Now for a vintage Dr. Jeana blog post from three years ago today! This post was originally published at MySexProfessor.com and I still struggle with body image, though in the intervening years, I’ve reached some peace with my body. How we feel about our bodies definitely impacts our sexuality, though, as scholars like Dr. Emily Nagoski have demonstrated, so I’m reposting this essay here, in the hopes that it gets others reflecting on this very important topic.
All human bodies go through some measure of change, because we all start as infants and, depending on factors such as life span and sex, go through a number of changes related to reproductive capacities, aging, and illness.
I wonder, however, whether contemporary Western culture, with its emphasis on conformity and fashion, forces us to pay more attention to our changing bodies. If the current trend is skin-tight-whatevers, gaining or losing five pounds would make a huge difference in what you can wear.
The capitalist and commercialist aspects of modern America also play a role in how we perceive our changing bodies. Try this weight-loss diet! Stick to this fitness regime! Check out this surgical technique, or that micro-derma-thingie cream! Low monthly payments and you’ll see results! We’re told that if we just pay enough, or try hard enough, we can change our bodies no matter what. We can still look beautiful or thin no matter how old we are or how we’ve lived.
Obviously that’s a load of crap, designed to make money and keep us as helpless consumers, always reliant on the next fad. It’s also very much a gendered phenomenon (thanks, Beauty Myth!) and it ties in with oppressive cultural phenomena such as fat-shaming and skin-lightening. But I’m beginning to wonder: at which point should we accept that we can’t change something about our bodies?
Having turned 30 this year means that the effects of aging are very much on my mind. I remember back to my senior year at Berkeley, when at least once a week I’d stay out dancing til 2am, get up after a few hours of sleep, run three miles, and then go to class. While rocking a 4.0 GPA, naturally.
These days, trying to sustain that much activity on that little sleep isn’t really feasible. And I wish it were, because I’m struggling with another life change: weight gain as my metabolism slows down. We’ve all heard of the dangers of the “freshman 15,” but no one warned me about the “dissertation 20.” Now that I’m done with that phase of my life (and with moving back from Estonia to the US, getting married, starting teaching, and moving yet again), I’m able to eat healthier and exercise more.
But still. I probably won’t get in shape again as quickly as I would’ve when I was younger. And I may not end up looking or feeling quite like I did in my early 20s (hey, I’d settle for mid-20s, that’s when I ran a marathon and was rock climbing and dancing like all the time!).
I feel like I should make my peace with the fact that some of the changes to my body are likely to be long-term just because of how aging affects the body, but how complacent should I be? I don’t want to let myself go simply because I’ve reached X age and there’s nothing to be done for it. However, I also don’t want to keep buying into our toxic culture that tells me to be my best, and that I can be even better if I try harder/pay more/starve myself.
It’s a difficult balance to achieve. On the one hand, I feel silly griping about gaining a little weight (though, the socially conditioned voice pipes up in my head, I have a small frame, so it shows quite a bit). And it’s not like I’m in bad shape; I can still dance all night, though I might be a little sore the next day. But on the other hand, why shouldn’t I try to be in the best shape possible? Why should I complacently accept these changes and lapse into mediocrity?
I’ve written about body acceptance before, and I suspect I’ll keep writing about it, in an effort to figure out and implement it. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this, because I’m still a ways from mastering how to deal with these life changes.