Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sexuality and Women's Body Image: Sizing Us Up

Every time I speak in front of a group of women, I’m taken by the beautiful diversity of their individual selves. Of course, there’s the hypnotic variety of skin tones, facial features and hair colors and textures, that testify to the infinite garden of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity that flavors the human condition. But there’s also, invariably, a breath-taking array of body sizes, and I’m always so pleased to see those women who wear their sizes, the largest to the smallest, with love and pride.

No matter our size, there’s a vital case to be made for maintaining a “healthful” body weight, whatever that might be, based upon a variety of factors like age, height, individual and family history and so on. And certainly, maintaining a healthy relationship with one’s "numbers" including those associated with blood pressure and blood glucose levels, both of which are tied to size and weight, can be absolutely essential to staying alive.

But as far as sheer appearance and sense of self are concerned, like so many of women in the US and elsewhere, I’ve scuffled with this weight thing for as long as I can remember, sometimes impatient with my family’s tendency towards being “pleasingly plump” as my beautiful and pleasingly plump Nana used to say.

But especially now, when January 1st’s resolutions to trim it all down have begun their inevitable wane, a smart young woman who’s close to my heart thought a post about sex and size - not penis size, mind you - might just be in order.

Of course, when it comes to the crossroads of weight and sexual desire, the topic’s of particular interest to those of us past menopause, since the older we get, what with flagging hormones and the loss of muscle mass, the harder it often seems to pare ourselves down.

Lots of women know the pain of it all, it seems, feeling that a larger girth makes them somehow less desirable, and then striving to “get down” as close as we possibly can to whatever size and weight we believe approximates perfection. And in a culture that conflates youth and thinness with desirability, it’s easy to imagine how large-bodied women, particularly older large-bodied women, might wind up feeling marginalized and overlooked. Ironically, it doesn’t take much to see how larger women can end up feeling less than their thinner counterparts.

But the actuality is quite different, of course, and markedly removed from the superficial perception.

Whether gay or straight, and regardless of our ages, there are huge numbers of fine, attractive, accomplished prospective partners out there who find large, "thick", queen-sized women irresistibly exciting, exquisitely sexy, wildly “hot” and endlessly appealing. Ask them and they’ll be more than happy to tell you. And just as any one of us might actively seek out the sort of lovers/ companions/sex partners with the attributes that we desire, prospective lovers of large-sized women actively seek them out and often prefer them over smaller women for some very compelling reasons.

For example, many lovers of larger women feel that big beautiful women, or BBWs, as they sometimes call themselves, provide a kind of physical grounding, or something tangible, soft and substantial to hold onto, especially during sex. Many of these men claim a singular fondness for “thick hips and thighs” since the presence of those attributes creates a particular, sought-after feel against men’s oftentimes harder, more angular bodies. Along those same lines, some men attest that vaginal intercourse with a woman who's amply endowed in the rear gives greater depth of penetration in sexual positions that have the man on top. It's analogous, they say, to putting a pillow under one's hips to allow the entire length of the penis a more complete entry. Only better.

And while stereotypes of large women might have one thinking otherwise, BBWs are often perceived by the men who desire them as being agile, extremely self-confident, and poised in a way that radiates an intense and highly seductive kind of outlaw sensuality.

Others say that large women are more authentic and more “grounded,” and that they’re far less likely to try and change a man, evidenced, at least in theory, by the assumption that they refuse to change themselves. Indeed, some men find larger women’s refusal to conform to a thin standard of beauty a site of intense arousal in itself. Laid out in the simplest of terms, we can surely see why: resistance is a form of power and power is a seductive, potent aphrodisiac.

From an evolutionary standpoint as well, the sexual attractiveness of large female bodies made perfect sense if the species was to survive; women with extra body mass were less in danger of starving to death. Their bodies were seen to be better able to withstand the demands of pregnancy without depleting the woman’s own energy reserves. Wide hips indicated that the owner was likely to be able to carry fetuses to term and give birth multiple times with a high rate of success. To the extent that much of this may be hardwired into human males via somatic, or “cell” memory, it’s easy to see why larger women have such a devoted, enthusiastic, and loyal fan base. Certainly, the statues of fertility goddesses unearthed in ancient ruins around the world make an undeniable case for the perception of large pendulous breasts, rounded abdomens and fleshy behinds as sexually arousing.

The same, of course, can be said for the famous work of the 17th century Flemish baroque painter Rubens, whose very buxom nudes embodied the standard for sexual attractiveness in their time.

All of this is contrary, however, to the persistent, dominant 21st century US narrative about female desirability, the tagline of which still privileges thinness and a prepubescent angularity that many women are happy to have long ago left behind. But as we move ever forward into a world that values diversity in all its delicious richness and endless manifestations, BBWs, large women, fluffy women as some like to call themselves, already know what their admirers know: Pleasure and desire come in every shape and size.

