Category Archives: body image

I ♥ my…

On Valentine’s Day, the Peer Sex Educators had a “Love Your Body” table at the campus center. One of the fun things they did was have people write on a white board what they loved about their bodies.

Slide show here!

You should go look at it. It’s beautiful and hilarious and, if you need more incentive, I’m in it!

My favorite juxtaposition is that my “I love my uterus” is followed immediately by someone else’s “I love my butch cock.”


(And yeah, my ode to my uterus is totally peacemaking following my adventures in birth control.)

more variation on objectification

My cousin has discovered that my Facebook page is a handy repository for all the interesting sexuality-related stuff he reads on the internet, and since his actual job involves the internet, he reads a lot of stuff.

One example from this morning: this recent article in Wired, which says, in short, that seeing photos of people without clothes on changes the viewer’s perception of that person’s mental capacities – specifically decreased ratings of “agency” (“the capacity to act, plan and exert self-control”) and increased ratings of “experience” (“the capacity to feel pain, pleasure and emotions”).

Given my recent mental perambulations about objectification and the media, it sparked my interest, so I went and read the whole paper. ‘Cz, nerd.

The authors’ point is that rather than causing “objectification” – i.e., perceiving someone as having less overall mind – focus on bodies actually results in a “redistribution of mind,” causing them to be perceived more in terms of experience and less in terms of agency.

Which to me sounds like an important but ultimately minute point – to me, objectification means decreased perceived agency, and indeed the research they cite in their lit review confirms this, for the most part. They write, in part:

In one discussion, for example, Nussbaum (1995) outlines a number of components of objectification, among them “denial of autonomy,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for choice and self-determination; “inertness,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for agency and action; and “denial of subjectivity,” which is failing to ascribe the capacity for experience and feelings.

The part they’re refining/refuting has to do with “denial of subjectivity.” It turns out, according to this series of experiments, that when you break down assessments of “mind” into these two variables, agency and experience, nakedness decreases perceived agency but increases perceived experience. However, in the results of experiment three, they do report that “there was an overall less mind ascribed to naked targets” (i.e., people in the photographs) than to clothed subjects, though this is a mathematical artefact of the fact that subjects rated the people in the images overall as having less agency (“mind”) and more experience (“body”).

In relation to my Body of a Blogger post, they confirmed previous research that found that ratings of attractiveness increase ratings of both agency and experience. In other words, pretty people are viewed as both more capable and more sensitive.

So the important question for me is, “Does this matter? Does this change how we consider the problem of objectification?” To which I can’t help thinking, “No. My conceptualization of the problem remains the same.”

And why is that, Emily? Well. They do definitely TRY. The final experiment (out of 6) explores the “up side” of increased experience attribution. It involved subjects believing that they’re shocking their partner, with the goal of protecting their partner from harm and therefore only shocking them as much as they felt their partner could tolerate. In the conditions where subjects were shown images of their male “partner” (actually a confederate) with their shirt off, they shocked the person at a lower level than when they were shown a picture of their partner with their shirt on. So participants inflicted less harm, conclude the researchers, when people are perceived more as bodies than as minds.

And that kinda sounds like bullshit to me. In the photographs, the “shocking” nodes are either attached to the person’s skin or to the person’s clothes, so couldn’t they be responding to the basic physics of the problem, that shocks to your clothes are less direct and therefore less painful than shocks to your skin, rather than to their perception of the person as “more able to experience pain”? They are more able to experience pain because the nodes are taped to their skin rather than to their shirts, surely.

So. Does this idea that people are perceived more as “experiencers” and less as “actors” when they have their clothes off change how I think about objectification? Does it help me to talk with my students (or with anyone) about this phenomenon? Er, nope.

