The complications of getting naked when gravity starts to take it’s toll. Read an exclusive extract from Bettina Arndt’s new book ‘What Men Want’ right here.
What Men Want. There’s a funny scene in Meryl Streep’s new movie, It’s Complicated, where Streep, playing Jane, a 60-year-old divorcee, is recovering from a very vigorous romp with her ex-husband, Jake. She asks Jake to look away while she backs out of bed with a pillow clutched to her bottom half and races to put on a dressing gown. As she explains to him: ‘The last time you saw me naked, I was in my forties. Things look different lying down’.
It is a wonderful portrayal of a typically self-conscious woman who managed her various nude scenes with sheets always clutched up to her shoulders. But Jake, played by Alec Baldwin, is a paunchy tub of a man who cheerfully struts around naked, patting his ample belly with some pride. His best scene has him creeping into Jane’s bedroom, stripping off to await her lying proudly on her bed, buck naked.
It never occurs to Jake that she might not find his new bulk attractive, yet Jane can’t rid herself of the fear that he will be repulsed by her ageing body. It’s a neat take on an eternal dilemma, one that causes endless strife in the bedrooms of ordinary men and women. Men hanker to see their lovers’ bodies—for them the visual feast is very much part of the total experience. Yet women are so often crippled by self-consciousness that they cannot bring themselves to let their lovers enjoy that treat. It was a subject that aroused much passion from my diarists:
‘When a woman undresses in front of a man, she feels insecure, he feels only gratitude.’ These heartfelt words were written by Oliver (44), now estranged from his wife, who spells out clearly the frustrations of living with a self-conscious woman.
My (estranged) wife is a very attractive woman. Pretty, perhaps even beautiful, (she certainly was when younger). Sadly due to the fact that she is (only slightly) overweight, she has always had a very poor body image and been very uncomfortable about being naked, especially early in our relationship.
When she was naked she was aware of the fact that her DD or E cup breasts meant her nipples weren’t pointing towards the ceiling like some 19 year old anorexic, and her soft tummy. Yet I saw big delectable breasts which were divine and exciting to touch, a bottom that was wonderful to hold and a tummy which was warm, welcoming and delightful to press against or lie my head on at rest. I was totally in awe of her body and found it very erotic to look at,’
He writes explaining his delight in catching glimpses of her breasts or uncovered body as she slept. But his wife always saw her own body as less than desirable and she also ‘found my arousal in looking at her body as prurient and disgusting … I often used to tell her how beautiful she was, how sexy she was, how perfect I found her, but she never really enjoyed me looking at her. Of course this was a tension point. Finally I gave up’, he writes sadly.
The evidence of women’s almighty struggle to accept their own bodies is overwhelming. Seemingly every week, new research studies and surveys are published showing just how much women hate what they see when they look in the mirror.
‘Women are up to 10 times more likely than men to be unhappy with their body image’, trumpets the BBC news.[i]
‘Women are obsessed by their bodies and even many of normal weight wish they were slimmer’, reports a women’s magazine survey.[ii]
Over half of Australian high-school girls have tried to lose weight and less than a quarter of young women are satisfied with their weight, concludes a Victorian government health report.[iii]
And that’s precisely what the diaries showed: women poured out their hatred for their fat bottoms, bulging thighs, breasts large and small, cellulite, all manner of apparent imperfections while men wrote page after page about their frustration at their partners’ constant efforts to keep everything out of sight, delicious curves forever hidden by clutched bedsheets, tightly tucked towels and closed doors.
Many men give up trying to look, disappointed at being denied the sight of their lovers’ body in all its naked glory. What women find so hard to understand is that this doesn’t mean perfection. My male diarists make it very clear they are not interested in perfect bodies. Here’s James (50), happily married to Sophie but craving more access to the sight of what he sees as her lovely body.
She has the tummy of a woman in her 40s that has had a few children but I don’t mind that at all. She has the beginnings of varicose veins, her neck is a bit saggy, her bum is flat and so on. She had a breast job last year and they look great but she is unhappy with the scars and the placement of her nipples which are a bit too high. None of that matters to me. The unfortunate thing for me is that she can’t seem to enjoy my attentions and she usually wants the lights out during sex.
