That Girl Is Poison
by BRITTANY JULIOUS
I write this as a woman who does not consider herself sexy, but understands the power of sexy, and the seduction sexiness gives towards women who can manipulate the world around them to fit their goals. Sexy is real and true, but the performativeness of sexy - of tight clothes and short hems and high heels - means that true sexiness is a choice. Sexiness does not just happen. It is observed and then developed. It is executed and then maintained. It morphs through time and situation.
Being young means understanding sexiness as a force of the tangible. I remember short skirts as sexy and body glitter as sexy and extensions in the hair as sexy. This was power in the sense that I could manipulate myself, my body, in ways that I began to crave more and more as an adult. There was a freedom in the control and a freedom in reactions. I expected my mother to not like my clothing. I expected her to want me to dress just as she saw fit.
"You have to remember," my mother, beautiful and seemingly confident, said, "that regardless of what you see in yourself, they will see a hundred other things - true and not true - born before you." The positives are irrelevant. The negative forms reality and stem decisions. They see what they want to see. They remember what they want to remember. They observe, and take away, and move forward from there.
The reality of getting older was not that I craved sexiness less, but that I recognized my sexualized being was beginning to be enough. Not that I am particularly beautiful or attractive, but that just existing warranted attention - usually lascivious, definitely unwarranted - from the men around me.
Chicago has no spring, and summer comes swiftly and with great force. The weather makes a clean break. I welcome the heat, the sweat that forms against my limbs, that sticks to the bus seats or metal bars. In the summer, my body is both everywhere and nowhere. When it is everywhere, I have the ability to feel what was always there but trapped between the lining and stitches of my clothing. The breeze takes on a sensual quality. Nothing feels as wonderful as thick air washes against one’s skin. It is so sweet against your face. It is so real against your thighs.
My legs are long. I think of them as a separate entity, a different set of limbs that just happen to be attached to the rest of my body. They have a mind of their own, a certain agency that demands long walks and fresh air. In the summer, my shorts are not that short, not really, but they exist in a world of codes and rules. Sometimes I think about the ways in which this became true - the time in which I finally understood.
Years ago, my mother and I went to a Chernin's Shoe Outlet on the West Side of Chicago to pick up a pair of day-to-day gym shoes. The young man helping me gave these long looks that complicated his deep brown eyes and thick eyelashes. He smiled a lot and was thin, slightly gawky, but in a charming way that made me wish that I would meet a man like that when I was older, when I knew more.
He took off my gym shoes and gave me a small foot massage. I turned around, cautious, but soon realized that my mother wasn't looking. She was nowhere to be found. I panicked, assuming she had left me in the store with the young man who was quickly moving away from charming to lascivious. He licked his lips and it reminded me of a family member from down south that I met, earlier that year, at a reunion.
"I bet you don't remember me!" the older man said that afternoon as I sat on a bench, in the shade, eating a plate full of macaroni and cheese.
"Nope!" I said annoyed, and turned away.
My mother frequently tells me stories about my attitude as a young girl.
"You were always so angry, so eager to let the adults know what was up," she often says. I had outbursts, she said, but I can't remember any of them, only snapshots of the moments proceeding and following the confrontations resonate in my memory.
That day at the park, the older man hovered above me and I did my best not to look up, afraid of what he would say or do next to grab my attention.
"I'm talkin' to you!" he shouted. He licked his full lips and smiled. I ran away.
At the shoe store, the young man said, "You're very sexy."
Right then, my mother reappeared. I don't know where she was beforehand. Perhaps she was there all along, and I didn't notice her because I was too caught up in the moment with my new shoes and new acquaintance.
"How old are you?" she asked him angrily.
"Sixteen," he replied.
My mother grabbed my arm and squeezed tight.
"Well, she's eight, so I suggest you look somewhere else." We quickly left the store but came back. I was only wearing one shoe.
One summer, the season came late. At a bus stop, I rested against the brick wall of a local bank and waited to head north after a long day at work. A man crossed the street. His face was angry and his eyes bore into mine.
"Those shorts are too short," he said.
I'd never heard that before, at least from a stranger. Every summer before that moment, I thought those same thoughts, worn down by interpretations of flesh. By September, I anticipate the fall. I like tights, I start to think. They reflect my quietness, the "goodness" that exists in me that this man implied did not. I am sexual, but the world does not need to know. I am sexual, and you can't judge me for it.
"Too short?" I asked that day at the bus stop.
"You look like a slut."
Later that evening, I called my mother and told her what happened. She asked me why I was trying to be sexy, why I was trying to be this person. But this was fashion of circumstance. I gained no power from those shorts except for my own comfort.
"It doesn't matter," she said. These things don't matter. Ideas are born before and will exist long after one ceases noticing them.
A placed upon sexiness is rarely good. If I pursue and cultivate sexy, it is not the same as the idea of sexy, the culmination of images, caricatures, and supposed morality that is not a part of me. It is often dirty or cruel, but most often, it is an accusation, an assumption that is fueled by anger and stereotypes. They are saying, who are you to dress like this? They are saying, why should I respect you like this? What power lies in the body?
I began to dance as a young girl and the more I danced, the more in control I felt. These are my legs that bend and curve, my arms that flex. Freedom stemmed from the control I gained and to dance was to be free. I didn’t recognize it then, but I pushed through the grueling rehearsals with the knowledge that once I learned a routine, it would become something I could call to on a moment’s notice. At any moment after, I could become this powerful being in control of my movements and myself, unhurried or torn apart. My movements were choreographed and not choreographed. When I had a moment to move about the floor on my own terms, that is when I felt most alive. It was a moment without judgment, just sadness and anxiety and excitement manifest through a pirouette, a switch leap, a flick of the wrist.
At 23, I dance less and the desire to cover my body, to protect and hide, becomes more urgent. Summer progresses and my body becomes less my own and more a product of the people who view it. A few weeks ago, it was unbearably hot and I put on a pair of shorts that my mother told me were "not okay." I do not know if she was right emphatically or if I have ingrained in myself the ways in which she sees the world. I do not know if how I feel, how we feel, is “alright” or “good,” but I do know that my shorts were "not okay." They would draw attention. They would put me on a stage. They would project a state of sexy that was not my own, that was not a choice in power but a decision thrust upon me. They would put me outside of the body that I claimed too well in the winter.
Sometimes a person looks right at me and I think, to whom is he or she talking to? At 23, I dance less and the ownership of myself seems more like a glimpse at the past. Why would I cherish what is not my own? Why would I let free the thighs and arms and breasts of another woman, this other woman these strangers praise or defile?
I remember sexy. This is not sexy. It is a mutated, weird, different sexy. A pseudo-sexy. A play sexy. A not-really-sexy made by others. This is something else entirely.
Brittany Julious is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about the quiet storm. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here.
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