Saturday, March 29, 2014

What Sexy is to Me: Thoughts on Beauty and Body Image


It's almost the afternoon and I'm still in the same pj's that I've been wearing for the last 36 hours trying to get over this cold. A perfect time to write about sexiness, no? Anyway, I'm sipping tea and reflecting on a number of things that have been running through my mind related to body image. This is a personal post.

I recently re-tweeted this image. (oh, yeah, I'm tweeting now - @ClioPhineas).

Real vs Ideal??

This is an average size woman holding an average size RTW window mannequin. I have mixed feelings about it. I'm closer to the model than the mannequin in size and shape, but have women in my life that are closer to the mannequin. I'm kind of sick of the "real woman" debate.

I could say a lot about a beauty and fashion industry that promotes a very narrow beauty ideal and an entertainment industry that labels non-slim, non-white, non-young beauty as alternative or "real". Is it any wonder that only 4% of women would describe themselves as beautiful?

Body image is inextricably linked to my feelings about beauty, my style and sex appeal. I have always been curvy; I haven't always loved my curves. When I was in my teens and 20's I struggled with my weight. My hips and thighs are not the Hollywood approved standard and I was always self-conscious about them. Sheaths and pencil skirts were for other people; my strategy for dressing was to camouflage my lower half.





But around 30, my perspective changed thanks to my hobbies. The first time I snorkeled, I was utterly mesmerized.  And I realized that I had been denying myself the pleasure of swimming - an activity I loved up until adolescence - because of my self-consciousness about my weight and shape. It was a moment of reckoning for me.


Did you know that I'm part mermaid on my grandmother's side?


Now I am a certified scuba diver and have even done the unthinkable - posted a picture of myself wearing a bikini. My teen and 20's self would be mortified - MORTIFIED!- by how not Hollywood perfect I look. But I'm getting ahead...

Soon I began to practice yoga and then later to sew and run. Perhaps it had to do with being able to sew clothing that fit and flattered me or with the strong and healthy feeling yoga and running give me, but my relationship with my body fundamentally changed. I became less critical and more appreciative. The mirror became an ally in finding the things I like about myself instead of a critic.
 

I channeled my inner superhero - Elastigirl!

As I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin, I made a conscious decision to be part of the 4%. You can always spot a woman who feels like she looks beautiful. There is an ease and confidence that amplifies everything about her, and it has almost nothing to do with how she actually looks. For me, beauty has almost nothing to do with the reflection in the mirror and everything to do with the happiness I feel and project. Happiness is beautiful; smiles are beautiful; laughter is beautiful.

Circling back to the beginning of the post, one of the reasons why I dislike the term "real woman" is the unspoken notion that real is in contrast to some ideal. I am ideal. Exactly as I am and without any changes. And so is each of us, whether we see ourselves in the model, the mannequin or whether we are not covered by either.
 
In my 20's, I never would have worn something close fitting or that showed my hips and thighs, which I thought made me look huge. In the last few years, I decided it's an asset - the 13-14 inch difference  between my waist and hips is sexy. Instead of dressing to camouflage my figure, I've let my figure lead the way with the styles I choose - unfussy, simple silhouettes that don't hide all that much.


Titian's Venus of Urbino - curly haired and curvy


So, what is sexy to me? It's not the difference between my waist and hips; it's that I like and celebrate that difference. It's not that I wear a neckline that others might not dare; it's that I dare it. It's that I smile a lot, think happy thoughts and take pleasure in life. In my very first post about the Sew Sexy Sew Along I said that confidence is the most sexy thing a woman can wear. I truly believe that.


Anyway, all of this is not to say that I have reached any destination or have all the answers. I don't, and there are still occasional days when my thighs seem huge. But I'm on the journey and committed to it. And now I'm about to take myself to the Craft Lounge to begin work on my Sew Sexy lace dress, which will most certainly not hide my hips. 




What about you? What do you think is sexy? Have you ever taken something that was once a source of self-consciousness and turned it into a source of self-confidence? Tell, tell!

