Easthampton author Emily Nagoski has done the research: It’s OK to love your body

Emily speaking at Powell’s City of Books in Oregon on her recent tour.

Emily speaking at Powell’s City of Books in Oregon on her recent tour. Courtesy Emily Nagoski

Emily Nagoski speaks at TED 2018.

Emily Nagoski speaks at TED 2018. Ryan Lash/TED

Emily Nagoski speaks at TED 2018. Her most recent book is  “Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections.”

Emily Nagoski speaks at TED 2018. Her most recent book is “Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections.” Ryan Lash/TED

Recently, Nagoski has begun to employ a puppet version of herself, named Nagoggles, to help make sex more accessible to tweens and teens on social media. “There is something really important about being deliberately silly with sex education,” she said. “It is enormously defusing that it’s a puppet.”

Recently, Nagoski has begun to employ a puppet version of herself, named Nagoggles, to help make sex more accessible to tweens and teens on social media. “There is something really important about being deliberately silly with sex education,” she said. “It is enormously defusing that it’s a puppet.” PHOTO BY EMILY NAGOSKI

Emily Nagoski speaking at The Ripped Bodice in Brooklyn on her recent tour.

Emily Nagoski speaking at The Ripped Bodice in Brooklyn on her recent tour. Photo by Robyn Manning-Samuels

By MELISSA KAREN SANCES

For the Gazette

Published: 05-03-2024 3:44 PM

‘Emily’s mission in life is to teach women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies.”

This sentence mesmerized me.

It’s an assured statement about a complicated topic: body image and sexuality, and it is the crux of sex educator Emily Nagoski’s work in her own words. It is a big deal coming from a scientist. It means that she has proven self-love is possible, teachable, in a world where self-criticism can feel inherent to being a woman. (Cue “Barbie” monologue.)

In short, her mission is incredibly hopeful. I couldn’t wait to ask her about it. If self-love is teachable, did that mean I had been brainwashed into hating my body? And does that mean I now have the responsibility to embrace it?

Let’s take a breath.

This is how we change the world

In case you missed it, Nagoski, who lives in Easthampton, was featured in a New York Times profile in her gorgeous pajamas back in January. (Don’t worry: I’ll circle back to the PJs.) The piece was published ahead of her national book tour for “Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections,” which has filled venues from Manhattan to Wisconsin. In Massachusetts, Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner was one of the first places to sell out, and Book Moon in Easthampton has had to keep restocking signed copies.

Audiences coast-to-coast have been comprised of mostly women, and many have followed Nagoski’s literary career from “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform your Sex Life,” first published in 2015; to “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” co-written with her twin sister Amelia in 2019; to the updated version of “Come as You Are” in 2021; to, at last, “Come Together.” The author has spoken all over the world and her TED talks have garnered millions of views.

I spoke with her in March when she was in-between stops on her whirlwind book tour. She jumped right in with … confidence and joy. “It is astonishing to me that hundreds of people choose on purpose to leave their homes in the dark of winter to come to a place full of people so that we can talk about sex,” she said. “This is how we change the world. This is how we make the world better.”

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I had read about the premise of “Come as You Are” and “Come Together” in her popular newsletter titled – you guessed it – “Confidence and Joy.” If the former is about tending to your own garden of sexuality, she wrote, the latter is about effectively sharing your garden with another’s to “co-create pleasure.” The problem is that our agency is at the mercy of the elements.

“Your culture enters with various weeds and invasive species – windblown seeds of myths about the ‘ideal sexual person’ and ropes of vines about beauty standards, spreading like poison ivy under the fence and over the garden wall,” Nagoski wrote. So when we tend to our individual and shared gardens, “you’re not just doing good for yourself and your erotic relationship, you’re doing good for the world.”

A growing garden

I wondered aloud how she had cultivated her own garden. As a tween, she said, she was a voracious reader who learned the word “vagina” at the library and immediately asked her mom what it meant. “I remember this flash of embarrassment and confusion and concern. My mother’s emotions, totally unintentionally, taught me how to feel about it. Because she grew up in the same shitty culture and absorbed the same messages.”

Seven years later, Nagoski was training to be a peer health educator at the University of Delaware. Her first assignment? Looking at her genitals in the mirror. “I felt like I was going to confront an energy,” she said. “And then I burst into tears because I could recognize immediately that this is just a part of my body. I had had an adversarial relationship with a part of myself. And that’s all it took for me to begin fully unraveling from the negative messages I’d absorbed.”

As she got more experience as a health educator, talking to her fellow undergraduates about conception, condoms and consent, she “could see the ways it was changing lives in the moment.” Nagoski went on to get a master’s in counseling psychology at Indiana University, and then she earned her PhD in health behavior with a concentration in human sexuality.

In 2008 she moved to Northampton to work as the director of Wellness Education at Smith College, where she stayed until 2016. According to Dean of Students Julianne Ohotnicky, the school wanted a dynamic educator rather than “a handing-out-pamphlets person.” Nagoski was a perfect fit.

“When you’re new and you plunk yourself in the middle of a community and actively listen and actively educate in a way that that community can hear you, they fall in love,” said Ohotnicky. “They just fell in love with her.”

Comparing isn’t caring

She even won over students who weren’t necessarily choosing to see her. “One of my favorite parts of the job was that some students were mandated to see me,” said Nagoski, who saw those meetings as opportunities to make contact with women who might not otherwise seek out an education on, say, the science behind what alcohol does to their bodies. She used motivational interviewing techniques to meet students where they were, and to lead with acceptance – rather than judgment – in vulnerable conversations.

