Illustration by Emma D.

When I entered middle school, I was horrified to learn that I was expected to change in front of other people in the locker room. I wasn’t really worried about what my specific classmates thought—I was simply crippled by an overwhelming fear of ANYONE seeing my body, which to me was imperfect to an embarrassing degree. With that in mind, can you imagine how terrifying it was to get undressed in romantic scenarios just a few years later? Every sexual encounter was potentially devastating—or so I thought. It took me a long time to learn how to focus on my own fun-having instead of the way my butt was/wasn’t jiggling in the mirror hanging from someone’s closet door.

I talked to some of the other Rookie writers about this insecurity and found out that many of them had experienced the same thing when they became sexually active. As always, they were mad wise and shared a million ways in which they figured out how to be more comfortable with their bodies—in a sexual context, but also the rest of the time.

Here’s some of what I learned—and I wish these wisdoms had been jackhammered into my brain back when I was just starting to get naked with other people, ’cause I probably would have enjoyed sex and all its related activities a lot more!

1. People are pretty much always stoked to see other people without clothes on.

This is basically the main tenet of battling insecurity while in the buff: if someone likes you to the point that they want to mess around with you, you’ve already got it in the bag. What, you think people have sex in order to mentally critique each other’s imperfections? No! They do it because they think the other person is hot! As Jamie said, “When you see someone else naked, you aren’t like, ‘Wow, this person has really bizarre nipples.’ You’re just like, ‘OH COOL, I’M SEEING SOMEONE NAKED.’”

2. Banish “the other woman.”

For a lot of us, a specter hung over our first sexual experiences: an image of an IDEAL PARNTER against whom we were always comparing ourselves, and afraid our partners were doing the same. Leeann geniusly described this imaginary person as “the other woman.”

When I was a teenager, the other woman, whom I will call Linda, was always in my head, making me feel bad about myself. Linda changed a lot, usually taking on the attributes of whomever I envisioned my partners wanting more than me on any particular day. Sometimes she was a blonde indie musician or a sexy actress or the girl with whom I shared a class. She was basically everyone but me. Whenever my partner closed his eyes for a second, I would panic that he was imagining Linda. I was so focused on all the ways I couldn’t compete with her that I would work myself into a lather of self-loathing (the least sexy kind of lather, probably) and totally lose interest in what was going on physically.

“When I feel the other woman creeping into my head, my little mantra is, ‘It’s just us in here,’” said Leeann. Hopefully her words can help you forget about your Linda. Because she’s not real, people. Linda is just not real.

3. That distinctive feature that makes you nervous isn’t as big a deal as you think.

Maybe teenage you, unlike teenage me, aren’t concerned about your whole entire body and all of the ways it is sub-ideal—but maybe there’s one part of your physical self that you feel weird about and don’t like to expose. It might be your ass or your boobs or your “excess” elbow meat. For Jenny it was a birthmark on her back; eventually she discovered a way of thinking about it that made her feel a lot better: “I was so scared of showing it to anyone that when I first had sex, I had to sit my boyfriend down and be like, ‘OH GOD, THERE’S SOMETHING I HAVE TO TELL YOU.’ And then I told him that I had a birthmark the SIZE OF ASIA on my back. Later, after we had gotten it on, he was like, ‘Wait, so where is this thing you were talking about?’ That was the first time I realized that my body was not deformed. I stopped warning guys about my birthmark after that. And one time when I was 18, a guy asked me about it, in a totally neutral way, after we’d had sex. I realized that I was attracted to all kind of boys and that some of them had bodies I had never experienced before and that sometimes I wanted to talk about it, not in a LET ME GAWK AT YR WEIRDNESS kind of way, but more of a ‘I feel so comfortable with you and you must know that I think you are so hot and so perfect that I feel like I could ask you anything’ type of way. And that made me feel a lot better about myself, too.”

4. D.A.N.C.E.
Can we all agree that dancing helps focus on feeling good, and stop worrying about looking good? Jamia said that dancing makes her feel “embodied,” which is an idea I like a lot. I think it means that you are fully occupying your own physicality, and you’re using all your powers to make it feel AWESOME. By dancing.

Jamia suggested taking some fun classes to get started. “When you are in a class full of other people with beautiful asses and jiggling bellies, the insecurity just melts off.” Doesn’t this sound sublime?

But dancing alone be just as awesome and body-affirming. As Naomi said, “It doesn’t matter what you look like in your bedroom! All that matters is how you feeeeel.” She passed along this video, in which Le Tigre basically sums up the above thinking with some sick electro beats.

5. Love your underwear!

“I think owning lingerie that doesn’t make you feel like you are performing sexiness, but that actually makes you feel sexy on a personal level, is important,” said Jamie. I concur! For some people that might mean black lace; for others, boxer briefs. You definitely don’t have to go gangbusters at Victoria’s Secret. My lucky (wink) pair of underwear isn’t lacy or see-through or backless, but it does make me feel like my butt is an amazing gift unto the world. Even on days when you’re not expecting anyone else to see them, it can be spirit-lifting to slip into some racy underthings. Fact: looking hot for YOU is the first and foremost way to feel sexy.

6. Do it yourself.

“Self-love is a really fun way to get to know your body, figure out what feels good, and banish all the noise,” Rose pointed out. “Before you try to tell someone how to make you feel comfortable and sexy, it’s good to be able to go there alone.” Masturbation helps you demystify your own body and appreciate what’s unique and glorious about it, and it builds a close personal relationship between you and your sexuality. “Knowing your body makes sex with other people a lot more pleasant, because you can communicate what you like and what you don’t like,” added Arabelle. “Being able to take charge of your desires is so, so important.”