An important thing to note that hardly anyone ever bothers saying out loud so let me just take this opportunity: all the results are about PERCEPTIONS OF PHOTOGRAPHS OF BODIES, not perceptions of bodies per se. This is also a primary shortcoming of mate selection research in humans: people rate images – photographs or even stimuli as impoverished as LINE DRAWINGS. What relationship does the perception of a line drawing have to a person’s perception of a human body? Fuck knows. If there is research that compares how people’s attributions of mind are the same or different depending on whether they’re seeing bodies or photographs, I would love to hear about it.

Another important thing to note is that “mind” is a cultural construction and therefore varies from culture to culture, so the whole idea of “attribution of mind” and the impact on behavior or judgments can only be interpreted in the context of culture.

So I suppose this is another example of interesting but unhelpful.

what are the sex books

Arrite people. I’m now listening to Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food: an eater’s manifesto, and it constitutes the fifth book I’ve read that says that really it’s the refined carbohydrates – flour and sugar, basically – that cause heart disease and overfat. (See also Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, and At Home by Bill Bryson, and best of all Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Walter Willett, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and therefore no wackanutty journalist but an honest-to-god expert.)

Now, this idea has been around a long time and there have been books written about it for several decades, but only now is it seeping so thoroughly into the mainstream that even *I* am unable to avoid it.

I, like you, grew up hearing that it was the fat in our diets that caused the negative health consequences (this is “the lipid hypothesis”), and it is simultaneously appalling and liberating to learn that that is wrong. It’s a revolution, and yet it makes perfect sense and feels very, very good.

Can you tell I’ve been reading a lot, and a lot about health? I’m totally That Crazy Lady with the Nutrition and Exercise Books. I always have been. My mother was an aerobic teacher before I was born (the fitness club was called a “figure salon” then) and sprinkled wheat germ on our food; there was a rotating library of diet and exercise books in the house; we watched PBS specials about food and exercise science (Covert Bailey FTW!)

But there were no sex books!! None! Despite that being a central component of my wellbeing as a person. (There were also no books or PBS specials about sleep, about which I’ve been reading a great deal and have strong feelings, but this is a sex blog. So.)

So tell me, peoples of the interweb: where are the revolutionary, liberating sex books?

What are you reading that makes you go, “Oh my god, I’ve been lied to, I’ve been manipulated, I’ve been made to believe things that have actually hurt me, when the truth is that all I need to do is be like a monkey!” or “Holy crap, all this time I’ve been worried about THE WRONG THINGS – and actually the main thing is I just need to worry less!” or “Ohhhhhhhhhhh… christ, if someone had told me this 10 years ago, I’d be in a really different place right now.”

Seriously. Tell me. I’m desperate to know.

Example of why I’m desperate to know: A week or two ago, I watched students reading Paul Joanides’ bewitching Guide to Getting It On (which is one of the textbooks for my class) and learning the kinds of things I forget people need to learn: what is erotica? Why is he in a wheelchair? What exactly is a vagina? I had no idea you could do it in so many positions!

Despite being intelligent, highly educated, and mostly middle-class or higher women, they were, to an astonishing degree, absolute, utter beginners. Through no fault of their own – no one ever told them this stuff, and shame on the world for allowing that to be true!

Indeed, I’ve gotten frustrated in the past because the occasional student will tell me, “Well I didn’t learn anything new [in your TWO HOUR LECTURE THAT IT TOOK YOU 10 HOURS TO WRITE, DURING WHICH PROCESS EVEN YOU, THE BONA FIDE EXPERT, LEARNED SOME STUFF]. But it was nice to have the review.” If you fail to learn anything during one of my lectures, you really, truly, seriously, are not paying attention.

But I don’t hear from the students who are sitting there having their mind blow by stuff that I assume everyone already knows – like what a vagina is, what erotica is, that people in wheelchairs have sex, etc.

So what is there in the world these days that lifting the veil and changing/improving the way you think about your sexuality? (And I’m most interested in the ones that improve just that, YOUR sexuality, as opposed to changing the way you think about sex culturally. The food books talk about the cultural/infrastructure issues related to food, but that’s not as important for my day-to-day life.)