“I use it in the new book as the structure for how to talk to your partner when you want to create change,” said Nagoski of the technique, which “motivates” with curiosity and compassion.

Along with her pluck, Ohotnicky appreciated her wellness director’s holistic perspective. “Emily was just so critically committed to saying all of this is connected,” she said. “When you talk about wellness – whether it’s your body image, your identity, how you’re putting food into your body, how you’re putting alcohol into your body, how you’re letting another human near your body – it’s all connected.”

The dean noted that the undergraduates at the women’s college, who range in age from 18 to 22, have grown up in a world of social media, where “pictures get edited, words get edited, lives get edited.” Expectations around body image and sex are often unrealistic and unattainable, and one of the throughlines of Nagoski’s work is assuring women, over and over again, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with who they are.

“Honestly, all of us are struggling with essentially the same global-level problem, which is that we were raised in a misogynistic, cisheteropatriarchal culture that rigidly enforces gender roles and who we’re supposed to be as sexual people,” said Nagoski. “Whether you’re 18 or 81, we are comparing ourselves against some fictional standard of who we’re supposed to be.”

Confidence and joy

I asked Nagoski how she came up with the specific words for her mission. During a lecture one day, a student asked her to “define her terms”: what exactly was confidence, and what the hell was joy? “I went home and thought about it,” said Nagoski. “And as I was vacuuming up balls of dog hair, I thought that confidence is knowing what is true and joy is loving what is true, even if it’s not what you wish to be true.” Once she relayed this to her class, the same student raised her hand.

“Joy is the hard part,” she said.

I could relate. Like countless women, I grew up afraid. I was afraid of my body. What if I got fat? What if men didn’t find me attractive? I was afraid of my voice. What if I misspoke? What if I talked too much? I developed an eating disorder by the time I was 14. During my 20s, being thin and feeling sexy went hand-in-hand. Both required making myself small – invisible, even.

In “Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture,” Virginia Sole-Smith writes that by the time most kids are in kindergarten, they believe that being thin makes them more valuable to society. And according to the National Eating Disorders Association, 22% of children and adolescents worldwide show disordered eating.

In a culture obsessed with dieting, a culture that celebrates drugs that curb hunger for celebrities who don’t need them, is it any wonder why women grow up to hate their bodies?

After years of recovery, I’m finally embracing my plus-size body. It means the world to me that Nagoski identifies as “small fat” and wears pajamas to a photo shoot. She isn’t afraid. She’s a joyous boss.

Clarity is sexy

“Emily is just so outrageously normalizing,” said her colleague Stephanie Ellis, a practicing psychologist in Texas who reviewed the “Come as You Are” workbook. “Probably the biggest gift she gives us is that she really believes that bodies are beautiful and that they don’t have to be the same. The cultural image of beauty is toxic. It is that much harder to get involved sexually if you are disgusted with your own self.”

Nagoski’s clarity has also inspired Tanya Bass, a sex educator in North Carolina who is on the board of The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), which nominated “Come as You Are” for an award. “I think what Emily does is she takes the science and makes it plain,” said Bass. “And when it comes to our sexuality, that just makes it a little bit easier to digest.”

Recently, Nagoski has begun to employ a puppet version of herself, named Nagoggles, to help make sex more accessible to tweens and teens on social media. “There is something really important about being deliberately silly with sex education,” she said. “It is enormously defusing that it’s a puppet.”

She has also been getting used to a relatively new diagnosis of autism, something she says has given her “enormous relief.” It has helped her to define her limits, which in turn has allowed her to accept help.

And, in a way, it has made sex even better. “I have a hypersensitive sense of balance,” she said. “There’s a lot of motion in sex, and it turns out I do better if I’m the driver. Every piece of knowledge grants us greater ways that pleasure is available.”

Statement pajamas

And that brings us back to the sexy pajamas, which, naturally, warranted their own blog post. Ahead of the photo shoot, Nagoski asked loved ones what they would recommend she wear, and everyone told her to prioritize comfort.

“Friends, ‘whatever makes me feel most comfortable’ is literally pajamas and only pajamas,” she wrote. So her publicist gave her permission to buy her ideal top – dark silk with a cat peeking out of the pocket – matching pants, a black robe and fuzzy pink slippers.

In the post, she noted that the Times doesn’t publish a lot of photos of plus-size women, and that this photo could be a career-defining moment. Then she claimed it.

“Me in my beautiful pajamas,” she wrote, “is just me and my body and my wish for all of you, all of us, to extract ourselves from gender shit and purity culture and the medicalization of our erotic bodies, to heal from the damage that was done to us so that we can grow into the selves we were born to be.”

Dare to love

It’s interesting that self-love starts with unraveling self-hate, a belief system I learned so early on that it felt as real as my own body. But it was all inherited – from my family, from the culture –and it had nothing to do with me or my body, and certainly not my spirit.

“The most radical thing a person can do is decide that the person that they are is worth loving,” said Nagoski.

I will try.

Learn more about Emily Nagoski at emilynagoski.com.

Melissa Karen Sances lives in western Massachusetts, where she’s working on a memoir and writing human interest stories about extraordinary people. Reach her at melissaksances@gmail.com.