iris

I thought I was already there…

People ask me why I would want to get naked with a group of strangers. Why I would share my deepest secrets openly with women I’ve never met. How I could possibly explore self pleasure in a room full of women. The answer feels complex; yet when I reflect, it’s really quite simple. In order to experience deep connection and healing, I allow myself to be vulnerable. By sharing my own experiences, my fears, my truth, I become free – free from layers of guilt, healed from years of body shame, and strengthened by hearing others who carry around the same experiences, fears, and secrets as me. We are so much more alike than we ever admit – wanting to feel accepted, concerned about being “too much” of this or “too little” of that. Social media and pop culture alter our perceptions of women – who we “should” be, what we “should” look like, what is acceptable to feel and share and say. The Bodysex workshop is about getting away from that world of judgment. Joining together in a safe space where we can be whoever we truly are without fear. Where we let go of “shoulds” and are free to feel and share and say whatever comes to us.

Don’t get me wrong, getting myself to my first Bodysex workshop was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It requires so much mental energy and courage. It is not something most women are willing to do. Yet for those brave enough to come into the circle, to shed their layers (both literally and figuratively), the results can be life changing. In my most recent Bodysex workshop, I went in without many expectations. I wasn’t quite sure what would come up for me since it was my third workshop experience and I’ve already worked through a LOT of stuff. When everyone first arrives, nervous energy pervades the room and surrounds us. But once we get in the circle and start getting to know each other, the anxiety melts away. As the weekend unfolded, I allowed myself to shed tears (which is really hard for me – I do not like crying in front of anyone!). I cried because I realized how much healing I’ve experienced since my first workshop less than a year ago. I cried because I was surrounded by beautiful women who were all brave enough to join the circle. I cried because I felt so accepted and comfortable being authentic. I cried because I felt strong and powerful and free. I cried because I could – tears of joy, tears of release, tears of unity.

After spending 24 hours naked, I was feeling pretty good about my body – comfortable, even though I am still learning to love all of my imperfections. It was at this point that I had the opportunity to participate in a nude photoshoot (an activity unique to Bodysex in Saskatoon). Not only was this something I’d never done, it took place outside in Canada with the temperature well below freezing! I had decided months in advance that I wanted to have this experience, even though I knew it would be cold and way outside of my comfort zone. Surprisingly, when the time came, my body somehow adjusted to the cold (that, or my adrenaline was pumping so much it didn’t matter). And instead of feeling inhibited, I felt empowered and strong and beautiful! There were two other women getting nude photos taken and throughout the nearly two-hour-session, we cheered each other on with words of encouragement and support. During and after the shoot, I felt incredible!! I had proudly chosen to face my fears around nudity head-on and the result was an overwhelming sense of power and freedom.

Fast forward a few days…I was back at home in North Carolina, eagerly anticipating seeing the photos. They arrived via email while I was at work, so I anxiously waited several hours to see them. I finally arrived home, spent several hours doing my other full-time job (parenting), and then managed to squeeze in a little alone time. I opened the first one and thought “hmmm…not so sure I like that angle.” Then clicked to the next, and the next, and the next – quickly – in hopes that I would come across at least one that I loved. And it didn’t happen. Instead, I found something wrong with every single one. I went back through the set again thinking I must have missed some. But no…I had seen them all…44 images that painstakingly captured my physical imperfections. Parts of my body that I choose to ignore and regularly cover up were staring me back in the face, taunting me. Undeniable proof of what I truly look like. I was devastated.

I tried to make sense of my feelings. I kept looking at the photos day after day, irrationally hoping that they would change or I would look different…or maybe, somehow, miraculously I would start to accept them and maybe even like them. I tried a few things to see if I could improve how they looked. I asked the photographer to make several of them black and white – this eliminated my red hair, freckles, and light skin tone. Then I cropped out parts of my body that are not flattering, which left me with unidentifiable body parts. As long as I pretended that I was looking at someone other than myself, it became easier to find beauty in them, or at least acceptance. When I see photos of other women nude, it is easy for me to find beauty. It confuses and frustrates me that I cannot easily find this in myself.

