July 13, 2015


body image ›   desire ›   orgasm ›  

The Hidden Benefit of "Exercise"

In an ideal world, we’d all love our bodies exactly as they are. We’d love our little muffin tops for the reminder of all the ice cream sundaes we’ve shared with a best friend, our marshmallow tummies for the children we carried, and our pancake boobs for making bras (practically) pointless.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and the way we perceive our bodies affects how we feel about having sex. We probably all have personal experience with this, and research backs it up.

Fortunately, there’s a way around poor body image and it’s called exercise. Before you groan and stop reading, just let me say that this post is about more than exercise’s effect on that muffin top. It’s about exercise’s effect on a whole lot of things.

Research shows that exercise improves body image, desire, and (our male readers will be happy to know) erectile functioning. It also leads to an increase in overall sexual satisfaction, according to research, the findings of which were published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality.

And here’s the best part of that research: the exercise doesn’t even have to be strenuous. “Overall sexual satisfaction was significantly associated with all modes of exercise/physical activity (i.e., sport, aerobics, recreation, and strength training).”

Improving your satisfaction with your sex life might be as simple as taking a walk or a leisurely bike ride or going canoeing—the more frequently, the better. So the benefit of exercising isn’t just that it tones our bodies. It’s that we feel better about ourselves and our sex lives, maybe long before the effect shows up on our middle-aged middles.

Perhaps you already do those walks or bike rides. If so, good for you! Want better orgasms? Consider adding weights or aerobic exercise to your routine; the research also showed that strength training had “the strongest relationship to overall satisfaction with quality of orgasm.” And many studies show a correlation between aerobic exercise and quality of orgasm.

See? No need to be deterred by the word “exercise.” Just think of it as adding a little more activity that will lead to getting a little more action.

Eve Ensler: In the Body of the World

While reflecting on our anniversary, we were reminded of how many women have come before us, paving the way for straightforward conversations about women’s sexuality. This is the third in a series (read the first and second) launching our sixth year with gratitude to them!

Eve Ensler was an obscure New York playwright until she debuted her one-woman play, The Vagina Monologues. The very title was electrifying. Suddenly, audiences were being asked to say the word “vagina” out loud.

Ensler got the idea for the play when a woman she knew said “really hideous, demeaning things about her vagina.” That spurred her to interview more than 200 women. “It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done in my life. People long to talk about their vaginas. It’s like a secret code between women.”

“Once they got going, you couldn’t stop them,” she said in a 2004 TED talk. “No one’s ever asked them before.”

She assembled some of their stories into a series of short monologues, ranging from humor (“Hurry, nurse, bring me the vagina”), to tragedy (gang rape as a weapon of war); from the birth of her own grandchild, to a fake orgasm more stupendous than the one in When Harry Met Sally.

In 1996, The Vagina Monologues won an Obie for best new play. There were other effects that Ensler had never anticipated. “Women would literally line up after the show because they wanted to tell me their story.” She had thought they would want to talk about sex. Instead, many told heart-rending tales of rape, incest, and violence. She found out that the UN estimates 1 in 3 women worldwide are beaten or raped. That number enraged her.

On Valentine’s Day of 1998, she began a new campaign: performances of The Vagina Monologues to raise money to stop the violence. The first year, she enlisted high-profile actresses like Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Glenn Close, and Susan Sarandon. Sony and ABC were corporate sponsors.

The V-Day movement has continued ever since. The money raised has gone to safe houses in Kenya for girls escaping genital mutilation; to the City of Joy in Congo for victims of rape; to Juarez, Mexico, where bones of murdered women were washing up on the beach. Money has gone to Haiti, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iraq.

Women in the U.S. have also benefited. During the month of February, local productions pay nothing for the rights to the play, provided that all proceeds go to organizations working to stop violence against women.

Eve Ensler herself suffered abuse as a child. “I left my body at a very young age . . . I wasn’t informed by the intelligence of my body.” Living without connection to the body means “we are not living in our full creativity and intelligence.”

