The concepts of self-esteem and body image hugely hot topics for individuals of all life styles, but I have found it is especially poignant in Dominant/submissive life styles because sex plays such a vital role in our everyday lives rather than just the bedroom. When you’re being asked to put your body on display for various purposes, having a low self-esteem or an unhappy body image can be detrimental to how you conduct yourself in and out of play.
What is “body image” and how does it impact your self-esteem?
Essentially, your body image is your overall perception of your body. It is a combination of the way that your eyes perceive yourself, and the way that you feel in your own skin. According to The Etiology of Bulimia Nervosa by editors Janis H. Crowther, et. al., body image develops around puberty, right alongside the conscious development of your sexual identity (37). As such, the way that you view yourself and the way that you feel about the condition your body is in can play an integral role, not just in your mental health and your perception of your self-worth in other aspects of your life, but in your pursuit of relationships and your expression of self within them.
Whether sub or Dom, the way you view your own body is an imperative aspect the way you conduct yourself. Having a negative body image can impact not only but your relationship, day-to-day life. It decreases your confidence, your sense of security, and in some ways, your willingness to explore new things.
How it impacts your role as a sub
As a sub, your sense of security and your confidence in your Dom’s affection for you are vital aspects of submission, and each of these can be threatened by undermining, unkind internal dialogue. Knowing how to combat self-destructive, overly-critical thoughts, and how to avidly work to gain a positive self-image is actually important in fulfilling your role as a submissive partner. Having a positive body image can raise your self-esteem and ultimately ease some of the subtle, but tense undercurrents you might experience in a relationship.
In addition to causing uneasiness in a relationship, poor body image and low self-esteem can also make a sub feel eager to overcompensate in other aspects of submission; a sub who actually feels unworthy of praise and affection might find him or herself more inclined to agree to terms and conditions of submission that they’re uncomfortable with, or incapable of carrying out, because they’re hoping that doing so will make them more likeable. A sub who doesn’t have a positive self-image and a firm sense of who they are and what they want can act out in jealousy or anger, mistrust, or desperation. That’s not to say that a sub will absolutely do these things, nor that he or she will be inclined to throw themselves at a Dom that doesn’t fit their needs and force themselves to mold to the Dom’s expectations, but rather to recognize that these are possible behaviors resulting in having a poor self-image or sense of self-worth both outside of the D/s dynamic as well as in.
If you are new to the Dominant/submissive community, it’s very important that you understand that having confidence in your own image and of your sexual needs is NOT a taboo. I have observed that submissives—and female subs in particular—have earned an odd reputation in vanilla world as socially awkward, clumsy little kittens that turn into sexy nymphs at the hands of their Dom. I’m not sure if this is an anthropological hang-over from the traditional roles of men and women from times gone by, or if it’s a combination of the modern writer having no practical understanding of what submission is, and the fervor of publishers demanding that books be sold, but the depiction is one that I tend to find particularly off-putting: it gives a lot of people who are interested in being submissives the false impression that they should be totally dependent on their Doms to open their eyes to their own self-worth and to new sexual experiences—which, as more experienced subs know, is certainly not the case.
This is not to say that your Dom can’t play an integral role in inspiring you to explore new things, but rather that you should be willing to take on at least some of the responsibility for your metamorphosis. Remember that acting completely passive in a relationship puts a lot of pressure on your partner, and unless that’s something that both of you have agreed to, having one person take care of the physical and psychological needs of two people isn’t a particularly fair arrangement. Your Dominant might contribute to your journey by helping you become comfortable in your own skin, and accepting your flaws, but the bottom line is that those changes of attitude are intrinsic.
Building a Healthy Body Image
I know that the common idea right now is that building self-esteem and accepting your body should be primarily mental exercises, and that it doesn’t matter what you do on the outside if the inside is a mess. To some extent, this is true. Individuals who suffer from body dysmorphia are probably never going to be satisfied with the way their bodies look in the mirror without a lot of meditation, and (hopefully) help from a support network to build up an understanding of what it means to have a healthy body. However, having spoken to acquaintances and friends who suffered or still struggle with low self-esteem and poor body image, the idea of looking in the mirror and saying a mantra about being powerful and beautiful as the only method of building self-esteem does more potential harm to the way a person views him or herself than it does help. Having a negative body image and low self-esteem does not, after all, equate to a person being totally illogical or unintelligent, and confining oneself to mantras and positive vibes often does not address the “problem areas” that people see in themselves. As a result, the mantras might be a great first step, but the fact that nothing physically changes as a result of the mantras makes them, on their own, entirely ineffectual. It therefore stands to reason that if meditative exercises and physical improvement are each only half the battle, both methods combine will, for most individuals, have a much greater chance at feeling and seeing results in themselves.