I think Sexual Fluidity (a chapter of which is in my course reader) might be one of them.

What else? Tell me, tell me!

“apologetically but insistently”

(conversation about consent below; proceed (or not) accordingly.)

I’ve been listening to Bill Bryson’s “Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid,” and I must say that hearing a boy’s-eye point of view on sex is amazing to me.

Boys in early adolescence, in Bryson’s account (overblown for comic effect), view girls as possessors of a special and mysterious THING that they WANT, they just WANT. They want to TOUCH. When describing his astonishment that anyone would bother with a nuclear drill, he writes,

The time would be better spent apologetically but insistently touching Mary O’Leary’s budding chest.

Well. That sentence.

On the one hand, it’s a really funny sentence.

And on the other hand, it’s a mournful signal of the early occasions when a woman learns that her body is in the public domain. Boys apologize because on some level they realize that a girl’s body is not theirs to touch, but insistently, because the force of their want overwhelms the strength of their interpersonal boundaries.

Of course this paradigm of girls as Possessors of Sex and boys as Consumers of Sex, this entire narrative of commodification, is culturally constructed and a foundation of rape culture, of punishing women for misusing their sexuality, and of women learning that their value lies in their sexuality rather than in, well, anything else.

Add to that the brain issue. What brain issue, you ask? Adolescents have trouble with impulse control; their prefrontal cortices won’t be fully developed until they’re in their mid-20′s, so they literally CAN’T comprehend the consequences of their actions and they just DO shit because their impulse control is abysmal.

Bill Bryson grew up to be a perfectly nice guy, as far as I can tell, not a sociopathic sexual predator. He was a healthy boy growing up in a sick culture, and he survived it with minimal scars around his sexuality – again, as far as I can tell.

Which speaks to the robustness of human sexual functioning, that it can remain more or less intact in such conditions. It’s a bit like how humans can stay alive on Big Macs and corn syrup, when we evolved to eat animal flesh and roots and berries and stuff.

I think his salvation lay in the “apologetically” half of the equation. He knew, on some level, that Mary O’Leary’s body belonged to Mary O’Leary and that he did not have the right to touch it without her permission. And I think that may be the part that we’ve lost, to a great extent, in the last 50 years. Somewhere along the line, as we became an increasingly visual culture, an increasingly media-saturated culture, an increasingly… dare I say, an increasingly stupid culture, kids are having a harder time with the idea that the person in front of them is a person rather than an image, another individual with an internal life of their own, rather than a product.

Just as the American diet has, in the last 50 years, grown increasingly processed and preserved and, essentially, less full of food and more full of products, our time spent learning about culture is spent more with images and less with other members of that culture. Our brains are drowning in cultural corn syrup, and we have an epidemic of sexual dysregulation as a result.

I keep returning, lately, to this idea of disconnecting from the corporate, in order to untangle the knots that mainstream commercial (a redundancy if ever there was one) media has done to one’s brain, and trying to reorganize one’s understanding of one’s own body and the bodies and minds of the people in one’s life.

All this from “apologetically but insistently.” Life inside the head of a sex nerd, friends.

two boobs, two butt cheeks, no belly

Over the weekend, I was introduced (by Yuko, Ananth, and George) to the idea of “escher girls” in comics. Like this:

two boobs, two butt cheeks

Yuko tells me the point of these skeleton-defying positions is to show both boobs and both butt cheeks all in the same panel. BAM: the soft parts!

There are other similar Tumblrs, like boobsdontworkthatway, to give you an idea of the genre. (NSFW, unless your work is like mine.)

The artists among you will object to the epic figure drawing fail of such illustrations. The feminists will object to the, well, objectification and misrepresentation of women. Those of you who want to get turned on by pictures of scantily clad women will object to the fact that these images don’t have much to do with what scantily clad women look like.