I tell her all the time how beautiful she is and how much I love to look at her—I really enjoy watching her moisturize her skin every morning but she rarely lets me look at her in a sexual way. Sophie is actually comfortable with her nudity when we are just in a normal domestic situation such as showering for work but when it comes to making love, she wants the lights out and finds my personal gaze ‘too intense’.
Men’s hungry eyes. How rare it is that women value that intense gaze. So few women manage to put aside insecurities about lumps and bumps and sagging bits to revel in the intensity of men’s appreciation of their bodies. Like most women, I have spent much of my adult life struggling to come to terms with my body image. Recently I came across an article I wrote over thirty years ago about yearning for ‘bare body comfort’—a state that continued to allude me. I was then recently widowed and credited the few crumbs of confidence I had managed to acquire to my marriage to a man whom thought I was great, all over.
‘After seven years of living with someone who ogles and adores whether you are fat or thin, hairy or hungover, you start to believe in yourself’, I wrote.
You learn to look into a mirror and even if you don’t like what you see, you are able usually to focus on the good things and ignore the bad. There are days when the huge thighs still leap out at you and stretch marks leap out like neon signs. But you cope. It was a good gift my husband gave me with his blind devotion and I guard it.
That was in 1986. I was thirty-seven. Yet even then I reported finding myself flinching at the first touch of a male hand on my meagre breasts, consoling myself that ‘if nothing else (and ‘nothing’ being the operative word) he would still encounter my playful nipples, which loving men taught me to appreciate and enjoy.’
Now I am single again, over twenty years later and there’s the added burden of being a 60-year-old woman. Most women of a certain age see disrobing for strangers as one of life’s true horrors. For mature women who find themselves on their own, any longing for a bit of loving comes tempered by fear. The fear of male revulsion. A totally irrational conviction that he will take one look and run screaming from the room.
Our fears are fuelled by the fact that we are all too aware that, in public, the male gaze has moved on. ‘You realize that all your life you have screened women out. Too tall, too short, too thin, ill dressed. And of course, too mature’, wrote Charles Simmons in a men’s column in The New York Times. He went on: ‘The grey hair, the dowager’s hump, the stringy arms, you didn’t have to look actually, not to be interested. A hint in the eye’s corner kept the eye moving for the fresh face, the springy hair, the youthful waist between firm hips and bust’.[iv]
‘That old women are repulsive is one of the most profound esthetic and erotic feelings in our culture’, notes Susan Sontag in an essay on the double standards in ageing. ‘Aging in women is a process of becoming obscene sexually, for the flabby bosom, wrinkled neck, spotted hands, thinning white hair, waistless torso and veined legs of an old woman are felt to be obscene.’[v]
Older women know all too well the universal male leer now passes them by. That invisibility sends feminists into a lather. Take Germaine Greer. Our Germaine once adorned the cover of Life magazine, with pink lipstick, shaggy chestnut hair, clinging knit dress, and a handsome young man in her lap. ‘Saucy feminist that even men like!’ was the cover line.[vi] Thirty years later, we find Germaine grumbling in her book on menopause, The Change, about being ignored. She had not realised how much she depended upon her physical presence, at shop counters, at the garage, on the bus. For the first time in her life she finds she has to raise her voice or wait endlessly while other people push in front of her, she writes.
Yes, it’s true. Youth does attract the lustful male eye and brings more than its fair share of attention. But we often forget that’s got nothing to do with what men really want or expect when it comes to wedding and bedding women. In real life, as distinct from checking out the passing parade, most men aren’t so fussy. They still enjoy looking at, touching, making love to female flesh, even when it is distinctly wrinkled and nothing like the shape it used to be.
Of course, it is not just older women who struggle with this issue. Here’s Grace, aged thirty-five, who is reluctant to have sex because her weight gain makes her so self-conscious.
The last few months I just haven’t felt like it at all. I still love him and find him extremely sexy but my opinion of myself is pretty low at the moment, I have gained a lot of weight in the time that we have been together. I know he loves me regardless of my weight and I know he would still find me sexy and want to have sex with me even if I was the size of a whale but I disgust myself at the moment. I HATE seeing photos of myself and the thought of seeing anything below my neck when I look in the mirror is very distressing. I am trying hard to lose weight at the moment and I’m really hoping it works. My husband is a gorgeous, sexual man and I want to be a gorgeous sexual woman again for him.
