So, Kasey over at Valprhension has written a couple of interesting posts about what it means to them to feel sexy. Go read it here and here. I wrote a long comment and thought it was worth turning into a full-on post. Apparently, today, I have lots of words. 2000 to be precise. Enjoy!
I’d not much thought about what it means to me to ‘feel sexy’ but I remember it becoming a thing I liked feeling sometime after I hit puberty. I remember the first time I got to choose my own bras, and I bought a cheap basque from Primark, which I recall Mum pulling a disapproving face at, but she let me buy it anyway which was all good by me. I remember getting wolf-whistled at by a couple of builders when I was about 14, maybe? I remember thinking ‘oo, I feel hot’ and walked off with a swagger in my step and a swish in my hips but I think I also felt uncomfortable about it, and used the feeling sexy-thing to try and distract from the unpleasant feeling. Let’s not have the conversation argument about catcalling and street harassment here – just because I, and others, have used it in the past to try and boost our self-esteem, doesn’t make it acceptable.
So, in light of these memories, I think ‘feeling sexy’ is about feeling desired. It’s about knowing that other people find you attractive. It’s also about believing that in some way you match up to the things that are considered “sexy”. Which means that really I should try to explain what ‘sexy’ even is.
I think ‘sexy’ is about hinting at sexual availability while also making it unobtainable. People in advertising say “sex sells”, but it’s not actually sex that sells their product, it’s the suggestion that sex is obtainable if you have their shiny, must-have thing. Which implies that sex is scarce. Women are taught that sex is precious, and that they should guard it. Men are taught that they have to persuade, or even fight!, women to get it. If a woman gives sex away freely she is generally considered a slut or a whore. Good girls guard their gift of sex and only give it to the men who give them true love and commitment, as per the virgin/whore dichotomy. In short, ‘sexy’ is about arousing sexual desire in others without being so crass as to be unable to deny that that’s the effect you were aiming for.
In terms of specifics of what sexy looks like, there are all kinds of images. There’s the femme fatale and the sexy librarian. It’s in high heels, seamed fishnet stockings, red lipstick, plunging necklines, intricate up-dos, or tousled beach babe waves. It’s a deep rich tan or it’s a flawless English rose complexion. It’s blue eyes and long, fluttering eyelashes. It’s playing with your hair and it’s flirtily touching his hand. It’s a floor-sweeping hem or a skirt so short it’s practically a belt. It’s also sexy underwear, dark, sultry, red, or pinstripes, or lacy pink with ribbons and bows. It’s corsetry and it’s naked in bed. There’s no shortage of ideas/stereotypes to choose from, it’s just a matter of which one you pick.
“Sexy also needs an audience, even if that audience consists only of you. Because if sexy is about arousing desire, you have to rouse it somewhere. In someone else, or in you.”
I said in my original comment, that as a young adult, who’d been bullied in school for her geeky appearance, I didn’t believe anyone would find me beautiful. I had a string of boyfriends but that didn’t help. On my more uncharitable days, I thought they were only in it for the sex making out (I didn’t do PIV, so clearly it wasn’t sex-sex. Yay, conservative Christian up-bringing!). I knew they found me attractive because they said so and their hard cocks proved it but since I ‘knew’ I wasn’t beautiful in the traditional/mainstream sense, it didn’t really do anything for me. It did provide me with a means to play with the sexy look though, and I had some idea of the things I found inspiring.
I eventually got to uni and got into the Goth subculture. I loved the look, still do. All the black, the corsets, fishnets, and stompy boots, it fitted me very well and I felt hot because I knew I could pull the stereotype off. I found I could imitate pictures on the internet and took photos of myself, and realised, yeah, I’m hot, I fit here. I didn’t have to make a specific person find me attractive, I just wanted to ‘look nice’, where ‘look nice’ meant rocking a
suitably adapted version of the accepted dress standard on a night out clubbing. The best thing about the goth subculture I was in, was that there was a definite attitude of ‘look, don’t touch’. I could dress as outrageously or as provocatively as I liked, and I knew I would be safe. I felt like a challenge, kind of ‘yes, this is me, yes, I’m hot, what exactly are you going to do about it?’ and that gave me a sense of power, which I loved, and made me feel even more sexy.
I also came to love ‘good’ lingerie. Doesn’t even matter if no-one’s going to see it. Indeed, sometimes that’s the point! There’s nothing quite like the frisson of knowing that you are not just what people see on the outside. It’s that feeling of power, again, a feeling of strength. There’s a down side to this though, which I’ll get to in a bit.
