Friday, March 2, 2007

Sexy v Beautiful

‘Just standing around looking beautiful is so boring…’
- Michelle Pfeiffer

Ah, Michelle. I feel your pain.

Actually, I don’t, because like most of the world, I don’t have a ticket to the Beautiful Club. They can be bought, of course, at huge expense and if you’re willing to spend a lot of time – a lot of time – primping and waxing and grooming and pouting. Air brush and botox and stand the right way and try not to smile too hard, and you might be allowed in to worship at the altar of Supermodel.

Like most young girls, I wanted to grow up and be beautiful. (Brush your hair a hundred times. Wash your face in the morning dew. Work on that blank expression.) Unfortunately I’ve failed so far - to either grow up or be beautiful.

Yet there was a moment, a few years ago, when I was looking in the mirror and despairing at my flaw-ridden reflection, and a light bulb went on.

I may never be beautiful, but fuck, I could be sexy. Sexy like Marilyn or Peaches or Debbie Harry or Macy Gray or Eartha Kitt or Patti Smith. (Feel free to add your own version of sexy to the list here).

Sexy is so much more various than beautiful. More powerful.

‘Hips, tits, lips, power.’
– Big Bad Baby Pigsqueal, by Silverfish

While the beautiful people are standing carefully on the red carpet, one hip arranged at the right angle and chin down, trying not to smile too hard, the sexy woman is out mud-wrestling in a ripped dress, screwing her hair up and not giving a flying fuck. A sexy woman has a sense of humour. A sexy woman doesn’t worry about her manicure when she’s raking her nails down a man’s back.

Really, all Beauty is fit for is preserving behind glass. It’s dazzling, sure, and we shrink before it. ‘It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness’ (– that’s Leo Tolstoy, and I’m not going to argue with him.)
But show me a beautiful character that has any hint of a pulse, and I’ll eat my eyelash curlers. There’s something cold about beauty, at least, beauty as we’re led to believe – cold perfection, symmetrical features, flawless skin. Aiming for size zero.

Yes, a woman knows she is beautiful when her dress size tells her she has ceased to exist. That’s the point. Beauty is a chimera. We’re being sold the Emperor’s New Clothes, because really there is no such thing as beautiful.

‘Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford’
– Cindy Crawford

But, now, let’s have a look at sexy. You can smell sexy. It’s about how you move, the certain quality of your smile, an attitude that knows all about the body and its mysterious, pulsing, sweating, heart-racing, blood-pounding ways. It has body hair and breasts and balls and fluids. (Yes, I realise I’ve just created a monster. Bear with me).

The point is, Sexy is about revealing our real self, gloriously flawed. It’s not about struggling to erase all the signs that show one is human in the pursuit of a mathematically perfect ideal.

Only one person decides if you're sexy or not - that's you. It’s about heat, and the suggestion of softness. How your flesh would feel cupped in the palm of a hand. It’s about feeling skin against skin and tasting the mouth of your lover and feeling that beat start inside you that turns your knees weak and makes you hungry and knowing that your body is meant for more than just decoration.
It’s about dancing like no-one is watching, the taste of chocolate ice cream, how your body jiggles when you move. Most of all, of course, it’s about fucking.

No one can stay beautiful and make love. I mean, have you ever seen yourself in the act? Face screwed up and sweating and mouth hanging open and hanging upside down off the edge of the bed is not a flattering pose.

Most of all, being sexy is about being a real, live, fuckable human being.

And that’s why when I’m writing, I look for the things that are ‘wrong’ about a character. All the ugliness that makes a character (or a person) unique and fascinating and memorable, also makes them real enough to fall in love with.

‘Give me a ruined complexion and a lost figure and sixteen chins on a farmyard of Crow’s feet and an obvious wig. Then you shall see me coming out strong.’
- George Bernard Shaw, to Mrs Patrick Campbell.

I say keep your Beauty. Give me ugly, give me crooked teeth and a soft belly and funny feet and a squint, and I shall show you sexy.

How about you?


kristina lloyd said...

Oh my goodness. I just want to fuck you. Seriously. You don't even need to wear the Johnny disguise like you normally do.

Scorching post. Puts me in mind of what Immanuel Kant says in his Critique of ...

