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I dress sexy for other people, and so do you
Is that really so bad?
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Why have I ever dressed “sexy” in public?
Why have I worn anything body-conscious, revealing, and flashy?
Is it possible I was dressing only “for me”? Would I dress this way if no one else could see me?
I mulled this over after I saw these posts about a woman wearing these kind of butt-scrunch shorts at the gym:
My answer: I’ve dressed sexy to be desired and/or admired. Dressing this way is “for me” because it feels good that other people think I look good.
Sometimes women proclaim that we only wear anything because we like it and that other people’s attention plays no role. When it comes to dressing sexy, I think we feel compelled to do this because it seems a more correct feminist and intellectual motivation, and because we’ve been taught to “hide the work” of desirability and beauty in general.
Says writer Baze Mpinja:
“If you admit how much effort you’re putting in, it begs the question why.” Specifically it suggests that you’re vain or desperate for male attention, undesirable qualities even within a society that teaches women to measure their worth by the amount of attention men give them for their appearances.
We’ve learned that sexiness (as defined by the straight male gaze) should be coincidental. We’ve heard from Good Men™, the men who fancy themselves the ones we should want to be with, that they dislike the brazenness of a flashy outfit and a bold lip; what they find sexy is a Girl Next Door who “doesn’t wear makeup.” They don’t like feeling they’ve fallen for obvious attraction traps; they want to discover our inconspicuous allure because they, arbiters of aesthetic superiority, see beauty where other men miss it.
I think we abhor this attitude but also recognize the unfortunate truth that “trying too hard” is undesirable. We learn to hide the work and the why, too — we can’t cop to dressing sexy because we want to have sex (!!! can you imagine !!!) or because it feels good to be considered hot, so we cloak ourselves in a kind of plausible deniability about dressing sexy “just for us” that effectively renders us chaste and oblivious about our own beauty, but still hot. Men’s favorite!
Being vain or desperate is unattractive, unlikeable. So be it. I’m exhausted by the implicit cultural demand to be a Likeable Female Character in my own life. I have been vain, desperate for anyone’s attention, and insecure. I’ve been consumed by cravings for validation. I’m a sexual being who has gone out into the world for the explicit purpose of finding other people to have sex with and sometimes I did that because I thought it would make me feel better about myself.
I’ve written before about how weight loss made me obsessed with my looks, and many of my dressing sexy moments have been driven by the dark triad of vanity, desperation, and insecurity:
For a formative decade of my life … I received almost nothing but negative attention about my appearance because I was a large woman. It was insinuated or outright said that I was ugly, undesirable, and unlovable because I was fat. Then I lost almost a third of my body weight. Now I’m treated as desirable, beautiful, sometimes aspirational for this loss. I am ashamed to say I lap this up, too. It feels like chugging from the spigot after years of crawling across the desert. I know the water’s tainted, but it’s water.
This craving for attention feels desperate because it’s time-bound: I’m making up for lost years, that wasteland decade, and simultaneously my window is closing — I didn’t feel accepted or desired in the prime of my youth and know that it’s only a matter of time before I celebrate my last fuckable day.
I’m not proud of these motivations, but to ensure everything I do is likeable and deny that my behavior has ever been driven by less than noble forces would be to sand down the contours of my humanity.
And as a human, it’s entirely natural that I use clothing — any kind, including sexy — to communicate. I posed the question of whether it’s possible to dress only “for yourself” to Substack Notes, andresponded with her typical wisdom:
Love this Q and my answer is noooo 🙃 When people say this re: fashion (and beauty too) I think they really mean something along the lines of “I’m dressing about myself.” But if we position fashion/beauty as a form of expression and communication, it must inherently involve an other — someone or something we are communicating to, and a reason beyond the self that we’re communicating for. This isn’t a bad thing! Communicating with other people via aesthetics is normal and human and has been happening since the dawn of time!! Ugh lol I reallyyyyy hate this modern/Western view that everything we do should be purely individually motivated and 100% about the person as an individual. We’re communal creatures! Fashion/beauty is a communal/communicative pursuit! So yeah generally I think we adorn our bodies about ourselves but for others.
People use clothing to say something about themselves — like that they’re wealthy but not gaudy, theatrical and spooky, or that they challenge societal expectations of gender. Women hesitate to admit that what we’re saying about ourselves through clothing is, “I’m sexy and I know it,” because we worry we’ll objectify ourselves.
But embracing and expressing the sexual and sensual parts of myself through clothing doesn’t make me only a sex object. I’ve worn revealing or sexy outfits because what I’m saying about myself is that I always found muscular women sexy and admirable, so I turned myself into one. I believe that some women wear revealing clothing in the gym in particular not only because they like that people look at them, but also because as they move through this historically male-dominated space, what they’re saying with their clothing is, “I work to make my body look good here, same as you.”
Some men would rather we become sexy for them in private and pretend it was an accident. I really could not care less.
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Sometimes I feel sexy and want the world to see it, sometimes I’m sloppy and don’t care if the world sees it. I can dress like Christian Girl Autumn or Christina Aguilera or Chris Pine in the same week and none of these looks necessarily carries any more weight about who I am or what I value than any other. I dress in accordance with how I feel that day, that moment.
I am aware, though, that dressing sexy more often than I dress any other way can make me feel that my body and its desirability is the most important thing about me, that “I’m sexy and I know it” is my top-priority message.
Again from my “Weight loss made me obsessed with my looks” piece:
… when I’m less present in the company of friends because I’m scanning the environment for interested gazes, when my attention-seeking behaviors only reinforce the false notion that looking “good” is the most important thing about me, I’ve passed the point of healthy self esteem and crossed over into the madness of “beauty as self-worth.”
The two things I’d most like to feel more often in my body are relaxed and present. There have been times when I’ve dressed sexy that I feel the exact inverse of those because I’m too aware of myself as an object of others’ gaze. That means at this point, I see dressing sexy as something to do more sparingly, only when I’m already feeling relaxed and present in my body. I can’t use it to get there. I have to already be there.
When Jessica DeFino and I spoke about celebrity plastic surgery transparency, we talked about the emotional context of cosmetic procedures:
Me: … you said that actual radical transparency would be if someone practiced that emotional transparency. Like, “I got a facelift because if I don’t feel young and hot, I don’t feel worthy.” Is there anyone who has even come close to that kind of transparency?
Jessica: I really can’t think of anyone that’s come close. Because, I think, were people to practice that type of very vulnerable, deep, emotional, not humorous, not making light of it sort of transparency, I think the procedures would go way down.
Part of the reason I advocate for this emotional transparency is because when you are transparent with yourself, it lessens the appeal of some of this, because you are understanding what the underlying issue is.
Indeed there have been times when I’ve dressed sexy because if I don’t feel young and hot, I don’t feel worthy. This is something I’ve been taught. The older I get, though, the more emotional pain it causes me. And so I make adjustments.
If I want to wear a sexy outfit, I ask: What am I saying about myself to myself? Am I saying, “If you dress this way, you will feel worthy because other people think you’re hot”? Or am I saying, “You feel good in and about your body right now independent of anyone else’s gaze, but it additionally feels good to communicate body confidence and exude sexiness to other people because those are just as much a part of you as anything else”?
Which is it for you?
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