Tag Archive: body image


barbie tiny waistA couple of months ago I did an interview with a German television station as a part of my pole dancing studio to support Lulu Browne, a plus size pole dancer who rose to fame after her appearance on America’s Got Talent.  The interviewer asked me if I thought I would have the strength and courage to put myself out there if I were in Lulu’s shoes (weight-wise).  Though I told the interviewer that I could only hope so, looking back, I realized that I knew my real answer was very different.

Like so many other men and women in this crazy, media-hyped, perfect-body driven world, I suffered (and still do suffer) from serious self-doubt about my body. In a family of dancers, bodybuilders, and gym teachers, I was the brainy, but chubby couch potato.  I was not graceful or lithe or flexible or beautiful.  I had zits and wore stretch pants and no bra whenever I could get away with it.  Things have changed a lot since then—I’ve lost weight and gained muscle mass, my face has cleared up somewhat, and I’ve ditched the stretch pants for fitted shirts (although I still ditch the bra probably too often…).  And even though I’m closer than I ever was to our culture’s idea of the “perfect body”, I still have moments of self-loathing and frustration, when my thighs jiggle too much, or my stomach bunches up when I sit.

That’s why I have complicated feelings about this article from Bitch Media (wow is it hard to make that sentence sound serious…) about I am Ugly mirrorself-image and weight.

Author Tasha Fierce writes: I’m sure we all know a fat girl who feels like crap about her size until she receives some positive sexual attention from someone. Unfortunately, healthy self-esteem is not built on the slippery slope that is random affection from potential partners. If you only feel good about yourself when you’re with a partner to validate your attractiveness, once that partner has moved on (and they most certainly will when they figure out your feelings about yourself are inextricably tied to them), you’re back in the same, leaky, no-self-esteem boat.

She makes a strong point: Feeling good about yourself starts with feeling good about yourself, it doesn’t start when someone else starts feeling good about you. Your self-image should never be built on the approval of another person, no matter how important that person is in your life.

However, the reality may not be so simple.   I have done the work, internally, to get myself to a much more stable place with embracing my body.  I purposefully do one activity naked every day to feel more comfortable in my skin (plus, clothes suck!).  I look at myself in the mirror and find things I like.  But some days it’s still a struggle.  And moreover, I don’t think I could have ever gotten over that initial hump of disapproval without the help of my first boyfriend, who decided I was sexy enough to desire. His approval gave me the power to love myself, even after he was gone.

body_is campaignMy journey has shown me how unfair it is to expect people to self-motivate that journey toward acceptance from the very beginning. It is really hard living in a world where everyone and everything in media, society, culture, even family, is telling you to look a certain way, and you DON’T. The tiniest bit of sexual interest from someone else can “flip that switch” inside that gives you the power to start approving of yourself.

It also reinforces the things you already know about yourself when you lose sight of them.  My girlfriend kisses my back and says she loves the graceful arch it carries.  She nods approvingly and notes that my legs have strength and definition to them.  And she loves my butt (!!), which has always been my greatest insecurity.

Case in point, yes, acceptance of your body should come from within, but there’s a place for others—to push us, to light a fire, to remind us— to bring us closer to that inner sense of balance and bodily love.

 

Love to Self-Love

Oh look! Bianca’s back and she’s talking about one of her favorite topics, masturbation.

In an effort to assess what other topics I should cover with my with my blogging, I posed this question: if you could name one sex-related thing you wish the internet had better information on, what would it be? What people mentioned (and then seconded and thirded via facebook) was that there isn’t nearly enough information out there about female self-image and masturbation- which is truly terrible because it’s such an important issue to women everywhere and a healthy part of everyone’s life.

I’ve talked obliquely about both subjects before in posts like Big Blond and Beautiful (where we saw that even Playboy models get their thighs slimmed, their busts enlarged, and their tummy tucked by editors to create an impossibly perfect female) and Argentina and an Orgasm Machine (where I talked about the need for a machine whose end goal is to learn how females orgasm in order to “teach” non-orgasmic women is a symptom of a culture where women are incredibly removed from their own bodies).

