When I ask women to rank order the most negative influences on their sexual relationships, negative body image almost always tops the list. They mean “feeling fat.” True, some women worry about their breasts and hips and skin and other body parts, but by far the major self-criticism is about weight. One woman summed it up: You feel like you don’t even deserve to enjoy sex if you’re not thin.
Where in the world would you get that idea? Oh, that’s right–everywhere. Turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, look at billboards, read a book, listen to people talk about people…it’s relentless. As if you have to earn the right to enjoy your own sexuality!
Some say that our capitalistic culture thrives on negative self-images. Feel bad about yourself, buy this product and then you’ll feel better. Clothes, diets, food plans, exercise programs, zumba classes, gym memberships—you’ll need these if you want to fit cultural specifications for physical beauty. Of course, you won’t feel better for long, so then you’re back buying more products. More growth for the economy, but not for your sex life.
We may be kinder and more realistic about weight in the lesbian world, but we still internalize cultural values and still judge ourselves very harshly on body image. And usually it’s ourselves we judge—not our partners.
In fact, partners can get very frustrated with this issue. She wants to make love, but you tell her you can’t because you aren’t comfortable with your body. She doesn’t get it. She may think “Why do you think I want to make love with you? Because I enjoy your body! If I want you, shouldn’t that let you know you look good to me?”
Besides being frustrated, she can start to get mad because your negative self-perception can control sexual intimacy for both of you. She can’t make you feel better about yourself, and she sure can’t change your eating or exercise habits…so she feels completely helpless. Resignation or resentment follow close behind.
But actually, neither of you is helpless. If you are concerned about your weight, you may need to decide what’s best for you in that arena. But you don’t need to wait until you’re thinner to have sex with your partner. You just need to think about something I’m sure you’ve noticed in past sexual experiences. Think, and remember this:
The best aphrodisiac of all is a responsive partner. It’s not about how you look, it’s about how you respond to her.
When your partner is making love to you, she is not preoccupied with your physical imperfections. She wants to know she’s turning you on. When you let her know she’s giving you pleasure, she gets more turned on herself. That’s the magical, intimate loop of sexual intimacy. Your excitement gives her pleasure, and that builds yours more, and then you’re off into pleasure land together.
Here are some tips from “Laura.” She and her partner have lived together more than 20 years, make love every week or two, and are rightfully proud of the intimacy they’ve sustained. Laura told me she’s gained and lost 70 pounds a couple times, and sometimes feels uncomfortable being sexual. This is what she said has helped her the most:
- My partner has never said anything critical to me about my body. She tells me she’s always been attracted to me and that’s why she wants to have sex with me. If I start criticizing myself, she stays positive.
- When I’m judging myself for how I look, I remember to focus on her instead. Sometimes “taking turns” when we make love helps. If I’m trying to please her first, it gives me time to get over myself and get turned on because I’m turning her on.
- Taking yoga classes helps me appreciate my body from the inside, instead of judging it from the outside. I can feel the strength in my arms and legs, focus on my breathing, enjoy getting tense and then relaxing. I’m pleased with how I feel, physically, and that carries over to sex.
I hope it’s not a surprise to you that criticism never helps. Really, it never does. As John Gottman, the famous couples’ researcher points out, “There’s no such thing as constructive criticism.” Criticism just makes people feel bad, and that doesn’t produce positive changes. It just adds to mountains of shame, which is not conducive to sexual intimacy.
Laura’s comments about yoga reminded me of a woman I knew who at one point hit the “morbidly obese” category on the medical charts. Under her doctor’s orders, she started going to the gym—to lift weights. She started getting really strong. One day she showed me her biceps, and said “This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt proud of something about my body.”
She continued on the path of getting healthier, and enjoying her sexuality. But I always remember that it started with showing off her biceps.
Body image problems are loaded with shame, but fortunately we know the best cure for that. Pride! About being strong, about being willing to get over yourself and focus on your partner, about being a good lover. Listen to Laura—she’s figured it out. And she has 20+ years of a good sexual relationship to show for it.
Glenda Corwin, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who has been in private practice for more than twenty years. She provides gay-affirmative psychotherapy, and consults with professionals and the general public on sexual issues for women in same-sex relationships. Dr. Corwin leads weekend sexual intimacy workshops for women, and in 2007 conducted a research project investigating lesbian sexual patterns. The very positive responses to her workshops and research were the inspiration for the book Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same Sex Couples. She is currently working on a book for single women, focused on dating and sex.
The daughter of missionaries, Dr. Corwin grew up in Colombia, South America. Her background gives her a deep appreciation for diversity of cultures, languages, and human connections. She also appreciates the lovely woman who shares her life in Atlanta.
For more information about Dr. Corwin and her work, visit her website at www.DrGlendaCorwin.com.