Tampa researchers link sexual activity to body-image comparisons

A University of Tampa research team recently determined women may develop negative images of their bodies because of comparisons they make to other women when sexually active.

“If you are sexually active woman in your early 20s/late teens, you might be more likely to look at the bodies of other women and compare yours to theirs negatively,” Tampa psychology professor and research team member Erin Koterba said. “We think educating young women about this tendency might help attenuate harmful consequences on body image.” 

The researchers set out to challenge the long-held belief that overly critical assessments of one's body image were reinforced or ameliorated by sexual activity alone. Instead, the study suggests that sex heightens the focus on one's body, which sets the tone for more aggressive criticism when women later make body comparisons with other women.

“Engaging in comparisons themselves might not be such a big deal for body image, and being sexually active alone might not be such a big deal for body image,” Koterba said. “But they work together in interesting ways.” 

The study is based on a survey of 75 female college freshman that asked about their level of sexual activity, how often they compare their bodies to others, and their own qualms with their bodies. The survey found that women who were sexually active made more body comparisons than women who were not.

The study is being reviewed for publication by the Journal of Adult Development.

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