Women who are uncomfortable with their own bodies are less likely to enjoy sex, according to research by Angela Weaver and colleagues from the University of New Brunswick in Canada. And this applies even to women with normal weight. Women with greater body dissatisfaction generally reported more sexual anxiety and sexual problems, lower sexual esteem and sexual assertiveness than women with a more positive body image.[vii] Similarly psychologists from the University of South Florida found that women who are more physically self-conscious feel less emotional engagement during sex.[viii]
There’s also research showing that women who rate themselves as less attractive at midlife were more likely to report a decline in sexual desire or frequency of sexual activity. ‘Uniformly, the more a woman perceived herself as less attractive, the more likely she was to report a decline in sexual response or activity over the past 10 years. … Conversely, the more a woman perceived herself as attractive, the more likely she was to experience an increase in sexual desire, orgasm, enjoyment or frequency of sexual activity’, write Patricia Barthalow Koch and colleagues from Penn State University.[ix]
Columbia university psychologist Michael Wiederman showed that even with college students, young women in their late teens and early twenties, self-consciousness about their bodies got in the way of good sex.[x] One-third of the college students said they were self-conscious about their bodies, at least some of the time. The problem is very real and, for many women, stops them from fully relaxing during lovemaking for most of their lives.
Nancy Friday is one of the few writers on this subject to understand men’s feelings on this issue. ‘Men are hungry … Men’s eyes eat us up’, she writes in The Power of Beauty, talking about women’s ambivalence about that hungry gaze. ‘When their stare is longer than a compliment, we hate them. How much looking constitutes a compliment? That decision has always been women’s. When does a look of appreciation become a rude stare?’ she asks, suggesting that a man’s eyes may have been drawn to the pretty woman as innocently as a passer-by stares at pastries in a window, his thoughts on the business meeting to which he is heading.[xi]
Men’s eyes are born with a taste for the female body, Friday explains. She seems to be right and there’s now neurophysiological evidence to prove it. Psychology professor Stephan Hamann and colleagues from the University of Emory in Atlanta, Georgia, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show greater activation of the amygdala and hypothalamus to visual sexual stimuli in men than in women.[xii]
Often men are forced to look outside their relationship to feed those hungry eyes, says Friday: ‘Rejected by women who hate their own bodies and so can’t allow others to feast, men go to prostitutes, look at naked women in magazines and release the longing and anger, which, it should be noted, is more often turned against themselves’.[xiii]
Even women who know how important it is to their men, find themselves self-conscious and uncomfortable in the face of those eager male eyes eating them up. Here’s Zoe. She knows her husband loves looking at her, knows he prefers her naked, but also knows she will relax more if she covers up, just a little.
My husband thinks it’s more of a turn off if a woman carries on about her weight and gets all silly about being naked. So I never mention my weight, I don’t ever ask if I have cellulite, or if I’ve lost a few kilos. Why ask when you already know the answer? He’s only going to lie anyway so why all the bullshit? It’s nice for both partners to forgo the pressure and work around it, for instance like wearing a sexy slip and not having too many hang ups. Men hate it when women have too many hang ups.
She gets the message—but still struggles to relax enough to be totally comfortable naked, as her husband Leo laments.
My wife does have hang-ups about being nude in front of me, whereas I enjoy seeing her naked. She is 38 and had 2 kids, which does change a woman’s body. But she has a good body, petite, perky breasts. My favourite female body part is her bum—my wife has a peachy bum, which I love. She is not athletic, doesn’t do sport or jog, does some exercise on an exercise bike, but keeps herself active with housework and is lucky she has the body she has, I think.
We both don’t like bright lights for sex—soft lights are much better and my wife relaxes much more. She hates to not have the bedsheets over her. I have to insist and take them off. And she often comes to be so covered up in layers of clothes it is quite ridiculous. She sometimes puts on a black slip. Now I’d prefer to take it completely off, but she is worried about her tummy, so I loosen her shoulder straps and lift up the lower bit so the slip kind of covers her tummy. She is more comfortable with this. I would be happy if she was completely naked but if she is not comfortable then our sex will not be as good as it can be.
