wasn’t enough.

I was yearning to dive deep into a sexual exploration on this tantra retreat, and it felt like there was a threshold of “sexiness” that I had to cross before I was allowed to really explore, experience, and enjoy my sexuality in full.

Without feeling worthy of sexual desire, I felt unworthy of it all — unworthy of sexual pleasure, unworthy of ecstatic sexual bliss, unworthy of deep sexual intimacy, unworthy of holding real sexual power.

I was going to miss out on this entire epic journey of sexual self-discovery because I didn’t have the right body for it.

These thoughts and feelings gained mass and speed like a wave. On the third night, the wave crashed down, and I started drowning in internalized misogyny, self-loathing, and body shame more intense than I had ever experienced before. I didn’t know what the hell was happening to me…

Intentions are powerful.

By declaring that I wanted to free myself from patterns of body objectification (and putting myself in an environment specifically designed for healing and transformation), the regular programming of my mind was threatened. When you spend years collecting evidence to support certain belief systems, they do not go away without a fight.

That night, all the destructive messages that had been lodged in my conscious and subconscious mind were resurfacing, trying to convince me that it made sense to believe I wasn’t sexy.

Every body-shaming remark from a school mate….

Every joke made by a friend, a family member, a date, a TV show, or a standup comic at the expense of my body or body type….

Every overheard comment from boys or men passing judgment on women’s bodies…

Every overheard comment from girls or women passing judgment on women’s bodies (including their own)…

Every social media post expressing an unsolicited preference for one type of body shape over another…

Every VH1 or MTV special that ranked the top 20 hottest celebrity bodies…

It felt like pure, all-encompassing self-disgust.

I thought these memories had died, that I had processed them and gotten over it, but they kept emerging from my subconscious like ghosts, bearing down on me with a singular, devastating message:

My body is not worthy of desire.

As I came to terms with my fate, the tears couldn’t get out of me fast enough.

Anyone who heard me could have easily assumed that I’d received news of someone’s death. These were not tears of self-pity. I was deep in grief. I was mourning the life, love, and experiences I would never have because my body was too plain. Not hideous, just… not enough.

I cried hardest when I thought about my boyfriend and how sorry I was for him, to have fallen in love with someone so physically unfeminine and sexually uninspiring.

To put it in the most honest and un-feminist terms I can think of: his boners deserved better.

That’s how I really felt.

On top of that, I felt deeply embarrassed for even having these body image issues.

There are people managing chronic illnesses who are angry that their body demands constant attention to maintain their health. Others are navigating their daily lives with a disability in a world that so often fails to consider their needs and experiences. There are places where entire communities of people have to practice extreme caution around law enforcement or else risk losing their lives, because their bodies are darker shades. There are people out there who can barely get out of bed each morning because they are struggling with intense, ongoing pain.

And here I am stressing over my tits-to-waist-to-ass ratio.

I mean seriously — get it together, Michelle.

Fortunately, I had a friend at the retreat with me who sat by my side as I processed all of these toxic, internalized judgments about my body (and all the judgments about HAVING those judgments).

Then she turned everything around with a simple question.

“What if sexual attraction is more than just physical? What else could it be?”

I’ve “known” for a long time that sex appeal is not inherently defined by our bodies — that there are so many more factors that contribute to sexual attraction — but this idea still felt like a revelation. I “knew” it in my mind, but I hadn’t known it in my bones.

I took a few deep breaths and tried to bring my breathing back to normal before responding. This felt like a very important question.


“How does that feel? How does that land?”

I thought about it more — this idea that someone’s desire for and attraction toward me could be fueled by my own energy, something I could actually build and strengthen over time, something that was inherently unique to me and fully within my control — and a wave of relief and hope washed over me.

“It feels really damn good.”

The Transformation

“Your beauty comes from within. The freer and more open you are to express all of yourself, the more magnetically attractive you become. A woman who is free, flowing, full of emotion, feeling, and heart, fully exuding feminine energy will turn heads, no matter what her dress size is.”

Aziz Gazipura, confidence coach

On the second to last day of the retreat — just a few days later — we were on the beach taking photos with each other. As had become customary, as soon as one woman took her clothes off, everyone else quickly followed suit. Soon, 30 of us were all posing naked for a group photo.

And where was I?

Front and center, chest-out in a Little Mermaid pose over a rock. It didn’t even feel “brave” at the time, because I felt amazing in my body. None of my proportions had changed since my body-shame detox meltdown, but my attitude had completely transformed.

There are two things I wish I could tell you:

  1. How exactly that transformation happened
  2. That I’m cured of body image issues and have never felt shame, insecurity, or unworthiness about my body ever since

The truth is, I don’t know exactly how these types of transformation work.

However, I can tell you that setting a powerful intention and taking powerful action — such as taking part in the tantra retreat — has definitely accelerated my progress.

And although I am more consistently in love with my own body and appearance now than I ever have been, there are still days when I am convinced I’m not “hot” or beautiful enough.

Fortunately, I’ve developed a bunch of strategies over the years that help me snap out of this unworthiness mentality, re-connect to the glorious experience of having a human body, and remember that I have a right to explore, express, and enjoy my sexuality no matter how “sexy” anyone else thinks I am.

You are Worthy of the Sexual Connection and Pleasure You Desire

“Imma-say it, it’s true, I can’t get enough of myself” . -Santigold, “Can’t Get Enough of Myself”

Everybody is worthy of love, and every body is worthy of lust.

Sexuality is a significant part of not only our biological imperatives, but also our spiritual ones, and I don’t think that there is a human alive who, at their essence, is unworthy or undeserving of sexual desire.

There will always be variance in how desirable we find one another, of course.

But worthiness doesn’t require external validation.

(I’ll be the first to admit that it can help, though.)

Feeling worthy, in a sense, is simply understanding that it makes sense for someone to be turned on by you and your body. Not everyone HAS to be (you are not entitled to anyone’s lustful gaze), and we are certainly allowed our preferences (even if they are, in large part, imposed on us by messages about what we should prefer and what everyone else prefers).

However, there is inherent beauty in all bodies.

No matter your age, weight, shape, features, etc., it is never ridiculous or impossible for you to be worthy of sexual desire.

Commit to Yourself

Have you ever experienced a difference in attraction and intimacy when you transition from dating someone casually to making a commitment to them?

When you decide to stop considering other options and pour your focus into exploring how good things could get with one person, your ability to see that person — really see them — becomes supercharged. You start to notice their unique quirks, get comfortable enough to relax more into your authentic selves, you become more familiar with each other’s bodies (and sex gets better), and attraction often deepens.

You can do the same for yourself. Commit to being you. Be inspired by others, yes, but stop entertaining the idea of eventually becoming or looking like someone else. This just robs you — and the rest of the world — of getting to experience the beauty and sexual energy that only you are capable of providing.

When I commit to myself, I can really see myself. And when I really see myself, I see that I am beautiful in a completely unique way. I also see someone I really want to have sex with.

That’s how self-love and self-lust work together to set you free.

Sexual Worthiness: My guest spot on the Pleasure Positive Podcast

Want to learn more about sexual worthiness and self-lust? Check out episode 245 of the Pleasure Positive Podcast!

About the author, Michelle Martinez


With degrees in Psychology and Public Health, and VITA-certification as a Sex, Love, and Relationship Coach, Female Sexuality Coach, and Tantric Sex Coach, Michelle is on a mission to help women re-establish loving, pleasurable, and powerful relationships with their bodies and sexuality through mindfulness, tantra, and cultural change.

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