Nah, you floored me. Brilliant.

Nikki Magennis said...

Hmmm...lustbites as a way to pick up hot there's a thought.

Sexy 1 Beautiful 0

Nikki said...

I agree. Sexy is better then beauty. Being sexy is about being confident about your appearance, including its flaws, and not giving a damn. We're all attracted to those that have confidence and sex appeal, rather than those wallflowers that hide away. And beauty passes eventually. When its gone and the age lines and grey hair have appeared, what do they do? Have a crisis of confidence? But if they're sexy...Hmm. Good post. Thought provoking.

Anonymous said...

I do like beautiful. Insofar as it relates to men. I like male beauty and I like to write about it. I think there is a lot left to be said by het women about male beauty.

I think we talked about this, Nikki, when you interviewed me that time.

But I just say this to hold my hand up and say, 'I like beauty'. But I know your post isn't really about male beauty so much.

Female beauty has been done to death. It just bores me. It's too passive, too static, too unimaginative; yeah, I'm just repeating everything you said.

Nikki: You have a very sexy mind.

Nikki Magennis said...

Sexy 2.5 Beautiful 0.5

Nikki - re the age lines and grey hair - witness the formidable Eartha. She's around 80 now, I believe, and still sexy as hell.

Tilly - Yes, this post is about a specific type of beauty. Not male, per se, and not even a more individual kind of beauty, but more the ubiquitous form that is on Every Single Magazine cover - (women's mags or men's mags,) and used to sell every possible product and to create a powerful myth that makes it very easy to dismiss women by saying they're ugly - whether they're a politician or a musician or whatever. It is boring, but it's still utterly pervasive. And it really pisses me off.

I'll stop before I go too raving-feminist for this time of the morning.

- Sexy mind? Why thank you. (I'll reply on behalf of both Nikkis, shall I?)

Madelynne Ellis said...

Ah, I'm with Tilly on the whole male beauty thing. But the glossy, sterile magazine women beauty, no thanks.

My nana used to have newspaper cutting of Brigette Bardot, looking really ancient, taped to the side of her fridge, with her age written in the margin. Younger than my nana at the time. I know who looked best. As you say, beauty fades...

Nikki Magennis said...

Yeah, I'm thinking we should have a male beauty post. Did we do that already?

What a sweet story about your nana, Madelynne.

Sexy 3.5 Beautiful 0.5 ('Cos this is a really scientific study...I must keep count of the votes.)

Nikki H said...

Should I sign my name as Nikki H to avoid confusion?

Honor Blackman has lines and grey hair and she's very sexy. Oozing confidence!

Anonymous said...

If we're talking about beautiful older women. Helen Mirren on Sunday night.


Nikki H said...

Absolutely, Mathilde!

Janine Ashbless said...

I'm a sucker for beauty too - but sexy will win every time. Sexy is stronger.

In the film "Chicago" you've got CZJ and Renee Zellwiger and loads of scantily dressed cabaret twiglets - but by far the most stunning, pant-wettingly sexy woman on it is Queen Latifah. OMG.
She embodies everything you've said about attitude, confidence, and sheer magnetism.

Jeremy Edwards said...

Excellent, Kristina! You've added a 19th-century epistemologist to the search-string possibilities, and now whenever people google on "mud-wrestling" with "Immanuel Kant" they're all yours.

Lewis said...

Speaking for myself I like both, and it depends on the mood I'm in. I'd far rather a sexy woman in my bed than a beautiful one, but one that's both isn't too much of a cross to bear!

That said, I agree, broadly that beauty is passive and sexy active. To my (male) mind, beauty is posed and still, whilst sexy is about movement (even people wriggling in tight bondage are moving a bit).

That's part of why I initially took issue with the first post. Michelle Pfeiffer is sexy, still. There are very few truly beautiful photos of her (IMO), the reason she draws my eyes is because of the way she moves. She still has that, and still does it for me at coming up to 50.

What defines precisely what movements make someone sexy are trickier... Kylie's supposed to do it for most men, but she leaves me cold and yes, Queen Latifah has it, CZJ does too, although less, Renée Zellwiger... no, sorry.

Alison Tyler said...

Love your post, Nikki...