Many men try hard to reassure, to cater to women’s self-consciousness. Laura (34) writes in her diary how she tries not to drag her lover into her ‘toxicity about her body’. She’s aware he finds her attractive:
I know he loves my body and I must accept that, and in turn that my body image is mine alone. Sometimes when we are having sex I will worry that my tummy or bum look large or repulsive to him, but he has never indicated that to me so I leave it alone.
Repulsive? Hardly. Just listen to Andrew enthusing about her body:
I know she worries that I think she’s fat but I never have. Often when she gets up she’ll walk around to the foot of the bed and stretch and I love it when she does, she looks so stunning with her blonde hair falling, her back arched and breasts just crying out to be touched—it’s the most intimate and erotic pose I think I have ever experienced. I love looking at her and touching her, I love the fact that once she gets over her consciousness she enjoys her body and that is such a turn on for me. Laura has wonderful breasts, I know that she thinks that I love all breasts and that she struggles to believe me when I say how much I like them but I get real pleasure from looking at them, feeling them and playing with them. I know that the term ‘shapely’ is often a euphemism for fat but I have never understood that. Laura is shapely, she has curves and substance, her body is beautiful and extremely attractive to me.
When Laura is having a ‘fat’ or ‘low body image’ day she is self-conscious when she is naked. How she feels on a particular day about her body determines how she behaves in bed:
When I am feeling better about myself I am more inclined to show myself in some way with him. For example if he is pleasuring me, I am happy to lift my legs right up so I move my vagina closer to his mouth. I know that sometimes when I feel fat I still do it, but am aware that my tummy is apparent in that position.
Laura is grateful that the way Andrew responds to her is helping her become more comfortable:
Something I really appreciate about Andrew is that he insists (in his completely undemanding way) that I sleep naked with him. I make the effort and always sleep naked when he is in my bed. At times it is with reluctance that I do it—depending on my mood—but invariably, when I am naked with him, the feeling of our naked bodies close to each other is beautiful.
She records in her diary a discussion she had with her lover about her insecurities regarding her body, including her delight at his lovely answer: ‘I don’t airbrush you when I look at you. I SEE you’, he told her. Here’s Andrew talking about his efforts to reassure her:
I don’t have some fantasy in my head about the way she looks. I see her and enjoy what I see. I know that she would like to lose weight and I support her in that but not for myself, not because I want her to be anything other than what she is which is beautiful.
His reassurance makes a difference, makes some dent in her insecurity.
I thought that was great because even though we have been seeing each other naked for a year now, I wonder if he will notice some new, horrible part of me. It allowed me to relax into the fact that he knows my body, seen it all in daylight, and still returns for more.
It is inspiring to find other women wrestling with their demons and coming out on top. There’s an intriguing blog—The 52 Seductions—currently being written by a British writer called Betty who came up with the idea of taking turns with her husband Herbert, to plan fifty-two seductions, one a week for a year. When she started the diary tracking their new plan, she wrote:
Our real issue is the limitedness of our sexual palette. The same sex, over and over again, is just pointless, no matter how good it is. Herbert and I adore each other, get on like a house on fire and are extremely, smugly happy, but the fireworks ceased in the bedroom long ago. In their place, we have developed something resembling embarrassment.[xiv]
Since then, things have started to change. ‘Three times this week, Herbert has slapped me hard on the behind, once while we were having sex’, a surprised Betty reported. Another time he tied her up with a dressing-gown cord, a paisley scarf over her eyes and did delightful things to her body. She tried getting it on very early, before work, but he kept falling asleep. He then proposed a role play—he a shy man with a foot fetish, she a woman with a ‘spiritual bent’. The results make very amusing reading.
But then came the time when he proposed a mirror at the end of the bed. Here’s Betty’s reaction[xv]:
A few months ago, I would have said, ‘Oh my GOD, NO! I am ABSOLUTELY not being SUBJECTED to watching my HIDEOUS body BOUNCE AROUND. Again, NO!’
