Monday, June 17, 2024

IN FOCUS : Parity in making love-How women can transcend body image concerns

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Making love is a lot more than having sex, which at best is just an intimate physical act between two people.Even among long-standing couples, the intimacy that they have can at times be inhibited by congenital or surgically induced bodily deformities or skewed perceptions of body image in one of the partners.

Exaggerated standards of physical beauty normalized by social media platforms are demanding from women a lot more than what they have as their natural endowments. So, with unattainable standards and unfounded body image concerns, many women end up as abused partners in the absence of professional help.The Pioneer’s Amartya Smaran looks at problems related to women with body image concerns, their level of sexual satisfaction, and the professional help that they can boldly seek to lead normal lives.

The International Society for Sexual Medicine conducted a survey in 2021 and concluded that more than 50% of women experience body image concerns during sexual activity. Most of those surveyed reported that those concerns came in the way of their sexual satisfaction. As per recent studies, body image issues can cause decreased sexual assertiveness and an increased likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviour.

Women face body image issues mainly due to so-called beauty standards established in society, constant media exposure, traumatic incidents, low self-esteem, and the habit of comparing oneself with others, among other factors.They often worry about not fitting in with conventional norms and feel left out as a result. This causes a lot of mental stress and feelings of insecurity among women, particularly the younger ones. It is only in the recent past that top fashion brands started promoting plus-size models. Now that women with different body sizes and shapes are also welcome in the fashion industry, people are more than willing to discuss issues related to body image.

Traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse or harassment can also impact a woman’s body image and self-esteem. Women with low self-esteem are more likely to struggle with body image issues. It is possible that those struggling with low self-esteem may view their bodies as a source of validation and self- worth.

The prominence being given to standards emanating from social media platforms has made it impossible for people to look beyond the ‘perfect’ Instagram models that pop up on our screens. The assiduously sculpted bodies and unnatural levels of fitness that we get to see on apps like Instagram and TikTok drive people to compare themselves with others, often resulting in feelings of worthlessness and dissatisfaction.

Comparisons are not limited to body types. Right from the food that we eat to the prospective partner, we are always comparing ourselves with something or the other or with someone or the other. Indian spiritual leader and philosopher JidduKrishnamurti once said, “The moment you compare yourself with others, you are already corrupt.” That statement, made several decades ago, rings louder than ever in this era.

Over 50 percent of girls aged between 9 years and 14 years desired to have a thinner shape, according to a 2016 study. At such a tender age where one is supposed to be full of life, these young girls are extremely worried about attaining a thinner waist size or shape.

Hormonal changes experienced during puberty or menopause might as well impact the body shape and size, which can lead to body image issues. According to a cross-sectional study performed in 2021 aiming to assess the relationship between body image and sexual function during the postmenopausal period, “Post menopause physiological changes may alter body image (BI) during the postmenopausal period of life. Body image dissatisfaction may have negative effects on the sexual function of women. Body image is effective on the sexual function of postmenopausal women. Therefore, body image is necessary to be considered in future postmenopausal health promotion programs.”

Another study with a national sample of 12,000 adults found that women are more likely to face the music of body dissatisfaction than men. The study further quoted, “Further research shows that the women who struggle with body dissatisfaction can develop psychological and emotional problems such as low self-esteem and depression and can also experience a decrease in sexual satisfaction.”

Kavita Panyam, a counselling psychologist,recalls she was shocked to see a young girl concerned with her teeth walk into her office. The young girl found it extremely bothersome to eat because people would make fun of her teeth.The expert told The Pioneer that women aged between 14 years and 40 years are the ones who experience body image issues. According to her, women who are aged above 40 years donot really care about what people have to say. “It’s like second innings for them,” said Kavita Panyam. “Therefore, they want to make the most of that time.”

The mental health professional feels that films, television, media, social media, and sometimes even the values taught by family members set false body image standards. “I had some people in my college who were getting married quite young. Even though they were not fat or anything, they had this body image issues like: ‘How am I going to go into the chamber on the first night?’.

