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If you're reading this in your underwear, do me a favor. Put on some clothes. It's not that you don't look great; you do. But research indicates that a majority of women dislike their bodies, and that when you spend time worrying about the way you look, you're less able to concentrate and enjoy other things. Like magazine articles, for example.

Also sex.

Do I have your attention? It's important because this story is about body image—how satisfied you are with your weight and shape—and if you're a woman who's been awake at all during the past 50 years, there is a high probability that this particular issue affects you in negative ways. Between 1972 and 1997 the percentage of women unhappy with their bodies more than doubled, from 25 percent to 56 percent, says Katharine Phillips, MD, director of the Body Image Program at Butler Hospital in Providence.

This does not bode well for intimacy. As difficult as it is to open up to someone, it's even harder when you feel desperate to hide part of yourself, particularly in the bedroom. Studies show that shame and anxiety about one's body lead to the avoidance of physical closeness and reduced sexual satisfaction. "Women with poor body image don't initiate sex as often, and they're more self-conscious," says Ann Kearney-Cooke, PhD, director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute. "Sexual intimacy involves the sharing of your innermost essence with another person, and being able to pay attention to yourself as well as to your partner." If you're preoccupied with your body, Kearney-Cooke says—if you're thinking, Is my stomach sticking out? Has he noticed the cellulite on my butt?—you obviously won't be focusing on his desires or yours, or be present in the moment. It's like having a third, unwelcome person in the room: you, your lover, and your cellulite. How intimate is that?

Unfortunately, a poor body image is not so easy to discard because the factors that contribute to it start kicking in at a very young age. One factor, according to Kearney-Cooke, is how we've internalized the way people have responded to our bodies from the time we were small girls—how we're touched or not, criticized or not. Another factor is identification: Kearney-Cooke's research shows that if your mother didn't like what she saw in the mirror, you probably won't either. Projection, that handy psychological trick that allows us to unload onto other people or things (like our bodies) feelings we're having a hard time with, can be a third factor. A woman who hasn't had a thought about her thighs all day, for example, might be struck with the idea that they're huge if on the way to meeting her paramour, she's concerned about how enormously she needs him.

But what if—lucky you—your parents were your devoted admirers, your mother liked her body, and your lover loves yours? Well, then, all you've got to deal with is the rigid and distorted American ideal of the beautiful female. Research indicates that she is 11 percent below normal weight. Fifteen percent below normal weight is considered anorexia. According to a study of Miss America winners, between 1922 and 1999 the ideal became 12 percent lighter. The percentage of real women under 35 who are obese has more than doubled between 1960 and 1994. Also, because the ideal is a light-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed woman in her early twenties-with European features, there is an enormous population of women—most of us, in fact—who don't conform.

The widening gap between what we think we're supposed to look like and what we actually look like is a very fertile place for self-doubt and shame to grow. "We're bombarded with messages suggesting that our bodies and looks not only represent our self-worth but also are fundamentally flawed. Of course that affects our self-esteem," says Liz Dittrich, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California. And so starts a vicious cycle: Shame and insecurity can trigger all kinds of behavior that take a further toll on the body—smoking to control weight, popping lots of diet drugs, having plastic surgery. This behavior also costs money, a point not to be overlooked because it's part of the reason poor body image is so entrenched in our society. As women have gained more power financially, we have become a lucrative target for businesses that profit from our dissatisfaction: The more we hate our bodies, the more we spend to "fix" them. The diet industry alone has grown into a $36 billion– a–year business in the United States.

Next: How to improve your body confidence
So, enough bad news. Now what to do about it? We might take a lesson from the French. "There's no question that European women are more comfortable with their bodies," says Billie Blackhurst, 62, an American who has lived in France for 25 years and definitely picked up the laissez-faire attitude. "I feel less worried about my body now, I think less about the body parts—what's hanging on them and how it's hanging on them."

A study found that French women—and this would include those with a few hanging parts—continue to have sex later in life than American women, especially after the age of 50. John H. Gagnon, PhD, the lead author, suggests that French women think of themselves as sexy even as they age and that French men see them that way, too, in contrast to American guys, who equate attractiveness with youth. If you have any doubts, check out the spate of French movies featuring older actresses like Nathalie Baye, in her fifties (An Affair of Love), and Bulle Ogier, 62 (Venus Beauty Institute), playing erotic leads.

But what can American women do about the fact that our men seem to prefer the Britney Spears type to the slightly (or greatly) more mature? An attitude change has to start with us: The more confident we feel about our attractiveness, the more likely we are to be perceived as attractive. Even if you end up without a partner, you'll feel better about yourself and, because of that, enjoy your life in other ways more fully. French women seem to approach the business of enchantment in this spirit. Blackhurst notes that while American women often drape themselves in loose outfits to hide their perceived flaws, Europeans have fun with sensual clothes that cling to the body: "For example, women after a certain age tend to get a little potbelly. European women just love to show it off, wearing something snug that might accentuate it, and it looks great. They're not obsessed with having a hard, flat stomach."

Mariette Broussous, an archivist living in Paris, adds, "In France we know that life is about getting older but that we can overcome the feeling of aging." After recently seeing a 75-year-old woman on TV talking about democracy and Greek heroes, Broussous comments, "She was all wrinkled but she looked great—so bright and intelligent, not just the physical envelope. She was blooming! Aging like that I don't mind." In fact, Broussous, 58, has a lover who is 20 years younger than she is. "I know I'm not a beautiful woman," she says, "but I'm tall and have a nice silhouette, and I'm elegant in the way I walk."

Broussous and others commented on how easy it is to spot an American in a European crowd: Women from the States, they notice, all try to look alike. "There's not such a strict standard of beauty in Europe," says Marie Charlotte Piro, 28, a New York City real estate agent who was raised in France. "People there appreciate all different kinds of looks." When she lived in Miami, Piro was particularly shocked at the conformity. "The women all had thin bodies, big breasts, long blonde hair, and white teeth," she says. "Boring."

Piro suggests that American women take a look at other standards of beauty—and that's great advice, according to Kearney-Cooke. "Research shows that women who set up their own beauty ideal have better body image," she says. That means finding clothes that you (not a fashion model) feel good in, wearing a hairstyle you like (so what if it hasn't been chic since the eighties), celebrating the best of what you have. Another boost for physical self-esteem: Work toward making your body strong and competent—capable of lifting heavy furniture, defending yourself, playing a sport, hiking miles. "Women who exercise for fun or adventure rather than to look good or to lose weight develop a better body image along the way," adds Kearney-Cooke.

Speaking of diet and exercise, the French score here, too, with their kinder approach. "I swim twice a week, but it's not for my figure, it's for my well-being," explains Broussous. And Lori Hieber Girardet, 39, an American mother of two who lives in Cessy, France, notes, "We have a completely different relationship to food in France: In America, portions are huge, there's junk food at every turn. Eating here involves quality over quantity, and it's much more of a social event."

So aside from moving to Paris, how can you get more comfortable in your body and feel sexier in your own skin? Start doing what feels good, indulge your senses a little, try a new style, enjoy your silhouette (potbelly and all), and be elegant in the way you walk.

Okay. You can take your clothes off now.

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