I think many women reading this blog sympathise with me. Every time I look at myself naked—I mean, properly look at myself, not just a passing glance—I experience a minor form of trauma, flashbacks included.
However, I will say this: since the seductions started, I have noticed something of a truce being called between me and my body. For the first time in a long while, I’ve realised that I’m desirable in Herbert’s eyes, and, although it shouldn’t, that’s given me a huge boost.
Sex is all about strut, isn’t it? It’s about throwing yourself wholeheartedly into that alter-ego that we all possess, the wicked, alive, carefree one. And beauty is nothing but sex disguised. The people we desire are beautiful. Therefore, by pulling off that sexual strut better than I have in a long time, I can feel a lot more beautiful.
It didn’t stop me from taking off my contact lenses before we started, of course. But watching our blurry movements in the mirror reminded me how much men like watching what’s happening during sex. Personally, I mostly have my eyes closed, in a world of my own, but H likes to see, literally, the ins and outs.
It also reminded me of one other occasion, when I was about 19, and H moved me in front of a mirror while he entered me from behind. ‘There,’ he said, ‘see how beautiful you are when you’re turned on.’
That time, I did watch.
The struggle that Betty so amusingly reports is so typical. And that makes it all the more thrilling to occasionally find a woman who totally accepts the way she looks—and expects her lovers to appreciate what she has to offer.
Nudity has never been an issue for me. My feelings about nudity have never changed. When I was growing up my parents always walked from the bathroom to their bedroom naked (in those days houses only had one bathroom), my father slept naked, as do I. This healthy attitude of acceptance of the human body has shaped my attitude as a grown woman.
This is Alice (52), a single woman with a very high libido and active sex life, despite taking medication for a health problem that has resulted in significant weight gain. She is currently a size 20, despite being a fitness junkie. ‘I swim at least three times a week, go to yoga once a week, ride my bike to work and walk the dog. My body is very toned despite its size.’
And the men in her life—to date thirty-nine lovers in all—aren’t complaining at all about her voluptuous figure.
If men have a negative response to my body they are polite enough to keep their feelings to themselves. If I have sex with a man once and he does not try for a return visit I have no idea if this is because of my body size or my high libido or because that man just enjoys the chase and conquest of a one night stand. I suspect my high libido is actually off putting. This has been cited to me as a reason for ending a relationship several times when it has only gone on for 2–3 weeks. Men do comment that they enjoy my breast size (18DD) and voluptuous figure as ‘there’s more to hold onto’. The lovers that have stuck around all say it is my intellect that they enjoy interacting with! If a man cannot spar with words as part of his flirting repertoire then he has no chance of being invited into my bed. Sexuality and sexual attraction always begins with the mind.
Alice reports no difficulty finding men keen to bed her. She mostly finds herself with men in roughly her age group, later forties to mid-fifties, and points out that in this age group, it is a rare man who is in great shape. ‘By this age most men, at minimum have a bit of a tummy, so I do not feel inhibited at all with the stretch marks on my breasts or full voluptuous post menopausal figure.’
That’s the funny thing, of course. Most women tear themselves apart over their own imperfections while bedding men who’d have no hope of making it into a male centrefold. What is quite extraordinary to women is many men’s lack of self-consciousness, the fact that men with bulging tummies, man boobs and all manner of unsightly body flaws still strut around totally naked and unfazed. Here’s Eloise (42):
I realise too that most of the men in my life have always been comfortable stripping off completely in any lighting conditions. I admire that confidence. I am both amused and bemused by this. They often don’t look their best under bright lights. I see the details and it doesn’t do anything to turn me on. I guess I see the details of sores, pubes, pimples, wrinkles, imperfections etc more than I see the overall form.
She mentions a former partner who would strip off on his side of the bed then walk right over to her to turn the bright down-lights off. Not a pretty sight, as she makes clear:
My last vision before he hopped into bed in the darkness was of his naked body in all its glory—his cock drooping, his saggy hairy ball bag, his slightly hairy butt cheeks, his tummy protruding a little from too much wine, his hunched shoulders, his gradually balding head, his less than large biceps, his average back musculature etc.
