Alison Garwood Jones

Hot off the press

August 21, 2011


Below is the “blogified” version of an article of mine that just hit the newstands. If you want to read the original piece (pictured above),

Go “clickety click” right here.

But first, I’d like to add a preamble … if you don’t mind.

The world is sick.

I mean, why do we insist on pushing people’s buttons and triggering self-loathing behavior with messages like this …

Hah hah, good one, we chuckle. Well, it’s not so funny when it worms its way down to this …

There are men and women who spread messages like this because thinking isn’t something they practice much.

Some do it for the same reasons others are racist. Human beings are essentially competitive and status-driven. Getting to the top can drive the vulnerable or mean-spirited among us to push themselves and others to do unhealthy things to the body and soul. Men and women are equally vulnerable to and affected by this.

For so many adult women, rebuilding a healthy core and a spirit of self-acceptance involves undoing a lifetime of the sort of programming and constant messaging that revolves around our bodies, looks and  age.

Men are also criticized and joked about in popular culture, but mostly for their ideas and actions — like how drunk they got last night and other boneheaded antics. They’re lucky because guys are just as sensitive about their bodies as women are but, somehow, our human instincts (to protect their pride?) have spared them the microscope women have been pushed under. What’s that Margaret Atwood quote? Oh yeah: “Men are afraid of being laughed at. Women are afraid of being killed.”

Geez louise, it’s tiring deflecting all the bullshit thrown at women on T-shirts, on coffee mugs, in magazines and movies, and, more seriously, on political campaigns and in war. Will our bodies ever stop being the political football tossed around by Pro Lifers, religious militia groups and the fashion mafioso?

So to all the entrepreneurs out there (T-shirt moguls and magazine publishers included) who happen to be guys, your new girlfriends might not be ignoring you in the bedroom, but a lot of average Joes — who don’t think expensive jewelry is the answer to stoking the fires — are having a heck of a time getting close to the women they love, and have loved for years. That’s why you might want to rethink the slogans you’re mass producing, including this one:

There are times when you’ve got plenty to cry about because what you’re putting out there about women — on T-shirts or wherever — is affecting you directly. Going for a laugh and a buck, you ended up getting the cold shoulder from the very people you so desperately want to impress — women.

In the words of Aretha Franklin, Think.

 

Here’s my magazine piece from the September issue of Homemakers Magazine.


Do you think I’m sexy?

(’cause I sure don’t)

By society’s standards, Joanna Trainer, 34, is slim and drop-dead gorgeous. Her golden bob, graceful gestures and outwardly enthusiastic attitude capsize most of the men who meet her. You’d think her openly confident ways would naturally extend to the bedroom. Not true, she says. “For some women it’s wrinkles or jiggly thighs,” she says, “but I have bad veins in my legs,” and they’re getting worse as she ages. That’s why Joanna insists on having sex in dim lighting and she never gets spontaneous with her boyfriend during the day. She’s even gone as far as covering her veins with body makeup and band-aids when needles and lasers didn’t work. “My veins make me feel ashamed and repulsive.” So what does Joanna’s boyfriend think of her sensitivity about her legs? “He’s caring and accepting of me, all the things a loving partner should be. I’m the only one who’s overly critical and judgmental,” she says, adding wistfully, “This younger=better equation is such a drag.

The pressure on women to look young is a drag and the wisdom that comes with age and experience doesn’t always tame this beast. The latest study of women and body image, published last March by researchers at the University of West England, surveyed over 300 women between the ages of 18 and 65 and found one third of them, even the mid-lifers, would give up a year of their life for Scarlett Johansson’s flawless body. This same group also admitted to having negative thoughts about their bodies several times a day, and said it was taking a toll on their relationships. Funny that: while men of every age, shape and size are said to be distracted on the job by a stream of sexual fantasies, women are just as distracted by how they should look naked, but don’t.

