It can make or break relationships. It is the thinly veiled message behind the seemingly ubiquitous Valentine’s Day hearts and Cupid’s arrows. It is also one of the main reasons that individuals and couples seek counseling.

There are myriad variables that influence the quality of our sexual experiences. Our sexual history, the chemistry we feel with our partners, and the level of trust in the relationship all go in to the erotic mix. But one of the more powerful and often overlooked variables is our body image – the subjective view of our physical appearance based on our own observations and the reactions of others, including our sexual partner. And it seems all too easy to tip the scales toward the negative when thinking about our body image. Those extra few pounds gained over the holidays, Mother Nature’s aging process, or medications and chronic illness can all negatively affect how we view our bodies.

If you or your partner struggle with a negative body image, then the quality of your sexual experience and functioning, and thus, the relationship as a whole, can suffer.

Historically, body image concerns have been primarily a female issue. No longer is this the case. Now males, both gay and straight, are becoming increasingly concerned about body shape and weight. This is evidenced in the proliferation of fitness and health magazines aimed at us guys that dictate what we must look like to be somebody. The six-pack abs, the slender waist, and the chiseled chest and toned arms. To have these is to have power, status and sex appeal. Yet, studies show time spent reading fitness magazines correlates with higher levels of body dissatisfaction. So, for some, the more they look at these images, the worse they feel about themselves. In order to feel better and boost their esteem, they may go in to overdrive by engaging in some rather dangerous behaviors: exercising excessively to the point of injury, using steroids and skipping meals or restricting food or purging after eating. In the end, these behaviors do nothing to truly assuage the feelings of inadequacy and failure of not achieving the “ideal” body.

Gay men are especially vulnerable to body-image issues since the gay culture is a perfect storm of sorts for these issues to develop: a highly sexualized environment coupled with a culture whose “ideal” body is youthful, attractive and both slender and muscular. And to exacerbate the problem, gay men are under pressure from peers to look good. There is a reason that more than 15 percent of gay and bisexual men have struggled with an eating disorder or severe disordered eating, compared with less than 5 percent of straight men and 8 percent of straight women. And research indicates that some gay men develop eating disorders in an attempt to actually improve a romantic relationship. So, how do you know if you may have a less than healthy body image?

Consider the following

• Do you constantly think about your weight and/or body shape?

• Do you weigh yourself several times a day?

• Do you worry about what your last meal is doing to your body?

• Do you exercise even when you are ill or injured?

• Do you exercise more than an hour every day to burn calories?

• Do you feel guilty or angry when you eat so-called “bad” foods?

There is absolutely nothing wrong or unhealthy about wanting to look good and stay fit. But when the desire to look good becomes an obsession to look perfect, then problems are sure to develop. The amount of time and energy spent pursuing this unattainable goal can wreak havoc on our relationships, interfere with work or school, or worse: You could be setting yourself up for the development of an eating disorder. And if it is your partner who is putting the pressure on you to get that “perfect” body, then ask yourself, is he really worth sacrificing your mental and physical health.

Having a healthy body image helps create a healthy sex life with your partner. Communication is also crucial. Be open and honest with your partner about your sexual likes and desires. And learn to let go of the idea that you need to have that ideal body to have ideal sex. The goal is not to have the “perfect” body, but rather to be comfortable in your skin when that’s all you’re in.

Did You Know?

Research indicates that, regardless of body satisfaction level, after viewing photographs of themselves, men reported increases in body dissatisfaction and higher levels of depression, anger and anxiety.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there was a 44 percent increase in minimally invasive cosmetic procedures in men be- tween 2000 and 2005.