Posts Categorized: sexuality

Reader Request: Bodies and Decency

Reader Leah sent me this question via email:

Views on body hair seem to me like part of a larger trend of regarding certain secondary sexual characteristics of women as obscene or inappropriate. Here are several examples:

“Bikini area” – The top 6″ of my inner thighs grow pubic hair rather than leg hair. I don’t think I’m allowed to wear a bathing suit that shows this hair. Showing leg hair might be seen as icky or unconventional, but I’d be concerned about being reported for indecent exposure if I showed pubic hair. I’ve never seen a woman wearing a bathing suit that showed this type of hair in this location. (Incidentally, shaving gives me terrible ingrown hairs, so I eventually started wearing board shorts when I swim. I’m quite satisfied with that solution, but it makes me “weird” and people ask why I don’t wear a standard bathing suit.)

Nipples – You’ve mentioned several times that you have permanently erect nipples. Mine aren’t permanently erect, but they might as well be since I get cold easily. It irks me that it would be considered inappropriate to go around with the outlines of nipples visible through my shirt. (I’m pretty flat chested so otherwise have little need to wear a bra, and I find the thicker, more supportive bras uncomfortable. No good solution here.)

“Camel toe” – When did this become a thing? Having random creases in the clothing around one’s groin probably isn’t the most flattering look, but now there’s a name for it and it’s considered gross. As someone with unusually large labia, I’m more likely to have problems with this than some women are.

Certainly there are plenty of characteristics that are considered gross and shouldn’t be, such as being fat. However, the specific ones I list are secondary sexual characteristics. I’m usually fine with violating norms for what’s stylish or flattering, but it’s much harder when one is considered obscene and when it’s a sexual characteristic. What do you think?

Oh, I think so many things. I think about my friends with big busts who have been called “slutty” even when they’re wearing high necklines and layers. I think about the movie “The Cooler” – which is just marvelous, by the way – and how I learned that one of the sex scenes originally showed the leading lady’s pubic hair which caused the MPAA to give it an NC-17 rating. Because women’s body hair is that scandalous. (The scene was removed so the movie could get bumped down to R.) I think about the fact that unlined bras are almost impossible to find because of nipple fear. I think about the multitudinous ways in which women’s bodies are policed, and how strict and judgmental that policing becomes when it pertains to body features that are related to sex and sexuality.

But beyond that, I don’t know what to think. American culture is simultaneously obsessed with pushing the boundaries of bodily exposure and shaming anyone who enjoys exposing her body. I have no idea how to react to that, much less change it. I understand that the simplest way to push back is to refuse to conform – let your nipples show through, wear your swimsuit even if you haven’t shaved or waxed your bikini line – but, as Leah points out, when you run the risk of crossing the “decency” boundary, it makes that pushback trickier to navigate.

Have any of you had direct experiences with these issues? Have you been scolded or called out for dressing in clothes that expose or reveal secondary sexual characteristics? How did you react? Any ideas for how to stem the tide?

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Being Brave in the Bedroom: part 1

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By Lily
AP contributor

I recently gave a talk to a group of mothers on being brave in the bedroom. This is something I can talk about with anyone for hours on end. It is something I have talked about at length with my clients, with friends, and it’s something I am constantly working on myself.

I know this is a very common goal and yet, it isn’t always seen as obtainable. I believe it absolutely is. There isn’t a perfect or easy formula, there isn’t even just one way to do it, but it is possible.

Now, visualize a mountain. I like to think of being brave in the bedroom as the ultimate goal – the top of the mountain, a goal that one can achieve after building upon some very important steps.  To get from the bottom to the top, you have to walk, hike, and push through the discomfort. At the top, you are able to take a look around, soak in the journey, and appreciate every step of the way.

This journey can be broken up into four parts. For this post, I will be focusing on the first part.

Part 1:

This journey begins with the self – you. Your self is the foundation upon which this all builds, and therefore the first phase is focused on the self.

 

1). Self Care

Taking care of ourselves is the most important piece of this whole journey. If we are neglecting ourselves, this journey is impossible. Imagine trying to hike a mountain with no sleep, an empty stomach, very little water, and no oxygen. So, what are you doing to nurture yourself? How are you taking care of yourself?

Incorporate daily self-care, remembering that you must always put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping someone else put theirs on.

2). Confidence & Self Esteem

Are your self-esteem and confidence lower than you would like? Begin to boost them. Here are just some ways to do so: focus on what you can do or did at the end of each day (especially at the end of tough days), develop purpose in your life, create goals (big and small) and note when you achieve them. Finally, find a way to move your body: practicing yoga, running, stretching, walking, swimming – whatever movement feels good, continue to do that.

3). Body Image

Examining and working on our body image is essential in this process because we have sex with our bodies. Here are some helpful strategies in cultivating a postive body image: practice gratitude for what your body is capable of, wear things that make you feel sexy, focus on the positive or neutral rather than the negative (i.e. my hair looks fabulous today; if you cannot find something positive to say, choose something neutral such as “I have brown hair”), and fuel your body with foods that feel good in your body.