Have concerns about your weight ever affected your sense of being sexually attractive? Do you think body image issues are influenced by culture?

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

LGBTQI Civil Rights: A King's Legacy

It’s hard to believe, but as we prepare to celebrate another birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we’re still embroiled in the struggle for human rights in the US. This at a time when we’re on the cusp of the second inauguration of the nation’s first President of color.

In the spirit of Dr. King, many of us still actively work for the day when the infinite rainbow of human diversity is universally celebrated, cherished and protected, rather than resented or merely tolerated. After all, as folk who’ve heard me lecture know I’m fond of saying, one tolerates a headache and waits for it to go away. Our response to the richness of racial, cultural, gender and sexual orientation diversity needs to be way more positive, nurturing and celebratory than that!

As it turns out, many of us who walk in the benevolent shadow of Dr. King’s legacy are blissfully unaware of his vocal and adamant support of gay rights. Sadly, this blind spot is especially prevalent in communities of color located in the US and in much of the African diaspora. I’m not sure why that is; I am sure however, that the irony of this breaks my heart, since communities of color around the developed world know all too well how bigotry, hatred and a gross perversion of the word of God have wreaked havoc on generations of black families. If we doubt this, we need only remind ourselves of the destructive, vicious and pernicious use of the Bible’s chapter and verse to justify slavery, so much so that slaves were taught that to even wish for freedom was an insult to the very will of God.

The Reverend Dr. King knew this and never forgot it; his tireless, and ultimately fatal work fighting for the rights of all people included his vocal support of the LBGTQ community as well. Moreover, when the funeral of his widow, the late Coretta Scott King, was held at the church of a notoriously homophobic pastor, many of Dr. and Ms. King’s closest and oldest friends chose not to attend in protest, believing that the hosting pastor’s negative position on gay rights would’ve had caused the illustrious couple to roll in their graves. True to her memory and that of her martyred husband, the non-attendees held a separate, more inclusive memorial service instead.

Many of you know that I’m a cancer survivor. I thank the Universe every day for its benevolent care of my family and of me during the very difficult period of my surgery and convalescence; I'm grateful that it cares for me still. For those of us who battle illness and injury, who struggle within a health care system that works far better for some than others, we do well to remember that members of the LGBTQ community have particular challenges in accessing health care. For all practical purposes in way too many places, they’re routinely marginalized by the health care profession at large.

And whether those of us in the straight community are aware of it or not, there are particular health issues that impact the lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered population. For example, our lesbian sisters routinely face a higher risk for breast cancer than the over-all population due to their not taking birth control pills (the hormones of which help lower the risk of breast cancer) and low incidence of childbearing. As we know, women who bear children and breastfeed them have a significantly lower risk as well. Moreover, according to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report, lesbians have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, lipid abnormalities and glucose intolerance.

Equally worrisome, they can also experience higher rates of emotional and behavioral health concerns than straight and bi-sexual women due to the sheer burden and stress of living in homophobic cultures wherein hate crimes, discrimination and bullying against lesbians are still widespread features of society. LGBTQ people are also 40 to 60 percent more likely to smoke, a factor that’s also, at least in part, attributable to stress.

Add to this the fact that there are precious few health practitioners who’re trained and well-versed in the health care needs of folk who are members of the LGBTQ community. And as much as we hate to admit it, racism, sexism, and heterosexism, which is the myopic, narrow idea that EVERYONE oughta be straight, are as pervasive in the medical community as it they are in other segments of the population. 


For one thing, doctors, nurses, and everyone else in the medical field come from the general population at large, where stereotypes about race, class, gender and sexual orientation are still alive and well. Also, by their own admission, medical schools have done little to nothing when it comes to training future health care professionals in matters of diversity. In fact, one third of medical schools in the US admit that ZERO hours of LGBTQ content are taught in their programs.

Hopefully, at least, we’re moving towards the day when all medical practitioners, as well as the institutions that educate and hire them, will recognize the shortcomings of using a one-size-fits-all approach to patient care. Along those lines, health care providers are beginning to make efforts to be more responsive to the situational issues that disproportionately impact specific marginalized communities. Kudos to President Obama and the Affordable Health Care Act for funding specialized efforts to gather specific information on what needs fixing with respect to health care access for the LGBTQ community.

After all, and as hard as it is for some folk to accept, when it comes to sexual orientation, LGBTQ people are born the way they are, pure and simple, just as straight people are born the way they are, people of color are born the way they are, and so on. That’s why we use the term sexual orientation rather than sexual preference or choice. And as Dr. King so eloquently taught us in his view from “the mountain top” and throughout his life, when one of us is treated unfairly, we are all treated unfairly; when one of us suffers, so do we all.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Color and Sensuality: A Different Kind of Color-Struck

Back in the 70s, neither condoms nor dildoes came in so many pretty colors. Flavors, maybe. But colors? Not so much. But then, today and always, colors and their influence in the world we call home, continue their complex shaping of the way we live our lives.