One girl even said, “How am I going to show my body to him?” I said, “Won’t he also be doing the same thing?” She was like, “I don’t care about that, I am only thinking about myself,” recalls Kavita and continues, “These people are very orthodox in their mindset and not the way they dress. Obviously, if one goes out to swim, they won’t be wearing a saree, right? If you’re going that way and still have the mindset that how am I going to show my body to him? Somewhere, the double standard comes in from somebody in the family, teachers, or friends. It’s just not your family. It is also the films, TV, and social media that promote these perfect bodies.”

Sex is an intimate act between two people. Sleeping with someone is like saying, “I am all yours and I feel really safe in your company.” Unfortunately, most people donot understand the difference between having sex and making love! These are two different things. When we stand naked in our bedrooms in the arms of our partner, that’s the moment when we’re extremely vulnerable, both with our minds and bodies.

Kavita shares that women who come to her for counseling often complain about how insensitively they are treated in bed by their men. “There are so many women who come to me who are turned off against the man because they handle them so roughly with the mouth and hands. After that, it takes many days for the scratches to go away. I would say that this kind of treatment and handling of women by men has led to a decline in the sexual appetite of women. It is important to make your partner feel comfortable,” the psychologist observes.

Elaborating further, she mentions, “In the course of my professional life, I have seen a lot of men and women having a lot of trepidation towards approaching the chamber during their first night for different reasons. Men because they have to perform, and women are scared that they will be judged on their bodies. As per the size of breasts, women who are flat-chested find it very humiliating to disrobe in front of a man.

The nose, breasts, and abdomen are the three areas that trouble women. These are the areas in which they feel discouraged, insulted, humiliated and they have no self-esteem, and they can also be depressed. The thing is when you judge yourself, that inadvertently brings attention to your fears. Only when you pass on your fears, that is when others get to know about them.”

“The art of lovemaking is something which Indian men don’t know,” remarks Kavita. “When it comes to making love, it is the total mind, body, and soul connection. And 90% of the people are having sex and not making love. Then it would be like which part of your body is long, short, or flabby because you’re so conscious about how you look. When it comes to lovemaking, it is all about functioning with all your five senses and more.”

Stressing the need for forums that would enable men and women to discuss their fears, she comments: “It is very important for men and women to have these grooming classes where women know how to receive. Many men finish off and they donot wait for the woman to finish. That is the biggest turn-off for many women.

The woman is left high and dry. Many women donot even know that they can achieve an orgasm. They thought it was the end of the game the moment the man finishes. Later when they were taught how to masturbate, they felt cheated. They were like they didnot even know about it. There should be areas where men and women can safely discuss fears and their body image issues and reach an equilibrium.”

Ending on a strong note, urging families to help build a positive self-image in their kids, Kavita says, “A lot of grandparents and mothers have instilled a lot of fear in young women by pointing out their complexion, hair, teeth, body, etc. When you get married with the fear that somebody is doing you a favor by marrying you because you are ugly and horrible, can you ever have a good sex life? Generational dysfunctional parenting also plays a role. No one can shatter your image if people at home help you build a strong image.”

Quick-fix diets and hitting the gym to look perfect are issues that need to be discussed. According to a 2022 study (body image satisfaction and self-esteem among adult gym users and non-users) which was published in the Telangana Journal of Psychiatry, non-users indicated a higher level of dissatisfaction with body image and low self-esteem, whereas the gym user’s score indicated a higher level of satisfaction with body image and a higher level of self-esteem.

Abdul Sameer, a certified health and wellness fitness trainer shares: “70 percent of the women have PCOD (Polycystic Ovarian Disease) and PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome); hormonal imbalances caused by these conditions might also affect one’s sex life. An unhealthy lifestyle, work-related stress, mindless eating patterns or only having two meals a day to reach a specific target lead to a negative self-image.

Everyone has an image of how they want to look but they don’t work on it and because of that they start losing confidence and self-esteem. As a result, they build up the complex. Most women come to me with bigger goals. They want to lose 10-15 kg in one go. When I give them a program, they can’t cope with that. The best way to get over body image issues is to work on yourself and have realistic goals. If you are not happy with yourself, do whatever it takes to work on it.”