A slightly wobbly metaphor about a building and your sense of self-worth
I currently have two schools of thought regarding the relationship between our physical appearances and our self-esteems, which tend to run simultaneously parallel and juxtaposed:
The first idea regards your self-esteem as an internal, almost spiritual battle. By creating physical routines to occupy yourself with, you are taking an active role in building the foundation of your self-worth. Human beings often depend on ritual to help keep them focused and to create a sense of spirituality in their day to day lives. Meditation and mantras were originally designed to help quiet the mind, focus the thoughts, and to open one’s awareness to the universe in order to gain a sense of enlightenment. It is as spiritual an experience as praying, and as such can be treated with the same integrity and significance as a religious ceremony (albeit on a slightly less elaborate scale). Coupling your positive thoughts with actions can help you a) focus your thoughts, and b) allow you to feel productive in the improvement of your own body.
The second idea regards self-esteem as an external aspect of yourself: no less spiritual, per say, but dependent on your interaction with the people in your environment. If building a ritual for meditation creates the foundation, then the way that we conduct ourselves on the outside creates the framework and structure of our body image. The more pride that we take in following those rituals, the easier it becomes for us to accept the admiration of our peers. For example, if you begin to consistently put particular effort into your hair, and people begin to compliment you on the way your hair looks, the compliments can be more easily accepted due to the amount of work that you put into the hair that is earning you the compliments. Provided that there are no underlying factors that might create the conditions for body dysmorphia, the final layer of our self-esteem and body image is composed of the way that other people view us, and our ability to accept the positive remarks sent our way. Because this is so dependent on not just receiving compliments, but being able to accept them as genuine and sincere, this is the most fragile layer of our perceptions of ourselves. For this reason, it is integral that we all build solid foundations and framework in order to take full advantage of the positive while still being capable of deflecting the negative.
Grooming and Health
Because I feel that there is a close link between the physical effort we put into ourselves and the mental/meditative efforts we use in order to alter our perceptions of ourselves, I am going to address the development of self-esteem and body image from the outside in. The ultimate purpose of this is to give very basic instructions for caring for certain aspects of your physical appearance: to help you lay the foundation while still giving you the freedom to build your own routine. Below are some of the areas that I’ll attempt to address within the series:
- Creating a skin care routine
- The (very) basics of hair care
- Hands and feet as finishing touches
- Eating right and staying active
- Interacting with others
Be aware that this is not a foolproof guide to instantly changing your entire demeanor, but rather a compilation of suggestions for a starting point on your journey. Your Dom can help you to an extent by using some of these as a springboard for building routines for you to follow, and giving you reassurance on the days you’re struggling (today is a struggle for me. After sharing with my Dom, I received a kiss on the nose and an “I like you” which made me feel better), but even if your Dom showers you with compliments every hour of every day, those compliments aren’t going to do anything unless you have a foundation and framework for them to settle on.
Some Key Terms
As most of the women in my life have a degree in behavioral psychology, I have a tendency to slip into a jargon that I’ve learned pretty much through osmosis (and a few Educational Psychology courses). I’ve done my best to read through the series and to keep the jargon to a minimum, but there are a few terms that I use repeatedly which don’t actually have a vernacular equivalent (or a different meaning in the vernacular) that works as effectively as the phrases themselves. I’ve put them below for you to reference so that you understand what I’m talking about when they show up:
- Body Image: This deals specifically with the way you perceive your body. It is a completely internal and slightly arbitrary interpretation of your own appearance vs. your expectations of what you would find attractive in yourself.
- Self-Esteem: The confidence that you have in your ability to accomplish things well. This is actually only tied to body image in a slightly skewed fashion (the “how effective am I at turning my partner on?” fashion). Rather, it focuses on your understanding of your capabilities in various areas: work, home, parenthood, in a relationship, etc.
- Self-Worth: ironically, not the same thing as self-esteem, though I occasionally (mis)use the phrase as interchangeable. Self-worth is your perception of your overall value as a summation of certain of your parts in comparison to the people surrounding you. In other words, it’s your internal price tag. Are you a more or less valuable soccer player than your friend? Depends on whether you perceive your friend to be better than you at the game.
As always, if I do throw something in, and you have no idea if I mean it the way you think it should be meant, feel free to ask; I’m always happy to clarify.
Until next time, Kallista