If you’re a woman/girl, can you relate? I hate when pervy men look at my body like I’m an object. Also, I don’t like it when men don’t look at me like I’m hot or sexy, because I feel like I’m failing at something. It’s stupid really, but I have a feeling too many women can relate to this. Being sexy is empowering, right? If you walk into a room and all of sudden every man in there has his eyes on you, then you know you are wanted, maybe even valuable. You can be assured that you are attractive and desired. Unfortunately, if not a single one glances your way, then it’s a lot like feeling rejected, or being valueless. What are you doing wrong?
Here’s another scenario: You’re in a good loving relationship. Your partner loves your personality and your quirks, and thinks you’re amazing. But, he doesn’t think you’re sexy. Attractive, beautiful even, but not sexy. How would you feel about that? Personally, I’d feel unwanted, and like I fail at being a woman. Men are sexual beings who are always supposed to want us, right? Or so I'm told. So when we can’t make them desire us like that, then it seems like we’re doing something wrong.
The question of whether being sexy is empowering isn’t so simple to answer, and that’s because of the paradox of how the female body is treated. In Sheila Kelley’s TedTalk, “Let’s Get Naked,” she explains that from a very young age girls are taught that it’s “safe and good to be in a male body, but not safe and good to be in a female body.” This happens through a global spectrum of offenses that range from barbaric to subliminal. Some cultures practice genital mutilation on baby girls. Others like ours, just tell their girls to cover up, but boys can run around shirtless without any problem.
Women are taught all their lives, in various ways from nearly every culture, that we need to hide our bodies and our sexuality. Kelley argues that women are just as sexual as men and both should be free to express their sexuality in healthy ways. For women, when you learn to unleash that wild untamed sexual alter ego, the benefits could be the wholeness of the feminine, which leads to healthier relationships and overall happiness. She would argue that it is not only empowering, but extremely beneficial to feel sexy. It only limits you if you feel shame for your body.
Caroline Heldman has a different perspective from Kelley’s that doesn’t necessarily contradict. In her talk “The Sexy Lie,” she says that “Sexual objectification is the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another’s sexual pleasure” and that “96% of sexually objectified bodies are female.” She examines female bodies in media and has a “Sex Object Test” with seven horrifying questions to determine whether the body is being sexually objectified.
In the documentary, “Miss Representation,” which goes in depth about discussing women in media, we learn that “The female characters in G rated movies are just as likely to wear revealing clothing as in R rated movies.” Studies show girls as young as 6 years old are sexualizing themselves because media messages show them being sexy yields rewards. Young girls to older women are taught simultaneously that our bodies are shameful, yet we should reveal them to reap the reward. What reward? The attention of men primarily. Great reward, huh?
Heldman says there is a difference from being seen as a person, or subject, because “subjects act; objects are acted upon.” Women are taught that their value comes from being the perfect sex object, which is to be perfectly subordinate – adhere to whatever a man wishes. Also, “Men are being sold that they are sexual subjects… It makes them feel powerful to see images of objectified women everywhere.”
And what are the consequences to this mentality? The most prevalent one would be self-objectification, which all women in the US face. In a blog by Beauty Redefined titled “Modest is Hottest? The Revealing Truth,” they explain that when we self-objectify, “we literally picture ourselves being looked at as we go throughout our days, and research shows it gets in the way of everything we do. Everything.” Heldman says it can lead to depression, eating disorders, body shame, sexual dysfunction, lower GPA, and many other things. Studies show that wearing revealing clothes leads to greater states of self-objectification, body shame, body dissatisfaction, and negative mood.
Also, it fuels female competition, because “when another woman is valued for being a sex object, it actually makes us feel bad about ourselves.” Heldman says, “We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools to master their environments. We raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved.”
So then if trying to be sexy is so detrimental to women, is it better to just be modest? Beauty Redefined explains that many cultures and religions prove that covering up your body is crucial to respecting our own and each other’s bodies, because they are seen as sacred. But what it really comes down to is that we have little control of what other people think when they look at us. Beauty Redefined also says, “Even in cultures where women are required to or choose to cover up a great deal, there is still an incredibly high incidence of rape and sexual violence. Covering up has no bearing on men’s ability to control themselves.” On the other side of sexual objectification, comes the belief that men are solely sexual creatures. Men are more than that, just as women are more than sexual objects. A man will value you for being who you are, not for being able to pleasure him.
It seems that women lose either way. It doesn’t matter if you’re sexy or not. I say that you should do what you are really comfortable doing. And you should do it for yourself. Just as long as you remember what is truly empowering – the value you have for yourself. You should not find value from gaining the sexual attentions of men. You are much more than that. Your value as a person comes from who you are, what your talents and skills are, what you have accomplished and what your goals are. So… be sexy! – if that is what you want, but don’t ever feel like you have to be.
p.s. I highly recommend watching the TedTalk "The Sexy Lie." It's the first link below.