Nov. 11, 2005 -- Call it the feeling-frumpy-or-fine phenomenon of sex and aging for women.
A new study shows that a woman's sex life may be richer if she thinks she's at least as attractive as she was 10 years earlier.
But if she thinks her glory days, in terms of attractiveness, are over, some aspects of her sex life might have faded as well.
"This study points out that women's body image was a significant predictor of their specific sexual functioning," researcher Patricia Bartholow Koch, PhD, tells WebMD.
Koch is an associate professor of biobehavioral health and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University.
The study recently appears in The Journal of Sex Research.
Koch and colleagues studied about 300 heterosexual women for a decade. The women were 35-55 years old. Most were white and college educated.
The women took surveys about their sex lives. They were also asked if they were more, less, or as attractive as a decade ago.
No matter how young or old the women were, they tended to report having been more attractive 10 years earlier. That sense of faded attractiveness was linked to less frequent sex and a drop in sexual desire.
"Women definitely receive messages in the culture that as they age they're less attractive and that can be interpreted as less sexual as well," Koch says. Unrealistic standards of attractiveness in the media are one such influence, she says.
Better With Age
Some women were exceptions. They reported being just as attractive as 10 years earlier. A few said they had become more attractive with time.
Those women reported increases in sex, sexual enjoyment, and sexual desire, says Koch.
The study focused on body image. Many women were critical of their bodies. However, some said age had brought more confidence, which made them feel more attractive.
Sexual Satisfaction Rated High
The vast majority of the women -- about 70% -- reported being satisfied with their sex lives, no matter how attractive they felt.
How does that square with the other findings? Researchers and medical professionals "may be placing too great of an emphasis on specific physiological reactions," Koch says.
For example, she says some women don't rate intense orgasms as being crucial for sexual satisfaction.
Women vary in their sexual priorities, and those priorities may shift over time and with different relationships, says Koch. She stresses that she's not saying that women don't care about sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm.
"It seems that they look more at the overall sexual experience," Koch says. "Some of the things that we don't usually measure -- such as intimacy, communication, [and] affection ... are qualities that they use to evaluate their sexual experience, as well as some of the physiological responses that researchers and medical professionals tend to focus more on."
Ways to Improve Body Image
The study doesn't prove that feeling attractive boosts a woman's sex life. The two may go hand in hand.
"Women's body image may affect their sexual relationships," says Koch. "But we all know that our sexual relationships can also affect our body image. So if we're in a satisfying relationship and our partner gives us positive feedback, that also helps us to feel more self-confident and feel better about ourselves."
"That can boost our body image," says Koch. "It's a reinforcing cycle."
Koch offers four pieces of advice about improving body image:
- Figure out what can realistically be changed (such as physical fitness).
- Accept aspects of aging that can't be changed.
- Don't hold yourself to the media's standards of attractiveness.
- Get help from a counselor or support group if body image stays poor.
Don't forget the perks of aging, she adds. "Hopefully, it empowers [us so] that we have better knowledge of ourselves and we can communicate to other people," Koch says.
What About Men?
Women aren't the only ones with body image issues.
"Women and men are socialized very differently in our society and so they do have some unique issues," Koch says.
"But I think that the issues of body image and men and aging have really been underappreciated and understudied. ... I think unfortunately that these issues are becoming more prominent for men as well."