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JULY 23, 2012

I grew up going to camp: sailing camp, ballet camp, Canadian canoe camp, even debate camp.  But I’ve never attended Pleasure Camp…until now.

I’m on the floor, cross-legged on a yoga mat, surrounded by 35 other women, mostly a decade to three older that me, listening to a very beautiful, very dynamic blonde in a tight red bandage minidress tell me to visualize straddling a horse.  “Inhale deeply, breathe in and out” she purrs.  “Feel the creature beneath you. Up, down, up, down. Feel its perfect muscles. Now grip your horse, go faster. Up, down, up, down. See a mountain in the distance. Feel your horse going faster, faster up the mountain …”

On she goes, and I breathe in and out as instructed, over and over and over and … whoa. “What is this exercise?” I rather deliriously wonder to myself, “Because this feels an awful lot like … is this … could this be … “ In, out, in, out, in, out … whoaaa … we’ve reached the top of the mountain, we’re there!!! Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!!

That felt a hell of a lot like an orgasm, and I did it entirely with my breath, connecting with this “horse” beneath me; the horse being, of course, a metaphor for my body.  Groggy when I walked into the room just an hour before, I now feel alive.  I feel vibrant.  I feel … like I just had amazing sex.

Damn, I think. This is why it’s called Pleasure Camp.

Pleasure Camp founder Jena La Flamme

Run by the effervescent Jena la Flamme (the aforementioned blonde), founder of Madison Park Wellness, Pleasure Camp is a weekend seminar which is meant to “completely re-wire a woman’s mindset around her own attractiveness and body-image, no matter WHAT she currently looks like.”  It is crucial, Jena insists, that I mend my broken relationship with my body, if I want to have the relationship with the man of my dreams.

“The workshop,” Jena explains to me, “is for women who have struggled over the years with bouts of painful bad body image and emotional eating, and find themselves conflicted about having the sexy body of their dreams.  On one level they want it, but on another, they are afraid of the consequences that looking sexy can provoke – being considered a threat to other women, reduced credibility in the work place, undesired attention by men and judgment from society at large.”

If you’re wondering, “Come on, who wouldn’t want to be sexy?! We ALL want to be sexy!” Jena stops that bullshit – and it really is bullshit – with a simple exercise. She asks the room of women what words society uses to describe sexy women, and writes the answers on a whiteboard. One by one, women shout out: Slut! Stupid! Homewrecker! Bitch! Whore!

With incentives like that, no wonder some of us have conflicted feelings about being sexy.

So why is this an issue for me finding my dream husband?  “When you remain in a state of disapproval about your body, embarrassed by your relationship with food, and conflicted about whether or not it’s safe to be smokin’ hot in the first place, it’s wordlessly communicated to the world in subtle ways – and men pick up on it,” Jena explains.

“A woman who disapproves of her body, her appetite, her beauty, and her pleasure, has a disadvantage in the game of love, even if she’s gorgeous.  Great looks may be able to attract desirable men for casual dating, but Mr. Right – the love of her life – is also looking for great self-esteem and inner confidence.”

To say I’ve struggled in the past with my body image would be an understatement.  At age 18, as a freshman at college, lonely and miserable, I started binging on foods that would give me that serotonin kick for an instant jolt of happiness. Pizzas, ice cream, candy. You know the drill.  Unsurprisingly, I gained weight. I hated myself, and I hated that horrible feeling I got after I stuffed my body to the breaking point. I just wanted relief … so I began throwing up.  Binge, purge, binge, purge, binge, purge: a massive bulimic was born.

Over the next four years – yes, FOUR YEARS – I would continue to throw up nearly every day, sometimes several times a day, forcing my finger or a tooth brush down my throat, then collapsing next to the toilet, consumed by emotional and physical pain.

It’s such a cliche to say this, but I genuinely didn’t think I had a problem.  I thought I had come up with a novel way to eat whatever I wanted – and not suffer the consequences. My body knew otherwise.  I was exhausted, I was bloated, I was constipated. I was 21 when my roommate found vomit on the toilet and literally marched me to the health center so I would get help.  In three months (thanks to therapy and short term SSRIs), I kicked the bulimia I had been “fighting” for years.

Perhaps its not a surprise that I had some of the loneliest, most disastrous relationships with men and sex during those same years. One of the years I didn’t have any sex at all. Another year I had a tumultuous, emotionally destructive relationship that involved the police getting called several times.  It was not a period of peace, calm, or contentment in my life. It seems obvious now – every area of your life affects every other area, and if you don’t have esteem with your body, you’ll choose men who reinforce your belief systems. In other words, your relationship with your body directly affects your relationships with men. But I didn’t connect the dots.

