Reader K. dropped this question into an e-mail:
… as a young, single college student (think age 20), I find that a lot of the messages my age group receives to look normatively beautiful come from a societal pressure to attract the opposite sex. And while I consider myself pretty self-confident and happy with who I am, I think it’s a basic human instinct to want others to desire you. I know you and many other fashion bloggers are married, so you’re probably past the “lajasykj I need to find a boyfriend” stage. But was there ever a time in your life when you felt you had to dress for men? Like if you didn’t make an effort to look sexy/gorgeous/etc., you wouldn’t be able to fully experience your sexuality (or even be asked out on a date!)
Quick disclaimer: K’s question pertains to men, so for that reason and because I’m a heterosexual gal myself, my answer is pretty man-specific. But I’d love some input from those of you who are homosexual, especially about dressing politics and attracting partners. Please weigh in in the comments!
But first, here’s what I told K:
I have to say that I think you’ve got it way worse than me in the “get sexy now” department. I hit puberty during a very preppy, very covered-up time in young fashion, and hit high school during the heyday of grunge. Even the most sexually curious of my peer group would never have worn short shorts, low-cut tops, or heels to school. College offered a few more sartorial options, but I graduated in 1998, so everyone was still dressing pretty grunge/modest back then.
But even aside from all that, I’ve always been a bit weird about attracting guys, and my mentality about relationships isn’t aligned with the norm. There were times in middle and high school when I thought I would die a thousand deaths if some boy or other didn’t fall madly in love with me … but it never even occurred to me to try to change myself to attract them. Ever. Which could be attributed to density and social obliviousness, but that’s who I was. And when I turned 16, I found my first serious boyfriend and between then and getting married at 25, I think I was single for about nine months total. Which, honestly, mystified me. Especially early on. I was never as thin or well-dressed or perfectly-groomed as the traditionally pretty, popular girls, but guys liked me. I wasn’t beating them back with sticks or anything, but I had suitors and lovers and boyfriends. Constantly. Writing this out now, I realize how lucky I was never to feel lonely. Or like I should change to make myself more attractive to the opposite sex.
But that doesn’t help you one bit. My perception is that today, young women are encouraged, cajoled, and peer-pressured into learning about push-up bras, mascara, and stilettos so early in their lives that they don’t fully understand the implications of what they’re wearing and, therefore, broadcasting. Young women are expected to rack up sexual experiences before they’ve had any real sexual urges. Young women are forged at 11 and 12, when they should still be girls. And as they move through young adulthood, the pressures of fitting in can eclipse the desire to find a partner with whom they’re truly compatible. It’s kind of a mess, if you ask me.
And I’m going to just be the idealist, here, and tell you what I feel in my heart: A man who is worth your time will SEE you no matter what you’re wearing. A man who deserves your affection will RESPECT you no matter how you’re dressed. A man who will contribute to a worthwhile partnership will DESIRE you even if you’re wearing a turtleneck, muffler, over-sized cardigan, sweatpants, and Uggs.* I cannot in good faith encourage any woman to dress sexy, dress in revealing clothes, dress to show her figure for the express purpose of attracting dates, sexual partners, or boyfriends.
Are there men who expect or demand such behaviors from their potential partners? Yes. Does that mean you should give into those expectations and demands? No. If you dress for yourself without considering how alluring you may appear to men, does that mean you may have fewer suitors? Possibly. And this is the part where I delve into relationship advice, which makes me mildly uncomfortable: There are a million ways to attract partners – be they sexual-fun-only partners, or committed relationship partners – and flashing your thighs and cleavage are among the least creative.
Cultivate self-confidence: It’s the greatest aphrodisiac in the world, I swear. A woman who loves herself is infinitely more attractive than a woman who doubts herself.
Take initiative: Start conversations, ask questions, and yes, proffer dates. In my humble opinion, any man who wants a woman to “play hard to get” is a fool. Period. If you like a guy, approach him. You don’t have to be bolder than you feel comfortable being, but push yourself to break the ice.
Do what you love: Explore your hobbies and interests, try new clubs and activities, be passionate. Read in public so that guys who love the same authors can strike up conversations with you. Go to rock shows alone and talk with the other fans. Let the observing world know what you like, and potential partners who like those same things will start coming out of the woodwork.
Focus on what YOU want: At a certain point, you begin to think that anyone’s arms around you would be better than no one’s. But remember that you’ve got standards, that there are certain traits you’re seeking in a partner, that the right guy is worth the wait. This is you we’re talking about here, and you’re far too awesome to let just anyone into your bed.
Define your own brand of sexy: Sexy can be an exchange of glances, a smile, a laugh. It can be posture and body language and physical closeness without touching. You can broadcast your interest in another person without showing a single square inch of skin. You can let potential partners know you’re interested and available without dressing to reveal your body. Decide what kind of sexy you want to be.
And yes, I’m married. And yes, I’ve admitted to being single for a very small percentage of my adult life. And yes, my suggestions may make you want to throw up because they mirror the cheesy advice dished out by smug relationship gurus. But that’s what you get from a woman who has never had a one-night stand or casual sex, who believes that relationships built on mutual attraction and respect are more valuable than relationships built on game-playing and panicked lust, who sees dressing sexy to attract sex as lazy and dangerous and ill-advised. I believe in holding out, seeking genuine connection, sex as an extension of emotional intimacy. And I can’t help but want that for you, too.
* * * * *
How do you feel about dressing to attract partners? Are you comfortable doing it? Do you find alternate ways to broadcast interest and sexiness?
Image courtesy Nordstrom.
*See my comment below for some clarification.