Body Image & Aging


by Dr. Eleanor Hamilton

How we look is very important to most of us, probably because we've spent a lifetime drawing conclusions about others from the way they look. Furthermore, we've been programmed to believe that the slim athletic appearance of youth is the standard of beauty and health to which all of us must aspire. So when we reach that age where everything seems to point down instead of up, we begin to be concerned about covering up our bodies instead of exposing them. This can raise havoc in any love relationship involving seniors.
The newsletter Sex After Forty tells us that men's anxieties about their bodies are more related to sexual performance than to appearance, while women's anxieties focus more on their failure to look young enough to elicit a whistle from an attractive male.
An older woman is particularly sensitive to having her lover see her sagging breasts, her wrinkled arms, her pot belly, feeling that he may be turned away from sex. Then, to compound her anxiety, when he fails to get the instant erection that she knew he once did, she blames it on her unappealing body.
He, in turn, interprets her diffidence about initiating sex to her lack of stimulation by anything less than a ramrod penis.
This scenario often leads to lessened love-making as couples advance in age. What a pity and what a loss! For intimacy of soul is often dependent on intimacy of body. Clearly such a couple needs to talk about what it means physically to grow old. And certainly they need to correct their erroneous interpretations of each other's behavior.

She needs to know that it usually takes a man longer to get an erection as he ages and that slow erections have little to do with sexual interest. He needs to know that women have been conditioned to believe that men are only interested in the bodies of youth. They both need to tell each other, often and enthusiastically, that they love the wonder of each other's changing bodies. That the softness of her warm flesh is comforting and renewing to him. She needs to tell him how delightful it is that she now has a chance to enjoy foreplay as much as she pleases without worrying that he will move so fast sexually that she can't keep up with him.
They both need to reassure each other that their love and the intimacy they share and the long years of increasing trust that has built between them are far more important "turn-ons" than the young, sleek, over-eagerness of youth.

At last a woman has a chance to take the initiative in making love to her man. And at last a man can experience the joy of being coddled, cuddled, and made love to. He can tell her, again and again, if necessary, how beautiful and dear she is to him and how much he loves snuggling with her. And she can tell him of her own pleasure in caressing him.
They can both rejoice that their love-making can extend over as much time as they please. This, in itself, is a bonus not to be overlooked.
When they were young they had to be concerned with time, the possibility of unexpected invasion by their children, and demanding work schedules. Now, they have all the time in the world. They can even stage-set their love making to include romantic accouterments that they may have had to do without in their youth. They no longer have to lock their bedroom door. They can make love in the living room with a fire in the fireplace, candlelight, soft music, and a mattress on the floor, if they wish. They can awaken in the morning, when both are closest to the sensuous world of sexual awareness, and take as much time as they want to make love. No need to beat the rush hour to work or worry about what must be done during the day before they can afford to relax in each other's arms.
Of course, I am assuming that both are committed to a healthy lifestyle. Regular gentle exercise and attention to a diet that isn't loaded with fat and sugar are "musts." Regular physical check-ups can usually forestall major illnesses that could inhibit sexual love-making. Cleanliness is more important than ever. If and when older people do complain about their partner to a marriage counselor, the complaint often takes the form of distress about the partner's increasing neglect of bathing, or not changing underwear often enough, or, worse, leaving dirty underpants on the floor for the spouse to pick up. Sloppy personal habits are a turn-off at any age, but when we grow older, we tend to get lazy and forget that someone so close and dear to us can interpret lack of personal care as lack of love. Don't let laziness rob you of sex.

About the author: Dr. Hamilton, a retired psychologist and sex therapist, is the author of five books and a recipient of the American Library Association award. Her television appearances include "The Phil Donahue Show," "The Merv Griffin Show," and "The Tonight Show."