Not long ago I read an article on the Mirror online (yes the Mirror, their perspective is often surprisingly refreshing) about the actress Michelle Williams' declaration in an interview for the American GQ magazine that 'being sexy is a negative thing' while discussing her role playing Marilyn Monroe in the Film My Week With Marilyn. The fact that Williams graces the front cover of the lad mag posing half naked kind of depletes her point somewhat, though it did get me thinking whether as a woman being sexy is negative?
While I understand the context in which Williams was making her point that the achievements and contributions women make in our society are often undermined while beauty and attractiveness hold more cultural value or appreciation, which is true (you need only think back to the BBC's female Faces of the year 2011 fiasco in January as a prime example), William reiterates this by saying that "I wouldn't say that that would be one of my first qualities as a human being- being sexy."
With the practice of objectifying the female body a permanent artifice in our culture, this constant scrutinising of the female appearance is sadly a way of thinking both men and women have grown accustom to, so does this make being sexy bad?
I have posed this question to almost every woman I know, I even raised it to my feminists group friends who I meet with regularly (Black Feminists UK just in case you were wondering), while the verdict may still be out, what I did come to establish is the difference between 'feeling' and 'being' sexy.
Feeling is obviously a personal internal state which may not necessarily translate to appearing or being sexy,
While being sexy generally insinuates a more physical state such as acting/behaving or dressing/appearing sexy or sexily. Unfortunately both states of 'sexy' has been hijacked by patriarchy, meaning that it is very hard for even the most conscious feminist female to distinguish whether it is intrinsic motives or social pressures coaxing ones state of feeling or being sexy.
This point is key, especially when one attempts 'being' sexy through dress, since historically the aesthetics of female dress has always denoted social attitudes and status, thrown in with some gender politics; a good example being the skirt length which over time has become shorter with the changes in social attitudes towards the female modestly, we've gone from accepting showing a little ankle to showing upper tight (thanks to Mary Quant and the mini skirt).
In the 21st century there are a lot of factors that affect our way of dress from religion, work, fashion to personal preferences such as comfort, fit and ones body shape; therefore one may not intend to be sexy though by exposing particular areas of skin or by wearing what has culturally become sexualised items of clothing such as the pencil skirt or high heels will open one up to the male gaze and subsequently attract male attention. Having said this an extrinsic motive would be wearing said items of clothing or exposing particular areas of skin specifically to get male attention or to falsify feeling sexy, this extrinsic form of sexy is what Williams must have be talking about in the interview since she goes on to say “when you play sexy you're kind of playing just for men".
The fact that our patriarchy driven society is very expressive as to what is deemed sexy does make it hard to establish intrinsic motives when feeling or being sexy, though I don't think every case of conformity to some or all of these notions automatically indicate extrinsic motives. Being an advocate for freedom of expression through dress I strongly believe that women have the right to express their personality and sexuality in their dress (regardless how vamped up or down) without the fear or threat of male abuse.
Personally I consider 'feeling' sexy as being very liberating something all women have the right to feel, with my definition of sexy being a combination of feelings or emotions such as a sense of accomplishment, attractiveness, confidence, a strong sense of self and being in tune with ones sexuality. While I often feel sexy when dressed in what I feel is a playful, creative, well fitting outfit which captures my personality perfectly, I have learnt that others can feel sexy in the bizzarest of moments, places or clothing. Feeling sexy doesn't always have to translate into being sexy, though it can add a spring to your step making others perceive you as sexy or being sexy, which is why I think either state of sexy (feeling or being) is simply a very natural part of human sexuality and is very positive for both men and women to feel, ensuring one has intrinsic motivations, which is very hard considering the constant assault on our senses by the media defining what is sexy with a bombardment of unattainable marketing imagery.
What do you think, is sexy empowering or negative and what do you associate your own feeling of sexy with?
Michelle Williams tells GQ that being sexy is a negative thing, Mirror.co.uk
Michelle Williams GQ February 2012 cover story article, GQ.com