I attended the International Society for the study of Women’s Sexual Health this past week. This is one of the greatest meetings I go to during the year, and this one in particular was phenomenal. One of the lectures was about sexual desire and women. The lecture touched on many different components to female sexual desire, the awareness that sexual desire alone does not lead to sex for women. When men have sexual desire they seek out sex because it is a positive experience. This sounds obvious and rational, but the presenter went on to discuss “disincentives to sex in married women” (Sims & Meana 2010). Dr. Meana has a PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and she was the presenter. The first of three most likely disincentives to sex for married women is Fatigue and Energy Consumption. The women surveyed felt like the amount of energy it would take to make love wasn’t worth their time or effort. The second factor was boredom. Basically, this was when the woman felt that her partner knew what worked and went to that technique quickly and finished quickly. It was thought of as “animalistic”, and the women in the study reported that despite having opposable thumbs they didn’t feel made love to, but more likely a physical recipient for their partner. Thirdly and most prevalent was a negative body image. Women worried about whether their partner was looking at their cellulite, seeing their fat roll, or fantasizing about larger breasts than they actually had.
Glamour magazine recently reported on a survey in which more than 300 women of all shapes and sizes reported on what they say to themselves each day. The average was 13 brutal thoughts about their body each day. That wasn’t all; many reported more than 100 each day. Can you imagine what you would feel like if you told yourself all day each hour how ugly, fat, stupid, or skinny you are? Anne Kearney-Cooke PhD, who has done expansive research in this area, says it is not surprising. More and more we are conditioning young girls to worry about how they look, compare themselves to friends, and to look like the celebrities they see on TV and read about in teen magazines. If women now in their 30s, 40’s and 50’s feel the pressure of not looking good enough, or being valued for their beautiful curves and body shape, can you imagine what the next generation will feel like? Face Book, MTV, Reality TV as well as most magazines tell girls and women what they are supposed to look like. There is a correlation between how we feel about our bodies at the age of 9 and 10 and when we are adults. That correlation is going to influence whether or not women can enjoy having someone love them, and be sexually healthy as adults.
The International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health has begun a major push to study women because most of what we believe is true with women’s sexuality was based on what is true for men. We are finding the sexes are very different in their experience of sex. Women have many excuses not to engage in sex; many of these excuses have nothing to do with their partner. Their rejection is mostly of themselves. Medications and counseling may help some women deal with their feeling depressed or anxious with low body image, but these methods may not cure or prevent these feelings. We need to begin thinking about what we are telling women about their bodies. What are we telling our children about their bodies, and mostly what are we saying to ourselves when we talk to ourselves?
Below are a few suggestions you can begin to work with this week. The easiest way to begin is to set aside time each week to work on improving your body image. People who feel good about themselves are happier, and more successful at work and in their relationships.
1. If you are a parent watch what you say in front of your child. Many children parrot what they hear their parents say. If you walk around the house talking about your fat thighs, or split ends, you make your children (especially daughters) more prone to being critical of her flaws.
2. For everything you say critically about your body, tell yourself one good thing. For example if you are talking about your “roll around the middle” make note out loud about your beautiful eyes or smile.
3. Your body hears everything you say. I don’t know how it happens, but people who continue to berate themselves actually seem to exaggerate the flaw they berate. I have watched and listened to obese patients who talk about how “fat” they were; they continued to gain weight. The body reacts to what you tell it.
4. Movement and body awareness is so important. Touch your body, learn it. Exercise helps women feel so much more capable and confident. You don’t have to run a marathon, but you do need to feel the euphoria of a brisk walk or swim.
5. Many times what you don’t like about your body is something you don’t like about you. If you are at a party and like a particular person, all of a sudden you become very self conscious about your nose. Your nose didn’t change at the party; it is your insecurity in yourself. Try to address the real issue. Being afraid of rejection is different than hating your nose.
Working with couples who are struggling with intimacy and sex is difficult if we don’t address how women feel about their body. Most men would agree with me, that they rarely reject a naked body; however that may not comfort women. When a woman doesn’t feel good about her body, she doesn’t feel desire for her partner, nor does she feel desirable. Understanding women’s body image battle may help men feel less rejected when she says, “Not tonight”, I have a ___________________” (any excuse will do). After attending that conference, I am quite confident that the best thing a man can do for his partner is to help her in any way he can to feel better about her body. –Mary Jo Rapini
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