Stay Sexy, Always Stay Sexy
Thirteen. Alone, finally.
I unravel my folded arms and knees pressed to my chest, watching as Mum moves through the car park into the office building. I recline in the passenger seat, peeling up my t-shirt to reveal a copy of Girlfriend magazine stuck to my torso. Its bottom half has crunched into my waistband, leaving a red indentation across my hip bone. Such is deserved for a juvenile supermarket heist (my first, and only). The cover’s a little damp, smeared with sweat droplets, making for a second gloss over the bible of antipodean adolescence.
A half-hour earlier Mum and I were at New World when I coyly asked if she’d buy me this month’s issue.
“What’s all this?” she says, scanning the cover.
“A fashion magazine, everyone at school has it.”
“Since when have you been interested in fashion?” she asks, scrutinising my outfit (probably a slogan t-shirt, ill-fitting three-quarter-length denim cutoffs and jandals).
The cover line ‘ALL YOUR SEX QUESTIONS ANSWERED!’ suddenly looks more pronounced on the page. “I won’t read that.”
“Please! I won’t read that bit!”
My intention is singular: the notorious sealed section, the OG safe space for teens desperately seeking sex education in all the wrong places
Weary repetition never inspires confidence. “Put it back.” When she’s turned away I hastily shove it under my shirt. She’s right – I have no interest in styling chunky belts with skinny jeans. My intention is singular: the notorious sealed section, the OG safe space for horny teens desperately seeking sex education in all the wrong places.
I rip the wedge of sealed pages labelled ‘SHHH’ in hot-pink military font as my virgin brain begins ogling every last letter: “What contraception do I use?” (?), “I had sex in a movie theatre, now I have a rash” (??), “Why does it taste like salt?” (???). The blood blooms in my cheeks. My eyes fall on a question from a young woman anxious about sex because she doesn’t want her boyfriend seeing her big thighs and naked body (pls help, xoxo anon).
Fragments of the answer decorate my cranium like a mismatched mosaic: Make the room pitch black. Wear something sexy that covers you (like a slip dress). Stay under the sheets. If he’s on top, he won’t have to look at your body (or your face). Congratulations, you’re fucking in a black hole. I’m grateful Ms. Anonymous has beaten me to the punch, publicly dress-rehearsing our shared insecurity so I won’t have to.
When asked why I’m not dating I’ll respond with a recycled excuse plucked from the self-empowered™ zeitgeist (focusing on me, enjoying my own company, decentring men, etc.). These answers elicit the same ‘mmms’ and supportive nods, letting me deflect and pivot to other topics of conversation. Truthfully, I avoid dating because I don’t like my body. I typed that sentence multiple times, absorbed it, then furiously hammered the ‘delete’ key. I spun webs of artful euphemisms trying to smother it, rambling on about my “inner-caves” and “existing outside of myself like a benign head hovering over a meat suit”. Be more poetic, don’t be so ridiculously callow.
But writer’s babble and writer’s block are two sides of the fear coin. Since being diagnosed with an eating disorder at age ten, I’ve existed in poor relationship with my genetic vessel. My adolescent years shaped this contempt (unsurprising, given she who is unsure of herself is most susceptible to manipulation), affirming my vessel was a site unworthy of romantic affection. This isn’t an attempt to advance the overwrought self-love™ agenda that demands zealous adoration of the flesh. I’m simply thinking through the skin, about the boundaries that bind me and how to make them a little more porous. What does it mean to be a ‘body becoming’,1 defining itself as it moves beyond its imaged limits to make space for others?
Nadia and I are home alone with a scorching tub of Nair trying to give ourselves Brazilian waxes
Sixteen. Nadia and I are home alone with a scorching tub of Nair trying to give ourselves Brazilian waxes. She reluctantly goes first while I offer moral support from the other side of the shower curtain. An hour later we haven’t progressed past the bikini line, yet our inner thighs are ripped raw and festering with red welts.
