For years I yearned for a fuller figure. I wasn’t satisfied with just a bit of a bum, but wanted an arse that looked good in clothes. My chest did not require any kind of support until well into my teenage years, but I continually hoped that one day I’d awake to find my small boobs replaced by real knockers. I wanted cleavage, I wanted curves, I wanted to make clothes work in the way I thought they should. It took longer than anticipated, but in my late teens, undoubtedly aided by a love for potatoes in every form available to me, I started to develop a shape. My upper thighs started to show pale, rippled, meandering stretch marks, and my bum began to suggest signs of cellulite. My hips edged outwards, forming a smooth dip in my torso. My boobs never ballooned to the size my younger self had lusted after, but they now moved – perky things that even oversized clothing could not disguise.
But as my body changed, my idea of sexiness changed too. I had previously equated shapeliness with womanliness, and what my body lacked, I lacked in sex appeal too. I fell short of an ideal and therefore, in my mind, could not feasibly be considered sexy as a young woman. At the rite of passage of the school disco, I felt disappointed at the lack of shape I provided in my, then-fashionable, bodycon dress in comparison to the jutting out of hips and bums my friends seemed to display. Dresses slipped off my shoulders, or needed to be fastened to sit high up on my chest, for there was no flesh beneath to provide a teasing flash of neat cleavage. When my body eventually ‘worked’ in such dresses however, I had already begun to understand that how a dress supposedly worked was something I got to decide. How I felt sexy was not something that existed only in how conventionally idealistic my body was in dresses that were designed to fit and show off only conventionally idealistic bodies. The womanliness I so needed to feel worthy, could be found elsewhere, in the overtly feminine dresses that proudly proclaimed my femininity, but did not require that I have a certain type of body.
My current wardrobe now only features one item of figure-hugging clothing amongst a sea of sweeping maxi dresses in bold floral prints; tea dresses in modest cuts with high-necks and peter-pan collars; blouses with dramatic sleeves and button-down cardigans in an array of suitably granny-ish shades. The figure-hugging garment in question is a pair of high-waisted jeans, as skinny as can be and not something one would recommend as attire for a slap-up Sunday lunch. I wear them now and again, often with one of the aforementioned granny knits. And I admit I feel sexy in them, my bum looks great, so how could I not keep them. But as my relationship with my body has changed, I do not derive my self-worth from how much I can fulfil a conventional notion of ‘sexy femininity’ in fashionable garments. I feel sexy when I put myself and my body on display, when it looks good, but when I decide it looks good: when fabric floats off me, or poofy sleeves puff up as I walk, rather than how my assets are able to fill and pull off dresses others prescribe as sexy when worn by the ‘right woman’. My long-suffering boyfriend has only ever known me to dress this way, and he recognises the effects it has had on my self-esteem. It is power and confidence and pride in a beautiful frock or carefully curated vintage piece that translates into sexiness when worn.
From Molly Goddard’s tulle-creations, so saccharine they are almost rebelliously feminine, to the conservative, prairie-inspired vision at Batsheva, clothing for women can be irrepressibly sexy when it makes the wearer feel utter power in their brute presence. I recently invested in my first Batsheva frock. It was eye-wateringly expensive, even in the hugely discounted sales, but seeing the fabric sit perfectly on my frame, the ruffles and the outlandish sleeves distending out in a mass of skirt surrounding me, it felt so worth it in being able to own such a special piece that is such a joy to wear. I am obtrusively present when I don this dress: there’s no missing the red and pink florals complete with frilly collar and impractical sleeves. But, this power, this ownership, this lack of anxiety about wearing something that doesn’t suit my particular body shape, is what makes me feel so sexy. It is not about my body, it is about me, and how I move and own the beautiful dress hanging off me.