I have clear memories of all my milestone compliments. The first time someone called me “pretty,” and then, “beautiful.” The first time someone specifically said they loved my nose, my hips, my labia. All the suitors who’ve called me “cute” and all the different tones in which they’ve said it. These memories form a patchwork tapestry of my self-esteem – a guilty admission for me to make, in this world which tells us you’re not allowed to be loved by others until you love yourself first. It hasn’t really worked that way for me.
But all those words represent a nonsexual admiration – if not strictly chaste, then at least wholesome. I remember experiencing different feelings entirely the first time someone called me “sexy.”
He was an older boy at my high school, not a romantic interest of mine but on my horizons nonetheless, because his crush on me was unignorable. I don’t remember why he said it – what specifically he was referring to, and when – but I remember how I felt. I felt confused.
See, I grew up an ugly duckling. This is a fairly common experience, one with which you’re probably familiar, so I won’t go too much into the pain of believing for your entire childhood and adolescence that you are unattractive and that therefore your life will lack something fundamental. I hated my big nose, my chubby curves, my dull skin, double chin, irrefutable plainness. I wanted to be an exotic, unmissable stunner – like my best friend at the time, who got compliments all day every day on her model-pretty face and model-sexy body. (It did not occur to me then that maybe she didn’t like this type of attention, or that maybe she would’ve preferred to receive the more substantive compliments I received all the time on things like my intellect, humor, and writing. The grass is always greener, am I right?)
So to be told that I was sexy activated some deeply-rooted cognitive dissonance in me. I knew what “sexy” looked like in our culture – I’d absorbed it through magazines and movies and television and general discourse, like we all do – and I knew I did not look like that image. It didn’t occur to me that there could be a spectrum of sexy, not just an acceptable window of sexiness you might happen to fall into but indeed a wide-ranging, almost infinite array of qualities some might consider sexy. I know this now, having spent years writing and reading sex media where folks eroticize everything from chubby bellies to big noses to hairy toes to sharp-toothed giantesses and beyond. But I did not know it then.
So “sexy” was a word that did not apply to me, at least not comfortably. I laughed when the word came out of that boy’s mouth directed at me. He must have been mistaken. He must not have spent much time looking at me. He must not know what “sexy” even meant. How else could this word ever be used to describe me?
Ten years have passed and I am still mildly uncomfortable when described as sexy, hot, arousing, erotic, a turn-on. I can accept that my work is sometimes sexy – that someone’s pants might get tight as they read a flowery description of sex I’ve had. I can accept that certain qualities of mine might be sexy – that someone might fetishize my hips or my feet or my lips, focusing in on those parts to the exclusion of all others. I can accept that someone might want to have sex with me – because they like my brain, they want intimacy and closeness with me, or they simply want to get their rocks off. But it still vexes me to imagine that I, as a whole person, in my totality and weirdness and unconventionality, could be sexy.
It worries me that this is true, because if I feel this way – I, a woman who writes about sex on the internet, and is therefore inundated day in and day out with messages from horny, enamored suitors of various degrees of appropriateness – then, truly, anyone could feel this way. My cognitive behavioral therapist is always asking me to look for evidence of the core beliefs that bring me down – like that I’m not sexy – and though I’m faced with an onslaught of daily evidence to the contrary, I still can’t seem to shake this odd belief. That makes me worry on behalf of everyone who doesn’t feel sexy – which I’d guess is most of you. Not everyone has the (debatable) privilege of constant validation that I do. There are countless incredibly sexy people out there who never get to hear just how sexy they are. And that is tragic.
So I’m here to remind you that you are sexy, by virtue of the fact that any and every quality in existence is sexy to someone. I’ve swooned over bald-headed men who longed daily for their hair back. I’ve fantasized about tugging someone to me by the chubby hips I knew they hated. I’ve obsessed over the beauty of “imperfections”: crooked teeth, asymmetrical moles, big noses, gnarled hands, scarred skin.
And in doing so, I’ve learned to believe – intellectually if not emotionally – that I can be sexy, too. Just like pistachio isn’t my favorite ice cream flavor but I believe you if you tell me it’s yours, I can accept that I might be sexy to someone, even if, when I look at myself in a mirror, “sexy” is the farthest word from my mind.
“Sexy,” as a concept, is subjective, flexible, accommodating. One person’s “ugly duckling” is another person’s “scintillatingly hot.” I hope you’ll remember that, even if it takes you a while to actually believe it.