What does it mean for a woman to “feel sexy”? In our current consumer culture, the idea of achieving sexiness is all-pervasive: an expectation of contemporary femininity, wrapped up in objects ranging from underwear, shoes, sex toys, and erotic novels. Particular celebrities and “sex symbol” icons, ranging throughout the decades, are said to embody it: Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Farrah Fawcett, Madonna, Sharon Stone, Pamela Anderson, Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, Megan Fox. Ways of achieving sexiness are suggested by new sex experts, confidence and self-esteem advocates, and make-up aficionados, who tell us how to “Have Better Sex!”, “Seduce Your Man!!”, “Look Sexy, Feel Sexy!!!”
All this expectation to be sexy, and to be constantly working on becoming sexy, has created a high level of cultural anxiety around sexiness — not to mention that this should remain “naturally” sexy, as though no work had gone into it at all (see, for example Jennifer Lopez’s “ordinary” sexy selfie in a bath full of rose petals).
Alongside these pressures, women’s feelings of sexiness now also take place in a period that’s been defined as “post-feminist.” It’s become culturally normative to assume the battles of the feminist period have been won, and that women now have equality with men. This means that, ironically, we are told how to do, think, act and feel sexy, as long as we’re doing it for ourselves. The expectation to feel sexy becomes as contradictory as a “Question Authority” bumper sticker.
How do women make sense of sexiness as part of feeling like a woman in the 21st Century? More importantly, one has to understand how generation figures into the equation, in terms of the “discursive repertories” that different age groups would have at their disposal in the context of “post-feminism.” How do women at different life stages negotiate the pressures to be sexy? Is sexiness achievable, or is the expectation too much? Do all women have an equal right to feel sexy? Who is missing from contemporary understandings of sexiness? How does the culture of sexiness interact with how women feel about themselves?
During the research stage of our book, we spoke to two groups of white, heterosexual women, whom we called the “Pleasure Pursuers” (aged 25-35) and the “Functioning Feminists” (aged 45-55). Our discussions with these women were filled with stories of pleasure, pain, anxiety, fun, concern, disgust, and support. However, what was interesting was how both groups made sense of sexiness as a way of defining themselves as ‘good’ people: either as “good” new sexual subjects (fun and pleasure-seeking) or as “good” feminists (critical and nostalgic). Both allowed women to understand themselves in affirmative, authoritative ways. But the actual experience to feel sexy was something to work towards, or something that had already passed. Neither groups talked about feeling sexy in the here and now.
What it means to feel sexy now, today, is political. It folds together spheres of governmental policy, consumer culture, identity, and new digitally-driven feminist activism. The idea of a powerful and self-defined sexually confident woman has a strong pull for feminist researchers, as do calls to respect women’s “voice” and agency. However a consumer culture that sells confidence, choice and self-determination to women is way more difficult to defend. What we did find, though, through our discussions with women, was that their positions were slippery, contested full of contradiction, and never fully formed. For us, this spoke volumes about how to make sense of sexiness today, as a political construct, and as feminist academics and researchers.
Whether we’re pursuing the post-feminist promise of the sassy, sexy, self-determined, self-knowing feminine identity, or critically reacting against it, wishing it was replaced with more “authentic” feminist notions of sexiness, the cultural impulse to be sexy is side stepped. In a similar argument, Nina Power, author of One Dimensional Woman, warned us not to “be misled: The imperative to “Enjoy!” is omnipresent, but pleasure and happiness are almost entirely absent.” What it means for women to feel sexy today is what’s missing — and it’s these missing places, gaps, and contradictions, that deserve more critical inquiry and inter-generational dialogue.
Image: Postmodern Sleeping Beauty by Helga Weber. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.