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Deenie Hartzog-Mislock | Longreads | April 2020 | 13 minutes (3,341 words)
About two years ago, I stopped feeling beautiful. Around that time, my husband stopped touching me. “I don’t feel sexy,” I told our therapist from the gray, tufted chenille seat adjacent to my husband’s. I kneaded a wet tissue, worn into holes, between my thumbs. “When he doesn’t touch me, it makes me feel bad about my body. And then I treat my body poorly, and then I hate the way I look and feel.”
I knew better. I knew our lack of sexual intimacy wasn’t about the soft, expanding skin that stubbornly clung to my midsection, or my thighs, so much thicker, dimplier now than they used to be, my entire shape a soft, aging pear. So different from what it was when I was a dancer in college, spending whole days in pale pink tights — when I was leaner, younger. I knew this was about him, his childhood (always the childhood), his work, and his insecurities. But I needed my therapist’s advice. After two years of starts and stops, his reasons for not wanting to have sex, however valid, floated from his mouth and immediately vaporized into thick, gray clouds that followed me around, threatening to dampen my self-esteem at any moment.
It’s my body, isn’t it? Do you not love me anymore? Through the dim light of our bedroom, after another botched attempt to physically pull him out from under the emotional weight he couldn’t seem to escape, I would ask these loaded questions while tears careened down my cheeks and onto the crumpled sheets between us. No, I love your body, he’d say. Of course I still love you. But I didn’t believe him. And sometimes I still don’t.
We weren’t always like this. Nine years into our relationship, five years into marriage, as tensions arose financially and professionally; as the prospect of starting or not starting a family became difficult to ignore; as expectations and rifts in his identity grew more tenuous; our sex life dissipated. After a few months, I was angry, frustrated.
Then my husband disappeared into himself entirely. He stopped smiling. His laughter ceased to echo. I retreated into work. We shifted around one another. Months passed. We went to therapy. Once or twice he accepted my plea for sex, disguised as an invitation, but it was different now. Like a chore he’d been asked to complete. Each time we danced around the prospect of physical intimacy, I could feel his tension rising like the upward turning of a volume knob. More months passed. The New Year came and went. I pointed out the last time we’d had sex. “I’m well aware how long it’s been,” he said.
“You know, intimacy comes in many forms,” our therapist said as she handed us a large, artfully illustrated sex therapy guide, thinking we could get “inspired” by looking at the visuals. Thanks, but I know what a blowjob looks like.
I’ve quietly cried myself to sleep in bed next to him. I’ve cried in front of him at restaurants, in our kitchen, and in the car; alone in the hallway and outside with the dog. I’ve ceremoniously lost my shit, yelling about all the other men I’ve dreamt of sleeping with — celebrities, that shirtless guy in my yoga class, the faceless composites of men who can give me the one thing in fantasy that my husband no longer offers me in reality: desire.
“If you really want to have sex with me, like you say you do, then wouldn’t you just do it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “But it’s not that simple.”
I’ve tried nearly everything to buy us more time — tended to my emotional wounds with long outdoor walks, gone away from him for weeks to focus on my writing, extended vacations with girlfriends — because I married a good man. A responsible, kind, loyal man with a big heart; my creative equal. I make sense of the world through words. He does it through music. And when I hear him in his studio, plucking strings and punching pedals, making ambient sounds that permeate every corner of our home, I know he’s trying to say what he can’t articulate verbally — or physically. So I stay on the sidelines, crying, dreaming, waiting.
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I can’t accept that sex should be this complicated between two people who love each other, who’ve been having satisfying sexual experiences for years. Why can’t you just have sex with me? I cry at how pathetic it sounds to ask him this. It makes me feel like a child asking for candy in the grocery store, ashamed because I already know the answer.
I can’t accept that my husband is allowed to be unhappy and that it has nothing to do with me, the woman who has been tasked to keep him happy. That his unhappiness — not his love for me — has stripped him of all desires, and not just for sex, for life, too. No, I’ve believed that there is something wrong with me, with the way my body must feel in his hands, against him, because that’s what women have been led to believe all our lives. It’s our fault.
I recognize that I have fallen prey to two very dangerous and false ideas: That men are expected to desire sex always, in perpetuity, and that their masculinity is defined by this. Secondly, that arousal is subject solely to physical appearance. But the logic necessary to dismantle false ideas is rarely anywhere to be found when you’re near ready to detonate your life.
“I want you to do something every day that makes you feel sexy, all on your own,” our therapist said. I thought to myself about all those fantasy men. I don’t think that’s what she had in mind when she said, “all on your own.”
“What makes you feel sexy?” she asked.
“Being active,” I said. “After a run or a hot yoga class, when I’m covered in sweat. I feel sexy when I feel strong.”