I remember "beautiful" from high school, the perfect girls with the long straight hair and the thin lips and the convertible Rabbits. (Don't know how the cars added to their beauty. Just did.)

But to me, the sexiest girl in school was a punk rock chick named Karen, who had super-short bleached blonde hair tinted pink. She wore thrift store clothes pinned together and was crazy sexy.

At our 10 year reunion, she showed up looking... beautiful. She had long straight blonde hair and a tight Jessica Rabbit-esque dress and the boys from school all went insane. Nobody knew who she was.

I think it was her Cinderella dream to fuck with them all. But I missed the sexy girl. The punk rock chick. Sexiest fucking girl in school. I swear.

May said...

Fabulous post, Nikki.

I totally agree. I think a lot of women don't get it, and that all that dieting/exercising even though they are healthy? It makes them less sexy because they cannot accept themselves as they are.

Nikki Magennis said...

Lewis, I think the reason M Pfeiffer might manage sexy and beautiful is because she knows the whole thing is a sham - see her comment about how boring it all is...

Anonymous said...

I get the impression that Michelle Pfeiffer is woah-scary-smart.

Which kind of trumps everything.

Alison Tyler said...

There was an article in The New York Times style magazine (from Fall 05) called "The Unfairest of Them All" which focused on "jolie laide"--a term that translates to "pretty-ugly."

The accompanying pictures are Sofai Coppola, Jeanne Moreau, Anjelica Huston, Cher, and Alek Wek. It includes the quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald "After a certain degree of prettiness, one pretty girl is as pretty as another."

(I knew I was saving the magazine for something!)

Nikki Magennis said...

Queen Latifa in Chicago - fabulous.

And re our google search strings - you should see them. Really.

I've lost count of the vote now...

Shanna Germain said...

Yeah, I'm all about the smart too. Give me somebody with a wicked sly sense of humor and a brain, and I'm likely to be panting.

I have a thing for scars myself. Damn sexy, but not often beautiful (at least not in the traditional sense).

Ashley Lister has a nice piece up on Erotica Readers called The Beautiful People right now, where he talks about the non-beauties who are beauties. (He mentions characters by our own Madelynne Ellis in the post).

Here, if anyone wants to read it:

Alison Tyler said...

Oh, I just remembered an early critique I had on some collection or another. The reviewer said all of the characters were too pretty. Okay, fair enough. Except he was a writer for Playboy Magazine.

Pot calling Kettle?

P.S. Shanna, I like scars, too... My man was a commercial fisherman for 8 years... he has plenty.

Madeline said...

Another thought-provoking post. If this keeps up, I might get smarter...and that would make me sexier, right? I'm with the 'smart = sexy' types, but it does seem to me that that is more prevalent among women, ie. that women find smart men sexy, (smart = powerful?) whereas men are more likely to find pretty=sexy. I've wondered for awhile, though, why so many supermodels get cheated on. Wouldn't it seem that the husband of a supermodel has everything? I used to think it was proof that guys just find monogamy boring after awhile, but now I'm wondering if there's something cold, or overpowering, or narcisistic about beautiful women that makes their men stray. Or maybe the reality of living with someone whose giant paycheck depends upon her staying beautiful gets tedious. After all, food can be very sexy, and eating can be very sexy, too. Maybe it's off-putting to be with someone who nibbles at lettuce leaves, or eats a meal and then spends a suspiciously long time in the bathroom. As far as I know, and I don't really want to know if I'm wrong, bingeing and purging isn't sexy.
I'm doing a lot of generalizing here, sorry for that, but how else does one address a sweeping topic like this without sweeping statements of her own?

Anonymous said...

I don't know. There are an awful lot of men out there that find clever the sexiest thing.

I just asking one that was passing and that's what he said and I wasn't sitting on him or anything.

Maria, Lover of All Things Romance said...

That is a very strong post. And I'm with sexy sexy sexy, all the way

Kate Pearce said...

Thank you for bringing sexy back :) (no groaning in the back please)
I think age has something to do with it too. I grew up with 5 sisters. One of them was so beautiful that men would literally leap out of their cars and ask her out, or leave big bouquets of flowers at her work place. She hated it because she is super smart too. One year she took on all the guys in her office who were marathon runners and eventually beat all their times, then she stopped...
But she made me feel fat and ugly and it took me a lot of years to get over that and realize I could definitely be sexy instead.
I love sexy!

