What Is “Sexy”?

Danielle of From Two to One has posed a question: What does sexy mean?  She and I both know the dictionary definition, of course, which is usually something like “sexually attractive or exciting” or “sexually suggestive or stimulating.” But things are are often further contextualized than a simple dictionary definition allows.

One thing Danielle said especially resonated:

In my middle school and teen years, sexy increasingly meant something both powerful and unsafe. It was powerful in that sex is a form of currency in our sex-obsessed culture. But it was also unsafe in that I was taught that most men were basically predators-in-training, making their female counterparts victims-in-training.

As I became a woman, I subconsciously understood that my body wasn’t seen as entirely my own and that being sexy was unsafe.

I, too, grew up seeing “sexy” as primarily negative, dangerous, and even dirty. And for that reason I seriously disliked the word. I hoped that I was “pretty” or “beautiful,” but would never have used as sullied a word as “sexy” for myself.

As I moved into mainstream culture and threw off much of the negative baggage with which I had surrounded sex and sexuality, I lost my earlier distaste for the word. At the same time, though, I began to see that in our culture “sexy” is often commodified and packaged, something used to sell goods or draw a crowd.

Still, I didn’t react by rejecting the word “sexy.” Instead, I sought unconsciously to rescue it from the commercialization of sex and the idealization of the “perfect” body. And in the midst of my rejection of my earlier views on sex and sexuality, taking up the word for myself was empowering. You see, “sexy” is the word I use for the times when my body issues disappear and I feel completely at home in my body. My walk gains a sort of saunter, I like what I see in the mirror, and I feel at one with my body. I feel strong and self-confident and powerful and bold. And I call that sexy.

The other day I read an anecdote about a mother and child. The child asked her mother, “mommy, what does sexy mean?” And the mother responded, “it means being comfortable in your own skin.” That may not fit the dictionary definition of the term, but I like it.

How about you? What is “sexy”?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://amethystmarie.com/ Amethyst

    Me O:)

  • dj pomegranate

    Love this question and this discussion.

    When I was younger, of course, the word “sexy” seemed scarier, because it implied this sort of adult mystery — it had to do with grown up, dangerous things like seduction and sex. When I was a teenager, the word seemed more like something to consume or a thing you could buy…high heels were “sexy,” long hair was “sexy.” It was something you could affect.

    Now, “comfortable in your own skin” seems exactly right. Confidence is seductive. (Not arrogant confidence, but knowing who you are and being that person unapologetically.) I think the things that I find sexy now have everything to do with confidence: watching someone doing something at which they excel; a woman expertly applying her red lipstick (it’s not the lipstick per se, but the fact that she’s rocking it); lovers sharing a belly laugh; etc. Of course there are more discrete elements of sex and mystery in there too (the rush of accomplishment and power that comes from doing something well, the red lipstick, the lovers…), but those are almost inextricably linked with comfort-in-your-skin.

  • Azura

    To me, sexy is both being comfortable in myself and feeling good enough to be worth that feeling. It’s a sort of confidence in one’s self that other people are often attracted to as well. That’s what people usually refer to when they say “confidence is sexy”. They don’t mean cocky, arrogant, or narcissistic. There’s obviously those little quirks that makes someone’s heart race and blood run south that can also be called sexy, but that’s a separate definition, and I think that too requires at least some basic level of self-confidence and self-love. You can’t love someone else until you love yourself anyway, not really.

  • Charlesbartley

    I was 37 before I ever thought the word ‘sexy’ could even be applied to me. The effect purity teaching had on me was a very gnostic separation of mind spirit and body. I was mind and spirit and they could never be ‘sexy.’ Girls didn’t like guys because they thought they were ‘sexy.’ Even if they could, they would never think of me that way–not even my own wife.’

    I like the definition ‘comfortable in your own skin.’ It implys being comfortable with your own sexual desire and with your ability to let others desire you.

    • Rosie

      Interesting. I’ve been called “sexy” by men, but I always felt like when they said it they were speaking to somebody else, somebody they thought I was, not me. I also live a lot in my mind, and I’m not sure I’ll ever feel comfortable in my body (though not for lack of trying). And as you say, mind and spirit aren’t generally associated with “sexy”, though there is this song by Morphine….

  • jose

    It’s like “good”, one of those intuitive concepts that are older than language and logic and which accept no definition.

  • Gail

    I think sexy is different for everyone. In the way that it means ‘I’d like to have sex with that person,” I mean. It’s kind of like that love potion from Harry Potter where it smells different to everyone. So it varies. But generally, confidence, impeccable dental hygiene, kindness to small animals, that sort of thing.

  • Sophie

    As I was reading the post I was formulating my answer and then I saw your conclusion and it was exactly what I was going to say! So I will elaborate. Sexy comes from that feeling you get when you look at your body and rather than seeing the faults, you love what you see. Sexy is wearing clothes that you are comfortable in. Sexy is a smile and a spring in your step. Personally I feel sexiest when wearing pretty matching lingerie. What I find sexiest is intelligence and the right kind of sense of humour. I am always first attracted to someone’s mind, which is probably why I’m bisexual. The package the mind comes in is less important. If I find that person’s mind sexy, I will start to find their body sexy. I’m not saying I’m immune to a beautiful face or a hot body but those are just crush material without the right person behind them.

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      That’s pretty similar to me, when I start liking someone as a person I start seeing as more beautiful/good-looking.