These findings probably won’t make anyone reading this gasp (yawn, maybe). Women have been fretting over their beauty, desirability and the warnings about their inevitable decline long before advertising art directors started smudging out their laugh lines in PhotoShop. “None of us gets to escape the messages we are bombarded with,” says Pega Ren, a sexologist and clinical counselor in Vancouver. “As women become older, society no longer sees them as sexual beings,” she says. Call it human nature, but there’s a cultural avoidance of a whole range of issues facing midlife women. “Unattractive, uninteresting and basically useless is the message society sends women after we hit 50,” says Julia Moulden, 55, a Toronto-based author and Huffington Post columnist. “It makes me crazy having to battle it all the time because I don’t feel it myself.” As a result, women in their forties, fifties and older have been excluded from the public discussion of what a sexual woman looks like and is doing in the bedroom. Ren thinks many women internalize this message. Assuming that they are no longer desirable, they shut the door on sex.

Have these women not heard of  Helen Mirren? Positively radiant at 66.

Women’s waning interest in sex as they age is more directly associated with how attractive they perceive themselves to be, not with declining hormone levels.


That’s why when new research on female sexuality starts emerging that challenges and reverses old chestnuts about middle age “frigidity” and invisibility, women and men hold their breath with hope and caution. A consistent pattern in studies over the past two decades shows that women’s waning interest in sex as they age — and no one is disputing that — is more directly associated with how attractive they perceive themselves to be, and not with declining hormone levels. From this physical evidence, psychologists have developed a new approach to therapy that better understands the pressure put upon women’s psyches from a cultural context. It’s helping women better understand and address their body image concerns and strengthening their relationships both in and out of the bedroom.

Why am I not feeling “It”?

It’s not a physical fact that as a woman leaves her fertile years behind, her desire for sex will automatically drop off, then disappear for good. “We’ve seen too many exceptions to that,” says Lori Brotto, a Port Moody, B.C.-based psychologist whose research on the mind’s relationship to the body has gained international attention. When you follow women over their lifespan, she says, health challenges, depression, smoking, alcoholism and simply being in a long-term relationship can make desire go down. But what happens when a healthy woman pursues a new relationship at 65? “Her desire’s up again?” As Patricia Barthalow Koch and her team of researchers at Penn State found then published in the Journal of Sex Research in 2005, a mid-life woman’s quality of life and the quality of her relationship with her partner — i.e. how they communicate, their emotional intimacy and level of respect and true companionship with one another — are the best predictors of her sexual satisfaction.

If women’s bodies don’t give up on sex — and that’s an important new message, so spread it — why are so many women still putting up walls to romance?

The Samantha Joneses of the world, then, need not fret about life after their last period. “How you feel about yourself and your partner accounts for much more in the changes in desire than the bottoming out of estrogen that happens with menopause,” says Brotto. So if women’s bodies don’t give up on sex — and that’s an important new message, so spread it — why are so many women still putting up walls to romance?

Is there a pill for that?

A dozen years ago researchers at Vivus Inc., inventors of Alista (the precursor to Viagra), cheered like NASA engineers when they got the, ahem, “vertical indicators” they were hoping for from the men in their clinical trials. We met our goal, announced Vivus founder, Virgil Place, MD, we “put life back into dead penises.” A few years later, these same researchers slumped in their chairs when they got nothing from test groups of women taking the medication. Sure, the women experienced increased blood flow to their vaginas, but no orgasm. Even so, at last count 13 drug companies are still trying to find ways to make their pills work on women. But the medicalization of female desire by drug companies hasn’t been good for women’s spontaneity or confidence in the bedroom.

For example, the pharmaceutical companies were, successful in creating widespread acceptance of the labels “dysfunctional” and “diseased” for the sexually neutral and unresponsive women in their trials. Actually, the term they used was FDS for “Female Sexual Dysfunction,” and it came about because company researchers — many of them without MDs or PhDs — couldn’t, and still can’t, answer what’s clinically wrong with these gals who just don’t want to have sex.

The medicalization of female desire by drug companies hasn’t been good for women’s spontaneity or confidence in the bedroom.

