real pink viagra (2): body image

Posted by Emily Nagoski

A bunch of the comments from my date night post were about body image.

I work with college women. I think about body image a LOT.

Not liking her body might be the most common reason for a woman's sexuality to shut down. It's almost ubiquitous. It's become the normal noise of modern culture. (I keep it firmly controlled by reason, positive self-regard, and a high quality bra.) Getting older provides some challenges additional - breasts moving south, fat moving north, wrinkles creeping in... having a twin sister who has spent less time outdoors and more time applying sunscreen and therefore now looks younger than you. Just for example.

What happens is that when your partner touches your body - or when you even think about your partner touching your body - you end up thinking about your body, which engages all your fears and anxieties about your body, which puts on the brakes.

Spectatoring is another frequent result of body image issues -mentally watching yourself have sex from the outside rather than experiencing it from the inside.

So some strategies for coping with body image issues, to improve your sexual satisfaction. We start with what I think of as the 4 pillars of physical wellbeing:

(1) Physical activity. Not because you'll lose fat if you exercise - you might, but that's not the point. Aerobic activity improves the functioning of every organ system - cardiovascular, muscular, skeletal, endocrine, literally every organ system. It improves sleep quality and mood, it reduces chronic stress and anxiety, and it strengthens the immune system. Find 30 minutes a day for physical activity. I know - easier said than done, right? Yeah. This is not about fat, though, it's about taking care of yourself because you are a creature alive on earth and therefore deserve kindness and health. It will improve your sex life and your relationship.

Hey, if I can't persuade you do try it for your own benefit, can I persuade you to try it because your RELATIONSHIP will benefit?

(2) Nutrition. Again, not because you'll lose fat if you eat healthfully - you might, but it's still not the point. Eating healthfully fuels your body so that you stay healthy, prevent both infectious disease and chronic illness. It's pretty simple to do: Eat something dark green and leafy every day. Avoid sugar. Choose things that resemble their original source - ask yourself, "Did it grow that way?" and if the answer is no, consider something else.

Eat healthfully because your body is your home, your body is your child, your body is your partner in life. Take care of it as you would your home, your child, your partner.

(3) Sleep. Sleep is important and good for you. It strengthens your immune system, improves concentration, memory, cognitive clarity, calculation accuracy, and emotional stability, increases bone and muscle strength, and balances your sugar metabolism. Sleep is important and good for you - and yet our culture somehow tells us we're lazy if we sleep as much as our body truly needs. You'll LITERALLY be happier and healthier if you get more sleep. I should do a post on sleep.

(4) Meditation practice. In the case of body image I especially recommend lovingkindness meditation, where you fill yourself with kind, gentle feelings and thoughts about yourself and others. Try just this simple technique: after breathing 10 slow breaths and allowing your body to relax, think about a body part you've been feeling critical of. Now, in your relaxed state, still breathing deeply and slowly, send kind, loving, gentle, supportive feelings and thoughts to that body part. Allow your lovingkindness to warm and heal and strengthen that body part. Allow it to integrate itself into the rest of your body.

Let your attention expand beyond that body part into the adjacent body parts, and allow your lovingkindness to expand. And expand. And slowly, gradually expand. Until it fills up all of you.

Isn't that better now?

There are other things you can do, strategies, activities, exercises.

For example, a good step to take in terms of improving body image is to stop looking at the kinds of images that you compare yourself to. Just don't buy beauty magazines. Find a gloriously feminist source of sexually explicit media that celebrates diversity of bodies.

Thought stopping is a technique that helps lots of people. Begin to notice the times when self-hating thoughts pass through your mind. For a couple weeks, just start to notice. Make a little note of each thought. You can write them down if you like. Then, when you've got the hang of that, find a replacement thought that is the opposite of your negative self-talk, and then each time you find yourself thinking something critical of yourself, replace it with your new thought. Your opposite thought.

There's another exercise you can try that's been shown to make a difference around body image for a lot of women. Try this:

(1) Stand naked - or as close to naked as you can tolerate - in front of a full-length mirror.

(2) Make note of all the things you LIKE about what you see. Write them down. You'll notice that your brain tries to list all the things you don't like, but don't write those down. Write down the things you LIKE.

(3 - optional) Tell someone. Better still, tell someone who also did the same exercise.

It's an activity that gets labeled "cognitive dissonance" because it's about jarring yourself into being aware of good things, when mostly we tend to be aware of the negative things.

So the core message here is that body image can be changed if you stop doing things that hurt yourself (looking at images that make you feel bad, eating food that doesn't nourish you, etc) and start doing things that heal yourself (sleep, exercise, lovingkindness).

The catch-22 is that if you don't like yourself, you won't feel like your worth spending the time and energy on; but you won't like yourself UNTIL you spend some time and energy on yourself.

Pick one thing. Just one, of the seven I've identified. Do it for two weeks. See what happens.