7 or 8 years old, still in infants’ school. Two pale skinny white boys, brothers, with matching blonde buzzcuts (a marker of poverty, not fashion, in 1978) shouted, ‘You’ve got sexy legs!’ in unison. We went to the same school, were around the same age. They lived up the street in a yellow fibro house with a low fence of horizontal planks, painted mission brown, or maybe white, past the twinned eucalyptus with a boulder clenched in its cloven trunk, but before the big vacant block where we jumped our bikes on the bush tracks.
I didn’t like those boys. I could be a prim child and thought they were crude, rude and objectionable. In the way a toddler thinks that if they cover their eyes, other people can’t see them, I assumed that they didn’t like me either. ‘Sexy legs’ must be an insult. Probably something to do with the long, pale, dense hair on them, which I had already figured out was a liability on a girl. I held my hirsute father responsible for my hairy tendencies.
That evening when Dad said something I didn’t like, I unleashed my new worst epithet: “Well, anyway, you’ve got SEXY LEGS!” I expected devastated silence. Instead, Dad and Mum fell about laughing.
When they calmed down, they asked if I knew what ‘sexy’ meant, and where I had learnt it. I said I thought it meant ugly and hairy. They told me it meant beautiful and attractive, but I wasn’t convinced.
hot / inviting / mature / provocative / racy / seductive / sensual / sensuous / arousing / come-hither / cuddly / flirtatious / kissable / libidinous / provoking / risqué / slinky / spicy / steamy / suggestive / titillating / voluptuous
adjective, sex·i·er, sex·i·est. Being erotically attractive to another concerned predominantly or excessively with sex; risqué: a sexy novel. sexually interesting or exciting; radiating sexuality: the sexiest professor on campus.
Excitingly appealing; glamorous: a sexy new car.
‘SYNONYMS FOR SEXY!’ says dictionary.com. It should be in neon. ‘TRY SEXY IN A SENTENCE BELOW!’
Among the kids at my local public school in 1981, sexiness was defined by Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins in ‘The Blue Lagoon’, a film I never saw. It was a ‘pop-culture phenomenon’ infamous in the schoolyard for its nudity and portrayal of teen sex. There was a joke or limerick going around – I can’t remember it entirely, but it included the line: ‘I dreamt I was a cake of soap in Christopher Atkins’ bath’. Who remembers Christopher Atkins now?
I was a tween and teen in the 80’s, preoccupied with the notion of sexy. It was performed by TV ads for Coca Cola. Lots of slender, smooth, tanned young people, men and women, having fun in great big groups on beaches. A YouTube compilation of Coke’s Australian TV ads of that decade confirms my memory. Coke was THE REAL THING, and sexy was being smooth and brown, free of body hair and acne, surrounded by smiling laughing friends having easy, relaxed fun together. My adolescence didn’t look like that at all.
I didn’t know much about sexiness, but I did know about sex – in theory at least. My progressive parents made sure I knew the basic (heterosexual) facts, with the aid of a copy of Where Did I Come From, before I could be exposed to misinformation at school. In fourth or fifth class, my best friend breathlessly passed on a rumour about some unfeasible pregnancy risk – maybe the swimming pool? Or kissing? I scoffed, and carefully and generously explained everything I knew. That night, my mother got a call from her mother, a warm but devoutly Catholic Maltese woman, very upset. The common philosophy was not that knowledge is power, but that knowledge is danger. Mum didn’t rebuke me, but cautioned that this was not something to discuss at school.
At Friday afternoon netball (the compulsory sport for girls at the Catholic school), aged about 12, some of the worldlier girls hassled me and my friend about being ‘lemons’. I had no idea what they were talking about, though I could tell from their tone it was not complimentary. But my friend had an older sister, so she knew. I asked her to tell me what it meant, but she couldn’t look at me, nearly couldn’t say it aloud. Such a shameful and abhorrent accusation.
My friend and I drifted apart in high school. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I met my first girlfriend and came to identify as queer. I finally caught up with that friend a few years later again, when I reached out after the news that her mother had died. We talked about our paths since school, our study and our work, but neither mentioned partners or sexuality. While I know nothing for sure, I came away from our meeting wondering at the perceptiveness of children. And I observed that something of her appearance was echoed in the looks of the first woman I had fallen in love with, all these years later.
‘Hot’ might be the most common casual synonym for sexy. The second-to-last ad in that 80s Coke showreel is set in a Queenslander among burning sugar cane, the soundtrack Gangajang’s ‘Sounds of Then’.
sweat/unfamiliar sheets/lightning cracks over cane fields/laugh and think ‘this is Australia’
Sexy, laconic, patriotism. Heat, sweat, bodies, fire. The way that in heat, skin slackens, muscles soften, the blood rises tingling to engorge the surface, releasing excess heat back into the air. The opening up of the senses. I remember sunbaking in the backyard at around the same time as that ad would have been on TV. We believed the sun was good for my acne. When the rest of the family were out, I tried sunbaking topless, carefully finding a sunny spot where the neighbours would not catch a glimpse through the fence. That felt sexy.
Hot. That would also have been around the time I saw stories about global warming first appear in the news, thirty-plus years ago. As I get older, I seem to feel the cold more, one of those cliches that turns out to be fact. But I find it hard to relax into the sensuous pleasure of warm days, with the sandpaper whisper of climate anxiety in my ears.