Moreover though, I’d like to talk about how those two ideas- body image and masturbation- intersect. We’ve been told a million times over in health class, by parents, by friends, and in PSAs so numerous they make our heads spin, that the media’s idea of a normal female’s body is completely distorted and unreasonable, that we should not judge ourselves based on that model. That discussion is old hat. But what our teachers and parents and friends haven’t told us is that our model of what the perfect girl “does” is equally skewed.

Put bluntly, the perfect girl is the one who gets to have sex. She’s the one who is attractive enough to be unabashedly sexual- posing in Abercrombie and Fitch ads without a shirt, splashing in the waves in her string bikini, and fucking as much as she feels like. And the other girls? The ones who have some curves, who don’t wear makeup or straighten their hair, who don’t go tanning every weekend to get that sun-bronzed look- they get nothing. And besides the obvious fact that regarding sex itself, THIS IS TOTAL BULLSHIT, this vicious anti-sexualization of the “non-perfect girl” spills over into other areas of sexuality that all women have a right to- including (you guessed it)…masturbation.

Accordingly, non-perfect girls (meaning ALL girls, because no one matches the media standard out there, and you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who will assert that she hasn’t had body issues at some point) are made to feel guilty about masturbating. Masturbation isn’t something that normal girls do.

This of course exists in sharp dichotomy to the way masturbation is portrayed for guys. In the movies, a woman masturbating earns the movie an automatic R-rating, which there are hundreds of PG-13 movies which focus (perhaps even excessively) on male masturbation. In movies like American Pie, male masturbation is made the object of humor, associated with geeks and nerds who “can’t get laid” on their own and resort to masturbation as a last resort.
Clearly, both sexes have had their issues with this most natural of human impulses. But I think the biggest crime associated with masturbation is the guilt complex that comes with these negative associations. Now I’m not one to defend anything that comes out of Gossip Girl Taylor Momsen’s mouth, but the media fervor that arose out of her comment that her vibrator “was her best friend” is the ugliest example yet of how society has vilified a (dare I say normal?) girl’s sexuality.
“But shock it did. PopCrunch lamented that her comment was”Wrongtown USA!” because “this child is 16,” and Hollywood Life pronounced her “out of control.” … Momsen may not be the role model I’d prefer my tween daughters to emulate, but the collective horror over her reference to self-pleasure speaks volumes about how taboo the subject still is. And frankly, if I’d had a vibrator at 16, high school would have sucked a lot less.”


AGREED. It’s truly absurd that such a simple comment- and probably one of the more polite that has ever come out of Momsen’s mouth- should cause such outrage from the media. But it is indicative of just how scared we are of talking about our teenage daughters’ sexuality. We can’t even accept a healthy practice like masturbation without raising an uproar in the blogosphere about sexual morality and the “innocence” of youth. (Funny how that standard only applies to women though, isn’t it?)
So the question remains, what IS important to know about female body issue and sexuality that we can un-shroud from the maelstrom of hate surrounding it?

1. Basic anatomy. Scarleteen is still the best source out there for down-to-earth information about teen sexuality- so check out With Pleasure: A View of Whole Sexual Anatomy for Every Body to find out how all of us are built, and how our minds and hormones are as much a part of our sexual response as anything between our legs
2. Self-image. Women masturbate. Crazy stuff. One of the most useful exercises you can do to promote the idea of positive sexual self-image is to think about the women you know and admire and think about the fact that they masturbate. Think that’s creepy? That’s part of the problem. If we can’t conceptualize the simple idea that other women masturbate, we can’t begin to be comfortable about doing it ourselves. But if women we know and respect- our mother, sisters, friends, teachers- masturbate, then why in the world shouldn’t we.
3. Deal with yourself and your hang-ups. You know what? Just stop reading what I’m writing and go look at Scarleteen. Go. Go do it now. Start here.

A healthy, holistic view of your own sexuality (and not just the gay-straight, kink-vanilla dichotomies we’ve rehashed) is crucial to fulfilling sexual relationships- both with others and with yourself!- down the line. Don’t let the media’s bastardization make something wonderfully practical and stress-releasing like masturbation into a devil. As I’ve said before, own your body. Embrace your sexual self, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it.

