In our What’s In Your Nightstand? series, we chat with friends of Swell across the globe about their sex essentials, their new projects, and what harmful sexual messages they’re railing against.
Helen Phelan is a body-neutral intuitive movement instructor and founder of Helen Phelan Studio, where she teaches breath-centric and high-sensation pilates classes. (She also leads workshops with Dame!) We spoke to Helen about dispensing with “hot girl” narratives, the importance of lube, and self-love during pregnancy.
What are your top 5 bedside essentials (i.e. lube, vibes, sleeping mask, books)?
Water: Every single night I take a liter of water to bed — I know I’ll wake up 85 times to pee if I chug it before bed — but having it there makes it painless to drink it first thing in the AM. This not only makes it easier to wake up, but really, even though the goal is to of course drink a ton more throughout the day, if I get distracted and forget I know I’ll at least have gotten the minimum amount of water I need and won’t end up feeling dehydrated and spacey by lunchtime.
Eye Mask: Despite all I know about posture, I still LOVE stomach sleeping, even though I know how shit it is for my back. Using a sleep mask not only blocks out my partner’s late-night twitter scrolling but also reminds me to roll back on to my back or else it will slide off.
Fan/Space Heater: In order for me to fall asleep, I need to be freezing in the summer and scalding hot in the winter. My partner is the exact opposite, so I keep a Dyson that has both a fan and a heater on my side of the bed directed just at me instead of arguing over who gets control of the central air.
Book/phone: I go through phases where I’ll read a bunch of books in a row — but then get it a rut where I don’t read anything for months. I know phones are the worst to use before bed but I tell myself my blue light-blocking glasses at least make it a little better. Right now, I’m reading A Time To Dance, A Time To Die about the dancing plague in Strasbourg, France in the 1500s. I’m an ex professional dancer, my partner is from that city, and we are mid modern day plague so it checks on the boxes and is fascinating if a bit dark.
Lube: As I’ve shared pretty openly with my students and followers, I had some pelvic floor issues that made sex incredibly painful for a while. It was a blessing in disguise, though, because I was super-hung up about using lube before that, but the pain necessitated it. After seeing a pelvic floor therapist for a few months, I’m so grateful to be pain-free (and so passionate about my Dame pelvic floor pilates workshops!) but I’ll never go back to life before lube.
If you could tell your teenage self one thing about sex, what would you say?
So many things, but primarily that trying to pretend sex doesn’t mean anything will just disconnect you from the experience, and yourself. No-strings-attached sex can be awesome and fun and I totally recommend everyone has some, but NSA sex for the sake of trying to seek validation from others or come off as nonchalant and “not like other girls” is actually internalized misogyny. I’d say focus less on having lots of casual experiences that serves to make me feel even more insecure, and focus more on choosing to participate in experiences that actually brought me joy and pleasure — regardless of if there was a relationship involved or not.
What question about sex and intimacy keeps coming up in your work at the moment?
I work with primarily female-identifying people (don’t get me started how the fitness industry has arbitrarily named pilates as thin white woman territory, when it’s spectacular for ALL bodies!). Many of them are pregnant or new moms, but this certainly isn’t limited to people who’ve given birth—the idea that our bodies have to look a certain way to be worthy of appreciation or even merely respect. I get a lot of comments about how pregnancy is the only time it’ll be “ok” for them to be at a larger size and frustration about bodies not “bouncing back” like all the photoshopped celeb moms we see in the media from clients. That inevitably bleeds into how comfortable you feel naked on your own and with a partner and can be a really difficult experience. To me, you can’t separate physical health from mental health, so I started my app specifically because of my own history with eating disorders and seeing how rampant body shaming and diet culture is within the fitness industry and how it reinforces the idea that not all bodies are good.
What does “self-care” mean to you?
Self-care is about not ignoring my bodily signals. It means doing to work to become attuned to my body, and then actually listening. It’s different every day and sometimes conflicts with previous definitions of it. Sometimes that looks like making the time for a workout or even knowing when I need to rest. Sometimes it means putting on non-sweat-wicking pants and makeup even if I’m not going to see anyone because I want to look good just for myself, or skipping makeup even when I have a zoom call because I can’t be bothered and not beating myself up about it. (High school Helen who wore heels to school could never!) And yes, I love me a bubble bath and a face mask—but you don’t need to buy shit to take care of yourself.
What harmful or useless sexual script have you learned to dismantle in your own life?
That sex is about looking like the hot girl and pleasing your partner at the expense of your own pleasure. A lot of the sex I had up until my current partner was super-performative and centered on the partner’s pleasure. That’s not to say I never enjoyed it, but it was always secondary to the other person with very few exceptions. It took locking down a Frenchman with a way more relaxed attitude about nudity and sex (and enthusiasm for taking care of me—some stereotypes exist for a reason!) to unpack all that. Plus sometimes sex is NOT pretty! When you’re in a longterm relationship you inevitably experiment and you have to be very confident and secure to get yourself into some of the more, shall we say, vulnerable positions and be able to actually focus on how great things feel rather than hung up on how you might look from a certain angle.