It was the drug companies (with products to sell) who also started bombarding the media with statistics about how many women were FDS. Oprah even ran with the numbers, back when her style was more “tabloid.” “It’s a secret epidemic,” she intoned in one show as the camera moved in close, “that 43% of American women experience some kind of sexual dysfunction.” “That 43% is still being bandied about,” says Brotto. Actually, it’s as high as 83%, weighs in Stuart Meloy, an anesthesiologist and pain specialist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who got media attention when he introduced his “Orgasmatron,” a so-far unsuccessful gizmo that threads electrodes up a woman’s spinal cord to try and induce orgasm, only to set off some pretty wild leg twitches.

Studying women’s sexuality from the perspective of men is part of a long-standing tradition in medicine and psychiatry. “When you look at anatomy text books from a century ago,” says Brotto, “the section on women’s anatomy is just a few sentences long and it says, ‘We assume the same processes taking place in men hold for women.’” Brotto believes what the failure of the female Viagra (and we might add, all the follow-up gizmos) have really done for women’s research is “to put the spotlight on the need for more tailored and appropriate approaches into women’s sexual difficulties.” So while the boys are tinkering with our parts, trying to make them come alive, a contingent of mostly female clinicians, researchers, academics and scientists (and so many of them, Canadian) are studying the mind — things like our inner critic and the effects of ageism, sexism and politics on body image — to better understand women’s sexual expression across our lifetimes.

Mind over matter

Sex relaxes us. The research on how it heals us emotionally is endless. It’s also physically important. “Women who don’t have regular orgasms [with a partner or themselves] have more incontinence and more vaginal prolapses [when the vagina, uterus, rectum and small intestine fall, creating pelvic pressure and discomfort],” says Ren. As women age and society dismisses them, however, some gals have taken their invisibility as an opportunity to define themselves on their own terms, including sexually.

While the boys tinker with our parts, a contingent of female researchers are studying the mind, things like our inner critic and the effects of ageism, sexism and politics on body image on sexual expression.

Moulden, author of We are the New Radicals and, her latest book, Ripe: Rich, Rewarding Work After 50, is one of them. She has noticed that where she used to go into a room and heads would turn, “that doesn’t happen anymore.” Even so, she has stopped referencing her younger self and giving in to society’s expectations. “I’m just experiencing this ‘new me’ that’s emerging since I turned 50, which has an inner strength that gets translated physically and sexually.” “New me,” she says, emerged partly from necessity (post divorce, “How am I going to survive?”) and partly out of desire. “I reconnected to a drive I hadn’t felt since my early 30s when I realized I was now in a position in terms of knowledge, skills and resources to do what I once only dreamed of.” Moulden worked hard, risked everything and discovered new capabilities and burnished strengths. “I’m so much stronger on every level and I like myself more than ever before.” It all “feeds this loop,” mentally and sexually.

Studies like those by Elizabeth Banister, a University of Victoria psychologist and RN, that focus on women’s midlife experiences of their changing bodies confirm that learning to accept the outward signs of aging is key to keeping sexual feelings alive. In other words, women who say to their partners, “Not now, I need to lose ten pounds,” generally show a more restricted range of sexual activities than those who accept, even like, their bodies.

Learning to accept the outward signs of aging is key to keeping sexual feelings alive.

Pega Ren believes poor body image is one way women avoid engaging in their own sexuality. “I think many women are surprised when they let themselves have good sex. The thought of being a ‘Slut’ — still a perjorative term — can make some women hold back from allowing the enjoyment of sex to permeate their lives.” And again, research like the Penn State study and others confirm a direct correlation between women’s poor body image and “fewer satisfactory sexual responses as well as more problems with sexual desire, excitement and resolution.”

Silencing the inner critic

What doesn’t appear to be scientifically documented, but is certainly anecdotally confirmed, is that when it comes to sex, men are just glad when a woman shows up. At 43, David Angler∗ (not his real name) says he’s attracted to personality and connection. “I love and appreciate a woman who takes care of herself, “he says, citing soft skin as his particular weakness, “but it’s immaterial how large her breasts are or how big her butt is because if I’m with her, I’ve already accepted her for who she is.” In fact, ask most guys and they’ll tell you they don’t notice your veins or even a new haircut when you’ve made it clear you wants to be sexual with them. In their happiness — Gasp, you’re in something from Victoria’s Secret! — men skip over the details women care so much about. Now therapists are saying, let this work in your favour.

