SEVERAL years ago I spent an enjoyable evening in a fabulous water-therapy complex in Holland. Its facilities included hydrotherapy pools, an aromatherapy pool, and a genuine Scandinavian-style sauna complete with red-hot coals and lots of naked people.
Men and women sitting together starkers?
There was no way I was going in there, I told my hosts firmly, and I didn’t.
Needless to say, I won’t be among those attending the 34th International Naturist Congress when it takes place in Drumshambo, Co Leitrim from September 11 to 14.
Some Irish people — as the Naturist Congress goes to show — have no problem baring all, but lots of us do, even in front of a partner.
The initial spark of a relationship is usually deeply sexual and every woman needs to know her partner finds her physically attractive.
However, stripping off in front of your mate is probably one of the most intimate and challenging things you can do.
And never more so than now, when, from an early age, women come under huge pressure to look slim, toned and beautiful— in other words to resemble the celebrities who make millions from their gorgeous toned bodies and have a private army of personal trainers, cooks and stylists to help them.
Discomfort about appearing nude in front of a spouse or partner is something psychotherapist Tony Moore comes across in the “vast majority” of couples who present to him for help — and the media has a part to play, he believes.
“For most, it’s an issue because they’re comparing themselves to these images they see on TV and in magazines.
“It’s everywhere and it’s inducing a high level of anxiety in women to conform to a stereotype.
“There’s this mind-set that if you’re not a size 10 there’s something wrong and that does affect women in the bedroom.”
The movie Sex Tape, in which a good-looking young married couple (Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel) wake up to discover the frisky sex tape they made the previous evening has gone public, touches on some of the more sensitive aspects of baring all to your mate.
Women of all ages can be slow to let their partners see them naked. This may be especially so if a woman has put on weight or her body shows the natural wear and tear of child-bearing.
Suddenly, it seems, we can find ourselves slipping on a long t-shirt or turning out the lights.
It’s a common problem, says sex therapist and relationship counsellor Eithne Bacuzzi.
“My experience as a sex therapist is that women are so conscious of it that they don’t want to be touched sexually in places that they feel overweight because they feel quite unsexy.
“There’s a lot of that — women saying they can’t stand it when their husband touches them in a particular area of their body, such as the stomach.
“That’s a big block because they perceive it as an unattractive part of their body.”
Much female insecurity about going naked, Bacuzzi also believes, can result from the unrelenting pressure from a celebrity-obsessed media preoccupied with the notion of slim, attractive, toned bodies as the ideal — even for the older woman.
“There’s a feeling that sex is for young toned bodies and an ageing woman may feel uncomfortable about appearing naked in front of her partner.”
“It’s very common for women to turn off the lights when they’re coming out from the shower, or undressing, and they will often wear a nightdress when they didn’t before.”
One woman who put up weight in her 40s found she began to withdraw from her partner. “I didn’t want my husband to snuggle up to me in bed and put his arm around my tummy like he used to.
“I also started wearing long t-shirts to bed, because I was so conscious of that spare tyre.”
Though women can expect to live active and full lives in their 50s, the changes in their bodies can be difficult to deal with.
“The concept of 50 being the new 40 is lost on many women because they’re experiencing the menopause; their breasts may have lost their elasticity from childbearing, and the waist is not remotely like their 40 year-old-waist.”
Communication with her partner can help a woman enormously, because very often he is not only unaware of the woman’s discomfort about appearing nude, but oblivious to the fact that she may have put on weight, she says.
That’s a situation which, surprisingly, “is more or less across the board,” says Bacuzzi, who adds that many men don’t have a problem with a bit of weight.
Tony Moore recalls how one woman in her 40s — although she was very much in love with her husband and had a good sex life — was worried about her weight gain, fearing her husband would be put off by it.
“I told her the last thing her husband was thinking about was the weight.
“When it’s a good relationship this problem can be very much in a woman’s head and that’s coming from the availability of images which are reinforced day in day out.”
However, warns Moore, men aren’t always the innocent party. Some regularly criticise a partner’s appearance or refer admiringly to other women in her presence.
“They may comment on the woman’s size and say she should have bigger or smaller breasts.
“Some men will say ‘you’re putting on weight’, or ‘you have too much make-up on’ — this undermines the confidence of the women.”
Although it’s sometime deliberate, he acknowledges, most men have no idea of the damage they’re doing — they don’t understand that a woman’s self-esteem can be closely linked to her appearance.
“Every day I’m counselling men to stop criticising women’s appearance,” he says.“A lot of women say that when they walk along the street the man is constantly looking at other women and he’ll even turn around and stare at them, or at a party he ignores her and focuses on other women in the room and this is devastating.”
However even if added weight or stretch-marks are not an issue for a husband or partner, they can potentially cause problems in the bedroom if insecurity about her appearance takes hold of a woman.
If she’s very conscious of these changes and allows them to impact on her, warns Bacuzzi, not only can she become uncomfortable about appearing naked in front of her partner, but the sex can stop.“She avoids it because she feels unsexy, she does not want to appear naked and touch is often inhibited, because the woman avoids touch and articulates the fact that she feels unsexy.”
Moore agrees. “If it gets under the skin it can affect the sex life because the woman turns off, and feels she’s not attractive and reinforces these negatives thoughts.
“That can impact hugely on women.”
A lot of men find it frustrating because for the man, having a woman who is interested is very important to him, he says.
Communication is key. “Very often it is the case that the woman feels unsexy, yet the man will say that the chemistry has always been there and nothing has changed for him — and that he doesn’t even notice her self-perceived flaws.
“This revelation helps alleviate some of the stress.”
* If a woman expresses fears about her appearance, her man should listen and understand, says Donal Gaynor, psycho-sexual therapist and relationships
The man should explain that he stays with her because he loves her, not just for her body, he adds.
* One solution, according to Gaynor, could lie in the acknowledgement by the couple of the woman’s discomfort about appearing naked in front of her partner and an agreement that she needn’t to do it.
* A man should pay compliments to his wife or partner — and not focus on other women, says Gaynor. “If a man is always going on about good-looking women, it can put a stress on the relationship.”
* A man should compliment the woman, but not necessarily about the sexual parts of her body, says Moore. “Say her hair or eyes or hands look nice — take the focus away from sex.”
* Resist the temptation to criticise her appearance.
* Encourage her to reconnect to her body by taking a long soak in a bath or getting a massage.