THE BIG BEDROOM COVER-UP
WHILE BARE BODIES DON’T BOTHER BLOKES, WOMEN DISMAYED BY THEIR LOOKS PREFER TO COVER UP UNTIL THE LIGHTS GO OUT. IT’S A CAUSE OF CONFLICT IN THE BEDROOM
THERE’S a funny scene in Meryl Streep’s movie,
It’s Complicated, where Streep, playing Jane, a 60-yearold 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. As she explains to him: “The last time you saw me naked, I was in my 40s. 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. Jake, played by Alec Baldwin, is a paunchy tub of a man who cheerfully struts around naked, patting his ample belly with some pride. 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 selfconsciousness that they cannot bring themselves to let their lovers enjoy that treat.
My new book, What Men Want – in bed, was based on research involving 150 men – and some of their partners – keeping diaries about many aspects of their sexuality, including how they feel about nudity. Women’s selfconsciousness about their bodies was a subject that aroused much passion from the men. “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 divorced, who spells out clearly the frustrations of living with a self-conscious woman: “My (estranged) wife is a very attractive woman. 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.”
He explains his delight in catching glimpses of her uncovered body as she slept. But his wife “found my arousal in looking at her body as prurient and disgusting . . . I often used to tell her how beautiful she was, how perfect I found her, but she never really enjoyed me looking at her. 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 are published showing just how much women hate what they see when they look in the mirror. And that’s precisely what the research diaries showed: women poured out their hatred for their fat bottoms, bulging thighs, breasts large and small, all manner of apparent imperfections, while men wrote 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 who has had a few children but I don’t mind that at all. 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. 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 20 years ago about yearning for “bare body comfort” – a state that continued to elude me. I was then recently widowed and credited the few crumbs of confidence I had managed to acquire to my marriage to a man who 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.
That was in 1986. I was 37. Now I am single again, 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 realise 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.”
It’s true that youth attracts 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.
Even women who know how important it is to their men find themselves self-conscious and uncomfortable