When my muscles feel as though I’ve stretched them to the furthest corner of my skin, it puts me back in my body like when I was a dancer — the feeling that breath, brain, and limbs are a cohesive, connected system. In duets, I loved the way our shapes curled against one another, the elegant, tactile nature of handling a torso, the way we’d bend and sway, passing our weight back and forth with nothing between us but a thin black leotard. Back then the flick of a wrist conjured enough emotion to crack the ceiling; the soar of a grand jeté or the scooping gesture of a deep plié were centered, focused manifestations of something bigger than me. My body was a conduit for feeling, but also a disposal of it. “Use it, or leave it at the door,” my dance instructor used to say. So I used it on the floor. I moved through it.
“Also, I feel sexy when he thinks I’m sexy,” I said looking to my husband. “How fucked up is that?” I asked her. “I’ve believed, all this time, that I’m only as beautiful as he thinks I am.”
Appearances, especially those of the body, were not something I was taught to value, at least directly. Though in the deep south of the 1980s, that’s exactly what one was subconsciously taught to use as a standard of self worth. But I was a chubby, energetic kid, so I was lauded for other traits, like good grades. I was taught the importance of being a kind and moral person. I got laughs for being funny. I was quirky. My family raised me to be confident at every age and size, surrounded by a slew of Lebanese aunts who would have told me I was gorgeous if I had the face and body of a groundhog.
My weight fluctuated dramatically all my life; I’ve cycled through more denim digits than I can count. Attention for my appearance didn’t come until I grew older — until I got skinny. In college, when I was throwing up cheeseburgers in order to compete, aesthetically, with the other dancers, men and women praised me for dropping down to a size 0. I was so thin I could pull on a pair of jeans, button and zip them, and slip them right off, gliding past my bony hips that way. It was such a novelty it might as well have been a party trick. I’d never been so small, and the message I received was not new or revolutionary, but it was simple and powerful: The thinner I was, the more positive attention I received. Even then, though, I was never as thin as the best dancers. My meaty ass still got in the way of my arabesque.
I stopped dancing a couple of years after I graduated in 2005, when I moved to New York City. All those years obsessing over my size had exhausted me. I stopped reading books like Diet For Dancers, which recommended diet plans as low as 1,000 calories a day (after a day of rehearsal!). I saw a health coach to reeducate myself on how to be a non-dancer living in the world of wellness. I skipped workouts. I started eating French fries. (Gasp!) My shape changed again, and this time, I allowed it to. I just wanted to be normal, to stop calculating the number of calories in every bite and how many God-Awful-Boring-Hours-On-An-Elliptical I’d have to endure to lose it. I thought, finally, I could be content with my body.
Now, in my late 30’s, the prime of my youth has passed, and time continues to show me what it can do to an aging body, breasts, and skin. My features, the ones men once admired, have changed — less taut, less petite, less lean everywhere. At my best, I’m unconcerned, grateful for a strong, feminine figure. But old habits die hard.
In the absence of sex, I’ve been frustrated that men do not look at me the way they used to. And yet, furious that I care at all. What angers me more than the south-sloping evolution of my physical identity is that the very people I seek approval from are the people I want to educate, whose hold over me I want to diminish, whose minds I want to change: Men. When I catch their eyes, I get a familiar shiver of exhilaration, a feeling I’ve known ever since I was old enough to understand it: Power.
“You know,” I told my husband a few years after we married, “I seek nearly all my validation from you now. Just you.” I used to get it from strangers on the subway, in bars and restaurants, on the street. I collected glances from men and used them as ammo for my self-esteem. It’s not that I think we ought to stop flirting after marriage (puh-lease). But I thought that by drawing the bulk of my physical validation from my husband, by focusing my efforts in one place, I’d be less likely to stray in this marathon of a relationship. The problem: Drawing validation from somewhere that is not self-generating, but a fallible external source like another human, is as likely to disappoint as the series finale of Game of Thrones.
In a world where women are made to feel that we are lesser than, weaker than, we are often taught that sex and appearance are our only weapons with which to compete — and it’s pervasive: in the workplace, on social media, even in politics. I don’t disagree with using sexuality as one way to move through this world. The issue is that society has made this our primary mode of leverage, and if we exist or age outside of society’s prescribed standards of beauty — narrow ideas about age, race, shape, size — we often lose our perceived power. As single women, as wives, as figures of desire.
Is this not the most backwards shit you’ve ever heard? And still we are told that in order to be deemed sexually desirable by the world, we must fall within a range of an acceptable prototype. Does the world not gauge us based on size (among other things) with a scale that ranges from “hot” to “socially accepted,” and then a quick phase out to “invisible”?
Cellulite! Back fat! For many women, these are the most natural characteristics of the female body — as natural as giving birth, as growing old — and yet, somewhere along the way, through so many forms of messaging, we were taught they were unnatural and meant to be concealed. Mainstream media is moving at a crawl to be more inclusive. Be Yourself! they say. But look gorgeous (and effortless!) while you do it! Don’t care what other people think! they proclaim. But only if you look how we want you to look. Otherwise you’ll be trolled.
