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Safe / Sexy (or powerful)?

There was an article on Jezebel yesterday covering an interesting project by photographer Sarah Hughes. She's been photographing women in Canada, the US, Rio, and Sweden in two outfits: one in which they feel safe and one in which they feel sexy.

Here's a web site featuring the photos. and here's a PBS video on the project:

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

I think that one of her intentions is make a statement about how gender roles and actual physical safety in various places affect how women dress. But, there's also a lot of interesting stuff in there related to age and size.

One commentator on Jezebel confused 'safe' with 'powerful,' and I thought that was interesting. Maybe 'powerful' is good mode of dress to discuss, too, because of the complex ways that it's related to the other two.

This brings up a lot of interesting issues. A few that come to mind:

  • What does 'safe' mean in the context of clothing? How do physical safety and psychological safety interact?
  • What makes an outfit sexy? Does sexy mean unsafe, and if so, why? What are the implications of putting our sexuality on display in public or of having a 'sexy' style? Is looking sexy innately unsafe?
  • How can clothing make us feel powerful? What does 'powerful' mean when it comes to presentation? Is being sexy/attractive powerful, or does reading as powerful make us safer?

What else might you try to achieve with your clothing choices? For example, is all of this secondary to self expression? How does it play out for men? How does local culture impact on these issues? How does a feminine presentation vs. a masculine or androgynous presentation read? For example, some of the women in Hughes' photos have interpreted 'safe' as androgynous and 'sexy' as feminine.

And of course, how does being larger than average affect our presentation? In the slideshows, many of the older and larger women express ambivalence about wearing something that might read as sexy. They talk about appropriateness "I don't have a nice body to show off..." but I know that there's more to it than that. If a large (or mature) woman wears something that's overtly sexy she's often going to meet with some resistance. 'Sexy' may be unsafe for us in more ways than it is for thinner women.

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Lillian's picture
April 25th, 2011 | Link | When I was younger, teens

When I was younger, teens early twenties, I felt too fat to dress sexy. I've always dressed comfortably. Over the years, I've developed my own style. A tight tank top is sexy to me since it shows off my rather large chest.

DeeLeigh's picture
April 26th, 2011 | Link | I feel like maybe I should

I feel like maybe I should have broken this up into multiple posts, since there's so much here.

To me, there is a connection between physical and psychological safety. I have a "don't f*uck with me" attitude, too, but when I'm wearing clothes that aren't psychologically comfortable for me, it shows. I'm almost two decades into fat acceptance, and it loosened up my attitudes about what I could and couldn't wear a long time ago. But the fact is, I grew up in the eighties in a preppy community. Like many of the women in the photo project, I feel most psychologically comfortable (safest) in clothes that are on the androgynous side.

I'm acutely aware that putting my body out there is a little bit controversial, and I have really mixed feelings about calling attention to myself.

Heels scare me because they're uncomfortable and I can't run effectively in them. I often toe the "good taste" line, because I feel like having conventionally good taste makes me safer (and allows me to claim upper middle class privilege, which I really do enjoy having), but I also want to challenge the unfair way it's applied to women my size. For the most part, I try to dress the same way I would if I were 75 pounds lighter, and I wear a lot of things that most fat women avoid: short skirts, sleeveless tops, etc. But, I'm not outrageous at all in how I dress.

I've only worn really sexy clothes in public a few times: tight, short dresses,that sort of thing. I get stared at a lot when I do that. To be honest, the men tend to be either wolfish or confused (poor dears!) and a lot of women give me very, very dirty looks. It makes me uncomfortable, and I'm usually not that brave. There's a lot that can be said about fat womens' sexuality and how it's denied or ridiculed in mainstream society. I'm not a prude, but I am very protective of that side of myself. To me, looking overtly sexy does feel very risky and "safe" is more like "powerful."

But at the same time, I can't agree with what a lot of the larger and older women in the photo project said about their bodies. I think that I look good in body conscious clothes - good in a way that a lot of men find attractive (often to their own surprise) and that also makes self righteous thin women furious. And I feel like I should enjoy soliciting those kinds of reactions, but I don't really. Although I guess it's nice to know that I can successfully put myself out there as a sexual object, I don't really like being looked at that way. It feels skeevy.

And, I guess the elephant in the room for me is, the way I dress in public always sort of de-emphasizes my size, because that feels safer to me. So, even my more "sexy" outfits are chosen to not show off the aspects of my appearance that read as fat. I'm not proud of that, but it's true.

DeeLeigh's picture
April 27th, 2011 | Link | That said, I feel that

That said, I feel that effing with people and forcing the point that I am a beautiful and sexually vibrant woman is part of that privilege.

Ha! I know exactly what you mean. I've felt like that sometimes.