41 comments:

Clio said...

Amen!!!!! I HATE when people use the phrase "real women". I think it contributes to the way that beauty is always defined in opposition to something. In actuality, beauty is everywhere, in all places, and in all people. I hate that beauty is usually viewed from such a narrow lens.

And I agree with you about sexiness. The people I find super sexy are people who are clearly comfortable in their own skin. I love seeing people rock a look that makes them feel confident and happy. That's super sexy, right? It's a struggle to be comfortable in your own skin, for sure, but it's so freeing to embrace your flaws. Through my teens and twenties, I wore baggy clothes because I was embarrassed about my scrawny, boyish shape. But now I care less about my perceptions of what other people think about me (cause they're probably not thinking about me at all) and I use my clothing as a way to express myself and have fun instead of as a disguise or suit of armor.

Thanks for sharing this post! These are great things to think about and I'm looking forward to reading other people's comments!

Clio said...

Yes, projecting happiness a self confidence is what most people find as beautiful. Those models on the catwalk are always scowling, well I think they are under the makeup. There is no one 'ideal'. Oh and regardless of media messages. Young people are insecure and want to fit it. The great thing about age - is you simply don't care - when that happens - suddenly people around you see you in a new light as well.

Clio said...

I think you are right about age - nothing like a little life experience to put you in touch with what it is that really matters.

Clio said...

Love this post! I am in the 4% (at least most days :-)) Interestingly, without knowing the origin of the photo at the top of the page, I found it gorgeous. Like some weird plaster shadow dress. Neither of those shapes is unattractive so I don't see how anyone would be unhappy to look like either!

Clio said...

I totally agree, that sexiness comes from that inner confidence that some women just have. It's about having confidence to wear what you love and not be dictated to by current fashion or someone else's idea of what you are 'allowed' to wear.

Sewing for me enables me to make things I would never find in the shops. As someone who is definitely plus size (at a size 20) everything in the shops that's fits me is box shape, yet I do still have a figure with curves that I like to show off. Sewing lets me do this, and gives me greater confidence to be who I am.

Great post. ;-)

Clio said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this! And acknowledging that small girls are "real" too is such a big deal! I have friends that have been picked on worse for being skinny than curvy girls. Some people would not blink about saying "eat a cheeseburger" to a small girl when they'd never call someone fat! Being sexy is definitely knowing your body, being comfortable, and complimenting your figure. Making clothes makes it so much easier to dress well!

Clio said...

Wow, this was an incredibly powerful post - thank you so much for sharing! I've been thinking a lot about how I view my body lately, too - I just got my first dress form, and the process of padding it out to my size made me a little sad. And then I thought - why is that? There is absolutely nothing wrong with my body!

I'm planning to do a blog post myself about this topic soon - would you mind if I refer back to this post? I especially love your "real" vs. "ideal" discussion - I think you identified a key problem area in how we think about bodies. We are all ideal if we are using our bodies to do things we love!

Clio said...

"allowed to wear" - you are so right. So many of us think in terms of what we "can" wear or can "get away with". I love seeing women show their shape at every size!

Clio said...

The grass is not greener, is it? I think women of all sizes feel scrutinized and self conscious. When I realized that gamine girls had just as many hang ups as I did, it really drove home the point that perceived "flaws" have more to do with how we feel about ourselves than how we look.

Clio said...

Thanks, Emily! Be my guest. I can't wait to read your post.

We all experience the world through our bodies - through our interactions and senses. So why do we spend so much time in angst over them?

Clio said...

Why am I not shocked about that, gorgeous?!?!

It is a gorgeous image isn't it? But I also think that is part of what leaves me unsettled. It is the average woman as portrayed by a model - very proportional figure, not an ounce of cellulite, young, made up, wind machine blowing her hair.... It does get the point across that retailers could do a better job with more diversity in their window displays.

Clio said...

You make a valid point...

Clio said...

That's why I have mixed feelings about it...