As a child, sex and sexual attraction were mysterious and powerful, a tug of internal response I didn’t have words to describe or the experience to understand. Such a deeply personal, individual thing. But I quickly learned in the playground that it was not OK to find just anyone attractive – there were standards! How they were collectively agreed upon, I wasn’t sure. But I learned to edit my feelings before I published them. And you can learn to override your senses – like that transition from when you first see a new season’s fashions and they look outlandish, but before long you adopt them enthusiastically and wonder why you didn’t appreciate their style at the outset. This wasn’t about sexual preference – I was attracted to boys, am sometimes still attracted to some men. This was about which boys. I learned to only appreciate those whose attractiveness was socially sanctioned, even if my own impulses led elsewhere.
1991, Right Said Fred: ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt. So sexy it hurts’.
Mum worked hard to prevent me from looking too sexy. I believe vehemently that women have the right to wear whatever they want, without being seen as fair game, without being harassed or assaulted, or victim-blamed. That is unequivocal. But still, I have more sympathy for Mum now than I did then. She tried to get me into looser clothes, more modest swimming costumes, longer skirts. It all felt like a humiliation to me – I thought she was cruelly determined to take away whatever marginal teenage social capital I had scraped together. I felt so far from popular, or even acceptable, to the other girls, so far from attractive to young men, that I stung from the irony of her efforts to protect me from their supposed lust.
At the Catholic school, the butch English and PE teachers, known or assumed to be a couple, were the objects of ridicule mixed with respect for their intelligence and toughness. They were recognised as very good, but terrifying, teachers.
The uniform was designed to prevent us girls looking sexy (except in fetishised ways). But in an all-girls teenage environment, the hum of hormones was ever-present and a palpable excitement erupted if any man under the age of 35 came on to school grounds. When I left at 16 for a co-ed public school, it was an astonishing relief to be somewhere that boys and girls were mainly compatriots and friends, or simply other human beings, not only the two poles of sexual magnets.
Blond spiral perm. Rainbow-striped swimming costume with a keyhole cut-out and bow at the lower back, which my mother forbade me to wear. Tight acid-wash jeans. Sexy? Once I was 18, working and buying my own clothes in the early 90s: suits with peplum jackets for the office. A velvet dress with a satin shawl-collar by a brand called ‘Miss-demeanour’ with big gold tassel shaped earrings. A cheap chinois pattern miniskirt with a strappy singlet and high heeled sandals. I was always torn between an instinct for drama and the desire to fit in. I think it was this ambivalence, my lack of conviction, that meant my efforts so often missed the mark.
It is funny how sex itself can sometimes be not at all ‘sexy’. A friend had a coffee table decoupaged with small images of Playboy centrefolds, one for each year in date order from when the magazine started. They might have been the backs of a pack of cards. They created a kind of time-lapse of the changing form of a particular brand of ‘sexiness’ in women. From the 50s through to the ‘noughties’, pubic hair shrank and breasts ballooned. Nearly all the women were white. Seen now through Instagram-wise-eyes, the women of the 60s and 70s look somehow artless, less self-conscious, with much more variation in their bodies. Less extremely ‘sexy’ features, less expensive. Ordinary.
And not only women. I watched Hitchcock’s Rear Window a couple of years ago, and was struck by Jimmy Stewart. He was 46 when it was made, and appears in it shirtless, sitting in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast. His ordinary chest would never have made the modern beefcake grade. No chiselled pecs. No sign of a six-pack. His ‘guns’ do not bulge in his shirtsleeves. Like the status of a tan when you are of the class that no longer has to labour out in the sun, we have established a caricature of the labourer’s body as the status symbol for the man who no longer needs to do physical work.
Body hair, age and femme sexiness are still strands in a tangled knot. I stopped dyeing or bleaching my silver-white head a while ago now, stopped shaving or waxing my underarms before that. My ‘sexy legs’ have thick dark hair which alternate between full-grown and waxed. No matter how pugnacious a ‘fuck you’ attitude I try to adopt, and how much I admire hirsute legs on other femmes, mine still feel uncomfortably conspicuous. That said, once I adjust to looking down at robustly hairy legs, they look weirdly juvenile, exposed and vulnerable when waxed. My sensitive skin does not like the removal of pubic hair, and my tolerance for discomfort these days is low, so most of it stays, strands of silver now too. Another frontier of age and self-acceptance.
During the years (to date) of COVID-19 shutdowns and precautions, our relationship to human proximity and touch shifted. Before the pandemic, I had been single for a while and was already starting to feel conscious of my body, and of other people, and thinking about getting back into the fray. The isolations of COVID-19, especially our first shutdown when I was both single and living alone, left me super-sensitive, yearning for the joys and pleasures of human contact, sexual or otherwise. I had barely touched anyone for months, and was of course not alone in that. This ‘touchfast’ heightened my awareness of physical sensation and desire, the appetites of the body, the push-pull of intimacy, the possibility of sex. Even the pleasure of dancing in a room with other people, not touching but moving our bodies to the same rhythm, is freshly minted. Whatever the next challenges the pandemic presents, I am glad to relish all of this with renewed enthusiasm, to take none of it for granted, and to cherish the ordinary human privilege when desire and opportunity arise, of getting to know another body, and of sharing mine.
Jacqui Malins is a multidisciplinary artist and poet, living and working on the lands of the Ngunawal and Ngambri people in Canberra. Her first poetry collection, ‘F-Words’, was published in 2021 (Recent Work Press). Find Jacqui and her work in galleries, on stage and page, and online at www.jacquimalinsart.com.