What is Sexy: The Nitty Gritty of What we’re Attracted To

By Louise MacGregor


What is sexy? It’s a question that seems like such a straightforward one when we look at it from a personal point of view. Our own view of what makes a particular person sexually attractive is one of the most unique things about us, one of the things that will have one person swooning over Brad Pitt while the other harrumphs and sticks pictures of James Spader as their desktop background.

When I asked my friends (and myself) what they found sexy, I was usually met with blank stares. A lot of what personally makes us attracted to someone goes so far beyond their physical looks that trying to come up with a “type” is almost pointless. One friend of mine has exclusively dated blonde women his entire life, but finds himself more attracted to brunettes in passing; it was the personalities of these women that he found sexy, not an arbitrary limit he’d decided would fill his sexy quota. Similarly, I’ve only dated ginger men from Glasgow with a quirky sense of style, but that’s not really something I have on my checklist of “Sexy Must-Haves”.

When I think of someone who fits the definition of sexy, my mind usually jumps straight to female (the bisexuality helps with this, I’ll admit), full-figured, with wide hips and large breasts, but the people I find myself glancing twice at in the street don’t necessarily fit inside those boundaries. And my celebrity crushes veer wildly from short, funny, Scottish women (like Susan Calman) to traditionally handsome, muscular men (like Norman Reedus) with everything in between. I find being able to make me laugh till I cry sexy. I find strong biceps sexy. I find a good quiff inestimably sexy, as well as poker-straight long hair. I think motorcycle boots and high heels are sexy. I think a good smile is sexy. If you tried to construct an image of what I found sexy based on the people I thought were attractive, you’d wind up with a half man, half woman, short, tall, curvy, slim, muscular, short-haired, long-haired alien being that I probably wouldn’t look twice at. I have literally no clue what I find sexy. And thus my investigation into what sexiness actually was began.

The particular ins and outs of what makes someone sexy can’t be boiled down to one factor. Sexuality, gender, cultural conditioning, and biological factors all play into our utterly unique perceptions of sexy, and it’s about time we took a good look at what our culture defines as sexy, and how that influences are own perceptions.

If we reel sexuality back to it’s most base point-biology- there seems to be a pretty straightforward list of things that make someone sexually attractive. It comes down to the things we perceive as sexual maturity, or, in more simple terms, the ability to mate and raise children- fully-formed secondary sex features (breasts, Adam’s apple), a matured physique (wide hips, facial hair), and facial symmetry that renders us attractive or otherwise to our preferred gender. Sexuality is, after all, the way we keep the human race alive, so it’s pretty obvious that many of our beauty products and definitions of sexiness spring from health (like shiny hair and clear skin)- we want to mate with someone who will provide strong offspring, so we look for the ones most likely to bring us that.

But boiling everything down to a biological level doesn’t work as an absolute answer. If you turn to the media, you’ll see that their definition of sexy is, broadly, youthful and feminine. Sexiness is a word far more often applied to women than men, so does that mean that, as a society, we generally see sexiness as something reserved for the female gender? Whatever your take on that, cultural conditioning has swelled up from biological basics to create a very idealized version of what sexiness is. The media depicts sexiness as almost an exaggerated take on those biological factors mentioned above- men are ripped beyond belief, women have almost comically large breasts, and everyone is toned, tanned, and sculpted to perfection. And these are often the standards we’ll hold ourselves to, wondering why we can’t embody that epitome of what sexiness is. After all, the images of the media’s view of sexy people isn’t just meant to titillate, but to become something to aspire to. It’s twofold objectification- sure, we reduce them to objects in a sexual sense, but also as a commodification of the things we want for ourselves physically. These are perfect bodies meant to be admired and lusted after (in all senses of the phrase), but are difficult to imagine performing the deeply imperfect, messy, very human act of sex. As outlined by a throwaway line Pulp Fiction, what is pleasing to the eye is very different than what is pleasing to the touch and while culturally we may hold up a very specific body type as the epitome of what is sexy, surely we express what we truly find sexy through those we actually have sex with. When you juxtapose the actual act of having sex-far different from how it’s portrayed in pornography or on screen- which is, when you really think about it, just a muddled, fun, exciting, confusing expression of whatever level of intimacy you feel for that person with the often gilded and invariably “perfect” vision of what we hold up to be sexy, the differences are really quite striking. Sex is a spontaneous, very personal act, while the homogenized views of what is attractive are often artificial; whether Photoshopped or simply presented as unattainable, there’s a big difference between the disordered act of actually having sex and the premeditated nature of sexiness. Are we simply settling for the nearest version of cultural sexiness that our situation allows us, or are we expressing that our societal view of sexy is very different from our personal views on sex?

So, if we view sexiness as the measure of someone we ourselves would like to have sex with, where does that leave us? Sexuality is a deeply personal thing, and it’s impossible to cut across all sexual preferences and point to the handful of factors that make someone sexually attractive. When it comes to seeking out sexual partners, do we look for something similar to or different from ourselves? When we engage in sex with another person, we are expressing our physical attraction (amongst any number of other things) to them, but often there are stark differences between the people we’d idealize as sexy and the people we actually have sex with. As a culture, we often hold sexiness up as something powerful and profound, an innate form of power that one person holds over the other, but that particular idealization often makes sexiness seem unattainable- both personally, with our own bodies, and sexually, with the people who we engage in sex with. So does sexiness have more to do with accessibility than it does with looks?

Sexiness does spring from some form of mystery and the idea of the unknown (look at the success of burlesque if you don’t believe me), and once we grow to know someone on as intimate a level as sex, that mystery is replaced by something else. Arguably, sexiness is something aloof and unattainable, something we bestow on only on those we perceive to have earned it in some way. Is it this mysterious factor- we don’t necessarily seek something the same as or different from us personally, but something secretive and impossible to put into words. It’s not as easy as physical attractiveness, but perhaps boils down to the way we view someone and the way we view the power they hold over us. Sex and sexuality are powerful aspects of our society, and holding the keys to that castle-being sexy- grants you a great deal of authority.

So, by handing someone this power, we also hand them a fantasy. Because sexiness is such an ever-changing notion, when we decide that someone is sexy, we are bestowing on them some degree of our own personal fantasy- of who they are, of what they like, or simply of what they might look like under all those clothes. We replace the mysteriousness elements, as I outlined above, with elements that fit with our personal desires. Essentially, we project an image of our own fantasy onto the parts of this person that we have yet to fill in- whether it’s a celebrity or a friend, we colour in the blanks with our own sexuality.

And I think that’s what sexiness boils down to. In simple terms, we look for the mystery in someone, and use that mystery to fulfill our own desires, whether sexual or otherwise. We often choose to keep these elements of them enigmatic so our fantasy is not broken and we can keep seeing them as the unattainable epitome of sexiness that they have become to us. And that’s what makes the question “what is sexy?” so interesting- there is no algorithm, no sum or set of questions to answer to figure out what’s right for you. It’s an ever-changing, deeply personal part of everyone’s psyche, and spans every body type, race, sexuality, and gender. Sexiness doesn’t discriminate.