Nikki Magennis said...

Scars - one word. Joaquim.

And Madeline - sometimes I feel sorry for beautiful people (I know a couple). Often I think people want them for the wrong reasons, or dismiss them, or treat them as throwaway. And then there's jealousy, of course. Which is why the models I know all go out with each other, I think.

Maria and Kate, thanks for the votes! I think age has definitely got a lot to do with it. You grow into yourself and get sexier. At least, that's the plan...

Madeline said...

I like the present backlash against superthin models. One young actress recently said that actresses now compete with models, so that's one reason why so many young actresses are anorexic. It seems that 'a woman can do anything' has become 'a woman must do everything' so it's not even good enough, now, to be a great actress, they have to be actresses/models/singers. Singers, too, have to at least try acting - so they're compared to models,too, models who likely just wish the actresses and singers would leave the modelling to them. I'm really disturbed, at the moment, by the abundance of superskinny young actresses out there. This whole anorexic/bulemia thing is a potentially deadly disese. And, of course, anorexia isn't sexy or beautiful. It may look great on the runway or even the silver screen, but in person it's spooky. I guess my point is that sexy means thin, these days. I'm not at all sure that this is a male preference pressed upon women by 'The Man'. I really suspect we've done this to ourselves. Maybe I should just be happy that 'beautiful' doesn't mean thin.
Does it?

Jeremy Edwards said...

Nikki, I know what you mean about feeling sorry for beautiful people. I've known a few (of both genders), and I've observed how people often seem to treat them differently from how they treat the rest of us. Brusque people are often nice to them, and nice people are often very nice to them. That must be great, in one way; but then I think how if I were gorgeous, I'd often be wondering if someone was being nice to me out of actual niceness or actual fondness for me as a person, or simply because of my dazzling handsomeness. If people are always trying to impress you (or seduce you) instead of just being themselves, then perhaps you don't have as good a handle on who's really who and what's really what.

Nikki Magennis said...

- and then there's the opposite. I've watched people being cool or aloof or generally sneery at the models I was talking about.

And they do seem to enter this parallel universe. We call it Planet Model, where everything is beautiful and nothing is quite real.

Alison Tyler said...

Since we've sort of switched over to beautiful men, as well, I have a friend who is so intensely good looking that his knickname is "Handsome." (Not to his face, but... he's referred to as "Handsome Jeffrey Miller," except I just stuck in a false name.)

When I go out with him, people just gawk. He's 6'4" and better looking than George Clooney/Carey Grant, but of that style. Waitresses have asked me how I got a man like that, and when I was single and out with him, other men would hit on me like nobody's business.

But the crazy thing is that he's totally insecure. He likes to make sure that he's taller than anyone else in the room (he'll go back to back with other men to make sure). He calls a million times before you go out to see what people are wearing. I find it kind of, I dunno, charming. Especially, since I don't have to date him.

I'd take a truly confident man over an insecure beautiful man any day.

capricornBigcat said...

Seems like there's no beautiful women out there making their case!
As a bloke tho' I can say 'hand on heart' that every beautiful woman I've taken to bed has been a total disaster when it gets 'down to the basics' as Nikki so aptly described in her intro. They're as much as a sham shagging as they are when they're parading their looks 'in public' - and as for the off-putting "oh be careful, darling, you might bruise me" when it's all getting hot... (not to mention the two hours 'afterwards' putting all the make-up back on again before they emerge back into their make-believe world again). Nah, give me your big red hot mamma to look after me, as the old Louis Armstrong song went. That's another thing too - the 'matchstick' lover is like wrestling with a wire coathanger! Give me a good old mud-wrestling,sweaty,give-it-all,size fourteen plus and proud of it sexy raw female any day!
Will now duck down below the parapet for missile-hurling feminist comments!

Janine Ashbless said...

As a feminist, Capricornbigcat, I totally approve of your comment. Parapet unnecessary. ;-)

Stephe said...

My word. Nikki. Thank you.

Olivia Knight said...

