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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

So Sexy It Hurts

By: Liberate Zealot
Content Warning: Sexism, Kyriarchy, Racism, Slut-Shaming

The idea that certain things are "sexy" or "too sexy" and therefor "inappropriate" is all over.  In various countries, among liberals and conservatives, feminists and religious extremists, there's the idea that a woman's body (more so than men) wearing certain clothes or doing certain things are so sexual (and objectifying) that they are bad and inappropriate.  Now different cultures have somewhat different standards (and these have also changed over time).  However, the overreaching standards that gain more and more prevalence are based on "Western" ideas.  And the "West's" ideas of sexuality and being "too sexy" are based on centuries of colonialism, "Othering", and the Kyriarchy.  

Western Europe and the people who came from there and conquered the lands that would become the US, Canada, and Australia had specific ideas about the acceptable role and appearance of women, and also ideas about "the savage" non-whites/non-Western Europeans.  These ideas have created our current ideas of not only what is "inappropriately sexy" but also what is considered "sexy" at all.  So to dismantle the Kyrirachal framing of things as "too sexy" and slut-shaming we need to look at how current standards of "sexy" and "too sexy" came into being.

Everyone knows about European and later US imperialism/colonialism in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas right?  And that it built upon centuries of imperialism and racism by the Greeks, Romans, and Catholics?  And that major parts of this imperialism have been about saving the savages from themselves (especially women from the men), combined with a desire to possess the actual people (women especially with Orientalism and interest in "exotic" and "sexual" women).

Everyone also knows about the different climates within the various areas and how those effected the clothing and "sexiness" of the people who lived there?  Like the fact that people from warm climates who had access to sun cover, and where the majority of the people needed to physically labor, wore a good deal less clothing than people who needed greater protection from the sun or cold. And that Europe is a place which necessitates a certain amount of clothing (like almost full coverage outside of face and hands) for the majority of the year.  And can people understand that practicalities can become a part of culture and therefore sex and morality?

In cultures where people aren't nude except when bathing (which back then didn't happen often if ever), or having sex, nudity becomes especially sexualized.  So much so that sometimes people didn't even bathe naked.  These ideas of being fully clothed as a part of dignity and morality are so extreme that upper class men wouldn't remove their coats (under which they have vests, shirts, and cravats) in the presence of a lady; women are considered "fast" if they wear only one petticoat (besides a shift) under their dress; no lady or gentleman would be seen outside without gloves.  At various times the exposure of a woman's ear was considered "too sexy".

This linkage of lack of clothing and sexuality isn't the case in cultures where clothing is more optional.  Often these cultures also had more similar clothing among all the genders (especially among the working people).  Sarongs and loincloths are favored among various peoples.  Some of these cultures include hair removal (among men and women) as a part of hygiene. In fact, the lack of hair on women in certain Native American tribes contributed to the idea that Native American's were more savage and sexual than the Europeans.  Apparently it was the women's hairless pubic mounds, as much as their nudity, that made Europeans believe they were uncontrollably sexual with every woman a "public woman" (read prostitute).

Also, everyone knows about classism right? And the intersections of oppression, with Othering, and how the people who are Othered often have the same traits projected onto them.  The powerful of Europe profited off the poor and needed some philosophical reason for their dominion.  Some of that was God mandated, you wouldn't be in power if God didn't want it so (also related to Manifest Destiny).  Some of it was about how the working classes were "less than" the aristocracy and needed to be controlled for their own good (the classist version of the White Man's Burden).  They were wild, savage, vulgar, and sexually immoral. They also worked outdoors and thus had tanner skin than the ruling class, so dark skin is often associated with being "overly sexual". (Therefore pale skin is more attractive and upper class people, especially women, will do a variety of things to make their skin paler).

So you have all these European ideas of clothing, class, skin, morality, and sex (along with older racism) that travels with them as they colonize other continents.  And these ideas are projected onto the indigenous people they encounter.  These combined with the European desire to take the land and resources from the natives people and their need for a moral reason to do so. Thus more Othering.  They're (and these ideas did include Asians, Africans, and Native Americans alike) less civilized, savage, uncontrollably sexual, unscientific, wildly emotional (sound familiar to sexist narratives or women?) and all around unable to govern themselves.  Thus we get the developing narratives of the Black Jezebel, the submissive "oriental" woman, and the harem fantasy, and the Native Princess/slave  (For the purpose of this post I'm not getting into all the racist and imperialistic stereotypes of men, though the western narratives around the sexuality of men of color does deserve it's own post).