Also, if you’re interested- this is just a funny little article about masturbation and how the bible has been misinterpreted to vilify the practice even more.  So sad.

Stay cool, queer kids.

Big, Blonde, and Beautiful

Perhaps telling girls and women that their bodies are beautiful regardless of how the media distorts our idea of femininity is a cliche concept at this point, but it’s still important.

For those of you still doubting your own innate gorgeousness, take a look at the ridiculousness that TV and magazines are feeding us- just one more time.

Jezebel got a hold of a few  Playboy Centerfold photos which had been marked up for editing by the graphics department.  It seems that even Supermodels and porn stars don’t fit our idea of ideal beauty.  Maybe that’s the signal that our ideals are a little ridiculous?

My thought has always been that you can have brains, beauty, and compassion, but  you have to update your idea of beauty if you ever hope to find the right combination.

No Go, Cialis

In trolling the message boards and advice columns as I am wont to do in advertising this blog, one of the most common concerns I see voiced (especially by women) is about sexual dysfunction: am I having enough sex?  Too much?  Why can’t I orgasm?  Why doesn’t my partner feel any pleasure when I do ______?  Is watching porn hurting my sex life?  All these questions make me sad, particularly because I’ve had some of them myself.  It doesn’t seem to matter how open your parents, how knowledgeable your healthcare provider, or how open to experimentation you are, there are still bound to be problems in your perceived sexual health.  That’s seriously depressing.

But, as I’ve found out the hard way, often times “sexual dysfunction” is mental, and the more pressure you put on yourself to perform, the worse you’ll do at “being normal.  Now, this kind of advice is totally infuriating, I know, because being told to relax and let things happen naturally does not solve your problems.  The very passive nature of it tends to aggravate your problems even more, by completely disempowering you.  It makes you desperate to try anything.

Which is why I’m sure a lot of people were excited when the female Viagra came out.  The promises were enticing: an increased sex drive, more pleasure from sex, all around improvement.  *sigh* Ah, hate to break it to you folks, but Cialis and the like are not all their cracked up to be when it comes to the complex and exciting world of female sexuality.  This study at the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas-Austin found that Cialis worked about as well as a placebo at increasing female sexual response.

You can take this one of two ways: a glass-half-empty kinda gal would see this development as incredibly negative, only further disempowering women who want to take control of their sex lives.  However, a glass-half-full person will see the other side of the equation, which is light on the pocketbook and heavy on inspiration.  Because the placebo works as well as Cialis at increasing sex drive and satisfaction in women (at about 30% for each group), women who are frustrated with their sex lives don’t need to rely on drugs or hormones to artificially inspire them.  The power is in their own minds.  Placebos are designed to see how the brain’s response to implied medication works.  In this case, when a woman thinks her sex problems are being solved with a drug (even a sugar pill), they are solved not because of the pill, but because she thinks about the pill.

This is actually pretty awesome.  As many researchers have theorized and experimented to prove, the female state of arousal is highly circumstantial and emotional/mental, as opposed to almost exclusively physical like men.   That means that the ball really is in your court.  You are in charge of your own sexuality.  Maybe the cause of so much sexual dysfunction is simply the feeling of foreignness and helplessness that our relationship to our bodies engenders.  So the doctor’s advice?  Get to know yourself.  Get yourself in the mood.  Enjoy your own body.  And don’t rush it.  A woman’s sexual arousal is entirely of her own design.  Own it.

 

Why Nude Beaches Make Us Itchy

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate effects of America’s sexually shaming culture is the way it has made us feel about our own bodies and the inherent beauty in all of them.  There’s a lot to be said for advertising and Hollywood and whatnot giving us impossible ideas of what a beautiful body is, but nonetheless, there are plenty of people who meet those stringent criteria who are STILL not comfortable with their bodies.

WHY?