Her body received a shattering challenge in the form of stage 3 uterine cancer, but she never lost sight of the suffering of other women. In a 2010 Guardian article, she wrote with fury about the world’s indifference to the plight of women in the Congo, while she herself received excellent, curative care for her cancer. She remained, as the title of her 2013 memoir has it, In the Body of the World.

His and Hers: Body Image Woes

Here’s the scene. A “mature” couple is sitting companionably together in the living room, reading. He looks over the top of his paper.

“Hey, Snookums, you look remarkably fetching tonight. Want to get to bed early?

She, thinking: Oh, lord, he hasn’t seen me naked since I gained the last five pounds. Fat on top of cellulite. Saggy bags over saddlebags. “Well. Hmmm. Just let me finish my… knitting. I have to finish my knitting. Then I’ll be right in, honey.”

He, thinking: Yeah, knitting. Bet she’d be ready to jump the bones of some musclebound hunk with hair instead of a bowling ball and a six-pack instead of a whale gut.

And what he does not dare to articulate even to himself is whether she might also be left unsatisfied with his, um, slightly spongy and not-so-reliable accoutrement.

So they sit, each in his or her own corner, licking the wounds of engrained insecurities and missing out on the sweetest years they have left together. All because they misinterpreted each other’s insecurities because they were so completely snowed under their own.

The song may be different for each of us, but too often, the dance is the same.

Body image is powerful no matter what side of the gender gap you fall on. And while men rarely discuss their insecurities, in one study, 38 percent of men would sacrifice a year of their lives for the perfect body—a higher percentage even than women, according to this article in the Guardian.

“These findings tell us that men are concerned about body image, just like women. We knew that 'body talk' affected women and young people and now we know that it affects men too," said Dr Phillippa Diedrichs, who conducted the study of almost 400 men in Great Britain.

While women focus on losing weight, men obsess about losing muscle. While women struggle with vaginal dryness, men struggle with losing their ramrod hardness. While women worry about their stomachs, thighs, and boobs, men worry about their stomachs, muscle tone, baldness, and man-boobs (moobs). Blame the media. Blame your mother. We’re old enough now to identify and grapple with our own insecurities. And to get over them, already.

No matter how good you look, you’ll eventually become invisible in a culture that is focused on youthful beauty. In her poem I Met a Woman Who Wasn’t There, Marge Piercy writes:

The CIA should hire as spies only women over fifty, because we are the truly invisible.

This makes some women feel free and unburdened, and it makes others desperate to turn back the clock, fueling the cosmetic surgery industry, which has grown 77 percent in the last ten years, according to a 2012 AARP article. For their part, men may turn to Rogaine and Viagra and red convertibles—and cosmetic surgery, but in the end, we all—men and women—have to make our peace with growing old.

Because that train is coming, like it or not. And it’s a whole lot nicer to ride out the last adventure of our lives in the same berth.

Here are a few ways to do just that:

Send your body some luv: “The mind is the most powerful beauty tool in your makeup bag,” writes one woman.

Stop the negative chatter, says MiddlesexMD advisor, MaryJo Rapini, who writes frequently about body image issues. She recommends telling yourself,“You are my body, and I claim you, and I will take care of you.” And: “I love the way you make me distinguishable that someone can recognize me by my voice, my eyes, or the gait of my walk.”

Do sensual things for yourself and with your partner: Have a massage. Luxuriate in a scented bath. Go all out, if you can, with a week (or a weekend) at a spa. When your body is touched respectfully and sensually, it helps you to remember how good it feels.

Have more sex. The more you have, the better—the more sensual and sexy—you feel.

“Give yourself over to the pleasurable experience and sensation of sex itself, drawing on the depth of your emotional connection with your partner. Issues with physical imperfections can melt away in the face of this focus on mutual sharing of pleasure,” suggests this article from the North American Menopause Society (NAMS).

Keep your body healthy and moving. Forget about looking young. Focus on being healthy. “Consider exercise and weight loss as aphrodisiacs,” says the NAMS article. “Exercise is like Miracle Gro for your brain and body,” says the AARP.

