Getting Busy and Your Body Image

New research shows that sex makes women feel bad about their bodies. Now that's just not right

Today we need to talk about an issue that doesn't get nearly enough attention: How sex makes you feel about your body. Because the news? Well, it's not good.

When Pennsylvania State researchers kept tabs on freshmen who arrived at college with their V-card intact, they found that guys experienced a body image boost after losing their virginity, but women felt worse about their bodies after having sex for the first time. Meanwhile, another new study finds that obese women are the least likely to have satisfying sex lives.

So, what's going on? 

As Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory notes, one theory is that women are more likely to engage in "sexual spectatoring" where you spend more time worrying about how you look during sex (like that whole "is my stomach flopping out all weird?" on-top conundrum) than how sex feels. After all, we're taught to worry about how we look in every other social situation -- it stands to reason that you'll do it whenever you get naked and roll around in weird positions. But this gets in the way of sex feeling good, and ensures you'll spend the entire post-game analysis zeroing in on all your flaws.

And what's more troubling is that this business starts early -- long before a girl is actually ready to lose her virginity. Remember that push-up bikini top that Abercrombie & Fitch marketed to 6-year-olds back in March? Tip. Of. The. Iceberg.

A recent study of over 5,600 items of childrens' clothing found that a full 30 percent of them were designed to be sexualizing. What's worse, as Peggy Orenstein points out, 25.4 percent of the clothes studied were both sexualizing and childlike -- probably in an attempt to reassure skeptical parents that their daughters' baby pink high heels really weren't that bad.

Instead, this sexy-baby combination gives girls the message that we need to look sexy, but be innocent. And when those girls grow up and reach their adult, sex-having years, this translates into a whole lot of women who know how to attract a man's attention -- but not how to voice their own sexual desires.

Of course it's important to note that the latest study was done on college freshmen. That's a group that tends to be rife with insecurity anyway, seeing as they have to contend with leaving home, new academic challenges and weird dining hall food. I'd love to see a study explore the sex-body image connection in women at a variety of later ages.

But the results might not cheer me up: When sex blogger Rachel White of Rabbit Writes asked her Twitter followers about losing their virginity, most reported feeling bad about their bodies. "But this feeling wasn't just limited to virginity, it was a thread that ran throughout their sex lives," she reports. "It seems the momentous and confusing occasion of virginity loss is a trigger for self-esteem issues that are already brewing in all of us, thanks to all those cultural messages about how our ultimate value is our sexiness."

Rachel's advice? Call those messages out when we receive them and speak up about how they make you feel. "The first step in fixing a problem like this is naming it for yourself and opening up a dialog," she says. "It would also be helpful if we stopped building up virginity as something you 'give away,' and viewed it more as an experience you have over and over. There are so many 'first times' in a healthy sex life."

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