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The Four Ingredients of Sexual Self Esteem

by Deborah Nedelman PhD & Leah Kliger MHA

Peggy, at age 60, seems to shine with an inner glow. There is no doubt that this is a woman well past her reproductive years, yet her smile radiance some how invites others to get draw closer. When she looks in the mirror, Peggy sees finds a woman whom she enjoys treasures values. She feels invigorated and open to life.   

With her thick auburn hair now streaked with gray and her clear, formerly creamy skin lined with creases, Charlotte, age 55, no longer turns heads when she walks into a room. The change has been gradual, but the result is dramatic – most days she feels invisible and miserable.

What’s the difference between Charlotte and Peggy?

Peggy has has managed to foster her sexual self esteem even in the face of negative cultural attitudes about pre and post menopausal sexuality. Charlotte, on the other hand, still struggles with what so many women at midlife and beyond experience – dwindling desire coupled with the evaporating evaporating of her sexual self esteem.

How women feel about themselves is so fundamental to their well being that it can even impact brain size, as recent research has shown. Dr. Sonia Lupien of McGill University in Montreal studied the brain scans of 92 senior citizens over a period of fifteen years. She discovered that the brains of those who had low self-worth were up to a fifth smaller in size than those who had more positive attitudes! After talking with hundreds of women aged 50 to 95, we are not surprised by these findings.

Women from all over the country and from varied backgrounds and walks of life have told us how their sexual self image has changed as they have gotten older. By examining their life stories, we have come to recognize that those who have weathered the storms of menopause and survived with positive self esteem possess some important attributes. We have begun to think of these attributes as the essential ingredients in the recipe for sexual self confidence beyond 50. They each add a necessary flavor, though the proper blending will vary for every woman.

1. A Jumbo Portion of Comfort with Your Body

One of the questions we’re frequently asked is, “Since I’ve gotten older, I’m embarrassed if my husband sees me naked; am I alone in this?” Reevaluating commonly held definitions of sexual attractiveness and finding freedom from the “sexy woman” stereotypes imposed by our youth oriented culture is not just wishful thinking. We can rid ourselves of the cobwebs that trap us, but it does take work. The rewards of disengaging from the competitive game of self-evaluation and learning to honestly cherish who you are today are enormous. You may want to have a little nip or tuck taken, or you may choose to go au naturale. Perhaps you spend hours at the gym or find the sensuality of a massage gives you reason to value your body. Regardless of your approach, we recommend reexamining your internal definition of attractiveness and doing your best to ignore the societal pressure we all feel to gauge our personal value by artificial standards of physical beauty.

“I define beauty for myself now, and thank goodness I’m not so dependent on others to define it for me. But, boy is it a struggle. I’ve always had big boobs, and in junior high I was teased unmercifully. In my 20’s and 30’s they tended to be ‘men magnets’—and sometimes seemed to be my only attributes that men were attracted to. Now that I’m 60, my breasts have headed south, and they cause me some back pain. It’s hard to find tops that fit. And I’ve even considered a breast reduction. Making peace with who I am, big boobs and all is not easy, yet on many days I just love the woman I see in the mirror.”

Loretta, 60, travel agent, Fort Lauderdale

Five years ago, my body image played a large part in my not wanting to seek out a sexual partner. I knew I had to feel pretty good about my life, not just how my body was looking. Now, frankly, although my body image sucks, I’ve reinvented a new career for myself and I have found a new partner. My sexual self confidence is soaring.”

Georgiana, 55 year old lesbian from Austin

 2. A Taste for the Beauty in Life

This theme was repeated by many women in different ways: as their sexuality changed, their creativity blossomed. They talked about increased appreciation for the sensuality in everyday life and how important it was to surround themselves with beauty. For many, their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s were the decades when they finally gave themselves permission to explore their creative impulses and try new outlets. This can be a very stimulating and freeing time. Ever wanted to try your hand at glass blowing or playing the drums? Taking the time to indulge in whatever form of expression attracts you can lead to uncovering new sources of pleasure and satisfaction. Exploring your creative potential is a wonderful way to make friends with yourself and boost your self appreciation.

 “I now find myself being much more appreciative of nature, of music, of colors, of beauty in general than I ever did before. I find intimacy in nature, in quiet spaces and in my garden. Sometimes, it’s no longer the big excitement of my youth, but the serenity satisfies my soul.”

Diana, 63, hospital administrator, Iowa

I was looking at a woman that I didn’t even know, and she had a beautiful body. I was sad that my body wasn’t beautiful like hers. That was a reality check for me. What I realize that there are women in the arts who are revered and still work up into their 80’s. To me, that’s what really keeps me going. It doesn’t matter what I look like . . . my art is the source of my self confidence and energy.

Fran, a 60 year old artist, Wichita

3.Ample Servings of Each of the Following:  Autonomy, Personal Power, and Authenticity

Many women told us that once they moved beyond 50, having a sexual partner for life was no longer the focus for self definition that it once had been. Rather than getting bogged down in societal expectations and roles, what becomes important is the ability to value and respect the life choices you’ve made and to take responsibility for creating your own reality.

Autonomy: independent decision making and freeing yourself to make choices with your own interests at heart. Taking control over your own life doesn’t necessarily mean living it alone. Many women who were in long term marriages or had life partners expressed the importance of seeing their lives as their own without allowing their partner’s needs to be the primary motivation for their decisions.

Personal Power: recognizing that your life experience has meaning and allowing yourself to flex those muscles and feel your strength. We heard from many women who had learned to acknowledge their own value in the world in spite of the pressure to retreat into matronly invisibility.

Authenticity: being your true self in your interactions with others and not allowing fears of vulnerability to lead you to hide behind false presentations. This is, perhaps, the most difficult ingredient to find, yet it is so often what separates a truly confident, sexually secure older woman from one who feels disoriented in her aging body.

“After the kids left home, there was a period of time when I really struggled to find my own identity. After awhile, though, I couldn’t believe the shift that came over me. Since I’m not taking care of anyone else anymore, I have much more time to take care of and appreciate myself. I realized my ex-husband didn’t have custody of my gonads, and I no longer want anyone else to either.”

Janet, 55, teacher, Salem, Oregon

4. A Good Dose of Humor

The house gatherings and seminars we hold around the country echo with phenomenal good cheer. The attendees often tell us that they never expected to be talking aloud about their sexual desire at this point in their lives, but the infectious laughter makes it not only possible, but a downright joy.

For example, when asked “What color is your sexual desire?” Sharon answered, “Blue.” And Paula said, “Yeah, right, once in a blue moon.” At another gathering Diane knew that the hue that turned her on was Hugh Grant. One of the most enjoyable parts of collecting women’s stories is the jokes and cartoons we’ve acquired. They’ve helped us through the darkest hours of rejection, and brought tears of laughter when we needed it most. While getting old is no joke, if we don’t lighten up and enjoy the humor in it all we can easily succumb to a self-fulfilling gloom.

These four ingredients, mixed well with the broth of life experience, create a dish to be eaten in large portions. Savoring yourself as a sexual being can make adventure of aging a delicious feast.

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