Get the picture? As you age you simply will not feel good about yourself unless you exercise moderately and eat healthfully. Exercise helps keep blood flowing to your brains and keeps your joints lubricated, not to mention keeping your muscles toned, strengthening your bones and boosting your immune system.

What are you waiting for? Get off the couch.

Be gentle with each other. It will just take longer for your man to get an erection, and it doesn’t have anything to do with his attraction to you. And he needs to understand that you’ve been conditioned since childhood to believe that youth equals beauty. You need to hear that he still finds you irresistible.

If you have a same-sex partner, you’re looking in the mirror at your mutually aging bodies. Make sure you each know that’s okay.

As Dr. Eleanor Hamilton, author and sex therapist, writes in this beautiful article, “They both need to reassure each other that their love and the intimacy they share and the long years of increasing trust that has built between them are far more important ‘turn-ons’ than the young, sleek, over-eagerness of youth.”

A Sexy Makeover Job--from the Inside

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us…

         —Robert Burns

As Mary Jo Rapini discussed in her excellent post about body image, the way we view our bodies—our body image—is an inside job. It’s our own creation.

We construct our body image from childhood experience (comments, teasing, how our mothers viewed themselves), media messages, and social definitions of beauty. We also project our emotions onto our hapless bodies. (Passed over for a promotion? Look at those fat, ugly thighs.)

Did you notice that not one of those influences has anything to do with how others actually see us? WilliamShakespeare

That’s because body image has nothing to do with reality. It’s the result of our own internal dialog, and I’m guessing that for most of us it’s pretty negative. That’s what Mary Jo was referring to when she said to knock it off. In so many words.

Body image is powerful because it affects our actions, including our sex life. “Women with poor body image don’t initiate sex as often, and they’re more self-conscious,” says Dr. Anne Kearney-Cooke.

When we’re distracted by our perceived flaws, it’s hard to be spontaneous with our honey.

Still the media steamrolls on. The ideal image of beauty has become thinner (American models are 11 percent below normal weight and only 4 percent above what is considered anorexic). At the same time, not only embroiled in an obesity epidemic, but most of us tend to gain weight normally as we age.

Weight is a huge component of body image. In a massive 1997 survey conducted by Psychology Today, participants were asked how many years of life they would be willing to trade in order to achieve their weight goal, 15 percent of women said they’d give up 5 years and 24 percent said they’d give up more than three.

That’s a high price for weight loss. And guess what? You can do it for free!

In the interest of bringing hope and perspective to the issue as we prepare to welcome a new year, here (and in the next post) are some thoughts and suggestions that make sense to me:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This covers a lot of ground. For one thing, your partner probably sees you as more beautiful than you see yourself. People who love us tend to do that. All you have to do is to trust it.

It also means that standards of beauty are different throughout the world and that Americans have very narrow standards. After all, this is the culture that brought you Barbie. The French, for example, have much broader notions of beauty. Here’s one French woman’s reaction to American beauty: “The women all had thin bodies, big breasts, long blonde hair, and white teeth. Boring.” Rejoice in your lack of boringness.

Your body is amazing. Be proud of what it can do. Stop obsessing about weight and start working on health. Exercise to make yourself stronger and more flexible, not to lose weight. That Psychology Today survey found that moderate exercise was the most direct link to feeling good about yourself. (Good sex was another.)

You don’t have to get extreme—just get outside and walk several times a week. (Simply being outside feels good.) When you’re confident in your body’s ability to perform—when you can walk a few miles, move the couch, pick up the grandkid, not only do you feel better, but you feel better about yourself.

I'll continue this how-to list in the next post!

Sex Talk Begins with What We Say to Ourselves

One of the advantages of having an advisory board is the different perspectives we bring to the same set of problems. In our last conversation with Mary Jo Rapini, the issue of body image came up: the fact that we women are sometimes our own worst enemies when it comes to nurturing our sexuality. The topic clearly hit a chord with Mary Jo--she'd also been coming across examples of it--and she offered to write this blog post.  

