First in a series of transcripts of selected conversations from the What Women Talk About When They Talk About Sex discussion groups that took place at Glasgow Women’s Library during spring and summer 2015 as part of our Sex in The Women’s Library Season supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Bodies and Sex
These extracts typify the wide ranging discussion on the body. They evoke many of the issues that have vexed feminism debates in the Second Wave on representation, body dysmorphia and the struggle for women to claim their bodies as their own and to navigate the ways they could perceive them as positive and having sexual agency.
I know my mum had kind of major issues with her own body so I grew up listening to a woman saying “don’t get fat like me”.
Kim: What is your favourite body part?
Claire: My own favourite is my clavicle. I know that’s a completely ridiculous thing to say but I’m not very keen on the rest of it and that’s the bit I can find the least offensive.
Nicola: I like my tattoos. I have a very bad relationship with my body, I have body dysmorphia, but these tattoos are things that I put there that I like and I have control over them – yeah I love them. When I see people with tattoos I always ‘yeah think that is really great that’s a thing that they chose’ and I really like that.
Laurie: I think the silence is reflecting a general dislike… I mean I don’t particularly dislike my body but I don’t have a part that I could put it up there to be a favourite part.
Margaret: I quite like my bum.
Laurie: Good for you
Kim: I think it’s brilliant that you can say that. I hope one day to say I love my bum.
Claire: There is clearly an element of discomfort just having to answer the question, and that’s a real shame because when you look around you see all these beautiful women.
It is such a tricky thing for many women to actually feel comfortable in their own skin enough to say that they feel comfortable, and an even bigger step to say there’s part of their body they love or have accepted fully. I have done a lot of my own work on that and it takes a long time, but the place that you are coming from seems so ingrained I can’t imagine being without a sense of my body loathing. I feel like I have always had it, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to be without.
Sarah: I think it comes from a really young age, and a lot of it comes from the women around you. I know my mum had major issues with her own body so I grew up listening to a women saying ‘don’t get fat like me’. I guess without even knowing it that stuff permeates.
Susannah: I was trying to think of which part of body I like and I’m looking at my foot because I am, I was a dancer, and I was ballet trained so my foot was very strong. It is this idea that if anyone attacks me, he will get a kick with my foot and I can visualise that and I keep looking at it and thinking ‘Yes!’
Nicola: Looking back, I can see a picture of myself when I was 18, 20. I could look at that picture and be like ‘oh my god look at me I was so lovely, I had look at my legs, I’ve got these long legs, really gorgeous’. And I remember when I was 18 looking at myself in the mirror and going ‘oh my god your legs are so disgusting, you’re gross’. And so now I don’t even know what I think because I can look in the mirror and have this horrible thought, and I think no matter what I look like I will still have this same negative thought. And my body has changed a lot since I was 18. Looking back I think it was perfect. And now I hate what I have now – what is going to happen when I am 50.
Sarah: My fears of all that stuff in high school were much more present than now, when I am in a community of people who look to accept lots of different people, so my perception of my own self has changed massively. I think the people you are with do effect how you feel about yourself. If you surround yourself with people who try their best to not to be judgemental then you live that as well. And if you think to yourself ‘would I be that hard on someone else? Probably not’ – so I will try not to be myself.
Claire: It is very easy for me to dissociate myself from my body. I walk about as a person without a body, and it has taken a lot of hard work to become an embodied female, and to express that femininity through a sense of embodied power. It’s hard, and I found it really difficult, but there is something very lovely about it at those moments when you achieve it. There is something very powerful about an embodied female who expresses their femininity and their sexual energy through the vessel that they have been given to carry it around in.
I have to say my body perception changes with my menstrual cycle, so if I am mid cycle I think I’m god’s gift and then I get to premenstrual and I hate myself. I think there is a cyclical nature to all of those things that is purely feminine. But it’s difficult to stay in your body if you are the kind of person who has a kind of negative body experience.
Kim: Totally identify with what you just said. I definitely think there should be some sort of warning label for changing room doors saying ‘if you are having a shit day don’t get naked in this mirror, it’s not going to go well’. Or there should be a helpline phone if you are crying in the mirror, don’t worry we will send someone running with like a cup of tea
Claire: I am quite intrigued to know how peoples’ perception of their body effects their sexual life.
Chidem: Well, life is short, and we have to enjoy everything, and I don’t think sex is better for others with the perfect body, if there is any. I don’t think Marilyn Monroe was more happy than us, she had lots of problems. She was very beautiful but also problems she had.
Kim: I think if I was thinner I would enjoy sex more. I have no idea, you know there is no basis for that or there is no evidence to back that up.
Sarah: I will read articles and think oh maybe if I was really flexible and I could get my feet behind my head that would be great, I would love sex so much more, maybe I will try that, and then realise that I can’t and then critique my own ability… I wish I had super strength or was extra flexible or was tiny tiny and someone could throw me against the wall or… that sounded much worse than I actually meant it to be-
Claire: I know where you’re coming from!
Sarah: You know where I am coming from!
Jay: Sounds excellent.
Sarah: Yeah those kind of things have concerned me more than how I look, but I think that is dependent on your partner as well. Because I say that now from a perspective of having sex in a monogamous relationship where there is a great deal of trust and of appreciation for one another as people, so I feel more body confident. Whereas I know previously I have censored my own sexual explorations because of fear of not looking like girls do in magazines or you know ‘if I have sex with this person it won’t be like porn’ – so the knowledge of that has censored what I want to try and what I want to do.
Kim: I think the sexiest I have ever felt was when I met my now husband and we started going out and he kept saying ‘you are so beautiful, you are so stunning’, you know and it was amazing, I felt so appreciated. And that’s different to what you were saying about the trust and closeness because we didn’t have that then – it was there but not the same depth. Whereas now, like if I was in a changing room having a terrible time then he would be much better now at cheering me up and that would be good. But it’s not the same as that newness because it is the vulnerability as well – I am literally bearing all to this person and they could reject that, and that’s really terrifying… but he likes it and it’s great.
Claire: I think it can be really different. I have been with my husband for nearly 20 years and not all of those years, as with anyone in a long term relationship, have been great. And I find it perfectly possible for me to entirely dissociate from my body when I’m having sex. So I can have sex and have an orgasm and have a nice time whilst I am somewhere else. I’m not suggesting that’s what you want to do but I am aware that I am able to do it and that’s at the times when I’m really not feeling great about myself.
The flip side of that is when you can stay embodied it is a completely different experience. You know one is almost like a physical release as opposed to a connection with somebody else. I much prefer when you are truly embodied and it is a really amazing experience – you know, life-changing universe opening type experience. But to have those kind of experiences you really have to be able to totally surrender and let go – I don’t mean surrender to your partner, I mean surrender to yourself and let go. And I don’t know how you do that if you can’t be at peace with your body. And I think a lot of women do miss out on that real sense of, I don’t want to say spiritual sex, that sounds a bit wanky, but sex as a spiritual experience. I can’t imagine how you could do that if you are living with a real sense of self loathing.
Susannah: I agree with that. To me that happens when I feel connected to my own body – not necessarily liking it more. But then it all works much better.