What do I mean? Well, take for example, the movement to fight breast cancer. By now, most of us are familiar with the breast cancer prevention movement’s use of the color pink as a binding force for its fundraising and awareness campaigns, thanks to a savvy dedicated marketing effort that’s been highly successful. Pink ribbons, pink bras, pink accoutrements of every kind pervade our daily lives in the service of this very important cause. As a matter of fact, as I write this post, my favorite pink-over-stainless-steel drinking mug, embossed with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s pink ribbon, sits where I can reach it on the desk beside my keyboard. 

Long considered a color connoting the delicate, and some might say ineffectual, lady-like essence of frail femininity, in the fight against breast cancer, pink has morphed, almost before our eyes, into a color connoting power, solidarity, bravery in the face of the scariest of odds, and warrior-women’s hopes. And yes, in case you were wondering, there really are breast cancer themed pink glass dildoes!

In much the same way, activists in the battle against ovarian cancer, another killer of women, have claimed the color teal, which is a vibrant hybrid of blue and green, as their signifying hue. A stealthy disease that’s diagnosed in over 22,000 US women annually, ovarian cancer is often overlooked or misdiagnosed until it’s too late. In this sobering context, teal is an interesting choice; since according to many experts who study the psychosocial significances of color in our world, teal’s vibrant mix of bright blue and green denotes coolness and consistency, sensitivity, faith and trust.

So much for pink and teal, and we all know the connection between yellow as a color signifier and the longing for loved ones who are missing (remember the old Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’Round the Old Oak Tree?), and blue as a signifier of sadness and despair. Of course, if we had all day, the list might go on and on. And while we’re on the subject, we’d do well to remember that much of what we’re talking about is culturally situated. For example, a very dear friend of mine, now deceased, had stories aplenty about the spiritual meanings of the color blue in what she called her native Persia.    

But in the world of color significances, none are so rooted at the nexus of desire, sexuality and biological evolution as the color red. Of course, I’d venture that this comes as no real surprise to anyone. After all, most of us have at least heard of the fabled “red light districts” usually located in urban areas associated with prostitution. And what about the seductive allure of red lipstick and the rich, ripe promise of a well-developed strawberry?

Along those lines, a recent study out of the University of Rochester suggests that straight women who want to attract more sexual attention from prospective partners might start by wearing the color red.

According to the study by Andrew Elliot, Ph.D., there’s a correlation between the color red and men’s perception of the sexual attractiveness of women who wear it. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study suggests that men would also spend more time on a date with women who were in red. 

In the study’s protocol, about 150 heterosexual men rated photos of women framed in red, white, grey, green or blue, with the woman in the photo wearing a red or blue shirt. On a 7- point scale with 1 being the least sexy and 7 being a sizzling sex-goddess, the color red added about 1.25 points to the rating. Results of the study indicated that men were also more likely to say they wanted to have sex with women who were wearing red.

There are a number of theories that explain why the color red is considered so sexy. For example, the color is a widely accepted symbol of romance that’s associated with such cultural mainstays as hearts and Valentine’s Day. From a more bio-evolutionary perspective, though, some biologists believe it’s possible that human males have some segment deep in the brain that recognizes red as a mating symbol, since some primates still have body parts that turn red during ovulation, and back in the dawn of history, the bodies of women who could still get pregnant (and further a man’s gene pool) advertised that fact by bleeding red blood every 28 days. Further, there’s a school of anthropological thought suggesting that men prefer red lipstick for that same reason, even today. 

So... Red lips... Menstrual blood... The promise of fertility and many babies?... Really? 

Yes, really.

Interestingly enough, though, the presence of the color red doesn’t seem to affect men’s perception of a woman’s intelligence, likeability or personality, which some might argue are the qualities that make a person truly sexy, when everything's said and done. And of course, I’d like to know how my lesbian friends feel about this whole red thing as well.

An earlier post (see 11/12/12 Scented) talked about feelings of “invisibility” experienced by untold numbers of postmenopausal women who remain as vibrant, attractive and confident in their sexuality as they ever were, and yet notice a marked decrease in the level of attention they receive from prospective male partners the older they get. While the reasons and remedies concerning this phenomenon are complex, spicing up one’s wardrobe with a touch of red can’t hurt. 

Besides, as colors go, whether we’re talking condoms, dildoes, or dressing one’s self up for a night on the town, as a treat for the eye, an infusion of pure adrenalin for the soul, red’s awesome, pure and simple. 