I was recently at a meeting that explored the literature and dealt with issues of sexuality, dysfunction, and relationships. The most popular theme in each educator’s presentation, no matter what their field of study, was the importance of body image in influencing women’s libido. Although many of the diagrams and graphs were complicated, the message was not. How women feel about their bodies influences their libido.

It makes sense, especially if you are a woman yourself or are close to one. You know how it feels when you feel bloated or fat and your partner wants to get naked. There is a sense of dread and duty; either you acquiesce or you find an excuse. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your partner tells you they believe you are, or what you’re wearing; if you don’t feel good about your body you don’t look forward to being vulnerable or wanting pleasure. Both of these are important when making love.MiddlesexMD_Rumi

When I see women who are struggling with their body image I find myself reciting things I have heard or read that help. For example, experts tell women to focus on an area they like and to appreciate and dress in to flatter that feature. For many women, this may be helpful, but my practice is full of women who can only admit to liking a very small limited area. Let’s face it; if you tell me your favorite area is your eyebrows, I'm going to struggle with how to help you build a better body image using your eyebrows--any expert would.

Body image can include areas that aren’t exactly body related. For example, many professional women boast a high body image and self esteem due to their careers. They may not like their body or parts of it, but they don’t let it hold them back sexually.

What we say to ourselves is much more important than what others say. A recent report I read said that women routinely say over twenty derogatory things about their bodies each day. These same women suffer from how they view their body emotionally, physically, and sexually. It doesn’t matter if their husbands love their bodies, comment on the beauty of their bodies, or tell them how attractive they are: These women are destroying their concept of themselves from within. Media is an easy target to blame, but media is not the entire problem. What we say to ourselves is the problem. What we think to ourselves is the problem. What we say to our friends about our inadequacies is a problem. All sex talk begins with what we say to ourselves. No sex talk will make women feel sexier, hotter, or more desired if they have destroyed their sense of sexiness from within. Hormone therapy can make you feel more like having sex, but if you don’t feel good about your body, you will be reluctant to act on your feelings.

Since this is an inside job we do to ourselves, the work to stop perpetuating a poor body image is also up to us. It means you have to take a stance and begin by advocating for yourself, for your intimacy/sex life with your partner. That means sitting down with your partner and directly addressing what happens to you when you talk to yourself. Usually loving men will do anything to help their partner if they understand the mission.

  1. If you are highly suggestive and seeing a photo of a taut, scantily dressed woman with sex appeal makes you feel and talk badly about yourself, then rid your home of these types of magazines, TV shows, or whatever you are currently seeing.
  2. Movement is linked to many sensory areas of our brains. Movement makes our mood better, our affect more animated, and our sense of sexuality healthier. You don’t need to run marathons to feel and be sexy, but you do need to exercise each day. Ten minutes is better than no minutes. An hour a day split up any way you want is best!
  3. Begin a journal to yourself listing derogatory comments you remember being said to you prior to the age of eight. These comments may have been made as "jokes" by warped people, but they weren’t jokes. They are wired into your brain, and you may be repeating these to yourself as part of your negative mantra.
  4. Catch yourself. Whenever you make a derogatory comment about some part of your body, picture a stop sign and say aloud, “No.” Ask yourself, “What right do you have to abuse anyone including yourself?” Then think of who in your life made you think this was okay. Sometimes you will remember things your dad said, but more likely your mom used to insult herself as well.
  5. If anyone in your life right now insults your body, that is a huge red flag. Tell them they are waving a red flag, and abusing you with negative comments is not okay. If your kids hear this message, they will begin early protecting their body image.
  6. Women are much more critical of their bodies than men are. Part of this is due to the fact that women are more sensitive and do not abuse men’s bodies with negative comments to the degree men do with women. One way men will learn how to treat women is if a woman stands up to them when they make a derogatory comment instead of joining them in their taunts.
Couples will spend money to enhance their sex life with products, medications, and exotic vacations. However, the least expensive and perhaps most effective is to begin changing how we talk to ourselves. The first sex talk you get is not the one you get from mom or dad during a formal birds and bees lecture. It’s the mini body image lectures we give ourselves when we are children. These mini body image insults we say each day to our bodies are more potent than any sex product, medication, or exotic vacation we could ever afford.

