Rosie Green: ‘The ultimate passion killer? Body angst’

Introducing our unmissable new sex columnist, Rosie Green

Mum,’ said my tweenage daughter when I told her I was going on holiday with my new boyfriend, ‘you can do it once – for your self-esteem.’ After choking on my granola, I composed myself and told her I was grateful for her thoughts about my return to the sexual arena. What I didn’t tell her was the self-esteem/sex equation is not as simple as she might think.

Photograph: Louise Samuelsen. Cardigan, BA&ASH. Bikini top and shorts, Asceno.

The reality is that for many women worrying about our bodies (and the tautness of our tummies and vaginas) hinders sexual enjoyment. The self-doubt counteracts the feel-good benefits of the oxytocin rush. We concentrate more on being desired than feeling desired. (As an illustration of this, my friend, the make-up artist Charlotte Tilbury, told me back when we were in our 20s that she slept in her make-up and reapplied it in the morning before her boyfriend woke up so he didn’t see her bare faced.)

Therapist and author Dr Karen Gurney (aka The Sex Doctor) told me the main sexual concern women have is around body image. (Interestingly, men’s is performance.) She said, ‘A lot of women think that to be proud of our bodies we have to conform to society’s idea of what sexy is.’

This mentality doesn’t just affect those of us getting into fresh relationships (although it must heighten it). Many of my mates who’ve been with the same person for years still worry that they fall short of Victoria’s Secret model standards and that their partner will find them unsexy.

When I was contemplating exposing my body to someone new after 20-plus years in a monogamous relationship, the most frequently asked question by girlfriends was not, ‘Please tell me you’re going to burn that bra you’ve had longer than the Tories have been in government?’ It was: ‘Won’t you be petrified to get your kit off?’

The answer was yes. I was anxious about whether my boobs were passable (or resembled windsocks) and already plotting how I could shuffle backwards out of the bedroom without exposing my bottom.

All this and I am one of the lucky ones, possessed of fairly decent self-confidence and pragmatism. Why? Because having spent my career styling supermodels and celebrities on fashion magazines, I know that genetic perfection does exist (hello, Helena Christensen) but also that it doesn’t necessarily bring body acceptance.

So in my 20s I tried to love my body the way it was ‒ and save a lot of angst. Plus, when I recounted my concerns to a male friend, he said, ‘It’s so weird that women think I’m scoring their body against a mental checklist. I’m just thinking, “Woohoo, I’m in bed with a real-life naked woman”.’

But hang on, there’s also ‘down-there’ angst to take into consideration. The idea of not being neat and tidy. Or being – cue nausea-inducing word – ‘loose’. We’ve all heard the jokes, where post-birth sex is likened to throwing a banana down Oxford Street or waving a flag in space. These gags pierce a woman’s self-esteem like a razor blade punctures a bouncy castle. They tap into the deep fear that once you become a mother you are past your sexual sell-by date.

One friend, who post-marriage split hooked up with a 20-something, was feeling pretty great until during a sex session he panted ‘make yourself tighter’. Sadly, it was only later she thought of the ultimate retort, which was, ‘make yourself bigger’.

Is there some truth in it? Well, the NHS website concedes that ‘your vagina probably won’t return completely to its pre-birth shape’ and may be ‘wider’. It’s not surprising so many women are looking to reshape their vaginas. According to Global Market Insights, the vaginal rejuvenation market was valued at $1 billion in 2019, and is set to rise 33 per cent by 2026. There are many treatments but the most popular seem to be labiaplasty (making your lips ‘prettier’) and vaginal tightening (using heat to stimulate collagen to increase pleasure and reduce stress incontinence). Plus, in clinics, magic chairs such as Emsella use electric currents to tighten your pelvic floor, improving bladder control and, anecdotally, increasing sexual pleasure. Are these treatments preying on women’s insecurities or solutions to a real problem? To be discussed. And tried.

But back to getting naked for the first time in a while. I self-medicated with a few glasses of wine and slipped into some new Agent Provocateur underwear. And my daughter was
right, it did wonders for my self-esteem.