“Feeling sexy can be about knowing what the standard stereotypes are and finding the one that fits you best, or that you feel most confident pulling off.”
All the above is just the externalised dressing up aspect of feeling sexy, however. It’s performative sexiness, and it’s primarily for someone else’s benefit, the ever-present ephemeral ‘them’. Doing it can make you feel good, there’s no denying that, but are you not just feeling good because you know you’ve been able to achieve some small part of what society considers good? And if that’s the case, then how meaningful a good is it?
I mean, all those images are available to you, influencing you and your ideas of what’s sexy. Even if you disagree with it on a conscious level, it’s hard not to be affected by them to some degree because the thing about advertising and social pressure is that it mostly works. Society spends a lot of time and money trying to convince women (and to some extent, men) that their self-worth lies solely in how “attractive” they are. That’s what the ‘beauty standard’ is about! Keep women so focussed on maintaining their appearance that they won’t have time to agitate for things like the vote or equal pay for equal work! When I talk about mainstream beauty and the beauty standard, I’m referring to the collection of images, words and movies that make up our media, our culture, that explain precisely what features and characteristics make someone “attractive”. The gossip magazines, the clothes and perfume ads, the bullying of kids on the playground, all spell out the ways you don’t measure up. You can spend years, decades, trying to get the toxic crap out of your head and still never entirely succeed.
The problem is made even worse because there are only a handful of acceptable images for ‘sexy’. What if you don’t fit any of those ideals in any way, shape or form? What if the things you find attractive don’t line up at all with what society says is acceptable? What if society tells you that given x, y, z there is no way you could possibly be attractive to anybody? I’ve dated/known any number of people who society says are unattractive, when to me they are anything but. I think they’re sexy, they turn me on, I tell them so, and… they don’t really believe it, not at first. What to do about the man who believes you could only ever want him for his ability to bread on the table and to wield power tools? Who cannot comprehend that you actually physically desire him, with all his lumps and bumps? The beauty standard and strict gender roles don’t just affect women, that’s for sure!
“Does society really believe ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’?”
What are the ways around this then?
Personally, I found that over time, having good, honest, fun, sexy bed times with people I deeply cared about allowed me to begin to internalise the idea that I could be sexy in and of myself, not just for the clothes I wore or the moves I pulled. Discovering that I was deeply attracted to women and found them beautiful despite their self-perceived flaws, and the compassion I felt for them when they complained of feeling ugly or unlovable, gave me an insight into how those that loved me might feel when I said the same things, or brushed off their compliments. Successes in academic things or doing things I found challenging but important helped me realise I had things to be proud of outside of how I looked, which made how I look less important. Realising that I liked the way I looked, that I could do things to bring how I think I look in line with the way I like to imagine I look, helped a lot. Looking in the mirror on a good day and complimenting my own self in my body helped. Taking up a new sport and seeing the improvement over time in my technical ability and my physical strength gave me things to appreciate about my body that were not directly tied up in my appearance. Avoiding glossy mags helped too.
One bit of blasé advice to “just stop caring what others think. You have a beautiful personality!” is actually not helpful. Yes, it is possible to cut down on your exposure to unhelpful media images but you can’t escape it entirely because you live in this culture! As every bullied child knows, it’s not as simple as ‘just ignore them’. The words still get said, the pictures still get ringed in red pen, and actresses and musicians are still photoshopped beyond recognition. Not only do you live in this culture, you deserve to live in it. You have every right to live unmolested in it. Humans are social primates, that’s just what we are. Cutting ourselves off from society makes us miserable. We like company, we like being part of a group. It brings safety and belonging and mutually benefits us in times of hardship.
It’s probably partly why subcultures are so helpful. We need social spaces where we can feel safe, where we know we’re part of the group, and we can use them to change the wider culture around us. It does work, even if it takes longer than we’d like. You only have to look at the LGBT movement to see how far we have come, that positive change is possible.
As for ‘sexy’, I’m happy to keep it around with some caveats. Yes, it’s often a bit of a performance art, and no the definitions of sexy aren’t wide enough, and yes something that requires an audience isn’t that great, but when it comes to working out what arouses desire in you and the people you’re interested in, you have to start somewhere. Working out which bits of society you want to keep is hard work. You may find you have a strong interest in a particular kink. Some, such as Kasey, may find that they only want to keep very limited bits of it in very specific circumstances. Others may find they want no part of it at all, that physical sexual relationships do nothing for them. It’s all okay. It’s all part and parcel of natural variation. If you really can’t stand the culture as it is, do what you can to influence things in your sphere, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to make ‘sexiness’ much less important than it currently is.