Loving Your Beautiful, Aging Body

Recently, I took a photo of my college-age daughter. I saw a beautiful young woman in a candid moment—smiling, long hair blowing in the breeze, everything youth should be.

Her reaction?

“Look how dumpy I am. Look at my belly. My boobs are so big.”

And at the other end of the generational divide, a grandmother in her early 80s complains about how fat she is and compares her breasts to “rocks in socks.”

Ladies, will we ever get beyond all this negative chatter and learn to accept, if not love, the only body we will ever have? Will we ever stop wasting valuable energy judging ourselves according to totally unrealistic cultural standards?

Unfortunately, I’m not that self-evolved. Are you?

Do you make love under cover of darkness (or maybe just under the covers) because you’re embarrassed by the cellulite and love handles? Have you avoided looking in mirrors ever since you saw your mother (and maybe now, your grandmother) looking back? Do you head for basic black and avoid wearing the colors and patterns you really like? Do you hate being photographed? When was the last time you wore a bathing suit?

In 2009, Glamour magazine repeated a survey it had conducted 25 years earlier. Sixteen thousand women were asked about their body image—how they felt about their looks; what they like and didn’t like. The results: “Sadly, more than 40 percent of women are unhappy with their bodies, a number virtually unchanged since 1984.”

Even more telling—women under 30 are now more likely to feel good about their bodies than older women, which is different from the 1984 survey.

It’s understandable, of course. We’ve been drinking the cultural Kool-Aid about youth and beauty since infancy. Now we’re staring down the final taboo: We’re growing old. Not only that, but those bodies we may (or may not) have reached an uneasy peace with are changing, too. They’ve developed bags and wrinkles, aches, pains, and excess avoirdupois. And no matter what we do to turn back the clock, this process will continue relentlessly and irrevocably.

Love yourself. Move your body. Watch your portions.This may be a good thing. This may allow us to finally claim who we are, undistracted and unburdened by the judgmental nattering all around us. When we can finally face down our shaky self-image and put our insecurities to bed. Perhaps we can appreciate and develop the things that really matters—our relationships and our own unique and beautiful selves. And maybe, having shaken off that critical voice, we can finally engage more freely in life and love and the world around us. 

Sounds like a worthy goal at least. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Monitor your thoughts. To paraphrase an old saying: You are what you think. Do you cultivate a stream of negative thinking about yourself and others? Observe where your mind wanders and how you react to things. Try to turn negative thoughts and judgments in a positive direction.
  • Watch your mouth, too. Turn off the gossip and negative chatter—and that includes putting yourself down.
  • Cultivate friendships with joyful people who inspire you and are healthy to be around. Identify some unofficial life coaches who have experience, wisdom, and joy to share. Ideally, you’ll take your place among these mentors soon.
  • Identify things that make you feel good about yourself, whether it’s a massage, volunteer work, an afternoon with a special friend or an evening with your honey.
  • Don’t diet. Most people who diet gain the weight back anyway and are obsessed with weight, guilt, and counting calories. Instead, make your goal a healthy lifestyle. Focus on eating well and healthfully.
  • Do move. Getting active physically not only makes you feel better, but you’ll also feel better about how you look. “Being active in and of itself improves body image,” says Jim Annesi, PhD., in the Glamour article. And getting those joints moving increases flexibility and reduces the aches and pains, which incidentally helps with the next point…
  • Have sex. Paradoxically, the activity that is most likely to trigger our insecurities can also embolden us and restore our self-confidence. “Women who are able to get past those insecurities can find those fears are unfounded and realize how empowering it can be to experience pleasure and connection with another human being,” says gynecologist Hilda Hutcherson. So, after changing your thought patterns, developing a healthy lifestyle, and cultivating positive friends, the final payoff can be uninhibited sex with someone who ideally loves you just the way you are. With the lights on.