If men don’t notice the details, but women do, how do we silence the inner critic? This is Brotto’s specialty.  She practices “Mindfulness Theory,” which isn’t about doing away with negative thoughts but, rather, noticing our tendency to have them and changing our connection with them. Through a series of exercises, she introduces women to the idea of watching themselves throughout the day, and even gets them thinking about thinking. “This way, when a judgment comes up, rather than saying, ‘Oh I look fat,’ and having a cascade of negative thoughts, what you do when that initial thought comes up is say, ‘Oh, well, that was a judgmental thought.’ You watch yourself think. You describe the kind of thought that you’re having and you do that without jumping into the thought itself.”

J.E.H. MacDonald, Stream in Algoma, 1918, National Gallery of Canada

Brotto uses the metaphor of sitting on the bank of your stream of thoughts. “You watch your thoughts go by without taking a step into the water. If you maintain that distance between you and your thought, you can learn to recognize them as thoughts not a statement of reality.” The hope is that some of the suffering, rumination and negativity will start to fade. But how?

Dr. Brotto’s counseling methods on mindfulness are based on a Buddhist psychological model that claims suffering takes place when we over-identify with our thoughts. “When we have thoughts, particularly negative ones, we take them as the absolute truth,” she says. “Because we have these thoughts, we automatically assume they are true. In mindfulness, you treat thoughts as just ‘mental events,’ something the brain produces in the same way that the liver produces bile.” Brotto says once we see thoughts as just thoughts, the emotional pull of them goes down and we ruminate less. “It is not the thoughts themselves that are destructive, it’s our emotional reactions to them and the behaviors that ensue.”

Women may obsess about their bodies, but they have this fundamental disconnect between the mind and the body when it comes to sex, says Brotto. And it can’t be broached by simply adding Kegel exercises to your workout routine. “Socially and culturally, women tend to multi-task more than men do,” she says. “We take on multiple roles as mother, caretaker and wife, full-time worker, friend and sister and that means gliding through different aspects of life without really being fully in the present in any of them.” To encourage her clients to get accustomed to being fully in the present, Brotto has them to examine something as tiny as a raisin. “Eating meditations are long and drawn out,” she smiles. They’re all about embracing and being inside an experience — like how the raisin feels between your fingers, then on your tongue and what the burst of sweetness tastes like when you bite into it. Hmm, could that explain why Julia Child, who, at 6’2” towered over her husband, had so much good sex through her 40s, 50s and 60s? Really what mindfulness is all about is getting used to noticing details about otherwise meaningless things, and savouring the memories of them.

Ren says she often encourages the women she counsels for sexual difficulties to recall an amazing sexual experience they’ve had. “I ask them to remember what they were thinking or feeling during that encounter and what they were doing and, rarely, do I hear, ‘Well, I was holding in my stomach really well and my hair was doing this.’ No way! They remember how good they felt.” Ren reminds them of that and then asks them to remind themselves how they felt the next time their inner critic threatens to take over their thoughts.

Conquering negative body image is something women have to achieve on their own. While their partners can support and listen to them — David says that being extra attentive and satisfying his partner sexually helps her to forget about her flaws — but, in the end, it’s a personal decision that women need to make about what their priorities are, says Ren. Similarly, Brotto believes there’s a lot that women can be doing by themselves, which is why she gives her clients mindful exercises to practice at home that don’t involve their mates (those come much later). Brotto’s mindfulness group sessions with the raisin are also “female only,” in part, because the husbands of her clients are happy with the way their wives look and are eager to have sex with them.

The big question women need to ask themselves is, do you want to look good or feel good? “I don’t know if you can do both of those things simultaneously without making some decisions about what’s important to you?” says Ren. “All I know is that this is the only body we’ll ever have, it’s the one shot we’ve got at having as much fun and doing as much good as possible with that body, so saying, ‘I’m going to wait until I lose 10 pounds before I grow a garden, love my grandchild, have great sex, write that book …’” is just crazy.

As Diane Lane, 46, that great natural beauty, once put it, “If you want to live you have to age,” so start living and loving.

 

 

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