The Importance Of Body Image In Sex Education

This August, my sister and I were lucky enough to spend a few days at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. When making a list of all the shows we had seen, I realised that we had both sought out shows exploring body image and body confidence. It was only after leaving the Edinburgh bubble that I realised the importance of including body image in the conversation on sexuality because these two things usually go hand in hand.

All the women in these shows talked about their body confidence, or in some instances, their lack of body confidence, and how it had stopped them feeling desirable. In one show, a woman discussed being teased and belittled by a group of men on a night out because of her size, and on another occasion, she described how a man had asked her boyfriend why he was with her.

This type of harassment is both specific to plus size women and a continuation of the harassment women receive on a daily basis; from catcalls to men asking us to smile on cue. In our society, women’s bodies are seen to be offered up to the public for judgement and affirmation. Many of the shows I saw in Edinburgh this summer combatted this idea by encouraging women to reclaim their bodies for themselves. 

In one particularly brilliant show, Hotter by Sweaty Theatre, Mary Higgins and Ell Potter use personal experiences, interviews and verbatim theatre to explore body image, sex and sexuality. In a Guardian interview, their show is described as an “interrogation of the female body, its fluids, desires and changes”. In a voice-over, women say what makes them feel sexy, what makes them feel heat, what an orgasm feels like and what their favourite song to dance to is.

As I was watching the show, I felt accepted, laughing in acknowledgement of awkward anecdotes, and taking joy in the stories being shared, however halfway through I felt a deep sadness and I couldn’t understand it. It was only when I was thinking about what to write for this’s year’s sex education week that this sadness made sense, and I knew what I wanted to talk about. I felt sad that for the first time, at the tender age of twenty-six, because I wanted to apologize to my body and look after it in the same way I try to look after my mind.

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I was taken back to being fifteen, sat in a geography classroom having the allotted hour-long sex education lesson before lunchtime. I thought how different my sexual experiences would be if this show had been part of my sex education, how I would have treated my body over the past ten years if I had made the connection between my own relationship with my body and my sexuality sooner.

As with most sex education, girls’ and boys’ bodies are represented as biological machines, going through the motions that we call puberty. I learned about body hair, periods, the sperm and the egg, and for split second, contraception. I was not taught how to respect the other person’s body and their boundaries, let alone my own. We were all asked to write down all the words we knew for penis, vagina and breasts but not what we thought of our own body parts. I was taught what sex was but not how my body would respond to arousal and how I could feel desirable or what I might find desirable in another person. As I got older, I never thought about the sex education I had received unless it was to realise how lacking it was; I wasn’t able to use it as a road map.

In my teenage years, I felt as if I had been left out in the wild looking for signposts. Books and films were used as a way to see where my desires lay. However, I was still acting as if this desire was something my mind was creating; the thought of my body being a factor embarrassed me, I didn’t want to pay attention to it. I also knew that all the questions I had about my body were making me feel isolated and confused. It was only when I discovered feminism in the form of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman a few years later, that my body started to make sense to me.

A unique selling point of the show Hotter was that Mary and Ell were best friends who had been a couple. Throughout the show, the audience caught glimpses of this intimate relationship as a result of its many iterations. One of the most moving moments in the show was when Mary and Ell read out letters they had written to themselves, thanking their bodies and promising to love them as best they can. At a point in Ell’s letter, she addressed Mary directly, thanking her for loving and desiring her body, making Ell love her body more in the process; ‘you always loved my tummy, in a way I never could’.

At the end of the show, both women admitted that they were trying to appreciate their bodies more. They wished they could get to the end of the hour and tell the audience they loved every inch of themselves, but like all the women in the room, they knew this was a big ask. Instead, they ended the show with a promise, to treat their bodies better, asking the audience to do the same and inviting us on stage for a final dance.

As for many women, my relationship with my body has been not been easy, I spent early teenage years ignoring it and my late teens/early twenties learning about it and starting to take pride in it. After watching Hotter, I thought about what I might say to my body in my letter and again I went back to being fifteen and feeling confused about the body I was growing into.

If I could add anything to the sex ed curriculum, it would be to ask teenage girls to write a letter to themselves.  I would ask them to write about what they love about their bodies, who they desire and what desire feels like for them. If girls are in control of what they think about their bodies from a young age, maybe they can find the joy in their bodies and sexuality sooner, therefore having a better chance of happy and safe sexual experiences. We need to teach girls how to drive their own body before they allow another person to take the wheels.

Words by Lara Scott for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.
Image by Izzy Romilly via The Guardian/Ell Potter and Mary Higgins.

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