Have you noticed how attractive joyful people are? How age has its own special beauty? Have you noticed that beautiful woman with joy in her eyes and the wrinkles and lines of experience on her face?

That’s you.

Don’t Know Much about S-E-X? You’re Not Alone.

A woman I know was sitting in a café with her lover. Newly single after having been married for many years to her first and only sexual partner, she was babe in the sexual wilderness. She didn’t know the customs, the language, the expectations, or even how to protect herself.

She’d grown up in a very straightlaced family, so the sexual revolution had completely passed her by. Sex with her husband had been routine and boring, but she wasn’t assertive enough to try to spice things up. Now this dashing bachelor was suggesting positions she’d never tried, and trying things she’d never thought of. She only hoped her rank inexperience wasn’t too obvious.

Their eyes met over the coffee cups. He cleared his throat. “Have you, um, had much practice sexually?” he asked. “You’re pretty tight in bed.”

“I thought I was going to throw up,” my friend said.

Whether you are in a long-term relationship or newly unattached, you aren’t alone in feeling sexually insecure and inexperienced. Many of us came of age before casual sex was commonplace, and many more of us married young and maybe didn’t get the practice our peers seemed to enjoy. And others of us decided that sex wasn’t meant to be casual, and we deliberately limited our opportunities.

Besides, don’t we tend to assume that everyone else is somehow better—more sophisticated and experienced? Or that we aren’t quite up to snuff? And isn’t the whole realm of sex with all its juicy nakedness and vulnerability a particularly handy target for our free-floating insecurities? In fact, is there anything more acutely capable of making us feel inept?

I’m betting that in a situation like my friend’s a lot of us would feel pretty inept.

Given that most of us are probably a little rusty on our Kama Sutra positions, and that many of us will find ourselves with new partners at some point in our lives, how might we approach that uncomfortable feeling of sexual naiveté—the feeling that we never really acquired this oh-so-adult skill.

First, get a grip. We’re mature, self-evolved women who’ve accumulated skills and talents over the course of a lifetime. So what if sex wasn’t one of them. That’s no reflection on our self-worth. And it’s never too late to learn.

We also face tremendous social pressure and non-stop cultural messaging that lets us know that everyone is having lots of sex and performing feats of skill and derring-do in the bedroom.

That’s a lot of nonsense. A lot of single people aren’t “doing it,” and a lot of others aren’t having such a blast between the sheets. And besides—we aren’t everyone, as our mothers used to say. We should not be bullied into insecurity or rash action by what we see on “Desperate Housewives.”

We need to protect ourselves emotionally and physically, and we need to see ourselves as confident, sexual, and desirable.

A person with confidence and self-worth doesn’t need to prove anything in the bedroom because sex in a mature, caring relationship is about more than skill, experience, and acrobatics. In such a relationship, we should be able to talk about sex and what we’d like it to be for each other and how we can make it better. Then maybe sex can take its appropriate place as another level of sharing and a different way to express love.

Let’s not sell ourselves short or buy into the media messaging. It’s easy to learn a bunch of fancy sexual moves. What’s hard is to find the right relationship to have sex in.

Self, Meet Body

You’ve been through a lot. After surgery or chemo or radiation therapy, you may feel like you inhabit the body of a stranger—it doesn’t look, feel, or behave like the body you once knew so intimately. You may feel as though your body has betrayed you. You may disassociate from your body—it’s there, but you aren’t. Or, you may grieve over the loss of your former self, scar-less, energetic, attractive.

Recovery is a long and challenging road, and like any journey, you’ll probably find the way littered with unexpected difficulties as well as sweet surprises. Initially, however, it’s mostly uphill.

You may find that your body simply doesn’t respond the way it did “before.” You may find your self-image seriously shaken by the scars, the hair loss, the weight gain. You may find it hard to care about anything because you’re exhausted—or depressed. Feeling attractive and desired is an important component to sexual responsiveness for women, and you may feel anything but.