4). Know Thyself

Three important questions to ask and answer yourself:

  • Who are you?
  • What are your likes in pleasure and sex?
  • What are you dislikes in pleasure and sex?

The more you know about yourself, the better. This is especially true in becoming brave in the bedroom!

 

This concludes the first part of climbing the mountain. I encourage you to begin to implement and incorporate these suggestions and notice how you feel once you do. Keep in mind that just like on any other trek, you may need to sit down and take a rest. You may have to ask for help. You may surprise yourself in your abilities. Be open to the process and to the feelings that may emerge.

In my next post I will discuss the second part: daring to be you now that you know yourself.

As always, I welcome your feedback. Have you found any of these to be helpful? Do you have any other suggestions that you care to share with us?

Until next time,
Lily

_ _ _ _ _

Dr. Lily A. Zehner is a therapist who specializes in sex, intimacy, and relationships. Her private practice, The Center for Authentic Intimacy, is located in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. She holds a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Human Sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality and a Masters in Marriage & Family Therapy from Regis University.

She is passionate about living authentically and helping clients do the same. She believes that letting our real selves shine is the key to self-love and finding true intimacy with others. She believes all bodies are good, beautiful, and perfectly imperfect. At times she struggles with this about her own body, but self acceptance can be a challenging road and it’s one she’s willingly chosen.

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Guest Post: Amita Basu on Style, Sexual Identity, Binaries, and Perfectionism

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Several weeks ago, reader Amita reached out to me with the loveliest email, and in it she shared a bit of her personal style and body image journey. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in cognitive science at CBCS, University of Allahabad, India, and she has a unique perspective and fascinating story. I immediately asked if she’d be comfortable writing a guest post for the blog so others could hear about her ruminations, struggles, and triumphs. And I’m so glad she agreed, because in the post that follows, she has outlined and supported several important ideas that I’ve never been able to articulate myself. And done so with tremendous passion, elegance, and care.

Please welcome Amita, and read on to share in her journey.

(Content note: Disordered eating is discussed. Comment and discussion note: As always, express your views respectfully and civilly or they will not be published in the comments. Be courteous and kind to each other when responding to remarks from other readers.)

– – – – –

Style and beauty have always lurked in my mind. All my life I have repressed these interests. Like many young girls, I acquired the belief that you can choose to be smart, or you can choose to be stylish. I made my decision early: I would be smart, and I would be not stylish. And I have been my own best dictator.

Like most Indian girls I had my ears pierced when I was a year old. At eleven I decided that body piercings constitute body defacement. I stopped wearing earrings. My piercings appeared to close again, my ears returning to their natural state to my great satisfaction. I’m fortunate to have a liberal family, so my mother protested only verbally. But she did protest, and that increased my satisfaction. She wanted me to “dress like a girl” but I saw no reason why I should. Ignoring my appearance became my protest against gender roles and other dated social codes. It became part of my emerging feminism. It also ‘went well’ with my introversion, with my chosen field of academics. It was convenient.

As far back as I can remember I have been interested in school, and in writing. I was regularly recognised for both. Excellence in these pursuits became my identity. That was who I was: a good student and a good writer. Everything else was a distraction. So that I could focus on endeavours of the mind, my body had to be in its natural state. Fallaciously, I assumed that “natural state” meant being whenever possible dressed in old, loose, even faded clothes, with nary a comb run through my hair. This was my “natural state” for so long that I forgot it was a state I had chosen, one of infinitely many states that my body could occupy.

“Natural” is a dangerous category. It is a favourite catchword for fundamentalist groups of all stripes. An excuse for governments and individuals to repress certain behaviours, to persecute certain people. Empirically, “natural” is a meaningless category. By definition, everything that is, is natural. Everything that everyone does. Unless you believe that humans are outside nature – which also makes “natural” meaningless. To invoke “natural” morally is equally meaningless. Nature is bloody “in tooth and claw.” The principles of nature are selfishness, exploitation, and manipulation at every level between and within species. Even things like cooperation and altruism have been able to evolve because in the long run they are self-serving. “Natural” is anything but a proxy for “morally acceptable.” I’m a vegan, a conscious consumer, and a lover of green spaces. But I have become convinced that “natural” cannot be used to explain, justify, or privilege any behaviour or any individual.

“Natural” continued to exert heinous influences to repress my interest in style. I began to realise that there was something ‘unnatural’ with me. I have never been attracted to anyone. Not sexually, not romantically. It took me years to realise that I am probably asexual.

It was complicated. I have a libido, and I have experienced infatuations. For some time I thought I was gay. I explored my sexuality with women, with men. Lovely people. People to whom I could perfectly well picture someone being attracted. Even someone like me. But I wasn’t. Eventually I realised that my infatuations were a form of admiration. The people I crushed on had traits I admire. Even with them, I couldn’t picture doing anything. I felt upbeat around them. Inspired, energetic. Just as I do after a run, or when I listen to music I love, or when I read a well-turned phrase. But the people I crushed on were people. So I interpreted that as infatuation.

