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Body image, aging, and women's sexuality

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When we feel like we look good, we feel sexier. A simple concept, but every woman I know can appreciate this statement. Women often report that they feel less sexy or desirable when they don't feel good about their weight. Body image is a broad term and encompasses four main points:

A. How important our physical appearance is to us. The less the woman identifies with her interests and intelligence the more difficult aging will be for her.

B. How we see our "real bodies" as compared to when we look in mirror, touch ourselves, smell ourselves, exercise ourselves, etc. Obesity is largely a disease of addiction. Addicts are in denial. Many obese people have never looked at their body from the neck down.

C. How we feel others perceive us. Women who grew up in critical families or suffered abuse are more sensitive to how others judge them.

D. How we compare to others' bodies and then how we judge them.

We are not born with a body image. We learn it from the people who surround us. It is also determined by the society we are born into as well as what is valued at the time. Look at the magazines, store windows, television, internet, and commercials; what do you think the body image projected for women currently is?

Body image may impact our sexuality in unexpected ways. A study that examined body image and risky sexual activity found that men who had a positive body image took more risks with unhealthy sexual practices while women who had a positive body image took fewer risks.

Beginning in the 1960's feminists began to educate women more to touch themselves and satisfy themselves sexually. They also were encouraged to teach their husbands how to touch them and satisfy themselves. This had a huge impact on a woman's body image and the many books that followed also made woman feel better and more powerful in regards to their bodies.

A study, appearing in the current issue of The Journal of Sex Research, directed by Dr. Patricia Koch surveyed heterosexual Caucasian women of whom 21 percent said they were pre-menopausal, 63 percent said they were undergoing some menopausal changes (perimenopausal) and 16 percent were post-menopausal. The results showed that, regardless of the woman's age or menopausal status, she was more likely to consider herself more attractive when she was 10 years younger. Nearly 21 percent of the respondents could not think of even one attractive feature and reported an overall sense of dissatisfaction with their bodies. The survey participants were most dissatisfied with their stomach, hips, thighs and legs—the parts of the body that gain weight with age. The researchers contend that the Western World's infatuation with youthful slender bodies creates anxiety about aging and pressure for older women to disguise what are otherwise normal changes.

Most interestingly, the more a woman perceived herself as less attractive, the more likely she was to report a decline in sexual desire or activity. Nearly 70 percent of the women reported one or more changes in their sexual response, usually desiring sex less and engaging in sex less often. Encouragingly, despite these changes in desire, the women reported that when they did have sex there was a high level of enjoyment.

Since we cannot change our age, how can we influence women to understand that they continue to be attractive and desirable at any age?

Tips to Helping Women enjoy their sexuality as they age.

1. Encourage celebrities (by making a conscious effort to write to the editors of magazines) to look more real. Celebrities such as Jamie Lee Curtis and Oprah have helped inspire what women look like in their 50's and beyond. Dove commercials are attempting to portray what "Normal bodies" look like at all ages.

2. Try wearing fewer clothes in the privacy of your home. The more women are comfortable with their nude bodies—look at them and touch them—the more they will begin to "normalize" unrealistic expectations.

3. Watch your "self talk". Don't use degrading words about your age and your body. So many women see their age as a negative thing. Lighten up! Age affords you more insight and if you take care of your body you may find yourself getting better with age.

4. Become active with yoga and sports. The more women engage in sports the more body awareness they experience. This translates into more confidence in their body.

5. How do you feel about your relationship? Does your partner treat you well or are they abusive at times? More than 40% of obese women have been sexually abused. This is a huge libido killer and destroys body image.

6. It is impossible to communicate with your partner what you like if you don't know what you like. There is nothing shameful in masturbating and it is very healthy to know your body.

7. Infidelity kills body image, self esteem, and confidence. The only way I know of to make this better is to seek counseling so you can rebuild the areas that were destroyed with the affair.

8. Experiment with your partner and sexuality. Different rooms, different lotions, sex toys, and talking to your partner add spice and desire to your relationship.

9. Invest in books, classes, or therapy to help you deal with insecurity and self esteem. These feelings underlie poor body image. Working on them and making changes will set you free from a lot of unnecessary "baggage" as you go through life.

Many issues with body image and sexuality can be solved between couples. Talking to your partner for 15 minutes of total "tech free" time in regards to your relationship. Just as body image was taught to you as a child, it can be" re-taught" by practice. Turn to your partner, begin a healthier life style, eating healthier foods and exercising together.

– Mary Jo Rapini

On the Web:

"40 over 40" by author Jeff Myers --

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