Similarly Phoebe (59) comments that the sight of her husband, Lewis, unclothed, doesn’t exactly turn her on. Here’s a comment from her diary:
I almost always go to bed first so I don’t see him then. When he gets up in the night or morning to go to the toilet, it’s not a pretty sight. He has a large overhanging stomach, a red rash on his buttocks and legs and his penis and balls dangling. If I looked like that I would never walk around naked.
A few days later they were having a row which meant they had no sex. Phoebe’s diary ended with the pithy comment: ‘I didn’t see his naked body yesterday or today and that is a great blessing’.
There are many women who seem to agree with Eloise’s conclusion that she would like to see a little less of her men ‘to keep the illusion of ideal physicality and sexiness alive’. Her view is that ‘men could do with caring more about the subtlety of nakedness. Sometimes bright lights are uncomplimentary for them too but it’s like they don’t care. I like my man’s body to look pretty good and it will always look better in a dimmer rather than brighter light’.
Of course, there are men who are also self-conscious about their bodies. There’s Irish research showing a relationship between men’s body image and their sexual esteem and sexual anxiety. Thirty-eight per cent of the participants said they are concerned during sexual activity about how their body looks to a partner and 35 per cent worried about the muscularity of their bodies when a partner sees them nude. Men who were dissatisfied with their bodies did report self -consciousness during sex.[xvi] Other research showed this leads to negative feelings about their ability as sexual partners.[xvii]
Some of my diarists did demonstrate these anxieties, but not unexpectedly, many of their concerns focussed on a specific part of their anatomy: Here’s Oliver:
My body shows years of sedentary lifestyle. I was skinny at 21, fat at 42. And yes, I am EXTREMELY self conscious undressing in front of strangers. Even semi unclad in places such as swimming, dressing rooms etc. And of course like the majority of men I live with the deep seated belief that my penis is laughably small (even though it is quite average according to both statistics and my partners—why do I feel the need to even clarify that?)
I’m in pretty good shape for my age (45), slim and muscular upper body, I do push ups and jog 2 or 3 times a week. I have no hang-ups at all about being naked around my wife, as long as it is not too cold—shrinkage!! Actually, on this, it amazes me how the penis can change size—sometimes on a cold morning, the penis can withdraw into the body and look quite small. Also, if I am nervous or tense for some reason, my penis shrinks into the body. I always check to see how my penis looks if my wife is around as I don’t want her to see it like that! Other times, the penis hangs down quite far—it could be because I need to have a pee or I may have just had an erection in my sleep and when I have got up it is still semi-erect. I am happy to strut around naked in our bedroom when it looks like that. But this is the only hang up I have about being naked in front of my wife. I would die being naked in public, this would make me really nervous and I know my penis would withdraw into my body liked a frightened turtle, to use a line from Seinfeld.
So there are men who take care to present their bodies in the best possible light, just as many women do. But it is striking how insensitive some men can be to women’s concerns in this area. Eloise is a woman who generally likes the way she looks—‘My body can look fantastic but not always’—she’s happy to flaunt her wares, provided she is showing them to the best advantage. Where she comes into conflict with that demanding male gaze is when men demand access, whether or not she is comfortable. ‘I will undress in front of my partner but not on demand and when I’m being made a spectacle of. I like it when we are both undressing each other at the same time. I don’t like being scrutinised it makes me feel very uncomfortable.’
She mentions one former lover who used to make her squirm
Whenever I undressed he wouldn’t let me do it without watching, ‘Hey! Don’t you dare start the show without me’. Initially, I went with it and tried to play with the notion of stripping, but he was serious. He also rarely let me shower without watching. ‘Hey! Don’t deprive me of the wet show!’ I think I might have a bit of a hang up from that. Undressing and showering now are very private spaces and it takes a bit longer for me to trust someone when they want me to ‘strip’ for them as such. I much prefer to undress together.
And here’s Phoebe complaining about a similar demand:
I’ve been thinking that I am often surprised by the number of occasions Lewis wants to see my body. Today he wanted me to expose my nipples to him when we were driving in the car. He often asks for this but I don’t feel comfortable about doing that and I usually refuse. He gets very annoyed and says I always say no to him.