Americans have created a culture where nudity is completely unacceptable, no matter the venue.  This clever article called European Nudes and American Prudes does a good job of showing how ridiculous some of our standards are- whether its outlawing nude beaches or limiting the number of seconds one can show anatomically-correct porcelain statues on a primetime TV show.  Conversely, many European countries embrace nudity in public:

In the south of France, sunbathing grandmothers have no tan lines. In Norway, young children play naked in fountains. On summer days, accountants in Munich head to the park on their lunch break to grin and bare it, trading corporate suits for birthday suits. It’s quite a shock to Americans (they’re the ones riding their bikes into the river and trees). In Belgium, huge billboards advertise soap by showing a woman’s lathered-up breasts.

I think the problem American’s have with nudity is the implicit mental connection between bare skin and sex.  And because American’s live in a society which deals with sex in such a bi-polar manner (Britney Spears vs. Focus on the Family), the idea of bearing it all in public is just too uncomfortable an association to be making.

Another fantastic example of society which is more accepting of public nudity is Canada.  I love, love, love this short article about Vancouver residents attempting to break the Guinness World Record for skinny-dipping. I think Elizabeth Westly, a 64-yr old woman who participated in the event, summed it up well when she said:

“Get down here to the beach, it’s healthy for you, it’s not (about) sexuality, or anything else like that,” She said. “We’re here for an important cause to promote nudism to say ‘hey, it’s not anything naughty.’“

If more people could embrace the beauty of their own bodies without worrying about putting forth the “wrong image,” we could have a much healthier society, both in terms of body image and sexuality.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Female Genital Mutilation

For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, FGM (or Female Genital Mutilation, also known as female circumcision) will probably cause your stomach to turn over.  It is a common practice in many African countries, where the skin of a young girl’s clitoris and/or surrounding tissue of the vulva is cut, sliced, and sometimes even completely removed, then the edges of the vagina are actually sewn shut.

This practice occurs upon a young girl reaching adulthood and is rooted in the cultural values of many native societies as a way to ensure that a girl is “clean” and virginal upon marriage.  It is also considered to increase the pleasure of sex for her future husband, while simultaneously removing it for the girl herself.

Now there are A LOT of problems with FGM that would take hours to go into, but primary among them are the medical and hygienic issues that the procedure causes.  Since most FGMs are done in the home of the girl being cut, they are highly unsanitary- those who perform the cutting use dirty razors or sometimes even crude instruments like tin can lids, which can lead to serious infection and shock or death from blood loss.  FGMs are almost never done with anesthesia (as the process is outlawed in most countries, but performed ritualistically by families regardless) and many girls do not know exactly how the process is carried out, leading to immense psychological and emotional trauma, as well as physical.

It only gets worse after that- build-up of blood which sometimes cannot escape during a girl’s period can cause toxic shock syndrome, infertility, and death.  According to an article by the Guardian about the practice, “In Sudan, 20%-25% of female infertility has been linked to FGM complications.”

And this is not exclusively an “African problem.”  The same article by the Guardian chronicles the struggles of English girls with family abroad, who are taken home during the 6 week summer vacation to be cut.  For these girls, the trauma is even worse, as they are generally only told that they will be going on holiday or to visit an aunt, and the procedure is then forced on them.  I would HIGHLY suggest you read the article in full and if you can stomach it, the video, because I can’t detail it all.

What I’d like to focus on, in addition to the medical horror of the FGM practice, is the problems it causes for women who are developing their sexual identity. Because FGMs destroys all feeling in a woman’s genitals and can cause problems internally as well, it renders “cut” women almost completely incapable of sexual pleasure. One study among Egyptian women found 50% of women who had undergone FGM “endured” rather than enjoyed sex, and even among women will some ability to feel arousal and pleasure through vaginal sex, the psychological and emotional scars of a cutting makes intimacy even harder.  For girls as young as age 5, their first “sexual” experience was probably their cutting, where several of their close family members held them down and took a razor to the most sacred part of their bodies.  You simply do not recover from that.  Allowing another person to touch you where your family members have so abused your body takes an amount of trust I cannot even fathom.

