Which one factor is absolutely fundamental to women having a healthy sex drive?
Is it having "the ideal body", which we're convinced will make us the desire of every man?
Is it owning and wearing the most exquisite lingerie you can buy?
Is it being a yogi - gymnast so you can act out the entire Kamasutra without breaking a sweat?
Is it re-training your brain to think, breathe and live sex by mulling over your sexual fantasies and doing libido-boosting visualisations daily?
Is it having a sexually adventurous, Samantha Jones-esque personality and not being afraid to search sex shops far and wide for the latest and greatest toys?
Is it being comfortable with and well-practised at masturbation so you're familiar with what your body likes?
Is it being assertive and vocal in bed, and being able to confidently ask for what you want?
It's NONE of these. Whilst some of these are important ingredients to a healthy sex life, there's a HUGELY fundamental sex drive-promoting necessity that's glaringly absent from this list.
The most important thing you can do as far as your desire for sex goes?
It's having enough fat on your body.
Yep, having enough or ample fat, not as little fat as possible.
If, like most women, you're weight loss dieting... if you're partly starving and/or overexercising your body to get down to or maintain the levels of body fat approaching that of fitness and fashion models (the official body type desired by the average woman in our culture because we think it will buy sexuality)...
... then your fertility, your sexual desire, your fitness, your energy levels, and of course your overall health, will actually suffer.
And without these things, even the most dedicated Kamasutra practitioner, sex toy aficionada, "perfect" figured gym-bunny, or modern woman with sex communication skills of steel will not be able to get it on... let alone get off.
Dieting destroys sex drive
Science says it (more on that soon). History says it (famine and war time rations do not a strong sex drive - nor an abundant fertility - make). In most cultures besides the dominant West, being well fed and having adequate to ample body fat is accepted as a "no shit, Sherlock" necessity for a healthy female libido and abundant fertility.
Yet the number of women I see in practice who eat enough and eat well is FAR outnumbered by the number of women with either disordered eating behaviours (i.e. they diet), or eating disorders.
This isn't just because I work in the area of weight concern; it is reflective of our society at large. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf combines statistics cited by numerous researchers on the topic and found that out of ten young women attending university, two will be anorexic, and six will be bulimic or have disordered eating; only two will be well.
In Australia, up to one-third of young Australian women experience episodes of binge or overeating. One in ten have a full blown eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Many more have some form of disordered eating; up to 50% of women are on a diet at any one time, says Judy Mahle Lutter in The Bodywise Woman (and remember, dieting IS disordered eating.)
The norm, then, for middle-class women in the West is to be a sufferer from some form of disordered eating.
Coincidentally, the same women who I see with eating issues, weight and body image concern also report immense dissatisfaction with their sex lives - if they have a sex life at all. Vaginal dryness. Loss of libido. Absent periods. Body hatred. Nothing kills your chances of enjoying sex faster than thinking you're hideous.
Why is this? How does dieting ruin sex drive?
Basically, juice fasting, calorie restriction, restrained eating (even in a healthy-sounding clean eating or paleo disguise), and other forms of dieting that (however temporarily) dwindle away crucial female body fat, wreck havoc on hormones, and destroy healthy body image are a fast track to not feeling in the mood... and not comfortably being able to get it on even if you do somehow feel up for it (read: vaginal dryness).
A semi-starved life comes with some pretty sucky consequences (and not in a good way.) But in order to understand the true impacts of dieting, we must first understand why body fat is so crucial to female fertility, sexual desire, and overall health.
fat is female, fat is sexual
It is the medium and regulator of female sexual characteristics. Cross-culturally, from birth, girls have 10-15 percent more body fat than boys. During puberty, male fat-to-muscle ratio decreases as the female ratio increases - this is NORMAL and necessary for sexual maturation and fertility...
...however though most girls today begin dieting by age 8 because they fear becoming too fat. It doesn't help that our culture sexualises the figures (and lack of pubic hair) of prepubescent girls.
Between the ages of 21 and 40, average body fat in a healthy woman increases by 10 percent, from around 28.7% in young adulthood to 38% by middle age. These are NORMAL characteristics of the female species and necessary to protect peri-menopausal women from the dangers of decreasing oestrogen levels and bone density...
...even though most middle-aged women both in my personal life and in my practice bemoan their rounder stomachs and vow they'll only be happy once they trim down to their 20-year old physiques.