Okay, I'm going to go out on a limb here. (I tried posting all day yesterday but it wouldn't give me the visual verification.)

I think I'm beautiful. Not drop-dead gorgeous, not supermodel-skinny (by no means), and not right now because I've only been awake a couple of hours, my hair's unbrushed and my make-up's not on. The reason no beautiful women are making their case is because it's just too damned arrogant to step forward and say, "Hey, I'm beautiful, and I think..." I doubt I'd have the courage if you could actually see me. You might disagree. BUT I think I'm beautiful, most of the time, or on a good day, and I enjoy the fact that people are nice and attentive to me. I don't think I'm that spectacular that I never had to learn manners myself though - we've all seen *that* happen! I don't put my make-up back on after sex or complain about bruises (mmm... bruises). I think there are very different kinds of beauty (perhaps why I'm prepared to call myself beautiful!) and the highly-polished doll-form isn't for me. So maybe my definition of beauty and yours of sexiness are the same.

In terms of being strikingly beautiful in the highly fashionable sense, with clothes-hair-makeup-accessories all just so at the cutting-edge of what's in, I think that's something women do for the benefit of other women. Likewise, being size 00 or superskinny. (I'd have to hack off my breasts and my hips to look like a model, and I don't think I could stand the blood-loss.) But I really believe all that effort is aimed at other women, in a competitive way - I mean, what man notices if your shoes are the latest? And most men salivate over scooped cleavage even if straight-up-straight-down figures and page-boy cuts are in. Sexiness, on the other hand, is aimed at men (or whatever your preferred tastes are).

Point being... I find it hard to draw the distinction so clearly. The extremes, yes; the gray area in the middle, no. "Jolie-laide" - when actresses and models are described as "jolie-laide" I just stare, thinking, "Where's the bloody laide?" And I think the major difference between the two is who you are trying to impress, and whether you're trying to intimidate or seduce.

All generalisations are dangerous, including this one.

Nikki Magennis said...

Olivia – thank you for stepping forward! (Rolling up sleeves..)

There were a few things in my argument that I didn’t articulate – partly to try and keep the flow, and partly because I’m lazy.

I wasn’t attacking beautiful people. It’s the concept of beauty – the nebulous, judgemental, corrosive idea that there are a chosen few who are blessed, and the rest of us have somehow failed because our faces or bodies don’t fit, that I take issue with.

Of course beauty is fundamentally subjective. I could have just turned it round and said wrinkles/fatness/crooked features are beautiful. But I think it’s stronger to use a whole different term. The thing about ‘sexy’ is that it doesn’t have an opposite term that carries as much vicious weight as ‘ugly’. It's more open to interpretation.

As far as either beauty or sexy being done for the benefit of men or women – that was also partly my point. Beauty is something one ‘does’, because it takes effort and a certain amount of artifice. It’s all about being seen. Totally visual, and necessitates an audience by definition. Sexy (as I used the term) isn’t necessarily ‘done’ for the benefit of anyone but oneself – sensual pleasure and joy in one’s own body.

So, I’m using ‘sexy’ to describe a kind of delight in one’s individuality that blows all the comparative and qualitative aspects of ‘beauty’ out of the water.

As for the generalisation being dangerous – Which generalisation? My basic argument is that everyone is sexy, and that the term ‘beauty’ (the whole concept and industry of ‘beauty’) is negative and should be scrapped. How is that dangerous? What would happen if everyone suddenly stopped judging themselves and each other?

kristina lloyd said...

I normally stay well clear of all Posh Spice/Kate Winsletty debates about women/body image etc on the grounds that it bores the tits off me and I have more interesting things to do with my brain. Plus, I have this mad foolish idea that if you ignore it, it will go away.

However, I'm a leetle irked right now, and I just want to make a rare, and I think actually quite radical, plea for the skinny women of the Western world. I think the plea can be summarised as: back off, sister.

