I have a confession to make. This week I actually looked up the measurements of some of today’s hottest female celebs. When my husband got home, I happily announced to him whose hips and dress size I shared. (Nope, I’m not gonna tell you who!) Oh, I wasn’t really that into what she looked like. I was wondering a little bit about what I look like. (I realized that the middle-aged meno-pot, the dreaded tummy bulge I’d hoped to avoid, has claimed a spot in front of my once-flat abs. And I’m starting to pay much too much attention to those mysterious but powerful anti-wrinkle potion ads these days.) At the time, it seemed perfectly logical to me that finding a beauty icon whose body measurements were similar to mine would boost my ego.
The saddest part is that I know what would make me feel better about my body. No not a Jillian Michaels’s workout, but that’s not out of the picture altogether. And I’m not going on The Cabbage Soup diet anytime soon. The fact is my body is fine. It’s my head that needs some work.
If yours does, too, let’s get at it.
Let’s piece together the mysterious but frail power of a healthy body image. Whether you’re a new mom whose tummy reminds you of the marshmallow monster in the film, Ghostbusters, or a woman of wisdom whose hands are beginning to look like your mom’s, I have a secret to share. And you can’t possibly guess what it is.
Let’s look at the power to have a great body image by looking at physical intimacy. (You got that right. I’m going to help you feel better about your body by actually taking your clothes off. Bet that wasn’t the first thing you thought might help!)
One of the neurochemicals released during intimate physical touch—like holding hands and cuddling—and during the act of sex is oxytocin. In a book devoted to the fascinating study of oxytocin, author Susan Kuchinskas writes, “just ten minutes of warm contact raises blood levels of oxytocin in both men and women, while lowering blood pressure and the stress hormone norepinephrine.”[i] She also noted that men who were still married when they’d reached their fifties tended to be healthier and live longer than their single or divorced friends. “Oxytocin’s dual role, of physiological peacemaker and interpersonal bonder, is the reason.”[ii] I believe that this seemingly invisible download of oxytocin taking place inside of you in the context of a warm, exclusive sexual experience in marriage can result in an inner peace that completely changes the way you see your body.
Due to a lack of research on this phenomena, I set out to do a little of my own. After a quick visit to surveymonkey.com, I sent a link to 100 of my friends. (Warning: no statistical accuracy or scientific margin of error available for the rookie report you’re about to read.) I chose faithful Christian women aged early twenties through their forties, all of them are in marriages that I perceive to be healthy, engaging, and emotionally intimate. I wanted to see if there would be a trend in two specific areas. First, how did each woman feel about her stress level in relation to sex with her husband? Second, how did each woman feel about her body image in relation to sex with her husband? In other words, was there a peaceful perfecting power at work in their intimacy?
Wow! Was there!
Almost all of the women noted a significant reduction in any feelings of stress and anxiety as a result of experiencing intimacy with their husband. 72 percent felt immediately more at peace with their often-chaotic lives directly after sex. This feeling lasted well into the next day for many of them.
How did they feel about their bodies? That was an even more profound change. Nearly 70 percent of them felt “highly positive” about their body directly after sex, with the majority also reporting an increased level of confidence continuing into the next day.
Let’s be clear about one thing: their bodies didn’t change. Their minds did. Something changed on the inside. In the context of exclusivity, intimacy’s fuel—oxytocin—brings women into a state of peace about their bodies and their lives, increasing body image and decreasing stress.
Though many of the same chemicals are present in a non-exclusive sexual relationship, research seems to indicate that this cannot be experienced when emotional intimacy has not been achieved through a mutually monogamous commitment. (I like to call that marriage.) One Penn State University study of students who experienced their first sexual encounter while in college, found that women tended to experience a significant decline in body image after sex. I would argue that it wasn’t the real thing. They were experiencing a nutra-sex. A watered-down physical act that forgets the depth of intimacy required by God’s standard and intention. They were all about what happened with their bodies. Very little to do with heart and soul connection. Without the context of intimacy a woman comes up short. Rather than overriding our physical qualities, we become obsessed with them.[iii]
So, maybe you should get a little less obsessed with the calorie counter on your smartphone and a little more obsessed with your friendship with your husband. It doesn’t really matter if you have the measurements of Jennifer Aniston or Adele or Sophia Vergara. You weren’t intended to be a sex symbol for the world. (Nor were they. But that’s another story.)
You just need to be the personal beauty icon of one man.
[i] Kuchinskas, 104
[ii] Kuchinskas, 104
[iii] http://www.health.am/sex/more/first-sex-linked-to-better-body-image/, retrieved March 27, 2012
Dannah Gresh is a best-selling author and the creator of Secret Keeper Girl. Best-known for And the Bride Wore White and Lies Young Women Believe (co-written with Nancy Leigh DeMoss), Dannah is a gifted communicator whose ministry focus is coaching moms to be great connectors to their tween and teen children. She and her husband Bob are left to run a menagerie of animals on a hobby farm since her three young adult children have flown the coop. Her happiest times are when all the chicks are back in the nest.