In essence, fat is female. Yet that doesn't stop the fact that 54 percent of women would rather be hit by a truck than "be fat", a finding by this 2008 investigation on the dangers of fat talk.
As far as the media and the multiple industries invested in weight loss are concerned, fat is definitely a bad thing. In the words of Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth, fat is portrayed "as expendable female filth; virtually cancerous matter, an inert or treacherous infiltration into the body of nauseating bulk waste." Wolf adds that the vilification of fat in women is a product of good old-fashioned misogyny, which makes sense - for above all fat is female.
fat is fertility
These figures appear overweight to obese by modern Western standards.
When female body fat starts to dip below 17-18%, periods may become erratic or stop (coincidentally around the same body fat percentage that abs really start to show, a benchmark now widely coveted thanks to the arrival of the "fit is the new skinny" tagline).
Amenorrhoea (cessation of menstruation) induced by weight loss dieting and/or overexercise is nature's way of telling you that you don’t have enough body fat to nurture a foetus should you become pregnant. By turning off your menstrual cycle, your body is telling you that you are (temporarily) infertile.
Fat is health
For example, the health of your bones also depends on circulating levels of oestrogen, the principal reproductive hormone in women. You need adequate body fat for healthy skin, eyes, hair and teeth. Hormonal imbalances promote not just ovarian and endometrial cancer, but also osteoporosis. If vanity is a driver for you, think of the dry bumpy skin, thinning hair, and lacklustre eyes that fat-loss dieting brings.
Keep in mind that models and supermodels generally have 8-10% body fat percentage; fitness models 11-15% body fat. These women, who are positioned in our culture as the epitome of female "beauty", are 20 to 23 percent leaner than the average healthy woman.
The average woman wants to be as lean as a model. Yet from my clinical experience, infertility (no periods) and hormone imbalance (which can occur far before periods disappear entirely) are common among adult women whose body fat percentage starts to fall below 22 percent.
Not only are your fertility and general health affected by how much or how little body fat you carry. Your sex drive is dependent on it, too...
fat is desire
To ask women to become unnaturally thin is to ask them to relinquish their sexuality.
- Naomi Wolf, "The Beauty Myth"
There are multiple reasons why you experience a low sex drive while dieting. But basically, it comes down to some pretty important sex hormones that regulate your reproductive cycle, sex drive, mood, and more including (but not limited to) testosterone, oestrogen, and progesterone.
Anytime you’re in a negative energy balance (taking in fewer calories than your body requires), you enter a catabolic state and testosterone levels drop: this applies to both men and women and can result in loss of lean muscle mass as well as reduction in sexual desire and sexual behaviour. Low levels may contribute to the reduction of arousal and sexual response that often occurs in menopausal women. Testosterone is also needed in women to make oestrogen...
Additionally, after or alongside some dieting-induced muscle loss, you will start to lose fat. Hurrah! some of you may be thinking. But no. When women lose fat stores they also lose a primary store of oestrogen. Low levels of oestrogen can have a massive impact on your sex drive, and sharp declines are experienced by many Western women going through menopause. You may experience vaginal dryness that can lead to painful intercourse and you may have unstable mood and sleep patterns.
Like oestrogen, progesterone is another female hormone that helps control the menstrual cycle and support pregnancy. While researchers are still working to understand the role that progesterone plays in a woman's sexual function, changing levels of progesterone are thought to be involved in a woman's sexual behaviour.
If you look at it from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes complete sense that you would have a low sex drive whilst dieting. In times of famine when food shortages were short, there would be very little sense in bringing a baby into the world when there isn't enough food to feed that baby.
Body image & dieting
Poor body image is often linked to dieting, overexercising, or eating disorders. Melissa Fabello, sexuality scholar and body acceptance activist, confirms that "people with anorexia tend to have very low sex drives." Whilst some of this is inevitably due to low body fat percentage, there are other confounding factors such as history of sexual violence, comorbidity with depression, perfectionistic tendencies, and of course, poor body image and low self-regard.
Most women can relate to the impact of poor body image on sexual pleasure. If you're too busy worrying about what sexual positions best hide your belly rolls, you're probably not going to be as present and able to receive sexual pleasure as someone without such body concerns.
It's not without cringing that I recall a time in my early 20's when I hooked up with an absolutely gorgeous man who also happened to be a lovely person. He was clearly into me, too. But at the time I was still in the throes of body angst; I berated my "too-small" boobs and I was mortified of what he might think about them (as if he would give a shit.) I was also doing all kinds of crazy dieting stuff: juice fasting, skipping meals, you know the drill.