For women who suffer the most extreme form of mutilation (having the vagina completely sewed shut), cutting renders them incapable of deciding their own sexual future.  Even if they are married or are in a committed relationship, the sutures which bind together the sides of the vagina have to be torn apart each time she wants to have sex (which is of course, not for her to decide, generally- but for her husband).  Afterwards, in many cases, the vagina is sewn up again, completely robbing a woman of her sexual agency.  After all, she can’t very well decide for herself when and how often she wants to have sex, if the act must be preempted by a medical procedure.  In addition, if she has surgery done to remove the sutures, or god forbid, reform part of the labia in a healthy manner, she may be tossed out by her husband, alienated by her community, or looked upon as “unclean.”

A wonderful nonprofit in Kenya called Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization (which translates to “Women’s Development Organization”), as well as other groups like Human Rights Watch and  United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) are trying to combat this terrible practice.  Maendeleo ya Wanawake offers a ceremonial “cutting with words” process, which they urge traditional families to use instead of a physical FGM for their daughters.  One of the women in the Guardian’s featured video recommended a gynecological exam in the airport for children being taken between the UK and countries which practice FGM to enforce the ban in both countries.  While this would probably constitute a HUGE violation of privacy, it could also spare the devastation of an FGM for millions of young girls and women.

For me, this is one of the most crucial issues which can be addressed in a developing country, not only because of the emotional and physical damage done to women who undergo FGMs, but also as a means of promoting gender equity in general.  Women who are connected and in control of their own bodies, who can assert themselves as beings both sexually and professionally equal to men will move underdeveloped areas strongly in the right direction.  Self-assured women are resourceful, creative, hard workers, who, when given agency and control over their own lives (the choice to work or have children, to do both, to marry or to stay single, to have sex when and with who they want), will thrive.  But agency starts at this first, very physical performance of societal norms.  A young woman who has the power to say “no” or who had parents who dared to say “no” to FGM, will move forward with her life with the self assurance that this powerful decision has given her.

When I was given the power to chose whether or not I wanted to get a tetanus shot, I felt more respect for my body, because I was given control over what went into it.  In the same way, women who can chose against an FGM will gain immense respect for their bodies and for the power they hold as individuals.  A woman who refuses FGM will go on to spread the spirit of refusal, and create social change.  The societal pressures to perform FGMs is HUGE, so it is in the spirit of groups like Maendeleo ya Wanawake that I salute those who help women to end this brutal practice.  How will you help?

Ultimate Guide to Sex!

I thought I’d post something I started on when I first thought about the need for sex writing and honest information.  It’s been sitting in a little notebook in my desk for some time, and while it’s hardly everything, it’s a good starting point.  Consider this the sex talk your parents never gave you:

Prelude: Ok, so the likelihood is, if you’re reading this “book,” you’ve got someone in mind and you’re wondering if you’re ready for an intimate relationship. Well, more often than not, the fact that you’ve picked this up means that you’re not.  …But maybe you are.  Let’s find out.

Ch. 1- Mental Mindset

Sex is more than just an act- it’s a state of mind.  A lot of people who have negative emotional experiences when it comes to sex were not mentally prepared for the experience.  So before you even bring up the possibility of sex to your partner, you need to make sure you know what it means for you.

Sex is about 4 things- trust, communication, self-image, and pleasure.  The easiest thing to start with is self-image.

SELF-IMAGE: Put simply, sex means being completely naked (shocker, right?)- both physically and emotionally- with your partner.  If you aren’t comfortable with how your body looks, you’ll be inhibited mentally and you won’t enjoy sex as much.  So how can you work on this?

  • After a shower, look yourself over in the mirror- not at individual parts, but at your figure as a whole.  Make a practice of finding your best assets and mentally focusing on them while letting any perceived shortcomings fall to the wayside.
  • Pay attention to when you feel the best about your body.  Maybe it’s after a workout or when you first wake up in the morning.  Replicate those experiences as often as possible and then try to recreate those feelings during activities that make you feel bad about your image (like eating ice cream or watching TV).
  • Do not rely on your partner to validate your beauty- that fosters dependence, which is terrible for self-esteem and leads to messy break-ups.