The way some men approach their women is part of the problem. Given most women’s discomfort in exposing their bodies, they need to feel comfortable, to trust their men before moving in this direction. I have a friend who jokes her partner first went to bed with a head. He was the first man she had sex with after the traumatic break-up of her marriage. She was then a pretty normal forty year old, ‘complete with stretch marks, sagging skin, floppy boobs’. Even though the lights were low, she kept the blankets firmly clutched neck-high. ‘All that was visible was a head’, she laughs, admitting it has taken nine years in her current loving relationship, and a very special mood, for her to trust her partner enough to even occasionally feel comfortable naked with him. Bullying and making demands is no way to earn that trust.
Eloise also raises an interesting issue about what to wear to bed. It was striking how many women report they prefer to sleep in something … rather than be naked. And there’s good reason for it. Women get cold. They feel the cold more than men because they are better at conserving heat, says Mark Newton, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth. He explains that women have a more evenly distributed fat layer and can more effectively pull all their blood back to their core organs in cold temperatures. While this fosters survival in sub-freezing conditions, it also means less blood flows to their hands and feet, and as a result they feel cold at higher temperatures than men typically do.[xviii]
Hence the battles over the number of blankets on a bed, but it may also be a part explanation for women’s desire for some extra covering. Phoebe’s diary spells this out:
Last night some visitors arrived after dinner so Lewis and I stayed up late and went to bed at the same time. Again he went to bed naked and I wore my lovely cosy pyjamas. I feel more comfortable wearing clothes than not. Lewis says he doesn’t wear clothes to bed as he gets too hot in the night. This is a bit of an ongoing battle for us as he is always asking me to come to bed naked. I don’t like this because the sheets are cold when I get in and I’m prone to developing chills.
So the issue is not just about uptight women unwilling to please their men. Sometimes it is about getting a good night’s sleep and avoiding a chilly back. Sometimes the woman’s reluctance stems from the male’s failure to create the mood where she will feel relaxed and comfortable, where she might just enjoy flaunting her nakedness.
‘I work with my mind two hours before I work with my hands.’ Here Ivan (75) quotes Leonardo de Vinci, to describe his approach to making love.
To begin with, my beginnings start a long time ahead of the bed. Getting there is, perhaps, even more important than arriving. I want something to drool over. A glimpse of a curve of breast through a plunging neckline; the shape of an ankle and the arch of a stockinged foot in a high heel shoe; a relaxed and sensual and inviting mouth; knowing looks.
Listen to him describing how he might seek to light the spark over an intimate lunch or romantic dinner:
There will be little touching. Not pawing or fondling, not publicly, anyway. But a light touch here and there, from time to time, and I know there is a corresponding effect on the fondlee (now there’s a new word for you), because the subtle reaction tells me the touch is welcome. This restraint does not preclude a surreptitious fondling of a foot under the restaurant table, providing the table cloth provides sufficient cover from prying eyes. And embellishing the whole is a conversation—not big jokes and big laughs, rather observations and comments that are, hopefully, amusing and witty. Without saying a word about what lies ahead, without even the slightest allusion, the evening, or the lunch, progresses. But the eye to eye contact says it all and needs no verbalization.
There are men who understand the dance of desire, who put in the effort to create a mood where the woman is confident of her own charms. And there are willing women who embrace these efforts. Many, like Olivia, grew up in homes where nudity was accepted. Olivia’s father walked naked around the house without giving it a thought, and her mother always encouraged her to feel good about her curves, buying her a bikini when she was a young teenager, telling her to ‘Use it before you LOOSE it!’ Olivia is now fifty and enjoys her husband’s constant admiration of her body:
Throughout our life together I have gone up and down in weight and gained marks and wrinkles and I would not for a minute think that he is not totally excited to see me naked. He often walks into the bedroom and I will be lying naked and he still makes comments to let me know he is excited. I would not like to expose my body to strangers or my grown children, but to him it seems the most natural thing.
‘The most satisfying women to know are those who love their own bodies’, agrees Branbon (79). But that’s only part of the story, he says, talking here about his partner, aged eighty-four.
Her body can still delight me, since the visual is not our only source of sensory input. Her beauty is gone in one sense, but I make love to her knowing she is dearly loved by me and in at least a part of my mind is still the woman I loved and made love with thirty years ago.
