Can someone else's image of us shape our own identity?
Film and television executive Pamela Popp had a big date. He was smart, handsome, and charming; they had a lot to talk about, as they both worked in the same industry.
Popp dressed carefully: funky patchwork skirt, fitted sweater, and brown stiletto boots. The evening went well—so well that it led to sex. But though she was overcome by passion, the only article of clothing she removed was her panties.
"I didn't take a stitch off," recalls Popp, 34. "I asked, 'Wouldn't it be more fun with the boots?' And of course, he thought it was the hottest thing ever."
But what may have seemed like a spontaneous suggestion was a deliberate—if erotic—ruse. Popp was intent on hiding a half-inch-wide keloid scar that winds from her breastbone to her pelvis; it's the result of life-saving surgery that she had after a car accident at 19.
Though she has had nearly half her life to adjust to the mark, Popp has yet to adjust to the moment when she must reveal it to a new lover. Will he be shocked? Will he pretend it's not there? She dreads each possibility, and refuses to undress in front of a man until she is reasonably sure that his interest will last longer than one evening. Inner Beauty: What Men Don't Tell You
While her story is dramatic, Popp is not alone in her attempt to conceal a "flawed" body part from a romantic partner. Many women swagger confidently through business meetings and cocktail parties. But once they shed the armor of Diane von Furstenberg and True Religion they become flustered schoolgirls, ashamed of everything from scars and birthmarks to stretch marks and small breasts.
And in an age when many women yearn for the airbrushed perfection of Beyoncé and Jennifer Aniston, it's easy to assume that men do, too. "This sort of angst is very understandable," says Dr. Emanuel Maidenberg, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA Medical School who has treated patients with severe body image problems, known as body dysmorphic disorder. "Women are culturally more disposed to these expectations of perfection when it comes to body image."
To compensate, some women keep their clothes on, while others apologize as they come off. At 49, Susan Greenberg*, a high-powered lawyer in Chicago, still makes excuses for her small breasts. "I feel like I have to have a throwaway self-deprecating line," she says. "In response, they'll say something reassuring like, 'The last thing I care about is …' or 'I never was much of a boob guy.'" But she's still not reassured. "It's just cliché upon cliché," she says with a sigh.
The only way to get over body insecurities, Maidenberg says, is to stop focusing on them. "Calling attention to something that is small or not visible is self-defeating," he says. And hiding a so-called flaw "may be sustainable—but there is a price to pay: tension and apprehension. In the long run, it's likely to be counter-productive."
Increasing body confidence, of course, is easier said than done. Caitlin Randall*, a Los Angeles based writer, despised the two-inch-long, 3⁄4-inchwide birthmark on her right hip. Otherwise lean and sinewy, she saw the brown spot as a glaring flaw on her pale white skin.
"When I would have sex, I would go through these ridiculous contortions to make sure it wasn't seen," says Randall, 42. "I would have my arm at my side. If I turned, I might have my hand down there. And I would lie on my right side to go to sleep." When she did finally point it out to boyfriends, no one ever said anything more judgmental than, "How'd you get that?"