Interpretation is a powerful thing. What shapes our lives, our self-concepts is not our ‘direct’ experience, but our interpretation of it. Of course, my interpreting my infatuations as admiration is also an interpretation. Sexuality is a fluid category, and my friends tell me I just haven’t met the right person yet. At 28, I doubt that, but I’ll keep an open mind.

My putative asexuality gave me one more reason to enforce the style vs. smarts binary in my life. Dressing is social, and an interest in one’s appearance often sends, with or without intention, messages about one’s sexuality. I decided to deflect any attention from my appearance, to avoid anything construable as false advertising. I shunned skirts and bright colours. It didn’t matter that these were things I’ve always loved. My primary intention when dressing became to signal that I was not interested, not available.

My interest in style broke free when I realised that I could dress for myself. Groundbreaking, right? Just because dressing is social doesn’t mean it’s not also personal. This was the first of several false binaries that I had to cut loose from. Wearing skirts and bright colours lifts my mood and makes me feel myself. Just as writing does, or running. It makes me feel put-together and comfortable and ready to focus. Because I’m aware that most people continue to subscribe to the binary of smarts “vs.” style, dressing well also raises the standard I set myself for other endeavours. Dressing well is a way to show that the world does not exist in binaries – that you can do it without being or becoming lazy, vain, or interested in sex. That you can be stylish and also be creative, intelligent, athletic, generous – any number of things. Those of you who put visibly more thought into your clothes than people around you will understand what a lift this can be, to excel in other areas of your life. It can act as a handicap in sports: in many arenas, individuals who stylish will have to work harder to be taken seriously. So in many cases, you do. It’s a way to exploit false binaries in people’s thinking – in your own thinking – to motivate yourself to excel. To show up all those binaries as false.

Body image is a dynamic entity that shapes, and is shaped by, other aspects of our lives. Acknowledging and indulging my interest in style has helped my life in other ways.

I am a perfectionist. Those of you with tendencies this way know it is a pain in the a**. Nothing will ever be good enough – so why try? All my life I have swung between periods of ambitious hard work and periods of exhaustion where I reflect on my achievements, deem them inadequate, and sink into an apathy in which nothing seems worth doing. I did this at school, and with my writing. I obsessed over every word, every shade of meaning, every comma. It took me weeks to finish a short story. And when I finished I was sick of it. Perfectionism poisoned my interest in the things I enjoyed.

My periodic surges of interest in style I firmly repressed. I did not need another thing to obsess over.

But it happened anyway. As an undergrad I struggled with anorexia nervosa. For me this disorder was ‘motivated’ by a quest for perfectionism. Fuelled by another dangerous binary: “all or nothing.” A perfect body attained with hours  everyday of exercise, with continuous self-deprivation. That, or nothing. After recovering, I became even more indifferent to my appearance. My body had proved itself incapable of perfection. Now it did not merit any attention. I continued to eat well and to exercise in moderation. I had developed an interest in health. But as for clothes, as for the self that I showed the world – I felt bound to acknowledge that my body was imperfect, therefore worth no speck of my own or anyone else’s attention. I have realised that nothing is perfect. A shaky realisation: I have to keep reminding myself. I still struggle to believe that things are worth doing, and doing well, even if nothing is perfect. Taking an interest in style, working with the body I have rather than with an impossible fictitious body – has helped me to relax in other ways. I continue to take care of my health but I’m less fanatic about a missed workout or a bit of processed food. I find work interesting without needing to turn in the perfect paper, to design the perfect experiment. And I continue to work hard on my writing but I’m (slightly) less obsessive about perfectionism. Getting dressed reminds me everyday that life is beautiful if you just accept it as it is. Accept yourself as you are. When you give up perfectionism, self-acceptance becomes oddly compatible with continuously striving to be better, to do better.

But why is all this important? It’s “just style,” right? “Just clothes,” as even fashion designers sometimes say.

Wrong.

Because anything worth doing is worth doing well. Because it’s never style “vs.” anything. Because thinking in binaries is backwards, muddying our ideas about other people, about who we can be. Because acknowledging and embracing all aspects of the self makes people happy, and because when people are happy they’re likelier to work harder, to take care of themselves, to care about other people. Because style is for you, regardless of your occupation, your personality, your sexual orientation, regardless of anything. Because style is a repudiation of perfectionism, of self-repression, of thinspiration, of the obsession with pale skin that permeates my society and many others – a repudiation of repressive and homogenising forces of every kind. Because style exists for every shape and size and colour, and is a concrete, visible celebration of diversity and self-worth. Because style is a concrete, visible celebration of you.

Just as you are.

Image courtesy Marc Roberts

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