A version of this piece also appears on Psychology Today.
I was not sexy last night. Bear and I went for a walk in the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Bear was like, “We’re leaving in ONE second,” because I kept stalling to gchat with a friend. I was like, “I need to put clothes on!” And he was like, “Well, you have ONE second,” and I put on leggings, a giant floral print dress (I can’t remember why I have this), and a bulky sweater. And scuffed, cheap boots. Not cutely scuffed. Just scuffed and flaking, so you can see that they aren’t real leather.
My hair is a bad length. People keep telling me, “No! It’s so cute!” And I know that’s not right. Either they can’t remember that it used to be cuter, they’re being polite, they’re lying, or they haven’t seen something cute in a long time. My hair has grown out from a buzz cut without attention, and it turns out that I have like forty different cowlicks, and it flips up on the sides like I’m trying to look like I’m from the forties, and it’s puffy, and it looks like a badly made wig. That’s just the truth.
Why is it like this? Because of my genes. And because I keep not doing anything about it.
I was not sexy at all, when we walked along the waterfront. A group of Orthodox men went by, and I thought for a second that I might seem almost respectable to them, in my shapeless, full cover attire. Almost.
Bear stopped me by the base of the carousel. He was saying something about me being beautiful, and I was handling it well. Not laughing or anything. Trying to respect his opinion.
“A visitor from another planet who just looked at our popular culture would have to come to two conclusions: the first is that sex is really the only thing that matters …and the second is that sex and sexiness belong only to the young and beautiful. If you’re not young and perfect looking, you have no sexuality. And I think the ultimate impact of that is profoundly anti-erotic. Because it makes people feel less desirable. It certainly makes women feel less desirable. How sexy can you be if you hate your body?”
I’d forgotten the exact quote within seconds, because that’s the way my memory works, but the sentiment stood out. How do I know when I’m not sexy? It’s when I don’t look like the images of sexiness I’ve been handed, all my life.
(an oak sapling. source)
But sometimes I feel sexy, and I can’t see myself. And I both want to see myself, because I think I must look amazing, and I don’t, because I’m afraid that I don’t, and that when I figure out that I don’t, I’ll stop feeling sexy.
I am afraid that if I gain more weight, I will stop being sexy.
But it’s ironic, because the more weight I gain, the sexier I feel. So I’m stuck in a strange catch 22. My thick, pliant thighs strike me as sensual. But they simultaneously symbolize the downfall of my sex appeal, because when my thighs were lean and didn’t kiss each other fondly, I was somehow given freer permission to be sexy. Given permission sounds wrong. Who gave it? No one. Everyone. I don’t know. It’s vague. It’s pervasive. I start losing my vocabulary. I start getting confused.
I’m afraid that when I get older, I will stop being sexy. Because I don’t actually know what older and sexy really looks like. Sometimes there are older women in movies and on TV who are supposed to be sexy, but it’s mostly because they look like younger women.
“Look!” the media occasionally yells, “This older actress is STILL hot!” And then there is a picture of her being incredibly thin. It starts with very thin.
I often think older women look lovely, beautiful, good, even when they aren’t very thin and don’t look unusually young for their age. But I don’t know how to apply the word sexy to them. Which means that when I am older, I may not know how to apply it to myself.
I don’t know what sexy looks like in shapeless, baggy clothes and bad hair. I don’t know what sexy looks like with wrinkles and a drooping neck. Some days, I don’t even know what sexy looks like with chubby arms—with my arms—right now.
But I do know that I don’t want to have to fight and fight to claw my way backwards to a thinner, younger sexy. And maybe I want to try to think sexy is about more than how things look. Maybe sexy is a whole experience. Maybe sexy is complex. Maybe sexy is what actually turns someone on– what actually turns YOU on. Maybe sexy is a feeling. Am I sexy when I feel sexy? Even before I know how much or how little I resemble the women and girls designated as sexy by advertising and television and men on the street and friends. Maybe sexy can be more about sexuality, and less about physical beauty. Do they have to be inseparable?
What do you think?
If they do, I may have to just not be sexy. Because I’m already on a dangerous road, with this hair, and so far, I’m sort of liking the danger. Weird hair, thighs that kiss, delicious food, growing up and getting better at life, Bear, who thinks I’m hot anyway. It feels worth it, even if I have to give up on sexy.
But I don’t think I do. I think maybe sexy and I can work this one out.
(mature oak. I see it’s put on some weight and it’s a little gnarled. Lookin’ good! source)
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Are you sexy? What do you think makes you sexy? What makes you feel unsexy?
Unroast: Today I love the way I look the morning after. I sleep on my hair, I mean. Because then it isn’t as puffy.
P.S. When I searched for “oak tree” one of the pictures that came up was of a woman in a bikini leaning against a tree, which may or may not have been an oak. A side caption read, “Young skinny attractive woman in the woods.” Oh, good. Um, should someone be resting their case here? Jean Kilbourne? Me?