• Fri, Sep 16 2011

Sex and the Sixties Girl: What The Hell Is Sexy Anyway?

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners

Helen Gurley Brown has thought a lot about what’s sexy. It was—and remains—a major theme of Cosmo, the magazine she edited for something like 200 years. And she devotes an entire chapter to the topic in Sex and the Single Girl. A chapter in which she asks, “Have you got it? Can you get it? Are you sexy?”

If you’re wondering how on earth you’re supposed to know something like that, she has a few clues.

According to Helen, sexiness involves accepting yourself “as a woman… with all the functions of a woman”—and she includes on that list breasts (okay), reproductive organs (fine), and “alimentary tract” (which, in case you don’t know, is “the mucous membrane and muscle extending about 8.3 meters from mouth to anus,” a definition that’s disturbing on almost too many levels to get into). She also includes “menstruation” on the list since it’s “the abiding proof of your fertility.” To which I say: if welcoming something that causes headaches, cramps, mood swings and constant fear of leakage is a prerequisite for sexiness, that just knocked out almost all of the women I know—save for those who are concerned they might be pregnant.

But there’s more. Helen also says that a woman who enjoys sex is sexy. Okay, fair enough.

Then she cites Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners as sexy. To see what she meant, I rented that movie and prepared to be bathed in unabashed sexiness.

But I discovered—and this is no knock on The Sundowners, which won a bunch of Oscars—that I didn’t think there was anything remotely sexy about a long-suffering wife of a sometime sheep farmer, unless picking up a jar and complaining about the lack of money in it is sexy in some way I don’t understand.

But there’s still more. “Older women” are often sexy, Helen wrote. In Sex and the Single Girl, “older women” is in quotes but she doesn’t clarify if by older she means, say, how old she is now (89), how old she was when she wrote the book (40), or something else entirely.

Then she goes into this whole thing about how a 16-month old baby girl is sexy and later in the chapter discusses the woman who is a “paradox”: the one who “can have a patina of sexiness and be as cold as ice” (exhibit A: Paris Hilton’s sex tape?) And still later we’re presented with an eclectic list of sexy things (including clean hair, “lovely” lingerie, being able to sit still, smiles, being seen without your makeup by somebody who always sees you in it, being seen in bed, clothes that fit, skin-tight skirts and sweaters, a black dress, perfume, good health, being delighted to be called on the phone, and liking men, among many other things). A lot of those items have caveats (the example she gives of the woman who’s sexy when she was seen without makeup is Marlene Dietrich) but mostly they just left me feeling overwhelmed. Sitting still isn’t my strong suit and skin-tight sweaters make me look positively pornographic while perfume can give me headaches and delight isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe how I tend to feel when the phone rings.

Does this mean that sexiness will forever be at bay?

I think not. While I agree with a lot of what she considers not sexy (say, gossip, talking all the time, food particles between your teeth, and hair around your nipples [!]), other ideas—including her insistence that “flesh not secured firmly to the bone” is unsexy—leave me cold.

Here’s what I think: Owning your sexuality is sexy. Kissing well and deeply is sexy. Laughing and cooking and dancing and all sorts of other activities not included on her list are sexy. But mostly I think that feeling comfortable with yourself is sexy. Even if that self has hair that looks better dirty, wants to talk about her cute nephew, hates getting her period and has more unsecured flesh than she’d ever want to admit.

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  • Joe McD

    Hmmm… I think Anna David is sexy. And that’s all I have to say.

  • Anthony Mark

    wow
    this column hit home with me
    I think spending time together, doing anything is sexy
    going out , to a sports event, playing mini golf, this time of year going to a Haunted House.
    The sexyness is being with the person , that you are in the releationship with

    awesome

  • Chris S

    I agree that Anna is sexy also. But I also agree with her in that a woman that’s comfortable with herself, comfortable with what she is and what she isn’t (and knows it), that’s sexy.

    Plus a woman comfortable with herself probably knows that trying to be sexy doesn’t work either. Trying to be sexy is the best way to make one completely not sexy.

  • Marc

    “But mostly I think that feeling comfortable with yourself is sexy.”….

    Bingo!

    True story: Two girls just out of high school worked with me at a pizza parlor. They would have a falling-out because one was popular with the guys, while the other couldn’t get attention. They were both beautiful. The difference was that the un-popular girl walked like an old lady, with her arms pulled in as if ready to throw an elbow, and the popular one was just comfortable in her skin. Worse, when the first girl tried to “be sexy” the reaction of all the guys (including me) was to run, or climb out a window to escape.

    There was a young woman who worked at a real estate office a few doors down from where I worked. Every guy in a two-block radius (it’s Carmel, so they’re small blocks) knew her name. Same thing, while she was beautiful she was also just comfortable being herself.

  • Ms. Badger

    There is nothing sexier than a woman who is confident in herself, just like Anna said.

    Sorry, but most of what Cosmo says about sex and being sexy makes me feel rather uncomfortable.