The soft parts bother me, it’s true. But what I REALLY object to is the hard part in the middle, the waist and belly. Even the lowest-body-fat female athlete you can imagine has to SUCK IN HARD to make their abdomen look like that. And yet a startlingly wide range of media represent women’s bodies as having this kind of midsection.

Take the original cover of The Female Eunuch, a feminist polemic. Flat, toned abdomen.

Even the cover art of On Our Backs (pdf) the feminist and delicious women’s magazine, has abstrictified the female body to have a six-pack between luscious titties and a rounded, bounding booty.

Me personally, I don’t walk around with my gut sucked in and my abdominal muscles flexed. (Grrr!) I walk around with my belly soft and rounded. And it is ROUND. There’s some fat, yeah, which is nice too, but even when I’m athlete-lean the shape of my belly is still round, unless I actively flatten and flex those muscles. Like that chick in the tuna commercial? Who lets out her belly when the elevator doors close? That has nothing to do with fat and everything to do with the natural, healthy functioning of the muscles and organs of the midsection.

I am not a comics person, romantic euphemism notwithstanding, so I don’t have a great deal of exposure to these images or their audience. But their audience seems to be adolescent boys (or adolescent men), and it worries me that they might be learning that this is (a) what a female body looks like and (b) how a female body works. If that’s what they think, they’re in for either a major disappointment or a major treat, depending how you think about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of “What is normal?” and SO MUCH of the answer has to do with what a woman’s body really looks like and really does. I can’t talk about sexual health without also talking about body image and embracing the sticky, rounded, breathing organism that you live inside, rather than expecting it to look the way a picture of a woman looks.

aaaaaaand we’re back!

Hi again!

It was a hard September.

But I just got back from fall break at the beach and I feel much better now, and fortunately all the HELLA BUSY WORK I did in September has left me with an overflowing pond of blog material.

The first example of that is the “Family Tree to Love Nest” talk I did, which I followed up with a survey, asking people what they learned and what they were hoping to learn. That “hoping to learn” item is handy because I can teach it over the blog! Hurray. So there will be about a half dozen relationship skills type posts in response to that.

There will be another half dozen posts about body image, following up the same survey question from the “She’s Eating That?!” workshop I led, which was about media literacy and fat talk. (PS: Next week is FAT TALK FREE WEEK!

But in the meantime, I’d like to say these two things:

1. There were students in that workshop about body image who did not realize that the images they see in magazines are Photoshopped to make the models look (even) thinner. I thought I was being hideously redundant and boring to talk about the manipulations of images by mainstream media, but no, it turns out there are still intelligent, well educated, highly literate young women who believe that that’s what those women’s bodies actually look like.

There are two things you can do with this fact: first, just know it. Know that the PICTURES you see of women’s bodies don’t have any particular relationship with ACTUAL women’s bodies. A room full of women, with their various bodies is what women actually look like. Mainstream media’s images of women’s bodies are fictional and rhetorical, designed by advertisers to make you feel shitty so that you’ll buy more shit. Looking at those images makes you feel bad. Looking at real women’s bodies should, capitalism’s manipulation aside, make you feel good, calm, happy, celebratory. Don’t confuse the two. And second, don’t stop talking about it. Say it out loud any time you encounter an image of women that is bad for women. You never know who might be learning it for the first time.

2. People apparently have no idea how to separate “being healthy” from “being thin.” Women’s bodies (and men’s bodies, but women’s bodies especially) VARY from each other in a vast number of ways. One of them is their natural, healthy weight, body composition, and shape. Boobs, bellies, and butts all vary in shape and size from woman to woman, and that variation has no particular relationship with health. (Minor caveat: storing fat around the middle of your body is generally correlated with cardiovascular health problems and insulin resistance, but since this will show up in actual measures of health, like blood lipids and blood sugar, you don’t need to worry about the fat if your actual HEALTH is fine.)

