Be honest with yourself and work on your own self-awareness. When we are authentic with ourselves and are truly honest with how we feel about something, our confidence in ourselves grows. Knowing who you are, your flaws and all helps you to also understand people and you will be better at connecting with them on multiple levels.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marla Renee Stewart.
Marla Renee Stewart, MA is a sexologist, coach, and author who runs her own sexuality education company, Velvet Lips, and is also a Co-Founder of the Sex Down South Conference. She has studied mental and sexual health for more than 20 years and has given over 500 workshops all over the world. She also has been featured on a variety of media outlets, including Netflix’s Trigger Warning with Killer Mike and Love & HipHop Atlanta. She co-wrote her first book, The Ultimate Guide to Seduction & Foreplay with Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, which debuted in April 2020. She was also tapped in 2020 as an influencer for United We Rise a coalition of more than 30 organizations desiring to overcome HIV health disparities for African Americans.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Throughout my schooling, and in particular during undergrad when I was studying psychology and human sexuality, I was seeing the connections between mental health and sexual health, not only in academia, but in my friend group, as well. There were too many people, and in particular, women, who were not understanding the psychosexual connection between their minds and bodies and this really helped propel me into understanding more about the subject. I ended up doing research about young women and sexuality and found that to be a major gap within psychological research. From there, everything just kind of evolved into thinking about how other populations are connecting their mental and sexual health and the benefits of consequences of self-awareness and sexual responsibility.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the most interesting stories has to do with when I presented at the NIH in DC for a conference for undergraduate students on a doctoral path. I was presenting my work on Black, young lesbian and bisexual women from a Bay Area youth center and was reporting my findings through qualitative research. As I was giving quotes from the research from the young women, there was a psychology mentor in the audience who covered the eyes of their mentee, attempting to shield them from what they felt as explicit content. Right then, I knew this work needed to be done. Creating mental and sexual connections is vital if we are going to talk about how it affects people and for those who think that sexuality is taboo, we know, have a harder time with sexual responsibility. I was shocked that an adult would do that to another adult and of course, became curious as to why that person projected their shame around sexuality on someone else. That was the start of seeing how sexual shame and stigma really affects peoples’ psyches and finding ways to help people overcome that with education, practice, and normalizing all kinds of sexual behavior — especially in academia.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Unfortunately, I don’t have any humorous mistakes that I can recall.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I didn’t realize that I was a feminist until I got to college. I was introduced to all sorts of amazing Black feminists from my white mentor, Dr. Jessica Fields, who was actually in the field of Sociology. I came from a background that feminists were bad people who hated men- I couldn’t have been more wrong. The fact that I do believe in the social, political, and economic equality of women makes me (and anyone else who believes in this) is a feminist. In graduate school, Dr. Maparyan, a Psychology and Women’s Studies Professor helped me realize that there was more to feminism and helped me with a deeper dive around Black feminism and Womanism, which resonated more with my outlook and spirituality. It also helped that she’s the leader around gathering folks, writing about, and creating books about Womanism and why it’s important. When I saw my name in her book, I was floored and we were able to publish twice together while I was in graduate school, which was a huge achievement for me.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Do what you love! I know that this sounds cliché and that people say it all the time, but it’s also the easiest way to avoid burnout. I absolutely love what I do for a living and helping people with their sexual lives. It also helps to create time for yourself and honor your boundaries when it comes to work. I’m a hardcore believer in routine and habit-making and writing down your goals and creating to-do lists; I’m a productive queen! It also helps to have people who can support you who are in the same field. I meet with friends/colleagues every week to talk about work, hacks, and other things where we fuel each other help each other on our journeys.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Positive reinforcement! I can’t say this enough. Making sure that people are appreciated and that their ideas are heard are a must! Working together, collaborating, and supporting one another is a awesome way to become a great leader and having a team that believes in your mission and vision is clutch.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Create a routine that you love and do it every day. Every day, the first 3 hours are mine and mine alone. I meditate, check off things in my planner, exercise, and dedicate time to learn a language and read for a set amount of time. This makes me feel energized for the rest of the day to help other people who need my help in this work.
- Be honest with yourself and work on your own self-awareness. When we are authentic with ourselves and are truly honest with how we feel about something, our confidence in ourselves grows. Knowing who you are, your flaws and all helps you to also understand people and you will be better at connecting with them on multiple levels.
- Use active listening and be genuinely curious about others. Our curiosity in others helps us to realize things about ourselves and it helps our connections with others.
- Be trusting and vulnerable with yourself. Some people don’t like to trust people or don’t want to let down their walls because of their fears around rejection. Once we fully trust those around us and become vulnerable, we can experience life in a whole new light which is advantageous for you and the people around you.
- Be in touch with your sexual energy. And you don’t have to be a sexual person to experience sexual energy. Tapping into the things that make you sexy/sexual/seductive allows you to see your sexual assets and it can build upon your confidence, as well. And we all know that supporting your confidence is a surefire way to helping yourself feeling mentally well.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
After retirement, it’s more important than ever to do what you love, but since I already mentioned that above, I believe that lifelong learning is the antidote to mental stagnation. Taking up a hobby, learning a new trick and implementing it, or even traveling are great ways to optimize your mental wellness. And don’t forget to stay sexually active! Joan Price, a wonderful 75 year old aging sex educator writes about how sex is important in our lives as we age and that we should keep exploring until the time comes for us to transition.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Limit your social media intake! We know the stats are horrifying for social media users and the effects on their mental health, so if you want to live your best life, limit your screen time along with limiting your social media and news intake. You’ll be a much happier and healthier person.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider had a huge impact on me. Her essay, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic As Power, touched my soul. This was how I was able to fully see how the erotic, our sexual energy, can dictate how we move through the world; creating and manifesting the things around us. After reading that, I focused all my sexual energy on getting what I want and haven’t looked back. Everything I want, I get, and it’s because of the power of my own sexual energy that permeates through all the other aspects of my life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would consider myself to already be a part of the Sexual Liberation Movement that focuses on ethical and consensual love amongst people. One of my mottos, “Everybody Love Everybody!” from the film Semi-Pro, is a great example of how I feel. The only way to connect with someone who doesn’t understand our perspective is to treat them with kindness and love and unifying with them on something. I think helping people to normalize everyone through our sexual behavior is a powerful way to get us all connected, decrease violence, and share perspectives for a more innovative and hospitable future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My mother told me, “we make time for the things we want to do” and I couldn’t agree more. We have become so busy in our lives that we de-prioritize things that we should be prioritizing. We only have one life to live, so we should be doing the best we can to live it as much as possible, so taking the time to do the things we want is vital for our survival and love of life.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
FB/Tw/IG/TT: @1marlastewart | FB/Tw/IG: @velvetlipssxed | IG: @sdscon | FB/Tw: @sexdownsouthatl
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!