The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS BET­TINA ARNDT

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

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