Sunday, October 20, 2013

You better show skin if you want to be Sexy!?: What is “sexy” and who determines what “Sexy” is?

“If you are large keep yourself covered up.”
“God forbid, if you are big don’t show any skin.”
“Elle, how dear you?”
“Can’t big girls be sexy?”
“Too little skin”
“Is Melissa McCarthy Elle’s cover shameful?”

These are just a few of the statements/comments/questions I read or listened to in response to one of the recent covers of Elle magazine.

Melissa McCarthy’s cover is part of the Women in Hollywood series. Other women gracing the alternate covers include: Marion Cotillard, Shailene Woodley, Naomie Harris, and Reese Witherspoon. These women, such as Witherspoon, were captured in what some considered more revealing/sexy outfits. In other words, “there was more skin on display.”

How did we get to the point where sexiness seems to be defined by the level of nakedness we display? No I’m not being a prude. But I think that as we interrogate the cover we have to ask a series of questions to better understand our consumption of sexy. I don’t deny that Elle seems to be covering women with bodies over a certain size. There is a clear historical pattern. Elle did the same thing with the Adele and Gabourey Sidibe’s covers.

Elle is not shy about perpetuating white codes of dress and desirability. Their construction of women’s sexuality is both historical and social. The question that I continue to ponder in the midst of this discussion is how do we as a society consume the performance of sexuality?


The performance of sexuality has a long history in society in terms of delineating identity. The performance of sexuality, and how it is consumed, is part of our understandings of morality and social order. Consequently, the performance of sexuality becomes something to be policed and monitored. Part of this process involves the gaze. This has given way to the notion that some of us are sexy and as such should be viewed while those not deemed sexy should be covered up.

What fascinates me about this process is how as a society sexiness comes to be measured by the amount of skin that’s revealed. Why can’t we consider “being covered up” as sexy? Yet, if some individuals go to far and reveal too much skin they are considered “sluts”. So what is sexy and who determines what sexy looks like?

This brings me to Foucault and his concept of the “disciplinary society”. Discipline, as a mechanism of power, is used to regulate individual and collective behaviors. Regulation takes place in multiple forms and places—such as via architecture and our activities—including how we move and interact with each other. Discipline requires surveillance—the gaze, in part.

These magazine covers, and their content, are part of the cultural texts that simultaneously promote and perpetuate capitalism while defining the contours of femininity and its related understandings of sexiness. So Elle in choosing whose skin is sexy and therefore should be gazed at reveals the underlying mechanism of a very powerful system that does not require the disciplinarian, as we are all involved in the disciplining of the female body. Elle is part of the discipline—it is part of the mechanism of power that enforces and reinforces our understandings of what sexy means and who can be sexy. We, as a society contribute to this capitalist understanding by consuming these images often with little thought.

Gabourey Sidibe 

Consequently, I think that we need to pose a different set of questions, or maybe an additional set of questions, in response to the Elle cover. Instead of asking why isn’t McCarthy as scantily clad as the other women, we should ask, why must women bear skin in order to be considered sexy? While there are many more questions to be asked, this one seems key to me. 

This is the tenth post of my 31-day blogging challenge. You can tweet me at Dr_JZ using hash tag #31dbc to share your thoughts and share your stories. 

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