I know I’m not alone. How many of us struggled with an eating disorder when we were younger?  How many friends dabbled in bulimia or anorexia or binge drinking or some other form of self-mutilation or masochistic ritualized torture of their bodies? How many of us had destructive or even non-existent relationships – emotionally, physically, spiritually, with men?

Jena, a former bulimic herself, understands this punishing mentality. The message women receive is “just ‘look skinny’ and hate your body. The turning point comes when you realize animals in nature don’t struggle with body image or over-eating,” she explains, and the room laughs at the idea of a dog thinking it’s “too fat” to be loved.

“Understand that your body is a living, breathing, feeling, decision-making animal that already knows what to eat, how to exercise, and what it needs to feel great and look great,” she continues. “You just need to get into the “right relationship” with your body, your “animal.’”

She then asks us all to imagine not giving a child healthy, nutritious food, plenty of water, enough sleep, access to fresh air and light, touch, movement, play.  What if we never hugged our child?  What if we never allowed our child to play? What if we locked our child in a dark room and told our child to type on a computer for 12 hours straight, stopping only to pour coffee down our child’s throat to keep our child working? The entire room cringed. We’d be arrested by Health and Human Services, and our child would be sent to foster care.  And that is exactly what many of us do to our own bodies.

“You can think of that relationship like your very own ‘inner marriage,’ and the quality of that relationship – whether it’s abusive, neglectful or deeply connected and loving – sets the tone for the type of relationship with a man that you will draw into your life.”

To show how different life can feel Jena has us do an exercise: Partner A is blindfolded, Parter B has a variety of sensuous treats – berries, bananas, chocolate – that she feeds to the blindfolded partner. When it was my turn to bite into that chocolate, a tiny little piece, tinier than any of the bars I wolf down on a regular basis, I was consumed with pure delight. It felt, frankly, like foreplay.  What if all of life were like this?

After that we broke in groups of five, with one woman in the center directed to dance slowly and sensually, getting into her hips and the flow of her body, while the other four encircle her with supportive and empowering praise. The goal is for the woman in the middle to experience the visceral feeling that her sexiness is safe – and will not be judged by other women.  At first I was shy – being asked to dance the way I do when I’m in a REALLY good mood, alone in front of my mirror – shaking my ass and hips (two areas I’ve tried to hide and minimize for years) in front of strangers, was nerve-wracking. But once I let go … it felt SO good, so free, so natural. I felt … wait … what was that?  SEXY.

“Consciously adding pleasure into your life has the pleasant side-effects of improving your body image and boosting your metabolism,” Jena explains. “Plus, a woman who is clearly enjoying herself is irresistible.”  The entire room became instantly irresistible.

But what if this sexy attracted men I didn’t want? Jena took the room through the next exercise – “The Intimate Decline.”

“As women in our culture, we’re not well trained to say no,” she says to the group. “But to make sexy safe, you need to build this skill. This exercise is drawn from the martial art, aikido. One partner’s arms lunges towards the space of the other, who pushes them aside with an powerful, yet open-hearted no. This ‘intimate decline’ empowers women to feel safe saying no in any circumstance, particularly around the unwanted sexual attention of men. If women feel empowered to say no whenever they feel like it, they’ll also feel empowered to take more risks in shining their full sexiness into the world for all to see.”

We practiced with partners, “No,” we’d say, but with open hearts. We don’t reject the person as a person, we reject the offer of sexual intimacy when we choose not to have it. I felt empowered, I felt kind … and I felt sexy.

We then talked about being comfortable with our own erotic natures, something some of us (including me) have trouble with – we’re so good at shutting down our sexual impulses, at feeling shame and guilt over them, we forget we really enjoy sex. “If you’re at peace with your sexual nature, with knowing that you desire to f–k, that you’re a sexually hungry animal, you’re a safe harbor for your man’s desire.”  That, in turn, will that lead to more satisfying, more connected, better sex for both your partner – and more orgasms for you. The women in the room grin wildly. We’re down with this.

Ending the seminar with a wild belly dancing session, surrounded newly powerful feminine forces, old, young, fat, thin, all with colorful, jingly scarves tied around our hips, shaking it like we owned the Polaroid corporation, grinning and laughing like we haven’t done (sober) since we were kids.  Not a one of us didn’t feel more enlivened. As for the marrieds among us, women who previously described their marriages as sexless and moribund, well … they couldn’t wait to get home and shake it in front of their husbands.

As for me, I finally got it. How I treat my body is how I will treat my partner, and how he will treat me. In order for my future husband to find me sexy – I have to find myself sexy first.

“A woman who appreciates her body, her beauty and her pleasure, sets the stage to attract the right men into her life, to attend to and adore those qualities in her too,” Jena says to me at the end. ‘A woman who doesn’t honor her body and her sexiness won’t find a man who honors it. A woman who does, will.”

Everybody now, sing along: “I’m sexy and I know it!”


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