Panel discusses body image, sex

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Photo by Joyce Xi.

Issues surrounding body image and its impact on mental and sexual health took the spotlight at a Monday panel in a crowded Branford Common Room.

Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Yale’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center Director Carole Goldberg, and Chief of Student Health James Perlotto spoke at a panel entitled “Your Body is a Wonderland: Body Image and Sexuality at Yale” as part of Sex Week 2012. More than 30 people turned out to hear the panelists discuss how sex is portrayed in the media, in addition to other topics more specific to the college experience.

The conversation began with a general discussion of body image and sex in modern society.

Goldberg, who is also a psychologist at Yale Health, addressed the issue from a clinical perspective. Victims of sexual trauma are far more likely to have problems with body image, Goldberg said, as both eating disorders and severe weight gain can be “an important kind of expression of pain or distance.”

Wade spoke about body image from a sociological perspective, arguing that modern society presents both men and women with unhealthy messages about what functions their bodies should perform in sex.

“We are taught that men have bodies that do things … while women’s bodies are displayed as inert,” Wade said. “Women learn to think of their bodies as the objects of other peoples’ sexual desires, and men learn to think of themselves as machines that have to perform.”

She said these separate mindsets alienate both men and women from aspects of sex beyond the purely physical.

All three panelists said that stereotypes in the media, particularly in movies, fuel misconceptions about sex.

Goldberg said people’s expectations of sex are often determined by the “Hollywood version of sexuality,” adding that she has seen patients who are confused as to why their experiences do not line up with what the media portrays.

Wade agreed that the idealized sex shown in the movies creates an unhealthy sexual culture.

“Nobody’s body ever does anything it is not supposed to do,” Wade said. “I think there should be more sex on TV, and that it should be ugly and messy and funny, because that’s what it’s really like.”

Toward the end of the discussion, the panelists took questions from the audience and the conversation shifted from broader societal topics to more college-specific issues such as the hook-up culture, eating disorders and the perfectionist complex that prevail on many Ivy League campuses.

Wade said the hook-up culture at many colleges and universities is problematic because it causes people to value themselves based on physical appeal alone. She added that the hook-up culture has its origins in the second wave of feminism, which encouraged women to seek empowerment by imitating male behaviors.

“Women learned that the way to be empowered in sexuality is to have a masculine attitude towards sex,” she said. “What I think we need is a dismantling of the entire system that assumes that sex has a winner and a loser.”

The panelists next addressed eating disorders as part of Yale’s culture of perfectionism. They said the inherent stress of the college experience can prompt eating disorders in people who feel that food intake and body image are some of the only things they can control.

The event was cosponsored by Sex Week and Mind Matters, a student organization that aims to raise awareness about mental health issues on campus.

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