Health simply can NOT be predicted from body shape or size, up to about 75 pounds over the medically defined “healthy” weight. “Thin” doesn’t mean “healthy” any more than “Christian” means “kind.” Sometimes there’s overlap, sure, but one does NOT predict the other, no matter how much the culture says it does. (Please ignore any morality crap that might appear to be embedded in that analogy; there isn’t any.)

So how can you tell if you’re healthy, and therefore forget about your fat as a measure of health? Resting heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood lipids, aerobic pace or VO2 max, and of course various lifestyle measures: are you getting physical activity? are you eating something green and leafy every day, and plenty of protein? are most of the carbs you eat whole grain rather than refined? Then whatever body you have is what health looks like.

But wait, why am I writing about fat, health, and body image on a sex blog?

Oh my god.

Both the physical health and the psychological health implications of body image impact women’s sexual functioning. Physical health: shit, having low energy, not to mention poor muscle tone, limited flexbility and strength, and inadequate cardiovascular fitness can all prevent you from having the ebullient sex life that people who are physically healthy can have. Psychological health: in my experience, negative body image is the single most common source of sexual problems among young women. Not liking your body, not valuing it for what it does, rather than degrading it for what it (doesn’t) look like, will impede your sexual pleasure like nothing else, and all for no medical reason.

Confidence, my darlings. And joy. It is – or ought to be – a pleasure simply to live inside a body. If you find yourself hating living in a body that is functional and healthy, it’s time for a mental tune up.

Love your body; treat it with respect and kindness and compassion. And it will give you boundless pleasure in return.

best of dark and bright

I’ve been reading genre fiction again, and getting frustrated by it. This time I’m frustrated by the pop culture attitude toward beauty. The notion of beauty is one that matters a lot to me, so I tend to get a bit ranty, but let me try to focus on what my current bugbear is:

A person’s beauty isn’t an objectively assessable thing on which there will be universal agreement. There isn’t one perfect beauty to which we all aspire and to which we are all attracted. Like humor, the most beautiful person, according to the averaged ratings of 100 people, is very nice to look at but (to most people’s eyes) not memorable or extraordinary.

Beauty is REALLY about individuality. Moreover, anyone with a brain worth connecting with knows that real things have scratches; anyone with a brain worth sharing your brain with sees wabi sabi or jolie laide, knows that (especially these days) the standard beauties are the ones who invest a lot of time and money on their beauty instead of on books, chocolate, rollerskates, or real estate. Better a crooked nose and a fascinating, unique hobby than a perfectly symmetrical, unblemished face and no life.

Of course ideally we’d all be beautiful in our unique ways and not worry about fitting any standard. But we’re human, I get it, we’re profoundly social and driven by norms, so how about as a compromise we maybe think about fitting into a particular TYPE of beauty?

Maybe we can generate beauty clusters.” Like, this is a dumb article about an interesting thing – click on the link and scroll to the bottom, where you’ll find composite images of women from 35 nationalities. They’re all pretty, but they’re all definitely different. I’ll play my hand here and admit that I found the French composite heartstoppingly beautiful, and the West African composite strikes me as the one I most want to have a chat with. Also the Irish composite looks noticeably like my mother.

Or maybe not. Maybe we hope that people can embrace 7 billion different definitions of beauty. I’ve said before that I think men don’t care much about all this, not in real life. (The science makes these leaps from the ratings people give in a lab to what these ratings might mean in terms of attraction in the real world, where we can smell each other and experience each other’s emotional energy and stuff. I’ve looked for studies that prove a link between judgments in the lab and real life but I’ve found nothing. Anyone else?) I think in real life all of us find beauty in what we love far more often than we find love in what appears beautiful.

Am I a hopeless pollyanna? And does it make a difference that I say these things as a funny looking chick, asymmetrical, with small eyes and a big chin and various other violations of the “standard” for women? Would it be more meaningful (or less?) if I were the usual kind of beautiful, instead of my own definition of it?