Clio said...

Such a gorgeous post, and one I loved reading. I think we all go through a journey like yours to some extent - I know I certainly do, and I feel an intense sadness for the women in my life that still haven't made their way out of that jungle, but whose beauty I see so easily. If I had to describe sexy, I would struggle but eventually find my way to the very words you've laid out here. We have a sixth sense for it I think - you can 'smell' it when someone else is happy in their own skin.
Every now and again I have a mini ephiphany on my own body image... my calves and my shoulders have definitely caused me much angst throughout my teens and early twenties. The other day a random stranger actually complimented me on my 'shapely calves' and how they admired them - proof that what one person sees as a flaw can be ideal in another's eyes :)

Clio said...

Hear hear. I'm not there yet but I hope I will be someday. I've put on a bit of weight recently and I actually feel worse about my size than i did a few years ago when I was a good several stone heavier than now. Which goes to show it's all in the mind rather than reality. Sewing definitely helps as we can make clothes we want to wear rather than what shops allow us to wear!

Our bodies are amazing and the best thing we can aim to be is healthy and strong whether that is a size 0 or a size 20 or anything else. I hate the "real women" tag. We are all real, just different shapes and sizes!

Clio said...

I've always thought that sewing to fit your body is an empowering activity because you have to acknowledge and embrace your true size and shape — not the way you are framed in RTW clothes, which make you feel bad for all the ways they do not fit. RTW clothes make me feel short and wide-hipped, because those facets of my physical self do not fit properly into RTW. But when I sew for myself, I feel neither of those things.

Clio said...

Thanks, p-k! I know what you mean about feeling that sadness for other women. It always makes me sad to hear women talk about themselves or their bodies in a way that they would never talk about someone else.

It's funny how we pick and choose our own "problems".

Clio said...

I agree 100%! Why do we blame ourselves when RTW doesn't fit?

Clio said...

Agreed! There is so much diversity to love in the real world.

Clio said...

Well said! I can't think of anything at the moment that was once a source of self-consciousness and is now a source of self-confidence for me, but you've given me something to strive for. I need to turn some of my conscious thinking around!

Clio said...

Addendum, last night I went with my husband to his 40th highschool reunion, I know, awkward for the spouse, but between knowing people and facebook, I wasn't a complete outsider.
First of all, it could only be an LA reunion, at 57-8 it was a very goodlooking crowd. Sure there is surgery and haircolor and a lot of exercise involved. It was just interesting to see how most of this older crowd were really sharp and yes, both men and women were quite sexy.

Clio said...

I imagine that there is a LOT of pressure to "look good" in LA at every age.

Clio said...

I hate these false divisions between body types (real/ideal, thin/curvy, whatever...). I think marketing people try to break us up into groups to make it easier to sell us things. Like those Dove commercials about "real women" that make fun of other beauty commercials? Dove is part of Unilever which owns a bunch of other beauty companies making those commercials. They don't really care about changing advertising, it's just a calculated message to appeal to the demographic that didn't respond to the other commercials.

Clio said...

Amen to "Happiness is beautiful; smiles are beautiful; laughter is beautiful."

Clio said...

What a lovely post! I love that a Titian is one of your illustrations. I had to look far back in time to find a figure like mine being celebrated, but the first time I saw a Lucas Cranach painting I stopped in my tracks. I have Cupid Complaining To Venus (http://nbba.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/cranach-lucas-the-elder-cupid-complaining-to-venus.jpg) in my bedroom to remind me to somebody, a small bust, big tummy, and lush thighs are ideal. You're right, we need to be our own ideal!

Clio said...

She's beautiful! (Like you.) It is helpful to find your own personal Venus. My sister's (also a redhead) is Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

Clio said...

;-)

Clio said...

Hear, hear!

Clio said...

Don't forget that Unilever also owns Slim Fast AND Ben & Jerry's if you want to talk about mixed messages.


That said I have a hard time being too cynical about Dove. If more people bought brands that rejected the most narrow views, there would be a shift in the market.