These ideas didn't end with Europe's physical expansion.  They carry onto this day, all those previously listed stereotypes are still present.   There's the experiences of women of color, where no matter how chaste they are, they're never as pure as white virgins. There's the fact that the appearance and actions of Geisha do not meld with current western ideas of "sexy", but they are continuously sexualized (Geisha girl), especially by Americans. And then there's the things that are seen as "sexy" or "too sexy" that we think are independent of race.

They're not. Take dance for instance.  Ballet (while it has its critiques) isn't seen as a "sexy" form of dance even though small amounts of tight clothing are the norm (and ballet did introduce shorter skirts to Europe).  Now take club dancing, which is based heavily on traditional dance moves of Africa.


Seriously, watch this video closely and you'll see the undulating and thrusting body movements, the prevalence of hip and chest.  It's not dissimilar for the moves you'll see at an American dance club or in a music video. These moves have been a part of traditional African dance for centuries.  And as westerners learn about them they become "sexy" and in some instances "too sexy". Many young girls (5-8 years old) I know dance this way.  They're not being "sexy", they're incapable of it, and when an older woman saw them dancing like that she told them to stop, because "ladies don't dance like that".

And honestly the US has a history of white people appropriating the styles, moves, and music of African Americans, and white culture is both horrified and fascinated by what they see and hear. Seriously people, Elvis Presley. We also have a history of seeing any dance form done by the "Other" (immigrants, people of color) as "too sexy" and inappropriate compared to white forms and styles.  And again, this is the culmination of centuries of seeing non-Europeans (north/west Europe to be exact) as "Other" and more wild, unruly, and sexual than Europeans.  It's not because the actual sexual actions of immigrants and/or people of color are more pervasive or sexual, it's because white people sexualized and objectified these people so as to have power (and explain that power) over the "Other",

And then there's hair.  Sleek, coiffed hair is considered professional.  More controlled. Hair with a lot of body, or curls is sexy.  Now look at the ethnicity of the people who often have those types of hair. Anglo-Saxon and Asian women (the protected "Us" and the sexually submissive "Other") are much more likely to have naturally straight hair.  Indian, Arab, African, and Latina women are all much more likely to have voluminous and curly hair. (Though African American women have a lot of pressure to chemically straighten their hair and make it look more white).  These are also the women who are "Othered" as having wild and out of control sexualities, and so their "unruly" hair is a symbol of their "sexiness" and is "too sexy" for professional areas.

Meanwhile we still have ideas of clothing, sexuality, and morality. The more your expose, the more "sexy" you are.  With certain types of clothing being "too sexy" either for specific places, or because it leads to us being objectified, or it's a "whore's uniform".  Remember, not all cultures tie clothing, sexuality, and morality.  There's a practically in being covered and wearing layers (depending on where you are) and there's a practicality in wearing less or no clothing (depending on where you are).  I moved south to a humid area several years ago and the amount of clothing I wear has decreased while my feminism and work against rape and rape culture has increased.

Society's ideas about sex, sexiness, and being "too sexy" are bound up in the Kyriarchy.  Our current ideas are founded upon centuries of sexism, racism, and classism (not to mention ableism).  Our perceptions of hair texture to skin color (at first pale skin was a sign of wealth and therefore desirable, now in the US being tan is a sign of wealth and leisure and is desirable) to attitudes to clothing, make-up ("professional/serious" looking make-up is geared towards people with white skin) and dance styles are informed by this Kyriarchy.   And it's a Kyriarchy we've all been brought up in, not one of us is exempt.

Woman (and thus the "feminine") as object, people of color as object, poor people as object, was and is the way of the game in the Kyriarchy.  And now everything associated with these people (us) is a part of objectification and sexiness.  The idea of certain things being sexy, and especially of certain things/people being "too sexy" is a major issue within our society.  It results in slut-shaming. It's deeply tied to racism and makes it especially difficult for women of color to navigate the world, and even other feminist spaces and causes.  We need to check the idea of "too sexy", both in larger society and in ourselves.  Failure to do so is a failure to tackle the myriad and intersecting complexities of oppression.  It's a failure to deeply examine the roots of our culture (which is founded upon the Kyriarchy) which makes it impossible to attack them.  It's a failure to decolonize our own minds.



  • Title taken from "I'm Too Sexy" lyrics
  • The majority of the information and analysis regarding the sexual objectification and Othering of peoples in the US comes from Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, edited by Kathy Peiss. 
  • The majority of the information and analysis of Orientalism and Colonial Othering comes from the works of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

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