We give up and go watch Jennifer’s Body on DVD, each holding a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel over our crotch. Later, as we pick the congealed splotches of wax off the bathroom floor, I ask aloud why we felt so compelled to feverishly torment our epidermis. “It’s not like we’re even having sex yet,” I say. “Yeah, but it’s like a good trial run.” What an odd thought to have hijacked our brains.
At 20, I’ll go to Farmers and purchase a little black slip dress from the women’s lingerie section and hide it at the back of my drawer. At 21, I’ll squander my income on treatments that dissolve body hair like cotton candy at first lick. When I finally find myself in a bedroom, I’ll insist on darkness until my body becomes amorphous, formless or, better still, immaterial. Another’s gaze feels like an itch. Self-loathing is the omniscient vibe killer. It binds itself to the body like cling wrap, asphyxiating its desire to be vulnerable… to be itself.
In her seminal essay ‘Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’, Audre Lorde warned that “when we live outside ourselves, and by that I mean on external directives only, rather than our internal knowledge and needs, when we live away from those erotic guides from within ourselves, then our lives are limited by external, alien forms”.2 My ‘inner guides’ have long been hollowed out like the seed of a fruit, hijacked by alien forms both under my skin and in my mind’s eye. Even in my romantic imaginings I’m not myself. The ‘me’ is hyperreal, her every appendage optimised like a video game avatar with 10,000 sexy points. Maybe it’s impossible to scrub my mind’s eye of the omnipresent watcher ‘peering through the keyhole in your own head.’3 It reminds me of that scene in Fleabag when she breaks the fourth wall during sex to remind herself (and us, the audience) to “stay sexy, always stay sexy”. The inner watcher made flesh.
Failing to interrogate my own erotic meant I searched for it elsewhere, guided by the indefatigable inner monologue (just be grateful someone likes this body, don’t fuck it up), that trapped me in someone else’s sexual imaginary. To be in physical communion you must expose, to expose you must negotiate from a position of vulnerability, and to be vulnerable you must show up as yourself. It’s impossible to wield your body as a romantic instrument when you’ve already cut yourself off at the neck.
The erotic, in all its forms, can’t smuggle itself back from the outside in (nor should it be relegated to the bedroom, either).4 When we misunderstand the erotic as service of another’s pleasure, the body betrays itself, unable to simply say “this doesn’t feel right to me.”5 Soon enough, you’re behaving like an imitation porn star, incapable of softening into the moment, too preoccupied trying to flex and thrust along a narrative arc dominated by summit fever. You watch yourself from the director’s chair in the corner of the room, telegraphing just stay sexy, always stay sexy…
In Agnès Varda’s 2008 docu-essay The Beaches of Agnès, the late director walks along a shoreline awash with seaweed, musing, “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.” I don’t yet know what we’d find if we opened me up; cliché Island girl hopes it’s an ocean, but it’s probably a subterranean swimming hole shrouded in foliage. Thinking through the body in this way invites renewed intrigue into its strange, chaotic multitudes, getting me into better relation with myself (and, as a result, others) than regurgitated mirror affirmations ever will.
The mortal coil loosens once you tap into that full-circle thinking, accepting your vessel will one day lie six feet under, fertilising flora. Much can be said about how modern romance permits us to trample through each other’s terrains, I suspect as a result of repackaging the neoliberal empathy deficit as ‘sexual liberation’. But there are many fascinating ways bodies can navigate each other when there’s no intention to claim dominion over another’s topography. I look forward to that exploration.
1 I’m invoking Albert Wendt’s words from his address on the post-colonial body. Albert Wendt, “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body,” Span 42–43 (April-October 1996): 15–29.
2 Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (London: Penguin, 2018) 25.
3 Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart,1993).
4 Lorde, 23.
5 Ibid., 21.
Feature image: Pounamu Wharekawa-Farrell