Frequent dieting can affect your health and can make you depressed, which also lends itself to poor body image.
I don't have many regrets in my life, but one of them is turning the lights off that evening and keeping my bra on while we made out. I mean, damn. If nothing else, I missed out on being able to see his amazing body! And I probably missed out on having a lot more fun, too.
How much do women REALLY need to eat?
But with grossly incorrect caloric recommendations commonplace in the forefront of women's minds (a product of the diet culture we live in), it can become very confusing to know just how much women need to eat, which makes it even more difficult to properly nourish ourselves.
Generally, women need to eat more than they think they need... a LOT more. In this blog I set the record straight about just how much food women need to maintain optimal wellbeing - including fertility and a healthy sex drive (trigger warning: I mention calories a lot.)
Women are told by those industries who stand to profit off of your weight loss and regain that they need up to 60% less than what their actual caloric requirements are. When I break down the numbers for you, this rivals WWII death camp rations and is often less than the daily caloric intake of the poorest women in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Women are taught that it's normal to be in a constant state of semi-starvation. This gets REALLY dangerous when you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
In short, dieting is not only unsustainable and risky; it wreaks havoc with your fertility, your sex drive, your body image, and your health.
Stop dieting, feel sexier
Of course, it's not always that easy as there are usually various psychological, physiological, social and emotional hurdles to getting off the diet rollercoaster, and indeed to recovering from an eating disorder. But I'll stick to the basic facts for now...
If you increase your overall caloric intake to meet your actual needs, enjoy regular, varied, balanced and satisfying meals, and let your body regulate itself at a higher metabolic rate, the result will be improved physiological function, improved desire for exercise and threshold for doing it, a better sex life, better fertility, better digestion, better skin hair nails and teeth, improved moods, better sleep, and countless other improvements.
It's always better to maintain your weight at a high calorie intake than a low calorie intake. Don't take my word for it. Try it out while assessing mood, energy, sleep quality, sex drive, skin moisture, desire to exercise, and other areas essential to living a vibrant life. You'll likely see that a well-fuelled life is better than a semi-starved life.
The thin "ideal": a political solution
If dieting has such devastating effects on female sexual desire and fertility (and it does), you'd think someone would have stopped it by now. So why haven't they?
To properly answer this requires a deeper dive; we've got to get a bit political.
Self-denial is expected of women in the dominant culture: both when it comes to food, and when it comes to sexual pleasure. Dieting is a convenient way to stifle both of these natural female appetites... whilst at the same time silently breaking a woman's spirit.
So why is it so important that female appetite be suppressed?
Naomi Wolf speaks about the thin "ideal" as being as so inconceivably successful not because thin is beautiful aesthetically (and multiple studies show that the majority of individual men agree with this sentiment), but because thin is beautiful as a political solution.
She argues that an underfed, hungry woman (i.e. one who diets in the eternal struggle for weight loss) - if she succeeds in becoming and remaining thin - becomes "weak, sexless, voiceless" and distracted ("...can only with difficulty focus on a world beyond her plate"). All of this, she argues, serves to save the current distribution of wealth and power from the claims made on it by the women's fight for equality that began in the sixties.
Kelly Diels echoes this sentiment when she describes "dieting as an act of female obedience" that keeps women distracted, anxious and lacking in self-esteem. A divided, fragmented and self-preoccupied group is an easily repressed group... and a group with bugger all sex drive.
Sexuality is all about hunger, desire, want. It's about understanding your body. It's about pleasure. All those things are things we deny women, whether we're talking about food, or sexuality,
- Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter"
Dieting and the focus on thinness keep women distracted from reaching their potential as individuals, and from actioning more pressing, larger collective social issues. It stops them from being truly empowered (a driving force behind the marketing of the Sexy, Successful, Spiritual Woman ideal) and from empowering each other.
Female hunger and self-denial serve the dominant culture. This is why female appetite is shunned, something we have been conditioned to see as dangerous, unattractive, and unfeminine.
Perhaps this is why Wolf describes dieting as "the essence of contemporary femininity". Research by the Austin (Texas) Stress Clinic has shown that denying oneself food is seen as good in a woman, and bad in a man: "dieting concern" was strongly related to "positive feminine traits"; for men, food restraint was related to "socially undesirable femininity."
