It kinda all started when Blake Shelton was named Sexiest Man Alive 2017 by the authority of authorities on sexiness, People Magazine.
So me and a friend started talking about what has been universally accepted as sexy these days: What images proliferate in our media. Think pieces on how Beyoncé, Kim K, or Rihanna have “changed” the way women experience their sexuality and sensuality. Does personality count? The ways in which strip club culture has altered the conversation on Sexy.
Lately, I have been paying closer attention to my body in the world. When it expands. When it contracts. When I feel that anxious tightening in my chest or clamping down over my ribcage. When butterflies start. And stop.
During our text conversation, I felt my body constrict, like a dozen thin ropes were wrapped around my mid-section. In the past, I would have ignored this tell-tale signal and blustered forward in intellectual conversation. But, yesterday, I stayed with my body.
I started to think about what I had been told was sexy, the images and attitudes that came into sharper focus once I got to junior high. I thought of Beyoncé in the Baby Boy video. I thought about rappers comments about their love for “honeys with the light eyes” and the current hyper-fascination with big asses. I thought about duck faced selfies and hour-glass silhouettes. I thought about how American-made porn dictates much of what the world is supposed to find sexy.
Sometimes, I think about how I should “already know this”. Shouldn’t I already have accepted that what I believe doesn’t always jive with what the culture sees as sexy? Haven’t I read enough feminist theory, books about sexuality, blog posts by sensuality coaches? Haven’t I browsed Babeland and She-Bop enough in my lifetime? Shouldn’t I already have an expanded view of sex and sexuality and how I fit into it?
Earlier this week, I read this quote from Bethany Webster:
“Cognitive understanding is very important but it isn’t enough to transform us and create lasting, meaningful change…Concepts are like seeds of transformation, that when dropped into the body can take root and begin to transform us on the deepest levels. When we gobble concepts it is a superficial action. What creates lasting transformation is fully digesting the concepts and allowing them to sink deeply into our bodies, where the alchemy takes place.
Transformation has its own organic timeline that is out of our hands. It cannot be rushed. We cannot control or predict it. This truth can be hard to swallow, especially because our culture sends the message that success is equivalent to control and timely “results”.”
I had been “eating” up the truth about what sexy was for a long time, but the deeper understanding of it was not connected in any real way to my body. So while I was espousing a belief that sexy was more than gyrations and “acceptable” hip-to-waist ratios and long hair, etc. etc., the truth was that deeper in my body, I didn’t really believe it.
The truth is that my views are very much aligned with what the culture has declared as Sexy.
This can be traced to living in a culture that devalues women and their experiences. If we are taught that men are superior to women, then it follows that male opinion is more important than what women opine. It is therefore imperative to focus on what men, especially the most powerful men, define as desirable and good and oh-so-sexy. Women must take their cues from their desires and fall in line.
And so, if the idea of Sexy is Kim K and women who look similarly and a handful of Victoria Secret Models and the “hot” yogi or what have you, then this is sexy. End of story.
The rest of us are just there.
I do know that sexuality and sensuality and attraction to who we name as the Sexiest People in our society isn’t a neatly drawn line between women and men. I know that “not all men” find the same women sexy.
However, I also know that there is still a very narrow definition of what constitutes sexy: it is young and immaculate and usually white-or-near-white looking. It is often performative. It is frequently divorced from how women actually experience their bodies. It is sterile and open mouthed and always eager to please.
Part of my journey in revising my relationship to my body, untying myself from the patriarchy is really digging deep in the most common assumptions I make about the world. This includes what I have define as Sexy.
The largest leap I made when entering the world of burlesque was not physical. It was not the tassel twirling or the hip shimmies, the bump-or-grinds or the standing split (which my ass can’t do without killing myself anyways.)
It was learning to see myself as a sexy woman.
More importantly, it was feeling sexy.
For so long, despite my reading of Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic, I had pretty much accepted that only certain types of bodies and women could be seen as sexy. I was more comfortable being funny and theatrical, because that was where I saw myself. Girls and women like me, weren’t seen as inherently sexy and feminine.
Intellectually, I knew this was bullshit, but I would literally find myself unable to do certain movements or flirtations in burlesque class due to these mental formations. And when I did, I felt stupid and silly. I was afraid people might laugh at me, that they would smell my awkward display of sensuality a mile away.
I felt like some kind of impersonator, that I was behaving like what Sexy “should” be. A kind of sexy that had no real connection to my living, breathing body.
But, I kept going. The first time I took a burlesque class through Brown Girls Burlesque, I stood in awe of these women of varying shapes and shades who so proudly flaunted their erotic personas on stage. I went to a ton of burlesque shows. I let myself feel awkward as I winked and circled my hips and was fully alive on stage. I danced alone in front of mirrors at home. I journaled about the hard truths about how I had defined sexy before. I expanded my media intake. I asked myself tons of questions:
Where did I first learn about what sexy was? How would my views on sexuality be different if I had never seen music videos or porn in my life? Why am I so tied up to mainstream’s definitions of sexy? When do I feel the sexiest? Who’s the sexiest person I know in real life? Which celebrities do I actually find sexy and which ones have I just been told that they are and reluctantly agree?
I’m still asking myself these questions, but the answers are taking on a deeper level of cognition because they are not just located within my grey matter. I realize that I can’t just “gobble” up these redefinitions. They will take time. The journey is not about what everyone else is doing or how others experience me or even their own sensuality, it is about my own truth.
I am sexy. I know that Perle Noire is my sensual hero. I know that mainstream attitudes about what constitutes sexy will probably not change much in my lifetime. I know that it is my experience and definition of sexy that matters more than People Magazine’s. I think that sexuality can be spiritual. I know that there is true power in the erotic.
I don’t know if Beyoncé or Kim K or Rihanna have really changed the conversation on women and their sexuality. Perhaps for some women, they have. Still, I think our experience of sensuality and sex is still too firmly tied to the most superficial of attributes. I want more.
I would like to see women talking more about their sexual journeys toward wholeness after experiencing trauma, I would like to hear about how women who aren’t the mainstream definition of sexy still experience themselves as very sexual beings, I would like to see a diversity of bodies of varying ages and abilities and sizes full embodied in their erotic power (but not just in a social media campaign), I would like to hear how black women have redefined sexy amidst racist and sexist expectations. I would like to hear how women came to love and enjoy their natural rhythms and love the most disparaged parts of their bodies; their periods, their menopause, their pussies.
These stories ARE happening, don’t get me wrong. I read about them. I listen to podcasts about them. New paradigms are being created. I think the journey towards redefinition starts when just one woman hears a common patriarchal “law”, tilts her head and names her own experience as valid.
Kudos to People Magazine for prodding me along.
Questions for further reflection: What do you define as sexy? When do you feel the sexiest? What struggles have you encountered in defining yourself as an erotic being? Who would you pick to coach you around feeling sexy if you could pick anyone in the world? What gets in the way of redefining your world?