Deep down, I knew that my lifelong aversion to my red hair and freckles was somehow contributing to how I was feeling about the photos. That became evident when I realized the black and white images were easier to see. A few vague, painful memories bubbled up to the surface of my consciousness as I tried to sort through my feelings. One memory in particular still shakes me to the core – a comment made by a boy in middle school that I never had the nerve to tell a soul. Instead, I buried the incredibly hurtful statement of hate deep inside. The accompanying body shame only intensified over time in conscious and subconscious ways. As I write this, I feel a combination of numbness, anger, and deep sadness. I feel sorry for the little girl – my younger self – who endured this bullying. Who didn’t feel safe enough to share it with anyone. Who buried the hurt and shame so deep that it took years to surface into consciousness. After sharing this revelation briefly during a recent therapy session, I was able to hold back tears at least until I made it to my car. I cried the whole way home – loud, heart-wrenching sobs that bellowed out from my aching throat. I couldn’t stop the tears or the horrendous pain in my throat. As soon as I got home, I couldn’t let myself feel anymore. I didn’t have it in me to sit with the feelings, to delve further into what it all means and what I can do about it. Instead, I chugged three beers in an hour instead of eating dinner. I played cars and trucks with my son, and then helped my daughter build a house out of Lincoln Logs. I fell asleep while cuddling with my daughter after vowing to do everything in my power to avoid letting her ever feel this way.

At first I didn’t want to write this post because it feels like a depressing journal entry. I felt frustrated because I’ve spent so much time working on healing body shame, and then to realize that my story is not over. I thought I was already there, already proud of my body, comfortable in my skin, owning the imperfections. But I’m not. It is a long, bumpy path where one step forward can send me tumbling back. I am fortunate to have women in my life who support me fully and encourage me to share my truth. I am reminded that even though I am not already there, I am growing. Despite my best efforts to move beyond body shame and celebrate who I am, the wounds run deep. Every time I peel back a layer of shame, I discover yet another layer waiting to be unearthed. Every experience teaches me something new, and even a few years ago I could never have been nude with a group of people. The more opportunities I have to see my body in its true form, to share my imperfections with others, to be vulnerable, the more I will continue to grow.

Photo credit: Justine Stiina Lustig

iris

Positive Body Image = Better Sex!

One of the biggest barriers to great sex stems from anxiety and shame surrounding our bodies. Think about it, if your mind is consumed with thoughts like “my thighs are too big” or “what does my ass look like in this position” or “my vulva is smelly, hairy, deformed” there is no room for you to let go and allow your mind to help you achieve orgasm. And it’s not just about orgasm – poor body image may prevent you from having sex in the first place. Or if you do get that far, maybe you make your partner keep the lights off so you feel less exposed. Or maybe you avoid different positions because of how a body part may appear from a certain angle.

The most powerful, and quite frankly unexpected, benefit from my first Bodysex experience was the normalization of these body image concerns that most women share. And then the ease with which we were able to open up about them and realize how unnecessary these fears and anxieties are. How much they limit our ability to experience pleasure. And how much beauty and uniqueness we all bring to the world. Seeing how beautiful and different all of the women were, yet the similarities in what we worry about was incredibly healing. I found myself in a sacred space that normalized real women and real bodies – not the air-brushed images that are constantly invading our reality.

An incredible sense of pride emerged for me as I drew attention to the parts of my body that I like the least and then (while witnessed by these other women) learned about, owned, and explored why and how they are a part of who I am: where I’ve been, the struggles I’ve overcome, the strength and power of my body. The circle helped me to re-frame my negative thoughts and turn them into statements of pride. For example, instead of viewing stretch marks from pregnancy and breastfeeding as ugly scars, I now see them as beautiful representations of the sacrifices I made to bring life into this world and provide daily nourishment to my thriving children. My hips allowed me to carry and deliver a baby, which I may not have been able to do with smaller hips.  My thighs, which supported me during both of my pregnancies, enable me to dance and walk and run.

These re-framed positive thoughts emerged during the workshop, but that was just the beginning of my journey towards self-acceptance and self-love. It is not easy, but I frequently reflect upon that experience of being witnessed and celebrated by other women, without any masks to hide behind. When I find myself slipping back to negative perceptions of my body, I remember the courage that I summoned during my Bodysex experience, the unconditional acceptance I felt in that circle of women, and I’m able to re-frame my thinking.

Imagine how your sex life would be different if you re-channeled the energy you spent on negative self talk into being more present in the moment with your partner. If you could fully surrender to the experience and let go of anxiety and fear and shame. If you were kinder to yourself and appreciative of all of the “flaws” that make you beautiful just the way you are.

Photo credit: Meghan Mickelson