A few days ago there was a modest-sized facebook fad of posting a photo of Harry Potter actress Emma Watson along with the quote: “I find the whole concept of being ‘sexy’ embarrassing and confusing. If I do an interview with photographs, people desperately want to change me – dye my hair blonder, pluck my eyebrows, give me a fringe. Then there’s the choice of clothes. I know everyone wants a picture of me in a mini-skirt. But that’s not me. I feel uncomfortable. I’d never go out in a mini-skirt. It’s nothing to do with protecting the Hermione image. I wouldn’t do that. Personally, I don’t actually think it’s even that sexy. What’s sexy about saying, ‘I’m here with my boobs out and a short skirt, have a look at everything I’ve got?’ My idea of sexy is that less is more. The less you reveal the more people can wonder.”

In reading this, my thoughts were that Emma Watson can wear whatever clothes she wants and she can define sexy however she wants, but that doesn’t mean I agree with her. I assume there’s some limitation on “less is more–” that Watson isn’t suggesting a burkha is the sexiest of all (I think a lot of Muslims would find themselves in a pickle if that were true).

While I basically disagree with her, I do think that showing too much isn’t sexy, either. So where does the sexy begin and end in the spectrum of skin coverage?

Appropriate sexiness is culturally contingent, so there’s no way I could justify what it is or that it should even exist. But overall, I think most people in our country agree with me that there’s such a thing as showing too much and there’s such a thing as showing too little: a person should not reduce his entire self-worth to the sexual, and at the same time a person should not strip himself completely of sexual worth.

In response to Emma Watson, why isn’t it sexy to wear a short skirt (as long as it isn’t too short)? Maybe she’s only speaking for herself – that she doesn’t feel sexy in revealing clothes. But let’s widen her assertion to apply it to what I think so many Facebook users responded to – that there’s something wrong with women being sexy or for using their sexiness to get ahead.

A few months ago I watched a video of Beyonce performing Run the World (Girls) at the Billboard Music Awards.

It’s an amazing, female-empowerment anthem, and the presentation utilizes incredible computer graphics technology. I couldn’t help but assume that most of the CGI was developed by men, and that Beyonce was dressed to expose everything but the bare essentials. You could always make a case that Beyonce, a woman, is exploiting men’s hard work (the CGI) in order to further a sexist agenda, and you could also argue that Beyonce is dependent on men in order to be successful, so that whole issue seems like a toss-up. So instead, I’m just going to talk about the fact that Beyonce wasn’t wearing too many clothes.

All of the most successful female artists right now – Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Shakira – they all walk around half-naked when they perform. I’ve felt somewhat compromised by this: do women need to sexualize themselves in order to be successful?

But here’s where it gets tricky. I was watching Glee the other day, and they actually did a rendition of Run the World (Girls). And there was Brittany S. Pierce* in some type of leotard, taking the school by storm with a crew of 50 backup dancers in her bid to become student body president. She looked damn powerful. Could it be that her sexuality added to her power? And that’s when it hit me: what’s wrong with expressing a sexual identity?

Why are women supposed to suppress that part of themselves? Even though her dance moves and clothes were sexy, I saw more to her than just “sexual object.” It’s true, I’m a heterosexual, so my immediate thought was not to have sex with Brittany, but I think most men watching that wouldn’t say: “I’ll only vote for her cause she’s sexy,” or “I’ll sleep with her, but that is her only significance to me, and therefore I certainly wouldn’t vote for her.” Maybe a few decades ago, that would have been the male response, but I don’t think that’s true today. I think today most American people think women are just as competent as men.

Therefore, why can’t your sexuality be one of many confident qualities that you project?

Now, what about people who, like Emma Watson, don’t feel sexy by wearing skimpy clothing? What about people who either aren’t very sexual, or they are but they are unattractive and no one wants to see them in skimpy clothing? Granted, maybe it’s unfair to fat girls that our society’s definition of “sexy” inhibits them from dressing skimpy. My best advice is that they’ll have to express their sexuality in a way that doesn’t involve revealing clothing, just like the Emma Watsons of the world: less is more.

Ultimately, I think hard work and talent pays off more than attractiveness. Take Adele. She has a pretty face but she’s chubby. And she’d still be famous if she wasn’t pretty because she has a beautiful, powerful voice, and sings good songs.

People respond to honesty. If you’re Emma Watson, Adele, or Bjork, or Cee Lo Green, as long as you’re doing what feels the most like yourself and you’re good at it, people will buy it.

So why all the resentment? Why all the feelings of anti-sexuality and anger at Hollywood? Well, in the past few decades we’re trying to undo millennia of sexist ideology without being impractical about the rules of attraction. That’s a pretty high task, and often conflicts with itself.

Ideals of beauty are never going to go away, so instead of getting angry at them, we should do a few things: 1. look at all the examples of successful people who don’t fit the beauty bill; 2. encourage people to be confident in all aspects of themselves and express that confidence in a genuine way.

Beyonce didn’t send me the message that I can only be her if I look like her, she sent me the message that she is confident in herself, including her sexuality.

If Emma Watson feels sexier in a turtleneck, have L.L. Bean send her a catalogue.

Post-Script: In reading over this, I realized that I should have made special mention that dressing sexy is relative to the situation. The interpretation of the sexuality of your clothing is dependent on the atmosphere. My work is not a sexy place (unlike Beyonce’s job), and therefore to dress skimpy at work would be to sexualize the environment unnecessarily. I don’t perceive not being able to dress skimpy at work as sexual suppression since the job isn’t sexy. However, a bar is a sexual environment, and dressing skimpy doesn’t sexualize the space any more than it already was when I walked in. Even though it’s a sexual environment, it’s not merely that, and that’s exactly analogous to my clothes: they’ve made me sexual but not merely sexual. I think the only time my clothes would make me merely sexual is when I wear too few. The converse is also true: if you walk into a sexual space and you’re relatively covered up, you’re desexualizing the space and sending the message that you are absolutely not to be thought of sexually. In other words, I could wear something to work that aligns with the atmosphere, but when I wear it to a bar, it’s too inhibitory for the atmosphere.  More on the complications of being too sexy or not sexy enough, including criticisms of Hilary Clinton during her presidential campaign, when I have more time…

*Actress Heather Morris who plays Brittany S. Pierce was actually a backup dancer for Beyonce: 


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