As for emotional self-image, it’s important to understand what you are looking for in a relationship and how your personality will affect it.  Is this a fling?  Are you a person who gets easily attached emotionally?  Do you need a lot of physical interaction to make a relationship work?  Understanding what you want will make communicating and relating to your partner much easier.  But how do you learn what your specific needs are?

  • Keep a journal where you record daydreams.  Mention not only the people and the situation of the dream, but also what emotions you were feeling at the time.  Don’t censor yourself.
  • Pay attention to what attracts you to your partner- is it physical?  Emotional?  Do you share interests or communicate on a similar intellectual level?

COMMUNICATION: Once you understand what you personally want from a sexual interaction, you need to talk to your partner about what they want.  If they haven’t thought about it, I recommend that you wait on sex until they have reached the state of mental preparedness that you have.  The most important thing is that both people in a sexual relationship are on the same page.

If you are both at this point, take some serious time to discuss the details of sex.  While movies may romanticize sex as spur-of-the-moment, if you don’t talk with your partner beforehand, major consequences (physical and emotional) can ensue.

So what’s important to talk about?

  • Protection- the most important issue to be addressed is birth control.  If neither of you is comfortable enough to buy a condom or get a prescription for the pill, you should NOT be having sex.
  • General etiquette and preferences- lights on or off?  Any off-limits areas?  Special considerations for pain (especially if one or both of you are virgins or nervous- which often go hand in hand)?  Need for lubrication?  If you are planning on oral, will s/he swallow or should s/he pull out beforehand?
  • STDs.  Awkward to bring up, but it’s important to make sure your partner is clean.
  • Kinks/fetishes- this can be potentially saved for a second go-around (as first times are often better for straight, down-to-basics, get-comfortable-with-each-other sex).  But eventually, you and your partner should discuss what would be optimally pleasurable for both of you.  Do you want to introduce toys?  Role-playing?  Bondage? (Check out our guest blogger’s article on kink for more on that subject!)  Do NOT bring these into the bedroom unless both you and your partner have agreed on them.  Springing fetishes on a partner without warning can be emotionally damaging and unfulfilling for both people.

TRUST: The reason many people suggest waiting on sex in a relationship is to make sure the couple has built up sufficient trust in each other.  Sex can come with some insecurity, so if you do not trust your partner implicitly, you may regret sex afterwards.

Emotional trust is primary in terms of the general relationship as well.  Warning signs of lack of trust include:

  • Fear of inadequacy romantically/intellectually/physically
  • Fear of rejection/being dumped
  • Jealousy
  • Worries about partner lying/cheating/withholding information

If you have any of these problems, put off your plans for sex until you’ve addressed them.  Never let fears of a relationship ending pressure you into having sex.

Things to remember:

  • A relationship should not be contingent on sexual performance- if it is, do NOT have sex.
  • Sex is not a one-shot deal.  It is a learning experience which gets better with each subsequent encounter.
  • Even “bad sex” can still be a good experience if the couple is open and honest about their needs and wants and achieves a sense of closeness from it.

Aftermath:

Ok, so now that you’ve done the deed, there are immediate and secondary steps to take.

Immediate- just because sex itself is over, does not mean the interaction is done.  Don’t flip back on the awkward switch and run for your clothes as soon as your animalistic senses wear off.  Stick around and lay together for a while to assure your partner that sex has not emotionally hurt or changed you.  When you’ve cuddled sufficiently, consider doing something intimate but not sexual to transition, like taking a shower or helping each other dress.  Reinforce the bond that you formed through sex.

Later- Debrief with your partner.  What went well?  What should we work on?  What could we change/add for next time to make the experience more enjoyable?

**Note- Do not let sex replace your relationship.  Undoubtedly, if the experience was positive, you’ll want to repeat the performance.  But try to alternate activities so that sex is a fixture of expression in your relationship, but not its only component.

So that’s what I had written.  Note, of course, that I totally forgot purposefully omitted the section on pleasure, but I think from the rest of the blog, you guys get that already.  Also, this was written from the assumption that the person’s sexual relationship would be ongoing (which it isn’t always- and I’m not here to judge that), but this guide would be a lot shorter if it were only covering one night engagements.  Anyway, what do you think?  Any other advice?

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