Many women fear penetrative sex due to past trauma, cultural/religious stigma, or lack of education on sexual health. Body image issues play a significant role in sexual anxiety as well, with many women feeling self-conscious about their bodies during sexual acts. This can lead to decreased sexual pleasure and a fear of being judged by a partner. To combat these fears, it is important for women to have open and honest communication with their partners and to seek out resources for therapy and education on sexual health. Embracing body positivity and self-love can also help alleviate insecurities and increase sexual confidence.

Swaroopa Gandhi, who has been treating women undergoing gynecological problems for over 30 years, shares her views on why some women fear penetrative sex and how one should go about treating their body image issues, “Vaginismus is a condition where contractions occur in the vaginal path due to the fear of the act of penetrative sex.

It needs some sedation or vaginal gels. In such cases, counseling is needed for both partners. If a woman had previously been in uncomfortable situations, that might also cause contractions. It is important for women and men to make each other comfortable. Most body image issues are psychological, and those issues must be treated with the help of mental health professionals. Not having any knowledge about the act of sex will also cause a lot of anxiety and fear. One must read on the topic and educate themselves.”

Another young counseling psychologist, Rashmi Aakodeshared with The Pioneer details of a chilling experience she encountered while she was interning at a cancer institute in Chennai: “I am a Counselling Psychologist by profession. While doing my master’s in Psychology I was interning at a cancer institute in Chennai. The first two days of the internship went by attending an orientation program on Psycho-Oncology and its spectrum. On the third day of the internship, I was posted in the female ward.

My supervisor asked me to meet some female patients who have been operated on for different cancerous conditions. There was a lady who was sitting on the bed, wearing a patient gown and looking with hopeless eyes. After seeing two patients when I walked up to her, I found her caretakers were sitting beside her and they were talking in Tamil. I could understand some Tamil. So, I picked up some words and tried to understand their conversation. Conversation with the lady who was worrying about her husband, the husband who hadnot come to see her since she was admitted to the hospital.”

She further shared how agonizing it was for the cancer patient to put up with her husband: “While talking with her caretaker who was her close relative, I got to know that it was her 2nd breast removal, having had the first one for the left side of breast cancer, 5 yrs back.

After the first removal of the breast, she was going through body image issues. Along with that, a very important thing was she started feeling inferior and incomplete in her love relationship. After her surgery, she noticed that her husband was not able to accept her body changes. In those 5 years what she felt in marriage life she was sharing.

When she heard that she again had cancer in her right breast, her first thought was suicide. Marriage was so important to her and making her husband happy was her priority in life, which was not getting fulfilled, she felt worthless having this life. She rarely remembers after her surgery husband accepted her with her body. She conceded: “Being under the same roof I am starved of his love,and he is a mirage”.

In our so-called cultural society, women are stillin the trap of body image. Being a woman, I could sense what she wasgoing through, the journey of being unloved to rejected made her feelhopeless. Three months into my internship I could see those worriedeyes, that spoke a lot about societal pressure, sympathy, and mental trauma. Despite doing everything that she had done to make her partner happy, he’d still say things like, “It is better to have sex with a man because I get no pleasure out of you. At least, I would get something there,” just because he was so blinded by his physical needs.”

“Why are women folk forced to conform to the so-called ideal body image, which is unrealistic, irrational, and unhealthy for society? Why don’t we see women in our society as ‘individuals’ first? Why do women have to bear the consequences of faulty and incorrect male perceptions?”, questions Rashmi.

It is embarrassing for a vast majority of women to openly discuss body image issues. However, seeking help from healthcare professionals will prove beneficial in the long run. Women must understand that sweeping issues under the carpet will do no good. Their actions will affect future generations if they donot do the right things. It is important to create a safe platform for the generations to come.

If women donot do that now, women empowerment will have no meaning for a large section of women. Only when women speak up, question, disrupt societal norms, and rise; things will begin to change! Of course, it will take a lot of individual and collective efforts. No contribution is small, and women must do what they can to shape a better future with or without the support of men raised in a society steeped in patriarchal norms.

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