We live in such a scapegoat culture, and there seems to be an increasing acceptance that it's OK to gleefully scorn thin women and to make them the focus of the very many failings and fuck-ups of a capitalist economy - which can only function if there are ‘unobtainables’ for people to strive for. Dead supermodels. Size zero. Cigarettes as food. It’s utterly repugnant, as has been said on here, but it’s not entirely the fault of the women who are this. I think this slightly overlaps with what Nikki’s just said about concepts rather than people. In this kind of discussion, or the one we’re veering towards, there’s often an implicit suggestion that thin women are somehow letting the side down, that they are traitors to the cause, and they are neurotic, narcissistic, dumb and, most crucially, frigid. Truth is, some women are simply built this way.

People – no, only women – sometimes pass judgement on my body (a shape I’m not even going to begin to defend: it’s mine; end of) and imply I must spend all my days looking at a lettuce leaf, wishing I could eat it. And it’s REALLY effing annoying because a) they wouldn’t dream of being so personal if I was fat/fair-to-middling/pear-shaped. And b) I actually spend all my days staring at a computer screen, thinking about penises.

Nikki Magennis said...

Ah, but at least you can see your feet...

No, you're quite right, K. It's all part of the same culture though, that's the thing.

What I'm saying is not that new, when you look at it. People have been railing against the beauty myth for years.

It's just that there's a vast and powerful industry that makes a LOT of money out of women who feel they must look a certain way, and they make very sure the myth persists.

But rather than trying to kill the myth, I think it might be easier to make a new one. Hence Sexy, in all its various and irregular forms.

Then perhaps we could all celebrate each other's lovely skinny and fatty and wonky bits, instead of obsessing over them.

Nikki H said...

Well said, Kristina. I'm skinny, but not because I starve myself. I just wasn't diagnosed with Coeliac's until two years ago, so was slowly starving to death despite what i ate, or how much.
I was, and still am, fed up of people saying to me 'I wish I was as thin as you' thinking that if only they were the 'right' size, then there lives would be a whole lot better.
My life is just like anyone else's. I'm gaining confidence in the way I look because I'm accepting it now, rather than getting angry with it for not putting on weight. My husband tells me every day that I'm beautiful and would be quite happy to fuck me senseless at each and every opportunity because when I'm with him, I feel confident and therefore, sexy.
It's a mind-set thing.

Kristie said...

To my mind, beauty is something that someone else gets to name and therefore something that one can never own, which means that it is essentially undermining to be considered such. The kids in the magazines are beautiful because some business person thinks they will sell product. Therefore they are signified "beautiful". One only need consider the cultural / temporal relativity of concepts of beauty to recognise that beauty equals fashion equals commerce. Sexy, however sits outside the constraints of time, place and economics. Sexy is about taking responsibility for ownership of the self - a basic of what it is to be's about not apologising for being too thin, too fat, too kinky, too anything, but rather being unashamedly in ones own skin – wrinkled or smooth. It’s not about trying to sell something or impress someone. The reason confidence is so incredibly sexy is that it evidences a willingness to own ones own definition without seeking the agreement / approval of others. If one allows oneself to be defined by others then one abdicates responsibility for agency – and agency is surely what makes us human – and being human is all it takes to be sexy. That’s what I think. Maybe I am missing the point. I’m just thrilled that there are people out there who are willing to have the debate. This blog rocks. Thanks for sending me over Alison. Oh and a nomination for a sexy woman - Germaine Greer - clever, brave, flawed, arrogant, annoying, wrinkled, funny - gorgeous.

Nikki Magennis said...

Thanks Kristie! Yes, that's what I was trying to say.

And I agree about Germaine. Supremely provocative.

capricornBigcat said...

Have we almost run this one dry Nikki? How's about throwing the word 'attractive' into the pot? (Don't think any of these wordsmiths - including myself has used this yet)but from a lot of the female comments they seem a bit bashful about calling themselves 'beautiful'- but no doubt a helluva lot of 'em would consider themselves to be 'attractive', even if not exactly 'sexy'. For myself, I'm a bit terrified of just the sight of a really beautiful woman 'in the flesh', and would be hesitant about making an approach - wheras an 'attractive' woman...Now that's a completely different ball(s) game! I try to make myself attractive to women, but am careful not to 'overdo it' - for the same reason I guess (and just in case they might think I'm gay and steer clear!)

Jordan Summers said...

Terrific, terrific post. :)

Phone Sex said...

Amazing hair style!! Your post is eye-catching. Your expose is very well. I am overwhelmed with your depiction.