Body Politic: How Our Bodies Look Vs. How We Use Them

I was surprised to read an article that interpreted a U.K. study on a woman’s preference for food over sex.

Let me clarify. The study indicates that women are far more interested in what they put into their bodies in order to be thin, than how they use their bodies – whether they’re thin or not.

It seems we spend our lifetimes (and a small fortune) obsessed with obtaining a sexy body – but if and when we get it, or even close, we aren’t enjoying it.

And the “it” is us. We are our bodies – not just our minds. How often do we forget that fact, other than when we’re chastising ourselves, standing in front of a mirror or comparing to some recalled or imagined physical form – a younger self, a pre-pregnant self, a pre-injury self, a “someday” self?

And what about using our bodies in a sensual or sexy way – whatever “its” size or shape – for our pleasure? And the pleasure of the one we love? Are we so preoccupied with image over substance that our delight in the physical side of life is always tainted?

The Babysitter. The Supermodel. You. Me.

The more I read, the more I listen, the more I contemplate this issue. I once considered it purely sexual politics and American cultural indoctrination, but now I realize its complexity as well as its insidious spread. Women are – and perhaps always will be – judged on appearance, surely more harshly than men.

Add the power of social media and the web, and national borders are of little importance when it comes to sharing images – and expectations.

The once very American obsession with weight is certainly not confined to our country. For that matter, neither are some of our poor eating habits that contribute to problems of obesity, and related health concerns.

Worries over body image and eating disorders are no longer the stuff of adolescence or young adulthood; I imagine you would find body self-hatred from the 50-something woman next door, the babysitter, the supermodel, as well as yourself as you eye the goods in the morning mirror with all too familiar irritation.

And I admit to living those days, too.

The U.K. Study: Food vs. Sex

As to Pamela Madsen’s article in Psychology Today, the study finds:

women put more effort into dieting than into their relationships which leads them to think more about food than sex

It’s a conclusion that makes me think, and it seems logical.

The study reports that 54% of the women surveyed think about food more often than sex, and the author goes on to make the following points, tying issues of food and relationship to sexual shame:

As women we are taught that by withholding food (pleasure and nourishment) that we will find happiness (sub-text sex). It is also through eating that we are able to find available pleasure without the sexual shame that so many of us hold. It’s quite the conflict.

And that makes a good deal of sense to me, as does the author’s perspective that weight issues frequently obscure far more pressing problems to do with relationships.

As for the study’s sample population – women who were dieting – arguably, it’s not representative. Moreover, we all know that data can be interpreted any which way, yet something in this study resonates with me. It is recognizable in my own life – and the lives of most of the adult women I’ve known.

Hungry?

Come on. Fess up. If we’re not thrilled with our bodies at any given moment, aren’t we thinking about food one way or another – what we’re eating, what we’re not eating, what we’re planning on eating later, what we’re planning on nibbling as a treat – if we lose that next pound?

Woman comfortable in her own skinAround all that background noise in our brains concerning food – aren’t we also working, managing our children and their schedules, and seeing to the endless lists of other tasks that most of us are involved in? And hoping our bodies are acceptable to our partners?

When we’re hungry, are we thinking about sex? I know I’m not, and I like sex – even at midlife! But if hunger pangs are oppressive and I’m weakened from not eating (I sometimes forget), I desire a good meal and not “dessert.”

As for the apparent disconnect between women and sexual appetite (or even sexual interest in marriage), how much difficulty stems from body-image drama, from not feeling good enough or attractive enough – or for that matter, simply from being hungry?

The FAT Issue

We all know that the fat issue is real; the U.S. market for weight loss related goods and services was estimated at $60.9 billion in 2010, and some put the global market at more than $500 billion by the year 2014.

Might this be a slight indication of our multi-generational obsession with thinness?

Another recent article stopped me cold, elaborating on a small group of women who underwent brain scans while shown images of various body types, and questioned during the process. The subjects were healthy (and thin), had been pre-screened to rule out eating disorders, and yet their brain function indicated body image issues as soon as fears of overweight were triggered.

The article states:

Simply imagining that they might be overweight seemed to make the women question their sense of self, even though they claimed afterward that the test was boring or meaningless.

Have body image issues really come to this? Isn’t it time to say enough?

Midlife Marvels

At a time in my life when I feel my body changing, when I see my body changing, when I nonetheless exercise as best I can, when I am eating in a more healthy (and enjoyable) fashion than ever before, I wonder what these studies mean – to me.

And to you.

Whatever your stage of life and circumstances.

At a time when I’m collecting laugh lines with increasing frequency (not so bad!), as I become more relaxed in some areas (deliciously so) and resigned to others (trying to avoid the inevitable sense of loss), I recognize my lifelong body image concerns – and equally – how pointless they have been.

We can’t all look like Helen Mirren – and nor should we. We can look like ourselves – and celebrate that.

I am hopeful that more women will say “no” to torturing their spirits over some false god of female perfection. I am hopeful that if we talk, if we listen, if we open our eyes, if we pay attention to the absurdity of wasting our health and vigor on reshaping a body rather than using it and enjoying it – perhaps we’ll find our own beauty radiates from who we are and how we deal in the world – from our competence, our energy, our compassion.

Perhaps we’ll recoup a bit of self in the process – reveling in the men and women who love us, the children who count on us – and grateful for the bodies that serve us well.

 
For more on women and body image



© D. A. Wolf

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Comments

  1. Funny, I thought of Helen Mirren before you mentioned her! For the most part – and I’m sure some people will not agree with me – the sad reality is: women put this pressure on women. I think at some point and with a certain level of maturity, men are simpler in the area of appearance. They just want women that take care of themselves and are comfortable in their own skin. Cheers to being grateful for the bodies that serve us well!! :)

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      We do put pressure on ourselves, Joy. But it has spread beyond that, certainly in the post-marital dating world where available men have the option of dating their age or 10 to 20 years younger. And the women, not so much.

      Hardly a level playing field.

      I do agree that many good men want women who take care of themselves and feel good about themselves. Thankfully!

  2. Oh Wolfie, I’m so nabbing this for my Facebook peeps. Be well sweetie and have a donut on me. (This from the guy who said to his coworks over and over, “Donuts and elevators, just say no.” :O)

  3. “…a U.K. study on a woman’s preference for food over sex.” I think I was formerly married to that woman.

    Remember my Match ad that Fran responded to “Any age, as long as you can keep up with me.” We’re back from an Occupy Philly march to hear Bill Clinton. He cancelled due to snow – after Fran and I and others marched in that snow to hear/speak with him. Buck up.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Here’s the thing, Paul. I think many of us are that woman – at least for periods of time in our lives, without realizing the impact it has on our lives. How sad is that?

      As for Clinton pulling a no-show in the snow, so sorry! I can only imagine your Occupy Philly experience was interesting…

  4. Brilliant, provocative, exquisitely written (as always) and at the same time terrifying. We live in the push-pull culture of pleasure and pain, hope and guilt. It’s quite awful.

    You should offer this post to a magazine. As many women as possible should be reading it.

    xoxox,
    Tish

  5. What about sleep over sex?

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      No question, Wolf. There are definitely times that sleep wins out! (All the more reason for impromptu or planned afternoon delight?)

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