7. People are, like, beautiful, man.

Have you ever felt that if you just spent enough time with any person on earth, asked them the right questions, and really gave yourself a chance to discover them, you would absolutely be able to love them deeply, no matter who they were? I feel that way all the time. And the more I talk about this feeling, the more common I find it is, which makes me feel a very special connectivity with the world.

“If I look at anyone long enough,” said Tavi, “I will fall in love with them. I only want friends and romantic partners who are the same way, because people are beautiful and that’s why life is interesting. Even though I believe in evolution, I think there’s something holy about the fact that what it’s resulted in is human consciousness and the ability to make and appreciate art and appreciate each other, so I feel like we should all be doing that more, and that means appreciating parts of each other that are weird and hairy and smelly.”

Jenny feels the same way: “I feel like I’m falling in love all the time,” she said. “I just want to be in love every second with everyone. I am genuinely attracted to people who have the kind of bodies that are conventionally considered flawed. And never once have I thought of their bodies as ‘flawed.’ And if I think that way of them, can’t they think that way of me?” Yes! If everyone I asked about this feeling told me that duh, of course they feel that way too, then I think we can assume that the kinds of people we want to be intimate with share our attitude—and if you do, too, you can assume the same of your partners. So finding someone’s body sexually beautiful and having them feel the same way about yours is basically guaranteed.

I think something Leeann said fits in nicely here: “You have to remind yourself that you have the right to give and receive pleasure no matter what you look like.” You deserve to enjoy your sexuality and that of others. If you can give love freely, then it will come back to you, regardless of your insecurities.

8. Don’t have sex with assholes.

Don’t let people jerk you around. If the person you’re considering fooling around with is cajoling you into doing something by putting you down, or cajoling you in general, DO NOT HAVE SEX WITH THAT PERSON.

Sometimes flirting involves gently teasing another person with good intentions. But there’s a difference between that and someone being negative about your hair or body or clothing or friends or WHATEVER. Guess what? They most likely won’t be any nicer to you when you’re not wearing clothes. There are jackholes who think that a good way to get someone to be with them is to lower that person’s self-esteem. They hope that, in doing so, they will make themselves seem superior. So terrible. There’s even a name for this. Avoid those jackholes, seriously.

Arabelle was especially adamant about this. “Don’t fuck people who make comments about your body other than how beautiful it is,” she said. “Actually, don’t even hang out with them. Your friends should make you feel beautiful, and the same goes for the people who see you naked—ESPECIALLY THOSE PEOPLE, because you are exposing yourself to them, and it is a gift that they shouldn’t take for granted.”

9. Take a break.

Sometimes getting caught up in the whole idea of how you relate to sex can be an utter mindfuck, especially if you’re figuring these things out for the first time. If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed by feelings of sexual insecurity or unattractiveness, it can be useful to bow out for a little bit. Taking a vacation from sexual activity can help you regain your confidence as a person by reminding you that your worth comes from all different parts of yourself.

“I decided to be totally celibate for a year when I was about 19 or 20 to reclaim a confidence and power I wasn’t sure I ever felt in the first place,” Jessica remembered. “It was amazingly helpful. I didn’t quantify my charm according to whether someone wanted me in a particular way, and it was fully empowering, even though I only made it eight months. I haven’t sweated my appearance, attractiveness, or body confidence since.” It’s never a bad idea to take some time off if you feel you might need it.

10. Feminism is meant to make us feel BETTER about our bodies, not worse.

If you identify as a feminist, you may know about the body-acceptance movement, which is all about loving and celebrating your physical person, no matter what size or shape your body is. For those of us who fervently believe in this idea, myself included, it can lead to moments of intense self-criticism, because HOW could you be feeling insecure and still believe passionately in the movement? When this happens to me, my thinking goes like this: “I SAY that everyone is beautiful as they are, so how come I can apply those feelings to everyone except myself? How come I’m still ragging on myself for not looking Photoshopped? Why are there Lean Cuisines in my freezer? I AM A FRAUD! A SHAM, I TELL YOU!!!”

“It’s easy to get down on yourself even more for being down on yourself to begin with,” said Tavi, “like, ‘I must be such a hypocrite, preaching body acceptance but not living it! But living it is HARD, and it’s an every-day thing, and some days are bad, so let’s all just chill out and hug ourselves for like two seconds.” You’re not a “bad feminist” for occasionally feeling self-doubt. You’re just a human being, and we’re all uncertain at some time or another. Also, body acceptance is a process. You can identify with and strive for it and still have moments of insecurity.

11. Fill in the blanks: “I feel ____, so I need ____.”

Once you learn to fill in the blanks of that sentence with your partner, you’re basically set. Sex is a MUTUAL thing. You aren’t there just to make sure someone else gets off; they have to extend you the same courtesy, and make you feel respected and appreciated while doing so. If you’re feeling uncomfortable, try Leeann’s technique: “I’m a big fan of letting people know what I’m thinking when I’m insecure. I just say, ‘I’m feeling super insecure about my body right now, and it would help if we turned off the light,’ or slowed down for a minute, or whatever I think might help.’ Knowing that my partner is willing to change things so that I’m more comfortable reminds me that I’m in control of the situation, that this is a loving exchange between two people, and that we can do whatever we need to do to make it work for us both.”

Having good sex, and feeling GOOD about sex, it turns out, isn’t about being Linda. It’s about being YOU, and making it work in a way that’s respectful and fun for you and your partner(s). I spent SO LONG trying to please others and worrying that I was doing it wrong, and I let my own pleasure fall by the wayside as a result. Don’t do that! Speak up, dance, and don’t fuck idiots. Most important, have a great time. ♦