The beauty of thinness lies not in what it does to the body but to the mind, since it is not female thinness that's prized, but female hunger, with thinness merely symptomatic.
- Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
Despite their beauty and ability to stay strong, wolves are sometimes talked about in this way: "Ah, you are too hungry, your teeth are too sharp, your appetites too interested." Like wolves, women are sometimes discussed as though only a certain temperament, only a certain restrained appetite, is acceptable.
- Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With The Wolves
At this time, our ancestors would have taken refuge in their homes, staying warm and living off what was hopefully a well-prepared larder. They would often supplement their food supply by hunting for wild game. It was this careful preparation, staying close to the fire, and hard work that kept the wolf from the door.
Since medieval times the wolf has been a metaphor for hunger and appetite. For a more modern reminder of this, just listen to the lyrics of this classic 80's hit, "Hungry Like the Wolf" by Duran Duran!
The Wolf has always been a symbol of evil as well as good, either an unsatiable, uncontrollable killer or a reflection of the mysterious, untamed wilderness. The reality of the matter, however, is that the wolf is neither evil nor exceptionally good. Wolves are simply predators. As with humans, wolves need to eat to survive. Just like women.
At this Wolf Moon, we are reminded of the existence of female appetite - for food and sex, and for basic regard. We are reminded of our parallels with the wolf - our natural and normal appetites, instinctual hungers, and wild nature.
If dieting and body hatred are the suppressors and oppressors of female appetite, then discovering satisfaction and seeking pleasure - both in eating and in sex - are the antidotes.
The satisfaction factor
We are taught from an early age to deny our appetites. It's eating a rice cake when you really wanted potato chips. It's faking orgasms and making someone else's pleasure more important than your own. Both examples show no regard for our personal satisfaction, and keep us trapped in the damaging loop of self-denial that is so destructive to our health and our spirits.
How do we begin to unravel old patterns of self-denial and settling for less than enough? Here are five basic ways we can begin to enjoy both food and sex again by discovering the satisfaction factor:
- Ask yourself what you really want (to eat, or sexually). This may require a period of giving yourself unconditional permission to eat (or in sexual terms, really explore things like masturbation or fetishes if you haven't gone down that avenue) to figure out what you really want to eat / what turns you on.
- Discover the sensual qualities of food / sex. To increase satisfaction in your eating and sex life, take time to experiment mindfully. Take your taste buds and senses on a joy ride. Consider taste, texture, aroma, appearance, temperature, speed, pressure, timing. This is where mindfulness can be really handy.
- Make the experience more enjoyable. Take your time instead of rushing. Provide variety to give you a much broader and more satisfying experience. Release tension: take several deep breaths before you begin to eat or play (whether alone or with partner/s). Sit down to eat instead of standing. Pay attention to each sensation. Eat or explore sex in a pleasant, comfortable environment. Slow down throughout the meal or experience to check in to make sure you're still enjoying yourself. Notice when you have had enough. Go slowly, sensually, and savour every bite or moment.
- Don't be afraid to express your pleasure. When you feel it, express, with authenticity, your pleasure in words, moans, gestures. It generates even more enjoyment, especially if we're talking sex and your partner knows how much you're loving the experience!
- Don't settle. You're not obligated to finish eating a food just because you took a bite of it. You're not obligated to continue playing with tie ups if you're not feeling good about it. If you don't love it, don't eat or do it. And if you love it, savour it.
Great sex + Chocolate covered almonds = yes
There are probably other unknown social and psychological factors at play here. Like the fact that when you're newly in love and having tonnes of sex in that initial honeymoon phase of a new relationship, the power of pleasure seems to spread beyond the bedroom. Besides indulging in sex, you also tend to eat exquisitely - you seek satisfying experiences together.
I remember a time when I was in the honeymoon phase of a new relationship with an awesome person. We had lots of sex, ate LOTS of chocolate covered almonds, and watched lots of movies together. Like me, he enjoyed fine dining (well as fine as we could afford as poverty-stricken uni students) and we ate very well, whether it was home-cooked pizza or the odd amazing meal at a fancy restaurant.
And our weight? I didn't notice any changes. And even if one or both of us did put on weight, we were having far too much fun to give a shit.
If you’re currently in the midst of a long, drawn out dry spell and you're dieting then you may start to connect the dots. You are worthy of receiving just as much pleasure as you give, and more. Let's get the currency of female pleasure back into circulation because the world desperately needs it... nearly as much as your stomach and your genitals do.