The confusion of a person’s physical appearance with their sexuality causes considerable pain for individuals and can seriously interrupt an intimate relationship with another. This confusion that one’s sexuality is conditional on one’s physical appearance is mirrored in certain expressed beliefs:
- ‘sexuality is only for the young and good-looking’
- ‘how would anyone want someone who looks like me with this kind of body’ (for example, small stature, small breasts, fat body, balding head)
- ‘I’m good-looking, so I’m sexy’
So many women’s and men’s sense of worthiness, sense of lovability, sense of attractiveness has become conditional on physical appearance. There is a covert belief that:
- ‘if you approve of my body, you approve of me’
- ‘if you are attracted to my body, you are attracted to me’
- ‘if you desire my body, you desire me’
- ‘if you criticise my body, you criticise me’
- ‘if you reject my body, you reject me’
- If you disapprove of my body, you disapprove of me’
The tie-up between how one looks and being sexual blocks that emergence of a mature expression and enjoyment of one’s sexuality because ‘how could I dare express myself sexually given how I look’. Of course, the sexual expression of a person who believes ‘I like my body because I’m slim and fit’ is also entrapped, because any falling short of having the ‘perfect’ body results in feeling sexually unattractive.
The fact that one’s body houses one’s sexual organs challenges us to separate out one from the other. We tend to do this quite well in the early years of children’s lives but, regrettably, from seven years upwards, the sexualising of children, especially girls, through how they look and are dressed is not at all uncommon. It is wonderful to dress in ways that enhance one’s own and a child’s unique body, but it is a different matter when this is done to look sexual. Arising from using the body as a means to look sexual many women have fixed social ideas of what is the ‘right’ female body:
- Firm full breasts
- Lovely skin
- Right hair
- Toned body
- Thin but not too thin
- No wrinkles
- Teeth perfect and white
- Right height: tall but not too tall
- Right clothes
- Right make-up
- Impression of being strong in their sexuality; that they are in control
Not surprisingly, from the above-listed social expectations, many women experience hopelessness, envy, anger, sadness, hiding their bodies, obsessed with ‘parts that are wrong’. These emotional reactions are manifested in such expressed concerns as:
- Shoulders too big
- Thighs too fat
- Legs too short
- Breasts not big enough
- Breasts too obvious
- Hair ‘too fine’, ‘too thick’
- Body ‘too thin’, ‘too big’
Media, films, magazines, television, advertisers, marketing people, clothes designers, perfume makers all contribute to promoting the ‘body beautiful’ and the cosmetic industry thrives on this social engineering.
Young people and adults and parents of young children need to ensure that they separate physical appearance from sexuality and sexual attractiveness. Sexuality is a given – part of our human nature, but so is physical attractiveness. One’s body is attractive in itself as a unique living presence. Women carry the confusion more than men, but there is an increase in men associating their physical appearance with their sexuality and sexual expression. Anorexia nervosa is significantly on the increase among young men and the cosmetic industry is honing in on the ‘body beautiful’ for men.
There are certain affirmations that adults need to make about their bodies:
I have a body, but I’m not my body.
I can see and feel my body and what can be seen is not my True Self
My body may be tired, not look well or may look well, may be slim or plump, small or tall, desired or not desired, but none of that has anything to do with my True Self, my inward I, the Self that is always perfect.
My body is not my Self; it is my vehicle for life and is always deserving of unconditional care and respect.
My body is attractive simply by being.
My attractiveness is a given.
Beauty is from the inside out.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist, author, national and international speaker. His book ‘Whose Life Are You Living’ is relevant to this article.