This is a fragile time. You’ll need to become acquainted with your new body and to accept and even embrace it with all its limitations. And maybe this acceptance will open the doors to a new kind of sexual partnership as well. Maybe one that’s more honest, that expects less, that laughs more.

First, however, you need time to heal and to regain energy, and this can take months. Go easy on yourself. “I think the one gift I’ve had from breast cancer is that I’ve never made myself go back to the same level of pushing as before,” writes Dr. Su Kenderdine, in a Q&A at breastcancer.org. Rest is as restorative as exertion, she says.

Second, pamper your body. Do the small things that make you feel sexy—get a manicure, buy lingerie and nice sheets, take long soaks in the tub, style your hair (or buy a wig you like), get a makeover. Lavish your body with good energy, and your sexual responsiveness may pick up, too. “Eroticize your body,” says Sabitha Pillai-Friedman, a well-known sex therapist and breast cancer survivor. “We have scars. Our bodies have changed. It’s very important for us to sort of look at ourselves. We can look at ourselves with scars, but we can also look at ourselves with the scars enhanced with sexy lingerie. Right?”

Third, get to know your new body. You may discover new erogenous areas as well as reawaken old ones. How does it feel to stroke your belly? To massage your ears? The back of your neck? The inner thigh? The feet? Harness the power of all your sex organs—your skin and sense of touch as well as your mind. Fantasize. Read sexy stories.

“Your vagina responds to your mind and your feelings about yourself, so if you feel like ‘damaged goods,’ too heavy, or in any way undesirable, your vagina will stay relatively dry and unresponsive,” writes Dr. Marisa Weiss, president and founder of breastcancer.org.

Surround yourself with positive thoughts. Visualize yourself as attractive and desireable. Confidence is sexy.

Fourth, get a vibrator and some lubricants and use them by yourself first. “Once we’ve had surgery and treatments… our body’s response changes, so we need to really figure out what works for us before we can share our bodies,” says Dr. Pillai-Friedman.

Prime the pump, so to speak. Arousal may take more or a different kind of stimulation, so find out what works for you now. Also, self-pleasuring will wake up sleepy nerve pathways and improve blood flow to your genitals.

Finally, don’t neglect your partner. Talk about how you feel and what you’re doing. Essentially, you’re working hard to regain something important both to your relationship and to your own sense of well-being—your sexuality. If you lay the groundwork well, everyone benefits. And in the meantime, don’t withdraw. Keep the intimacy alive with lots of touch and cuddling.

Also, don’t make assumptions about what your partner feels or thinks. Don’t project your own discomfort with how you look or assume that if he touches you he wants sex. It’s highly likely that he or she is looking for cues from you and will accept whatever makes you comfortable. If you’re not sure how he or she feels, ask rather than guess.

When you make love again, experiment with positions that might be more comfortable. If you’re on top, you can control the depth and speed of thrust. A spoon position is close and loving, but also visually more private. Use pillows, props, supports. Use lots of lubricant. Wear something sexy—and you don’t have to take it off if you don’t want to. Don’t forget to laugh.

Who knows. This might be the start of something newly beautiful.

April 29, 2011

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Disincentives: He'll See Me Naked!

The notion of body image has to do with how we feel emotionally about our appearance rather than how others view us or how we look objectively (height, weight, eye and hair color). It’s a complex and many-colored concept that can be affected by things like past experiences (your mother's long-ago comment about your “cute pudge,” for example, or, more difficult, sexual abuse), by cultural norms, by physical disease or injury, and by our own level of confidence and self-esteem.

According to researcher Marta Meana, Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, in her talk at a recent International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH), negative body image is the third most common “disincentive to sex” for married women—even if we enjoy sex; even if we might feel like it at the moment. A negative body image is pervasive and potent. Many of us are embarrassed about our bodies to the extent that those feelings invade our most intimate relationships. Case in point: the woman whose husband, in 22 years of marriage, had never seen her naked body.

