“My name is Exposing 40 and I am a feedback junkie”.
I wish I wasn’t. I wish I didn’t need the endorphin rush of kind words and encouragement. I wish that silence didn’t occasionally leave me a quivering ball of self-doubt. I wish that thoughtless and careless words didn’t break me. But as I’ve increasingly realised as I get older, it’s very hard to change the way we are hardwired.
I have a friend who used to say ‘R-E-F-L-E-C-T-O-R’ in a deep sci-fi film voice whenever I started a conversation with ‘I’ve been thinking…’ I’m sure many friends and lovers over the years have uttered a silent ‘oh fuck, here we go’ when I start a conversation with those words. Sometimes I have just been thinking and have a passing point to make, but more often than not it’s shorthand for ‘I’ve been worrying about this and I really need to talk it through to get my head round it/feel reassured/be told I am worrying about nothing etc etc’.
For many years I tried to stifle this tendency and my need for feedback and discussion when I was with partners. I worried that this need equalled ‘neediness’ and if there’s one thing I loathe the idea of being, it’s needy. But I’ve realised (after much thinking and reflection, of course!) that the need to discuss my insecurities and seek out reassurance from those I trust is a strength, not a weakness. For me, it’s about learning about myself, facing up to what makes me feel vulnerable and trying to be the best I can be.
When it comes to sex, I want to talk through things I have or haven’t tried and I want feedback on what I do and whether I am doing it well. Regarding body confidence, I don’t mind admitting how much I have gained from people’s comments on my photos or how good an enthusiastic comment when I am naked makes me feel. We seek out development opportunities – whether that’s a professional coach, a tailored marathon training plan or a course about something we’re interested in – in all other areas of life without questioning it so why not with sex and our relationship with our bodies?
Earlier this year a new partner said ‘sit on my face’ in a tone that wasn’t brooking any argument. I hesitated for a fraction and then did as he instructed. ‘I’ve never done that before,’ I said an hour or so later as we were eating pizza. He looked surprised. ‘I just have things in my head that I don’t think are possible as a bigger woman.’ It’s true. It’s not like I actually thought I’m going to suffocate someone with my stomach, but I just had it in my head that it wouldn’t be hot for them. He and I ended up having a chat about weight and different body types and sex that left me feeing that little bit more relaxed and confident. And I’ve happily hopped on board his and other faces since. Win!
But while comfortable conversation can bolster us, words delivered carelessly can diminish us. Last summer, out of the blue, someone I was close to told me my photography was becoming lazy and I wasn’t making any effort anymore. I’m posting naked photos of myself and my friends to help us celebrate our diverse bodies and I am writing posts that think through some of my bigger emotional obstacles and I am being lazy? The unkindness of that comment, delivered across a table in a crowded pub, reduced me to tears and that friendship was never the same again. That someone would be so unkind about this photography project, which has been the source of so much fun and personal growth for me and helped other people feel differently about themselves, rocked me. Recently the awesome @confess_hannah wrote powerfully in her post Pussy Pride about the lasting impact of a thoughtless comment about her vulva.
Earlier this month I attended the Scarlet Ladies Body Positive Sex event. Many things were discussed during the evening but as I let the discussions percolate in my brain for a week or so, what I kept coming back to was that many of the experiences women shared – both good and bad – were connected back to this idea of feedback and the power other people’s words have to lift us up or crush us.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of Scarlet Ladies, it was founded by Sarah and Jannette who believe in the power of sharing ideas and experiences to change perceptions around female sexuality. Their regular women-only discussion events provide a safe and confidential space where women can share experiences. So, if you fancy attending in the future and are concerned that you might see yourself quoted on a blog somewhere, don’t worry – I am not writing anything without consent and all the quotes below come from answers to my emailed questions.
Attending the event was Michelle from Mindset for Life. Michelle runs the brilliant Scarred not Scared campaign, which draws on her experiences of having 15 post-surgery scars and encourages others to share the stories of their scars. On the evening she spoke of only having had one positive sexual experience.
“My most recent experience in the bedroom was the positive experience I was referring to (thankfully I’ve had another since the talk!) and that was when the guy I was with kissed my scars. Every time before there have been negative comments, awkwardness around it or blatant body shaming. These negative experiences have made me more hesitant to talk about my surgeries and more nervous when I finally do discuss them. Now, they don’t affect my body image but when I was younger, they certainly did – it really fed into what I believed about my attractiveness and more so, I thought it was a normal way to react. Through my experiences, I was taught that scars were disgusting and I learnt to agree.”
Co-founder Sarah, who was on the panel for this event, told a quite wonderful story about the time a boyfriend spent 20 minutes or more just looking at and gently playing with her vulva, describing it in detail. “It was completely spontaneous and really a very beautiful and intimate experience. It was something that was really special and allowed me to open up to him sexually in ways I had not previously. It was almost as if I broke free from the confinement of having to be beautiful all the time. It just didn’t matter. My vulva is what it is and that’s fine. It no longer needed a label of whether it was beautiful or ugly or something in between.” Sarah said.
That experience also stood her in good stead for the time a casual partner said her vulva looked like a cauliflower. “That incident, as I tried to explain on the panel, did not affect me at all. It was funny when he said it and we had a laugh. This incident only happened in the last few years, by which point I was already pretty confident about the appearance of my vulva. Had someone said that to me when I was 20, it would have been a different story.”
I think there’s a nice point in that comment from Sarah about the value of having positive experiences in the bank and how they build our resilience and self-confidence. In the same way that Michelle experienced self-doubt from the layering of negative experiences, Sarah’s ability to cope with what at other times in her life may have been a damaging comment was born out of that banked experience. I’m not saying we should all leap on the positive feedback bandwagon and throw it around like a confetti at a wedding, but I do think it is worth remembering that casual words of encouragement or bigger meaningful discussions can play a role in building the confidence of those closest to us.
I and many others in the sex blogging community have spoken before about what a warm and supportive space our part of the internet is. I know much of my personal development over the last 2.5 years has come as a result of this blog. The photography side of it is unapologetically celebratory and fun, while over time my writing has become more open and honest. Reading other people’s blogs and talking to people I have met on here has encouraged me to be more honest with myself and others about what I really think and what my expectations are. It has taught me not to be embarrassed by my emotional response to things.
As the evening ended it struck me that many of people who attend these events probably aren’t part of the sex blogging community. What Scarlet Ladies creates in its safe places is the spirit of openness and support and learning that many of us here benefit from on a day-to-day basis. At the event Michelle spoke with some emotion and frustration about the changing nature of the body positivity movement. She spoke of not quite knowing where to go next with her work. Last week when I looked her up on Twitter to make contact for this post I spotted her announcement that all her social content for the week would be sex-related: “Inspired by @scarletladies”, she’d tweeted. There’s some feedback worth having!
Scarlet Ladies invited me to the event in return for a review but all opinions are my own. Many more topics were discussed on the evening beyond the angle I have chosen to explore in this post. The wide-ranging conversation covered everything from period sex to body hair to fat girl fetishes to fat positivity versus body positivity. If you’re interested in checking out a Scarlet Ladies event you can find out more at http://scarletladiestalk.com/.