While sexuality is not synonymous with physicality, clearly our bodies are the means by which we express sexuality in our behaviour. Our bodies are the means through which we experience pleasure. In particular, a person’s body houses his or her sexual organs that are associated with sexual functioning. As a result, how individuals see and treat their bodies has a powerful impact on how they hold and respond to their sexuality and their sexual needs. It is important then that in exploring sexuality and sexual activity that we first of all examine our relationship with our bodies.
Clearly, if I hate and reject my body, I feel ugly, unattractive, too thin, too small, too tall, too fat and I employ harsh or cynical or vulgar terms to describe my body and I treat it with disrespect or carelessness or punishment – then all of those responses rebound powerfully on how I hold my sexuality.
One of the earliest and frequent messages that individuals get is that their sense of sexuality is conditional on their physical appearance, for example:
- ‘sexuality is only for the young and good-looking’
- ‘how would anyone want to be sexual with someone who looks like me, with small breasts (woman) and puny chest (man)!’
- ‘I’m good-looking, so I’m sexy’
When the holding of my physicality is conditional it leads to a conditional holding of my sexuality. In other words, when I am rejecting and critical of my physical appearance or conditionally accepting of it (‘I like my body because I’m nice and slim’) then how can I express myself sexually in an open, free and spontaneous way through my body?
A key responsibility for adults is to learn to separate their physical appearance from their sexuality and sexual attractiveness. This is also a critical message for young people to witness being modelled by adults. For a long time – even though it is changing – this separation has been more prevalent in the case of males both by men and women. For instance, women ‘fall for’ men who would not be considered ‘handsome’ in conventional terms and they do not tend to get caught up in judgements of how these men ‘measure up’ in terms of physical appearance. In the case of men, men themselves tend not to confuse their sexuality with their physicality even though there are indications of change occurring in this regard with the increase in anorexia and bulimia among young males. But then, there were other conditions for men like power, wealth, status, achievements that became associated with their sexual image. Women, on the other hand, tend to measure their sexual attractiveness against some kind of outside criterion of ‘the body beautiful.’ For many women, their body image has become the most fundamental part of their self-image. For these women, from menstruation to menopause, their self-image will change as their bodies change, for better or worse, depending on how they perceives the reactions of others. This parallel can affect women all their lives:
- if a woman’s body is criticised, she is criticised
- if her body is treated as an object, she is an object
- if her body is exploitable, she is exploitable
- if her body is pleasing, she is pleasing
- if her body has no value, she has no value
Both men and, particularly, women need to reclaim their bodies and remind themselves:
‘My body is not my Self, but it is my vehicle for life and is always deserving of unconditional loving care and respect. Neither does how I look have anything to do with my sexuality and keeping that separation is essential to sexual fulfilment. My body is right in its own uniqueness; it is beautiful in its humanness. I want to honour and care for my body. I appreciate and honour my body for its pleasure-giving capacities.’
Actions always speak louder than words and it is in my daily treatment of my body that I demonstrate the degree to which I care for it. The following are examples of how we can show mature caring for our bodies:
saying it hurts when it does
saying no when you want to
enjoying closeness with another person
crying when you want to
attending to your gut reactions
jumping for joy occasionally
objecting to an offensive picture
asking for a foot massage
asking someone to move their fingers up and down just there
reading about your body
being mindful of what you put inside it
stretching it fully
assertively moving away from a conversation when women or men are being ridiculed
putting your feet up and asking for a cup of tea
looking in the mirror with loving regard
exercising for pleasure
Dr. Tony Humphreys practises as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology, including Whose Life Are You Living?