Years ago I received a wonderful letter from a 69-year-old woman describing her new romance with a 76-year-old man:
Remember our faces may be lined and our silhouettes bulging but—as someone else has said, the heart has no wrinkles. We thrill to the surprise of what’s below the neck, even in septuagenarian bodies, as we find cool and firm shoulders, smooth pink buttocks and velvety thighs. We find a treasure chest of sensations and sampling a few at a time, smack our lips at the goodies on our future agenda.
Men love to see their partners naked. What a pity it is that women’s poor body image gets in the way of them enjoying that loving gaze and taking comfort in this very private appreciation of the way they are made. Women’s bodily self-loathing is not a trivial issue—it threatens their health, their confidence and can even be deadly. But it also can deprive both men and women of that unique, flesh-to-flesh physical intimacy at the heart of a loving relationship.
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[i]‘Poor Body Image Plagues Women’, BBC News Online, 9 May 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/1320945.stm, viewed October 2009.
[ii] Survey by Top Sante magazine (UK) quoted at: BBC News Online, ‘Women “obsessed by their bodies”’, 12 October 2000, available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/966757.stm, viewed October 2009.
[iii] State of Victoria—Department of Human Services, ‘Best Bets: Body Image Programs Overview’, Rural and Regional and Aged Care Services Division, Melbourne, 2002
[iv] Charles Simmons, ‘About Men’, in The New York Times Magazine, 11 December 1983, p. 114.
[v] Susan Sontag, ‘The Double Standard of Aging’, in Juanita H Williams (ed.), Psychology of Women—Selected Readings, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 1979, p. 474.
[vi] ‘Saucy Feminist That Even Men Like’, Life, May 7, 1971, front cover.
[vii] Angela D Weaver and E Sandra Byers, ‘The Relationship Between Body Image, Body Mass Index, and Exercise and Heterosexual Women’s Sexual Functioning’, Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 4, 2006, pp. 333–9.
[viii] Yukio Yamamiya, Thomas F Cash and J Kevin Thompson, ‘Sexual Experiences among College Women: The Differential Effects of General versus Contextual Body Images on Sexuality’, Sex Roles. vol. 55, no. 5-6, 2006, pp. 421–7.
[ix] Patricia Barthalow Koch, Phyllis Kernoff Mansfield, Debra Thurau and Molly Carey, ‘“Feeling Frumpy”: The Relationships Between Body Image and Sexual Response Changes in Midlife Women’, Journal of Sex Research, vol. 42, no. 3, 2005, p. 219.
[x] Michael W Wiederman, ‘Women’s Body Image Self-Consciousness During Physical Intimacy with a Partner’, Journal of Sex Research, vol. 37, no. 1, 2000, pp. 60–8.
[xi] Nancy Friday, The Power of Beauty. Hutchinson, London, UK, 1996, p. 401.
[xii] Stephan Hamann, Rebecca A Herman, Carla L Nolan and Kim Wallen, ‘Men and Women Differ in Amygdala Response to Visual Sexual Stimuli’, Nature Neuroscience, vol. 7, no. 4, 2004, pp. 411–16.
[xiii] Friday, pp. 401–2.
[xiv] ‘Betty’, The 52 Seductions, http://52seductions.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/seduction-6-mirror-mirror/, viewed February 2010.
[xv] ‘Betty’, ‘Seduction #6: Mirror, Mirror’, The 52 Seductions, January 2010, http://52seductions.wordpress.com/2010/01/22/seduction-6-mirror-mirror/, viewed February 2010.
[xvi] See Lorraine K McDonagh, Todd G Morrison and Brian E McGuire, ‘The Naked Truth: Development of a Scale Designed to Measure Male Body Image Self-Consciousness During Physical Intimacy’, The Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 2008, pp. 253–65.
[xvii] See Shaun M Filiault, ‘Measuring up in the Bedroom: Muscle, Thinness, and Men’s Sex Lives’, International Journal of Men’s Health, vol. 6, no. 2, 2007, pp. 127–42.
[xviii] For Newton’s remarks, see Kate Wighton, ‘Why do Women always Feel Colder than Men?’, Times Online, 8 November 2008, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article5106854.ece, viewed November 2009.