But I have an additional complication. Technically, I'm white (with just a touch of Native American), but I'm not the world's whitest whitey. I have olive skin and dark hair. Frankly, my southern European and native American ancestry make me not all that different from a Hispanic person, in terms of my ethnic background - but my background is southern Italian and (probably) Algonquin - and German and French - not Spanish and native South American. Being fat already makes me read as less white, and when I let the "good taste" thing slip, I find myself being treated really poorly by strangers. And as I'm sure you know, looking overtly sexy is never in good taste for fat women.

So, I feel like if I put my sexuality on display, I automatically lose privilege because I stop reading as white. It makes me sick that the world is like that, and again, I'm not really proud of manipulating it to my advantage. But if I can get strangers to treat me respectfully and avoid getting dirty looks by dressing a certain way, then it's hard not to take advantage of that.

DeeLeigh's picture
April 28th, 2011 | Link | You know, it's okay.

You know, it's okay. Because frankly, most people in the world don't look Northern European. Having grown up with two highly educated parents - one of whom is a sophisticated native New Yorker and one of whom is from a well established midwestern family - is a privilege. I went to good schools. Many things have way, way easier for me than they would be for most people. Being lighter is an advantage in the US, but I haven't actually lived there for almost 10 years, and certainly where I live now, the concepts of race and class that I grew up aren't entirely valid and being an American expat overshadows other aspects of my identity.

But yeah, up until I left the US in my mid-thirties, I was very aware of how I'd read to people based on how I was dressed and what I looked like - my size, perceptions of race and class, and that kind of thing. I've been pretty stubborn about not trying to alter my basic appearance to up my status (for example by dying my hair lighter or starving myself to look thinner), but I'll use clothes.

Viola's picture
April 27th, 2011 | Link | Clothing that makes me feel

Clothing that makes me feel safe is clothing that doesn't draw attention to me in anyway, something I've worn many times or looks like I've worn it, that isn't too small, stained, ripped or means I have to constantly worry about it riding up or flopping down.

Sexy would mean me wearing something more risque in terms of color or style, something that is more fashionable, something I don't wear frequently, like a dress, something that shows more skin than I normally show, something that might look nice as long as it was completely situated right on my body, but something I might have to smooth down or pull up a lot more often.

Powerful would be wearing anything and not really caring what people thought.

diane April 27th, 2011 | Link | I find this project

I find this project interesting on many levels. Also, in the "about this project" section it seems the women were asked to dress in two modes: one for comfort and one for attraction. Yet that has been turned into safe and sexy/powerful.

I don't necessarily equate comfort as safety and/or sexy as attraction, or vice versa. I think depending on the individual and the circumstances, clothes that are quite comfortable, or feel comfortable can feel safe/powerful or sexy/safe or powerful/sexy or all three.

Also, when the women were dressing for comfort and then for attraction, I wonder how much of it was internal--where they themselves felt comfort and attraction, or were they trying to please the outside-gaze? There were also some slut-shaming/rape-culture comments about dressing as a "hussy" or "tramp" etc., and in dressing “safe”. I thought that unfortunate and it leads me to wonder if perhaps some of those women may have been dressing for the male-gaze of approval? That may be why sexy was equated with powerful. And the illusion that a woman can dress a “certain” way to “protect” herself and be “safe” from sexual assault and/ rape just shows how far we still have to go to counteract this deeply ingrained bullshit. I’ve heard horror stories, heartbreaking, of fat women who were raped and not believed because we hold onto the rape-culture bullshit that only “certain types” of women bring rape onto themselves by the way the dress, act, look, think, walk, breath, exist. Women aren’t believed as it is, and some fat women have found they aren’t believed because their bodies fall outside of thin=beautiful, which equals “asked for it”, which just fails all women, fat and thin. There is a lot of intersectionality regarding privilege and lack thereof that needs to be examined as well.

Beanietude's picture
May 2nd, 2011 | Link | I've been giving this topic

I've been giving this topic a lot of thought over the past few days and it really puzzles me. I don't think I've ever felt sexy... at least not that I can remember. Sexual, sure, but not sexy. The difference being, to me, the former wanting someone physically myself versus the latter, dressing or behaving in such a way that invites others to want me. From the project, this quote from Margareta Hammarberg of Sweden struck a chord with me...

When I was younger I understood there was no reason to try to be attractive, I was a farmer's girl.

While I was not a "farmer's girl," my physical appearance was never encouraged or commented on in any positive sort of way. I was "the smart one", my two younger sisters filled the roles of "the one with the beautiful hair" and "the talented one." And my older sister, well, bless her, she was "the oldest." So we all had our boxes to live in. And being attractive or sexy wouldn't fit in mine. Being a jeans and T-shirt kind of gal, I don't own anything I feel particularly sexy in. If I wear a suit, I feel like a fraud... and that includes when I'm doing lawyery stuff. I'm able to put those fraudulent feelings aside to allow "the smart one" out of her box. At the risk of sounding like a sad sack, I suspect the reason is because I don't feel I'm worth the time or expense involved, that being sexy would be an exercise in futility that would only leave me feeling awkward and fooling nobody. And what's more, I don't think it has anything to do with my size.

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