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21 November 2005
Female Sexuality – Body Image and Your Sex Life
by Katherine Burnett-Watson

There seems to be such an interest in the sex lives of ordinary women right now, doesn’t there? Whether we’re getting enough? Is it good sex? Are women who have more sex having better sex? Do we have a high libido, or low libido; and just what level of libido is right, anyway?

Recent studies have focused on several aspects of female sexuality, including hormone levels, libido, how pregnancy and menopause affect a woman’s sexuality, and body image. Through a series of feature articles we’ll be looking at different factors that play a part in affecting female sexuality, and exploring new research that attempts to shed light on this complicated and important subject.

A new survey from the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, at Penn State University, has found an interesting relationship between what researchers call “feeling frumpy” and the respondents’ sex lives. The study, recently published in The Journal of Sex Research, found that the emphasis in United States culture on being young and thin has a more important influence than menopause on sexual functioning and satisfaction.

Analysis of the survey results showed that, regardless of the woman's specific age, she was more likely to consider herself more attractive when she was 10 years younger whether or not she had been through menopause. In addition, there was no significant statistical relationship between a woman's perception of her own attractiveness as she aged and her current sexual satisfaction.

Study leader, Dr Patricia Barthalow Koch, added; "There has been a dearth of research examining the relationship between body image and women's sexual response. These new results support a link between body image and sexual responding that needs further study."

With a survey group of over 300 women, ranging in age from 35 to 55, the results provide a sober look at the way women view their bodies. Nearly 21 percent of the survey respondents could not think of even one attractive feature and reported an overall sense of dissatisfaction with their bodies. The features that the women considered least attractive were stomach and abdomen, hips, thighs and legs. This sort of dissatisfaction isn't restricted to women. Men also fret about what they perceive are male physical shortcomings (usually their genitals), but to a much lesser extent than women.

The researchers noted that it is the norm for American women to be dissatisfied with the parts of their bodies which are affected by weight gain as they age. The percentage of body fat generally doubles by the time women reach age 50. Weight also tends to be redistributed so that breasts become larger, waists thicken and fat increases on their upper back. While it is natural for midlife women to change shape in these ways, the U.S. standard of attractiveness remains a youthful and slender body which creates anxiety about aging and pressure for older women to disguise what are otherwise normal changes.

With the media constantly portraying young, thin, beautiful women as the “ideal” and with growing pressure on aging women to remain youthful, regular women are pushing themselves to achieve the unrealistic goal of holding on to their youth, in the belief that youth equals beauty. Elderly celebrities put themselves through brutal and grueling regimes of strict diets, hours of exercise, cosmetic surgery, hair-styling and make up to maintain a youthful appearance. And it appears that this unrealistic image is affecting how regular women view themselves and their sexual identity.

One celebrity fighting the trend of older actresses trying to physically compete with their youthful counterparts is Jamie Lee Curtis. Cast as sexy characters in movies like Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda and True Lies, Curtis is no stranger to baring her body for the camera. But in 2002 she shocked - and delighted - her female fans by posing in More magazine wearing no make up, without her hair styled, in an unflattering sports bra and bike shorts and under bright lights. For a Hollywood star, Curtis had done the unthinkable; she had put her “real” body on show.

Curtis told More magazine, "There's a reality to the way I look without my clothes on. I don't have great thighs. I have very big breasts and a soft, fatty little tummy. And I've got back fat. People assume that I'm walking around in little spaghetti-strap dresses. It's insidious - Glam Jamie, the Perfect Jamie, the great figure, blah, blah, blah. And I don't want the unsuspecting 40-year-old women of the world to think that I've got it going on. It's such a fraud. And I'm the one perpetuating it."

Along with the media portrayal of young, nubile women as the ideal we should all be aspiring to, and therefore are failing in some way if we do not, medical research seems determined to tell us that sexual difficulties we may be experiencing are actually a “dysfunction” and therefore need medical treatment to rectify.

A 1999 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that 43 percent of women have female sexual dysfunction. Although the validity of the study has been questioned by many leading researchers, this article was the catalyst for a host of other studies looking to identify a pharmacological solution to this high rate of “dysfunction” in women. And along with the huge success of Viagra in aiding sexual function in men, it created a heightened interest in marketing hormones and other medications to women to treat this “new” condition.

But what if it’s not just about hormones and medical conditions? What if, as Dr Koch’s research suggests, it’s about body image? And what if those articles in Cosmo promising us tantalizing sex tips on how to “blow your boyfriend’s mind” are completely off the mark, because we don’t actually care about better sex, or more sex, because we’ve lost the desire for sex at all?

Gynecologist Andrew Goldstein and clinical psychologist Marianne Brandon explore all these issues, and more, in their best-selling book Reclaiming Desire: 4 Keys to Finding Your Lost Libido. Drawing upon their experience at the Sexual Wellness Center in Annapolis, Maryland, an institution that they founded, the authors advocate a holistic treatment that addresses four spheres of a woman’s life: physical health, emotional resilience, intellectual fulfillment and spiritual contentment. Their book covers all the possible factors: weight, diet, exercise, medical conditions, sleep patterns, testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, emotional arousal, stress, sexual trauma and life passages such as motherhood, menopause and divorce.

Reclaiming Desire also offers a healthy dose of reassurance and encouragement as an antidote to misconceptions about low libido. It explains how a decline in sex drive doesn't automatically happen with age. While hormones influence sexual desire and response, they don't determine a woman's sexual destiny, and low libido doesn't necessarily point to a problem in a woman's relationship with her partner.

It all comes down to the individual woman. No blanket statements or “cure-alls” will be right for all women, and it’s up to each woman as an individual to find the right answer for her. So let’s throw out those trashy magazines promising us great sex while helping us turn back the clock on aging, and have a good hard look at what it means to be a real woman, with a real body and real sexual needs and desires.

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