A few days ago, I was scrolling through my Tumblr dash and saw a recap of The Vampire Diaries. I was struck by a description of the female lead, Elena, who was apparently a totally frigid bitch until she became a vampire, and now that she’s more uninhibited (or having more sex, I guess?), she’s interesting to watch. Yes, I’m totally reading a lot into a recap of a show I don’t even watch, but this is definitely a microcosm of a cultural paradigm that goes far beyond a teen show on the CW. Now, maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a frigid bitch, but I’m sensitive to (read: agitated by) the idea that the only way a woman can be likable is if she’s outgoing, overtly sexual, and/or carefree.
It’s undeniable that society places a lot of value on women being sexually desirable. It’s why when you watch TV shows whose viewers are largely female, you’re inundated with Victoria’s Secret and cosmetics commercials. It’s why the major women’s mags make their money off exploiting our collective insecurities about not being pretty enough or stylish enough or womanly enough to attract guys, and feed us mostly lame advice to rectify our lonely existences. It’s why Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johannson or any other actress who stars in a comic book movie gets asked questions about her diets and workout regimen while the male actors get asked about the actual storylines and stunts and more substantial/relevant matters. It’s why Rihanna is mostly naked on the cover of GQ this month, while Ben Affleck and Channing Tatum are fully clothed. Basically, the value placed on sexiness is deeply entrenched and impossible to ignore. If you’re a young woman, you’re expected to prioritize maximizing your perceived sexuality over practically everything else.
All that said, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to cultivate a sexy appearance or demeanor. The crux of my issue with being “sexy” is that it’s, well, boring. The vast majority of humans are sexual beings who enjoy intimacy and orgasms and pleasure, so why is there such a premium on emphasizing that aspect of one’s personality? Of course society has been trying to repress and diminish women’s sexuality for centuries, so naturally we’re going to be prone to overcoming that by being a little brash at times. I totally get how empowering and fun it is to openly admit that you’re just as sexually charged as any guy out there, but that should be a choice. No one should be seen as boring or lame just for being more reserved, especially when the norms surrounding female expressions of sexuality are still rooted in patriarchal standards catering to the male gaze. It starts to seem more like a ploy for attention or external validation and less about self-empowerment and liberation – which is fine. A woman’s motivations for her actions are no one else’s business. But to deny or pretend there aren’t legitimate reasons why a woman might shy away from entertaining the notion of maximizing her sexuality – wearing revealing clothing, flirting, making her sexual proclivities/preferences known – because she finds it uncomfortable or problematic is just as restrictive as pretending that women aren’t sexual at all.
There are countless reasons a woman can choose to navigate her life keeping her sexuality on the back burner or under wraps from most people for a reason. Maybe she’d rather focus on sharpening her intellect, or learning how to take a joke, or taking on the challenge of being assertive and communicative. Maybe she grew up feeling ugly and came to realize that she’d much rather focus on things that she can control (being the best person she can be) instead of trying to fulfill a role that is often dependent on the perceptions of others. Regardless, women possess so many other traits that are more unique and ultimately sustainable than whatever being sexy even is, and those deserve just as much respect and appreciation for the other aspects of her personality as much as her alleged sexiness level.
[Lead image via chaoss/Shutterstock]