Do you agree? How colorful is your approach to exploring your sexuality? 

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Body Changes in Menopause: Vita Nova

Vita Nova is Latin for new life. Kudos to my beautiful and brilliant 88 year old mom for that! She is not, however, pictured above.

As all of us embark upon a shiny new year, full of "vita nova," promise and reflection, and an optimism that often blooms in the shadow of residual fears, it seems natural to talk of new beginnings. And how timely, then, to talk about one of the most exciting new beginnings of all – menopause!

While myths and folklore abound, sometimes it’s a little tricky trying to actually pin down what we mean when we talk about menopause. Of course, all of us know the basics, right? It’s the time when one’s monthly period comes to a quiet end, and unless we enter menopause surgically, for example by having a hysterectomy, it’s a process that tends to take awhile, one that begins with natural, normal changes in our hormones. It’s a hugely important issue and one that women frequently say that they’d like to know more about.

So here’s the real deal. Technically speaking, menopause is the complete stopping of menstrual bleeding for one entire year. Although 52 is the average age at which women in the US experience this milestone, it can happen as early as the late 20s for some rare individuals, and more commonly between our 30s and our 60s. There’s also some evidence to show that there’s a hereditary link between the age of menopause within families, ditto - at least sometimes - for the kinds of other changes that may, but certainly don’t always, accompany it.

Most experts consider the period called perimenopause to be the 2 to 5 year interval prior to actual menopause, or the absolute end of one’s menstrual period. Many of the changes we associate with menopause begin to occur at this stage and often increase in strength and frequency.

Indulge me a word of extreme caution here. During perimenopause, when our periods can skip months at a time, and are often unpredictable in much the same way that they were when we were teens and first started to have them, it’s absolutely vital that we continue using a reliable form of birth control. Need proof? Remember back in the day, hearing the old ladies at church talking about Ms. So-and-So who’d just had a so-called “change of life baby?” Even now, it happens more frequently than we tend to be aware; we’re prematurely lulled into thinking we’re no longer fertile, often when we’re happily looking forward to  the quieter, less stressful pace of our approaching golden years.

So unless we’re okay with having a child later in life, which of course is perfectly fine if that’s a conscious choice, it’s wise to continue using some dependable form of birth control until we’re absolutely sure of where we stand. By the way, if we’re in doubt, a certain blood test can provide some sense of where we are in the overall process. Once we’re period-free for 12 consecutive months, we’re officially postmenopausal, or post-reproductive, and I leave it to you to decide which term you prefer.

Just as with most things in life, there are multiple truths to the menopause story. We’ve all heard of, and many of us have experience with, the infamous hot flashes, believed to be caused by extreme fluctuations in hormonal levels as our bodies work to establish a new equilibrium. There’s also such a thing as cold flashes that occur for the same reason, as well as changes in skin elasticity and altered sleep patterns.

Vaginal penetration can also become painful, presenting an additional challenge due to hormonal changes that cause vaginal dryness and thinning of the vaginal walls.

Of course, opting for oral sex or the liberal use of lubricants can usually address this. And certainly, many women try additional options like anal penetration, since anal walls do not thin out like vaginal ones do in response to our decreasing levels of estrogen. Of course, whenever anal play is in the mix, it’s crucial to remember that objects, including  mouths, toys, penises and the like -  can go from vagina to anus, but not the other way around without a thorough and vigorous sanitizing of said objects first.

But in contrast to the complexities, other menopause truths are hugely empowering. For thousands of years, in many cultures across the globe, postmenopausal women, or wise women, as they were often called, held powerful sway over their communities, outranking men, and menstruating women as sages, policy-makers, judges and the like.  But somewhere along the way in the circuitous course of herstory, the cultural narrative about menopause was negatively reframed by power-hungry patriarchies in ways that recast postmenopausal women as asexual, powerless, marginalized members of their societies. Worse, we began to believe it.

Contrary to myths and stereotypes about sexless, dried up, used-up old hags, untold numbers of women find that menopause itself is a significant, exhilarating and long-awaited milestone on the road to a new-found, unexpected freedom. It’s a time when unwanted pregnancy becomes a ghost of the past. Moreover, we know our bodies well by then; we know what pleases us as well as what doesn’t. We walk in the world differently then. There’s a grace and power in the carriage of our bodies, a self-confidence that’s only earned by paying one’s dues and through the passage of time. So long as we remember that safe sex practices are still the wisest choice at any age, it’s a time in our lives that can brim with a new spontaneous creativity as we begin to explore worlds untold, freedoms we only dreamed of, and delicious new desires “pregnant” with possibilities!

But enough for now; more on this amazing metamorphosis in later posts! Happy New Year!

What are your thoughts on menopause? How have have you or women in your life approached this important milestone?

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