Gen Z-ers are growing up in a world drastically more body positive than the one I was brought up in, but I wonder what it will take to rewire my history? My inner dialogue must be the most toxic, damaging aspect of my conundrum, one so deep-seated I couldn’t possibly trace its origin — though perhaps it was cemented the day another fourth grader, a boy, called me fat in front of the class. Or each time I bought into the lie that this dress will be the one that makes me love my body.
The amount of time, energy, and money most women spend trying to change their form or conceal their shape is certifiably ludicrous. If we materialized the physical insecurities of every woman and spread them out like a blanket over the earth, would they cover more ground than all the oceans combined? I want desperately to be free of guilt, shame, and failure around the expansion and reshaping of my form, but there is a man’s voice in the back of my head reminding me that soon enough, I will fade into his periphery.
In Shrill, Lindy West brilliantly articulated a larger frustration when she wrote, “When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time — that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters that are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.”
So, OK fine, fuck the world. And the patriarchy. But what happens when we turn into our most intimate relationship — our long-term partnership or marriage — the one that is not of the world, but made of our deepest, most sacred selves, and we are rejected sexually? Where do we have to go? How long can I maintain unwavering pride in a body deemed unfuckable by the one person I threw in all my chips for? In sexlessness, it’s been impossible for me not to recall the validation I received back in college, impossible not to wonder, If I make myself smaller, will he see me?
In a quest for balance, I avoid wellness propaganda that exists for the wrong reasons. I don’t care about summer-body six packs. I just want to put on a pair of pants without feeling as though I’m a moral failure for allowing them to tug so passionately across my hips. I don’t subscribe to routines that encourage scales, measurements, and restriction. I am thoughtful about the language I use around food and fitness, careful not to encourage thinness or dieting. I want to be educated on every body’s struggles with self-image, and understand how I can help create a world in which narrow, specific ideals of beauty are no longer the norm. I want to stop thinking about my body so much.
And yet, I don’t wear shorts because I hate my legs. I’d rather wear a bedazzled Glad bag with drawstring ties than a body-skimming dress that might — God forbid — reveal the pillow of my belly in its entirety. Once a friend of my father’s, while slightly inebriated, told me he saw a photo in which it looked like I’d “eaten too much strawberry shortcake.” I was too shocked to tell him to fuck off. And now I think about it every time I wear that pair of jeans.
If, at my thickest, men do not see me, I default to old habits of blaming myself. If my husband doesn’t touch me, I am certain it’s because he is repulsed by the idea of getting in bed with a skin-toned marshmallow. Regardless of how beautiful I find my shape and size to be in all its iterations, I don’t know what to believe about my body if someone is not telling me what they think about it. And with that, I am perpetrating a toxic cycle that won’t change until I do.
I am honest with my husband about my struggles. I don’t know what else to do, or how to move past a lifetime of body image trauma without first acknowledging it in front of someone I trust. My therapist will continue to insist this is intimacy. While I know she’s technically right, I scoff at this soft-core emotional foreplay. There are only so many hours we can spend hashing out our emotional hang ups, only so many nights I can fight my disappointment as he kisses my shoulder and then turns his back to me, again, uninterested in what my body has to offer.
I want a physical conversation. I want him to be greedy with me. I want to feel the weight of his body without the weight of his anxiety. I want it to be easy. I want to pretend that marriage is not so complicated. I want to be back in the dance studio, sliding limbs across limbs. I want to be yanked by their hands, flung into their arms, hooked by my ribcage.
“Would you be up for trying something a little different?” my therapist asked in one of our last sessions. God, what was she going to ask us to do now? We’d already been asked to hop into the driver’s seat of an imaginary car to revisit our childhood selves; point to basic emotions on a laminated piece of paper; and gaze, unflinchingly, into each other’s eyes without laughing.
She sat us on the floor with our backs touching and our sitz bones stacked on a pillow.
“I want you to move slowly back and forth, keeping your backs aligned.” She spoke in a soft, soothing tone. “Move left and right, and forward if you like, supporting the weight of each other as you move.” And we did.
I could have swayed like that forever, his weight propped against me. For once, he held no tension in his neck. He did not resist me when I pushed my spine into his. He followed the curve of me when I leaned forward, releasing his body onto mine. For a moment, I was back in the dance studio, back in my body. Afterwards my therapist asked how that made us feel. “It made me feel beautiful,” I told her.
Back in the tufted chenille chairs she asked what we were thinking; what did we want from the future? I said I wanted more surrender from him. He said he was working on articulating his more complicated feelings, on expressing them instead of hiding them. Just as I was about to move on to the next thing, my husband interjected. “And healing.” He turned his piercing blue eyes onto me. “It’s about healing.”
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Deenie Hartzog-Mislock is a writer and copy director living in Los Angeles.
Editor: Sari Botton