Some Valentine’s Day musings on sex, love, and body image.
I have the pleasure of introducing a new guest author to you today!!
To “celebrate” (read: unpack) Valentine’s Day, today’s post is written by Leah Carey, who is a Sex and Intimacy coach and host of the podcast Good Girls Talk About Sex, as well as being a former body image coaching client of mine, and very dear friend.
I figured who better to tackle a sex-and-romance themed holiday than someone whose literal job it is to help people explore new avenues of their sexuality and fulfill their deepest desires, including around scary topics like first time queer experiences, consensual non-monogamy, and kink!
And Leah is not only today’s guest author, she’s also my guest on today’s fabulous podcast episode!! Leah has a unique and fascinating personal story about body image, nudity, sex and pleasure – so not only is she today’s guest author, she’s also today’s podcast guest!
So enjoy Leah’s article below, but also be sure to listen to today’s podcast episode to hear her share her unique and fascinating personal story about body image, nudity, sex and pleasure!! (You can listen here, watch on YouTube, or find it anywhere else you get your podcasts!)
Do You Really Have to “Love Yourself First”?
If you’re uncomfortable in your body, Valentine’s Day can be a challenge regardless of your relationship status. People who are single worry if their body will keep them from finding a mate; people who are having sex worry about finding the perfect angles to present their body to their lover(s); and people who are in a sexless relationship often believe that it’s their body that created the problem.
I’d already been thinking about this conundrum when I chatted with my friend Susan the other day. She’s been single for over a decade.
“I’m thinking about signing up for a dating app,” she said. “I just wish I could lose 50 pounds before putting up a picture.”
I bit my tongue, reminding myself that she was still in the venting stage of growth, not the solutions process.
“But then I remember that I have to love myself before anyone else can love me,” she continued.
My tongue was starting to bleed from how tightly I was holding it.
“So I guess I just have to start loving myself,” she said. “Then maybe I’ll finally find a man who loves me.”
That was my breaking point. I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer.
“I know this whole ‘nobody can love you until you love yourself’ message is everywhere,” I said. “But it’s bullshit. It’s not only untrue, it’s harmful.”
With that, I stepped up on my soapbox (with Susan’s permission.)
Here’s the gist of what I said to her:
From day one, our culture tells everyone – you, me, Susan – that they’re not good enough, not attractive enough, not smart enough. If you’re thin you need to eat a cheeseburger, but if you gain two pounds you need to go on a crash diet.
Then popular media tells us that we just have to love ourselves, as if it’s completely obvious how to do that. Well, it is obvious: buy that makeup to enhance your face, join this gym to tighten your tush, inject this toxin to eliminate wrinkles …
And then spiritual / religious / self-help leaders have the audacity to teach that if we don’t feel good enough, it’s because we’re not doing enough work to love ourselves properly.
I call bullshit.
Consider this: When we want our kids to learn math, we don’t just say, ‘Be good at math’ and send them out in the streets, expecting them to miraculously know how to do equations.
We teach them how to do math!
But nobody teaches us how to “love ourselves.”
How many of us had “loving ourselves” modeled appropriately when we were kids? Nobody I know. What I see is an entire society encouraging people to hate themselves, covered with a thin veneer of Hallmark-sounding clichés filled with toxic positivity.
I have battled body image issues since I was 11 years old, when my father told me that boys wouldn’t like me because I didn’t have pretty legs. He also told me that my legs would get prettier if I thought good enough thoughts.
My first failure was that there was something wrong with the way my body was constructed. My second failure was not “loving myself” enough to make it better. For decades I never let anyone see my legs, silently nursing a sense of shame and failure.
But how can you be a failure at something no one prepared you for?
Six years ago, I hired Jessi as a coach because I was convinced that my body was so hideous that no one could possibly ever love me.
It’s important to pause here and acknowledge that despite my internal monologue at that time, I have a perfectly average size 14 body. I shop in straight sizes, and as much as my body image may fluctuate on any given day, I move through the world with thin privilege. But before you get into your head and think, “Well sure, all this is fine for her, but she has no idea what my body looks like!” let me assure you that I’ve seen this same process play out with friends and clients of ALL sizes from able-to-count-their-ribs to infinifat bodies.
Prior to meeting Jessi, I’d already spent two-plus decades in and out of self-help workshops and therapy trying to learn to love myself, but all I ever heard were echoes of my father’s voice telling me I wasn’t good enough. So I decided to change tactics in this new coaching relationship.
I wouldn’t try to “believe” my way out of my situation. Instead, I would challenge myself to take action in direct opposition to my current beliefs. That began a year of putting myself in situations where people would be able to see my body. Not just the parts I deemed acceptable, but my WHOLE body. Nude. Legs and all.
I put myself on a program of the most extreme type of exposure therapy (heh, see what I did there?)
Side note: did you know there are places where people intentionally take off their clothing in groups? That was a mind-blower for me. If you’re interested, I’ll tell you more in a future email.
Every time I took off my clothes – whether in a group or with an individual lover – I waited for the comments to come:
Nobody wants to see that.
Put your clothes back on.
What I got instead was a whole lot of nothing.
No side eye.
No nasty comments.
Well, it’s not correct to say I got nothing. When I let myself be seen, it became clear that people saw me! And they liked what they saw.
In bedrooms and playrooms and workshop rooms around the country, I started hearing the same words from a wide variety of people over and over again:
“I love your ass.”
“Your breasts are amazing.”
“I can’t wait to grab your curves again next time I see you.”
People were luxuriating in exactly the things I’d learned to revile.
It felt good, but it sent up alarm bells that perhaps I was violating the proper progression of healing. I said to Jessi, “Isn’t it unreasonable for me to want someone else to give me what I can’t provide for myself?”
Jessi said, “For some people in some situations it’s empowering to hear that they can think better thoughts. But that won’t work if you don’t already have some connections built in your brain, which come from being mirrored as a child. Your father was so busy focusing on himself, he couldn’t mirror you appropriately.”
“That feels true,” I said.
“Because those synapses didn’t get created and strengthened in your brain, you’re missing some critical connections that should be telling you that it’s safe for you to belong in the world,” Jessi continued. “But it’s not too late, because adults are still capable of creating new neural pathways.”
The people in those rooms weren’t loving me because I already loved myself; they were showing me how to love myself. How to appreciate that the voices inside my head might be lying to me. How to see myself through their eyes, rather than my own.
In other words: nobody taught me how to do math when I was a kid. When I decided to learn math as an adult, instead of drilling me on math concepts, these people taught me by demonstrating what it looks like to do math. And it turns out I wasn’t too old to learn.
We’re allowed to get help in the process of “loving ourselves.”
Chances are good that you and I have never met, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that you are worthy of love, admiration, and intimacy right now. The size and shape of your body may change over time, but there will never be a moment when your body will be a hindrance to your lovability.
There are people who want to love you in the body you’re in, exactly the way you are today.
On Valentine’s Day and every other day of the year.
PS: If you want to hear the story behind how I can make that promise with full confidence, Jessi and I talk about it in today’s episode of “This Is (Not) About Your Body”.
PPS: I taught a class last weekend on how to navigate sex when you have difficulty with body image. You can grab the recording here!