A note before we begin: I have a pact with my friend not to put my sad on the internet, and a pact with myself not to be an asshole, so I'm going to do my best to get through this post without breaking either.
"Sexy" is my worst word. I am so bad at saying it, and whenever I do I sort of cough it out, and it sputters around and sounds like the opposite of what it is. Like it has a silent "k" at the beginning and a "gh" in the middle somewhere.
I think this is a common affliction. You see it all the time on TV shows like What Not To Wear; the women who start crying while looking in the mirror and then the host says, "Don't you think you're beautiful?" and the woman just sobs and sobs, and then finally she goes, "No. I've never thought that!" And she tries but she can't even say the word.
So, okay. Not everyone's word is "sexy". But my going theory is that every woman (and quite possibly every person) has a word.
Before I really get started and try to break this shit down, let me first state for the record: This is not going to be a post for me to complain about my body. Nor is it going to be a rant about men on the street who feel it's their job to tell me how my ass is doing. Do I love these men? I do not. But that's not why we're here.
What I actually want to talk about is this feeling I've carried around with me for years that "sexy" can't and shouldn't be a word used to describe me. It was certainly never a word I used to describe myself.
For those who don't know me, I grew up with a dad who, among many other things, has no filter. And not in a cute way where he sometimes says things that are a knee-slapping "classic dad overshare". It's more of a "scarred for life/crying forever" kind of thing. And amidst the many treasures he bestowed upon me as a kid, was his insistence that I was a total pain in the ass (which isn't untrue, but I think it's endearing really), and that the only reason any man would ever be interested in me was for my body. Super fucked up, I know! We can talk about it later if you want.
To be fair, it's not just my dad who was putting the pressure on me to be sexy. There's this ingrained idea, which I didn't really come to understand until college, that black women are just inherently sexy. That that's just what we do, but it's not necessarily a good thing. The stereotype will tell you that we ooze sex without even trying in a way that would be downright disgusting if it weren't so damn seductive. Black women are cast as the lustful and grotesquely lewd counterpart to the chaste and pure white ingenue. Both of these caricatures are harmful and they'll fuck you up for a long time. And even though I was mostly ignorant to this as a kid, that doesn't mean those pressures weren't still there.
Anyway, the result was that I grew into this idea that being "sexy" was going to be my only currency in life. So you can imagine how desperately I wanted it.
Then, the summer before 4th grade I shaved my head. As any little girl with black hair will tell you, getting your hair brushed and braided often hurts like hell and takes forever. And one afternoon my mom said to me, "we wouldn't have to do this if we shaved your head," and I said "YEP." And so we did it. And then I was a bald nine-year old girl. I would also like to note here that I firmly believe every woman should cut off all her hair at some point in her life, because it's fucking awesome and short hair is the best.
BUT: For the next four or five years I was mistaken for a boy. All the time. At the post office, at the grocery store, at the bank, people mistook me for my mom's son. And I thought, this is the furthest thing from sexy. This is unacceptable. I'll never make it this way. I was wild with anxiety. So I did the only thing I could think might help: I pushed against it, and got as feminine as I knew how to be. I started wearing high heels in 5th grade. I dressed as a French Maid for Halloween that year, with fishnets and bright red lipstick and three inch stilettos. I wore earrings that were half the size of my face. I developed a love of skintight dresses and deep V's. Anything I could do to prove I was a girl, and a sexy one at that, one who was worthwhile.
It sounds sort of Lifetime Movie tragic when I retell it that way. Quick disclaimer: I had a lot of fun as a kid, you guys. Tons of fun! I played pretend and rode a Razor scooter and had a Flower Fairy coloring book. Don't worry. It was great. I had some weird psychological shit, but I was still having a fucking blast.
This is, as it turns out, one of those "be careful what you wish for" stories. Because, puberty. I swear I went to sleep one night super self-conscious and wishing to be sexy and woke up the next day shaped like Mrs. Butterworth. That's how I remember it. My mom had this friend who always called me "the long lean trunk" because I was a surfboard of a child, and this woman felt it was her job to remind me of it. And then sometime after I awoke in this new maple syrup body, I saw this woman again and she gaped at me and said "My god. What happened to the long lean trunk??" It is my great fortune that my mother is no longer close with this woman.
But to a degree, she was right. I suddenly found myself on the other side of sexy. I'd crossed the line, and now I was getting catcalled in the street, and hit on by my dad's friends. (Super fucked up, I know!) But I was still basically bald and I was still anxious. So I kept up the high heels, the skin tight clothes, the deep V necks. For a very, very long time, I kept this up. Desperate to feel that I deserved this word. I was having it shouted at me out of car windows, but I still didn't feel it was mine.
And it's hard to turn that corner. I talk to so many of my friends who have trouble turning that corner and breaking out of the "What? No. You are" cycle. The "What? No! You are" cycle is a cycle in which a person can't take a compliment because of their own bullshit, and so whenever someone offers them a genuine compliment they say something along the lines of "What? No! You are." I will tell you that this cycle is not only obnoxious as shit, but it's a dark and ugly thing that's hard to break.
I don't know if this is true everywhere or for everyone, but I've noticed that there's a constructed ideal that's emerged in which we "don't care" about our appearances. Especially in Seattle, we "don't care" and we don't want to be judged for not caring. And as a consequence of this, we convince ourselves that we shouldn't be complimented on our looks, because it shouldn't matter. Being beautiful shouldn't matter, and being pretty shouldn't matter. There's a particularly fierce backlash against the word "sexy", because it's got all those synonyms like "toothsome", "tantalizing" and, my personal favorite, "beddable", and those synonyms make it feel like an objectifying force. Like a word that few women would want to claim in their daily lives because it basically equates them with a steak. So when we're offered these words we deny them, and we say "What? No! You are."
Even though it's still my worst word, and I get a tightness in my chest when I have to say it, I'd like to come out in defense of "sexy". And while I'm at it, of "hot", "beautiful", "pretty", "gorgeous", "foxy"... all of 'em. And not because "women can choose to portray themselves as sexy if they want" or whatever bullshit people sometimes say and think they're being revolutionary and progressive.
I'm not basically bald anymore, and I've let go of a lot of the spandex-blends that used to be in my closet. I've taken to necklaces instead of enormous earrings, and I've given up the blue eyeshadow I loved in 5th grade. And while I think all of these are good things, I don't think they've made me sexier. I still wear my shirts unbuttoned lower than some people deem appropriate. I still love high heels. I'm still the same shape. And I don't think these things have made me sexier either.
It's taken me a long time to realize that sexy doesn't have to be just one way. It doesn't have to be covered in make-up or wearing mile-high heels, though it can be those things. It's a state of mind. It's the way I feel watching football, or lip-syncing to Jay-Z. It's making the people you love laugh. It's dancing in the mirror. It's studying AP US flashcards while doing home improvement projects. It's cooking dinner for your friends. It's doing laundry on a Saturday night. It's spending way too much money on a leather jacket. It's flossing. It's saying what you think, and meaning what you say. It's reading books. It's watching trashy TV.
It's admitting to being exactly who you are and not worrying if that comes with enough cleavage. It's being a little in love with yourself, and also with everyone. It's saying, "Yes I am flawed and fucked up and probably a little dumb, and isn't it perfect?"
It's just you. Exactly like you are. What a concept.