What Does Redefining Sexy Look Like?

We’ve all doubted our sexiness at one time or another. Harrison Davies perfectly captures the interconnection between power, sexiness and just letting go. Having overcome the changes that disability brings, they have re-defined sexy in a way that we can all find empowering.

In my early twenties, I read that most of the British public feel ‘sexiest’ when in the middle of intercourse. This fact has stuck with me for many years because, for most of my life, it seemed utterly alien. Sex came into my life when I was far too young. Even adult consensual experiences proved to be nearly always unpleasant, sometimes degrading and occasionally violent. Unwanted sexual attention made me feel monstrous. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that cat-calling on the street or the lascivious leer of the bus driver has always made me feel like a grotesque side-show who has attracted the morbid and malicious curiosity of the braying crowd.

As an introverted child with a fascination for the starlets of the silver-screen, the concept of ‘sexy’ had always been very adult; about being able to dominate a situation. It was an outward concept based on the perception of others. Long dresses, champagne glasses, the slight curve of the lip. ‘Sexy’ was theatrical; a certain behavior, a certain style, but above all, sexiness always led to sex.

‘Sexy’ therefore became a dangerous idea to me. I felt that by enjoying my body, by dressing up or feeling attractive, that I was ‘asking for it’. As I grew up, I realized that no one ‘invites’ unwanted sexual attention. As I became less frightened of my role in these experiences, I felt like I could express myself more in the way I dressed. More than that, I felt the freeing realisation that I didn’t need to monitor my behavior quite so closely.

Yet, even with this growth, ‘sexy’ was still never a word I was able to relate to. It no longer felt dangerous in the way that it had, but it still felt inherently unattainable. While my attitude towards ‘sexy’ had changed, my conception of what it was hadn’t. ‘Sexiness’ was about dominance, and that was far from my grasp. Assault or unwanted attention doesn’t just make you feel ugly in the moment, it has a way of sticking with you, of making you feel undesirable or unworthy as an individual. These experiences strip you of your power, leaving you feeling alienated from sex. I believed innately that ‘Sexy’ was how others felt about you, not how you felt about yourself. A feeling which was further compounded in my early twenties when I developed a neurological condition which causes intermittent physical disability.

When people talk about sex and illness, they often focus on the unattractive medical equipment, the physical challenges, or even the mental space required for a healthy sex-life. These things are essential, of course. However, one of the most difficult things to come to terms with in a chronic-condition is unpredictability. You can never be certain what your body, or mind, is capable of that day. When you can’t predict if you will be able to walk in the morning, you become estranged from your body. You can no longer trust it the way you used to, and this can lead to resentment.

Feeling let down by your own body makes the concept of ‘sexy’ seem incredibly foreign, and at times, irrelevant. I didn’t feel desirable not because of the symptoms of my illness – which can put a real dampener on the mood, don’t get me wrong – but because I didn’t like my body anymore, so why would anyone else? That’s not to say I spent every moment of my twenties feeling like Frankenstein’s monster. There were times I felt physically attractive, pretty even. But feeling attractive doesn’t mean you feel ‘sexy’.

Being beautiful and being sexy are very different. We can find beauty in ourselves even in our darkest, most emotionally and physically ravaged moments. Beauty is as much in kindness as it is in your physique. But sexiness is about desire and power. How can you be desired if you’re broken? Repulsive? Sick? My conception of ‘sexy’, I realized, was inextricably linked to aesthetic worth in the eyes of another. Sexiness was a physical quality which I could not possess with my illness, and a characteristic I couldn’t associate with emotionally. To achieve the aesthetic which defines sexy, I believed you had to possess a power that I simply didn’t have within me.

My feelings about this remain conflicted. I know that my health-condition doesn’t lessen my worth or make me physically or sexually repulsive. However, I do still harbour feelings of resentment at times; especially when I find I can no longer do something I used to be able to. What has changed, however, is my definition of ‘sexy’. I had always understood sexy as being purely physical, an image first and foremost. Sexy was leather and lipstick. Sexy was high-heels and tight clothes. ‘Sexy’ was the aesthetic which went with sexual behaviour and sexual acts. To pull this off, I believed that you needed to have the ability to dominate with your confidence but also that you had to be engaging in an act or dialogue which I did not, could not, feel comfortable in.

I had sex, yes, but it was far from sexy. I was frustrated with and frightened of my body, I was wary of my partners and the power I felt they wielded over me. I felt weak in sexual experiences. What I had failed to realise was that it was confidence, not the physical aesthetic, which was really at the root of my definition of sexy. I had, for so long, defined this concept by what I assumed others perceived, without realising that at the heart of my own definition was the answer. Feeling sexy is really about your internal dialogue and self-perception. It doesn’t have to be about sex, dressing provocatively, or even acting sexually; feeling sexy comes with that feeling of empowerment. I realised this only very recently after going to two burlesque shows.

The first, was my first drag show during The Fringe. The Yummy Show, an award-winning Australian cabaret troupe, are synonymous with sexiness, and not just because of the extremely beautiful cast. The incredible performers proved to me that while ‘sexy’ certainly has a lot to do with aesthetic and atmosphere, what brings this to life is the passion. Yummy is outrageously fun, extraordinarily beautiful, and above all, every cast member oozes confidence and joy on stage. With this realisation dawning on me, it took root when I went to see Dita Von Teese a few months later.

There should be something terribly vulnerable and dark about an auditorium watching women in their underwear bathe. But as Dita took to her signature martini glass and Gia Genevieve to a bubble bath, there was nothing vulnerable about it. These women lit the stage with confidence and fun. Their bodies, costumes, and make-up only enhanced what they possessed by nature: confidence. Both of these shows were lessons in empowerment.

I realised that those fleeting moments of ‘sexiness’ I had experienced in my life, the sharp sound of a stiletto striking the floor, the sway of my hips in a tight skirt, had all been characterised by the confidence I felt in those moments. When partners had called me ‘sexy’ it had been when I was lost in a fierce discussion about my research, expressing my views and opinions, dancing as I was getting ready; the small reckless moments that were unchecked by anxiety or self-imposed limits. My experiences had made sex something I associated with vulnerability and ‘sexiness’ had always seemed to me to be about dominance. I realised that this wasn’t the case. Feeling sexy isn’t about being in control or dominating, it’s about feeling empowered and claiming back your autonomy from those feelings of vulnerability.

Whatever your kink, you feel sexiest when you feel emboldened, free to express yourself and embrace the moment. “Sexiness” is simply the by-product of confidence, of reckless abandon when you laugh, of doing something – or someone… - you love with unadulterated passion, of being shamelessly and fearlessly yourself. Knowledge, love, passion, talent are what make you sexy, lipstick and leather just makes you look good while you’re doing it.