However confident we are clothed and in public, when it comes to being naked – and having a lover not only see us, but also touch, smell and taste us – we can all feel just a little vulnerable. As newborns we don’t question how our bodies look and feel, but as we grow, and sex enters the picture, the insecurity, guilt and the self-blame start creeping in.
Insecurity about our body begins when, in childhood, we’re caught touching ‘down there’. It takes root when adolescent rejections come from those we lust after. It may become fixed in adulthood by messages that suggest that unless we’re young, slim and deodorised we won’t get – and don’t deserve – sex. Research suggests that nowadays women measure erotic satisfaction not by the pleasurable sensations they feel but by what their partner sees during sex.
But research also suggests that one of the most potent cures for negative body image is sex itself. Women who feel erotically fulfilled rate themselves as physically beautiful whether or not they measure up to the ‘ideal’. Passion, positively experienced, turns body hate to body love.
‘I’ve never liked my legs,’ says Juliet, 23. ‘I used to wear trousers all the time to hide them. When I made love, I pretended I felt the cold so I could pull the duvet up. Then one man I slept with kissed my legs passionately, saying they were like marble columns. Since then I have been much less obsessed with them. I still don’t love them, but I know someone else could.’
Physical pleasure, taken or given, not only makes us feel good, it makes us feel we are ‘good’ – worthwhile, deserving, valid. And the effect is not just emotional, it’s also biological. Skin-on-skin contact, combined with orgasm, releases oxytocin – the ‘cuddle chemical’ – the hormone that allows us to feel relaxed, reassured and safe. Engrossing sex also silences our inner negativity. Self-criticism gets disrupted when we focus on our own physical pleasure or the emotional joy we get from arousing a partner. ‘The only time I feel really confident in my body is when I’m making love,’ confides Anna, 27. ‘I’m not thinking about my weight; I’m a piece of clay being modelled by my partner’s caresses. And whatever my partner’s physical defects, I love him because he gives me pleasure, and I give it to him.’
The effect becomes even stronger if you take into account your partner’s enthusiastic validation. And – in our anxiety we tend to forget this – validation is mostly what we’ll get from partners if we allow it. While scientific experiments might prove that humans get most aroused by the ideally beautiful, such studies are just that – experiments devoid of context and emotion. What’s arousing about sex with someone we are intimate and loving with is the erotic and emotional feelings; touch, smell, taste, the honour of being allowed access, the excitement of connection. A partner engrossed in taking pleasure in our arms – or mouth, breasts, thighs – isn’t mentally measuring our waistline.
One caveat: there are some kinds of partner who harm, rather than help. Sex with someone who doesn’t really like you will end up making you dislike yourself. If your partner thinks every woman needs to look like Barbie he will make you feel you should, too. If you feel your body is inadequate, you need to remind yourself what pleasure it can give. Start by making love to yourself. Put away the mirror, lie back, close your eyes, allow your hands to wander. If something feels good, do it again – and let the sensations drown out your self-criticism. To make peace with your body, you need to make love with someone who adores your body as much as you want to adore it, who wants what your body has to offer. Really listen when a partner appreciates you by word or by touch, and allow yourself to revel in their appreciation. A body that gives and receives erotic pleasure deserves nothing but admiration, gratitude and love.
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