Clio said...

I think it is a matter of changing one's thinking rather than anything else.

Clio said...

You got me, I'm a pretty cynical. But I don't see why you can't have a Slim Fast for breakfast, another for lunch, and a sensible dinner of Ben & Jerry's?

Clio said...

I'm sure that's how Unilever sees it, too!

Clio said...

Yes! A certain vivacity, a zest for life, a ready smile -- all are "sexy" in the best possible way. Age, weight, shape, color don't matter. "Sexy" is having an interest in something outside oneself, an openness to others, the kindness to not impose one's own will on everyone else all the time, a lively curiosity about the world. At least that's what I've been telling myself for the past 50 or so years.

Clio said...

I worked for a major rtw manufacturer, donkey's ages ago. It is NOT your fault when RTW doesn't fit! Manufacturers sew to set guidelines because they have to start somewhere. You simply may not "fit" the "fit" they offer. The big companies DO constantly re-evaluate their fit against changing cultural norms. An in-house survey of "average" women's shapes revealed (surprise!) that not every woman is shaped alike. Some are wide from side-to-side but flat from front-to-back. Some are deep front-to-back but narrow side-to-side. Some are cylindrical, evenly proportioned all around.

Clio said...

Almost no one fits the fit they offer, and yet women often blame themselves or feel bad about themselves, at least on a sub-conscious level.

Clio said...

With the recent huge resurgence in interest in "home arts," men and women are empowering themselves to acquire better fit at less cost. Simple alterations are often all that's necessary to achieve great fit. Re-hemming, taking in a waist an inch or two, or moving a button, is often all you need. Even if you don't sew for yourself from scratch, knowing how garments are constructed lets you evaluate whether a desired alteration is possible, or not worth the time and trouble. Knowledge is power, power lets you feel better about yourself.

Clio said...

You are preaching to the choir! ;-)

Just to be clear, I don't feel bad about RTW, I meant "we" in a "so many of us" way. I learned to sew simply so I could take trousers in at the waist. It changed the way I saw myself, RTW and my body 110% for the better. Now, I send my RTW to a seamstress to be altered so I have more time to make things from scratch since that's how to get a really great fit.

Clio said...

I'm experiencing something quite opposite at the moment as I lament the LOSE of my hips. It started with working out with my kids and I ended up just staying that way, when normally I'd put those few pounds right back on when the extra activity stopped/lessened. And it's really only the difference of a few pounds, but to me, it's super noticeable.

The weird thing is, I'm frustrated with myself because I really became comfortable with that body (and I realize, now, that I really, really liked it, too) so I'm having a hard time with things being and looking and fitting, differently.

I'm not happy with how much I'm bothered by it. Maybe it's bringing up those I'm-too-skinny feelings from my youth that I was super self-conscious about? Maybe it's the preference for a curvy body that's prominent in the black community? There are so many twists and turns to this body image thing. And so many cultural differences, too.

Why is it so hard to just be satisfied with what you have, in whichever (heavier or smaller) moment?

Clio said...

Good for you! I applaud your decision to leave the fiddly, tedious bits to an expert in fiddly, tedious bits. I take my car to a trained mechanic, my decrepit body to a trained physician, why would I not take my ill-fitting garments to a trained stitcher? (Sometimes it is easier to toss something out and start from scratch, though not for a decrepit body. Don't toss that out with the trash.)((Your neighbors will look at you funny.))


I've been a member of a church choir since I was 15, so ... 40 years now. I've done alterations on many a choir robe, lol.

Clio said...

You raise a really good point - our bodies change throughout our lives because of age/gravity, activity levels, pregnancy/childbirth, habits... who knows, some day I may have the slender thighs I'd always wanted as a teen and I may not like them!

I hope I'm on a good path. Over the last few years I haven't minded starting the new year a little softer after holiday indulgences and a bit slimmer/stronger each summer when I'm running and swimming more.

Clio said...

Amen, Clio. Love this post.