Granted, it takes a stout disposition to feel confident about our bodies in the face of our youth-crazed, celebrity-obsessed, skinny-jeans culture. Even when advertisers target a “mature” demographic, the models look like 30-year-olds with graying temples. The mantra that “30 is the new 50” perpetuates that unrealistic image against which real people like ourselves, with cellulite, love handles, saddlebags, sagging breasts, and fatty backs stand no chance.

However, for those of us who do manage to feel good about the way we look, it seems that a positive body image is strongly linked to more frequent and more satisfying sex. In at least one recent study, researchers at the University of Austin found “significant positive relationships between sexual functioning, sexual satisfaction, and all body image variables.” Body image variables included things like weight concern, physical condition, and “cognitive distractions during sexual activity”—those irritating thoughts about our bodies that invade our intimate moments.

Another study of older women found that those who perceived themselves as less attractive also reported a decline in sexual activity. (They did, however, report that sex was still satisfying when they did engage in it.)

As we age, then, we’re confronted with an opportunity and a challenge. While we may be more accepting, mature, and confident, we’re also experiencing physical changes that are deemed undesirable by our culture. We can enjoy our evolving maturity and freedom, or we can cop to the cultural myth that labels aging unattractive and unsexy.

If you find yourself distracted by thoughts of your midriff rolls during sex or have the urge to dress--and undress!--in the closet, try these remedies:

  • Get naked in private. Walk around nude. Familiarity with your naked body might help you become more comfortable with it.
  • Get fit. No matter the size of your jeans, exercise makes you look and feel better. It’s also a good way to become more aware of your body—and maybe more appreciative of how well it works.
  • Think positive. A survey conducted by Glamour magazine with Ann Kearney-Cook, PhD, revealed that most women think about their bodies negatively every, single day. And sometimes these thoughts are shockingly negative. This is powerful negative reinforcement. Be aware of your negative thinking and make an effort to break the cycle.
  • Practice acceptance. Self-confidence is a turn-on all by itself. There’s nothing sexier than a woman who is comfortable in her own skin.
While making love with my partner I worried that he would see a hair here, or a flabby spot there, and be turned off. I noticed that he was never self-conscious about a skin blemish or when he gained a few pounds. So I started copying him and concentrated more on the sexual pleasure I felt. I began enjoying sex a lot more, and he noticed. He said it made him more excited, and the result? A great new circle of passion and sex.

from Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era, 2005, Boston.

Not Tonight, Dear: Why We “Don’t Feel Like It”

We are complicated sexual creatures. For us, arousal isn’t just a matter of plumbing; rather, it’s intricately connected to how we feel about ourselves, our partners, and the rest of our lives. There is no “turn-on” pill; there is no magic potion. And while it’s true that the way we experience arousal and sexual pleasure evolves and changes as we age, there’s every reason to expect that our sexual experience can be even more relaxed, adventurous, and fun—just like the rest of our lives—if we pay attention to our overall mental and physical health. Because for us, the kneebone’s connected to the thighbone—everything’s connected.

This concept was brought home to me once again at a presentation I heard at the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH) by researcher Mara Meana, Ph.D. from the University of Nevada. Dr. Meana examined the reasons women might decide not to have sex, even if they were aroused and feeling sexual desire.

Of course, those reasons differ depending on the woman’s life stage and personal situation, but what struck me was that the three main reasons that married women gave for avoiding sex were:

  • Fatigue and the need to conserve energy
  • Boring sex
  • Negative body image

Sound familiar?

So, you may like having sex; you may be feeling aroused; you may be attracted to your partner, but you still avoid the time, energy, and emotional vulnerability of intercourse because of one or more of those three “disincentives.”

I think this merits a closer look because boredom, fatigue, and a negative body image are powerful ways to stifle that spontaneous, buoyant spirit we’ve so richly earned at this stage of life. In the next few posts, I’d like to examine these disincentives in greater detail and suggest some ways to overcome them.