Does sexy have an expiration date?

Do women have the right to be sexy in the back half of their lives? For many celebrities, it’s not a right, it’s an obligation. But what about the rest of us, who don't have plastic surgeons on speed dial?

Helen Mirren, at 70, is still regarded by many as sexy — should we emulate her? (Photo by See Li via Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

There's a scientific reason that considering women past a certain age sexy has been an exception, rather than a rule, and it's found in the root word: sex. For most species, intercourse is all about procreation, and the value given to female curves can be seen as utilitarian — wide hips imply easy childbirth and large breasts imply that the resulting baby will be well-fed. Thus being sexy is still like being the baboon with the most colorful behind: it gives you more choices.

We aren't like the rest of the animal kingdom, though, so we can, and should, have more criteria for what makes our lives meaningful. Some of us place a priority on personal appearance, others don’t — are the ones who don’t more evolved for being detached from our primal nature?  

A transformative discovery

I was an introverted, bookish, awkward kid with low self-esteem who didn't like to go to parties. West Indian culture doesn't value being skinny, and being taller than all the boys wasn't much of a draw, either. Ditto getting the highest marks in school, or being the only black kid in my grade, or two years younger than everyone else.

In high school, however, I discovered Vogue, where thin women were considered attractive. I started sewing my own clothes and embracing, rather than fighting, my uniqueness. I was still self-conscious, but there was a flip side. When I looked in the mirror, I started to like what I saw — especially after I replaced the coke-bottle glasses I'd worn since the age of four with contact lenses.

I was 16 when I graduated from high school, but I looked old enough to go dancing at clubs. Being exposed to a new pool of people confirmed my suspicion that I might be attractive. Alas, my personality was still far from magnetic — apparently, my shyness came across as aloofness and rendered me intimidating. I think I got the most attention when I didn't try to look my best, because those were the nights I was more relaxed. I didn't think about who was looking at me, and how I was being assessed, which undoubtedly created a different vibe.

Of course, sometimes I went for it — when I was in my early 20s, I showed up for a birthday dinner with my boyfriend in black-and-white plaid hot pants, a white blouse with a ruffled V-neck, black and gold sling backs, and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a white ribbon. I felt conspicuous riding the subway to the restaurant, never mind walking down the streets of midtown Manhattan, but the half of me that wasn't thinking, “Wow, people are staring, I hope I don't trip in these heels” enjoyed the attention.

Cellulite comes for us all

I can't wear heels anymore anyway, and I will never wear short shorts again — skirts are far more comfortable, and cellulite comes for us all. I will, on occasion, pull together an outfit purely for the fun of pleasing myself aesthetically, but when I'm dressed that way, I don't assume anyone is deciding whether I'm “toothsome” or not — I figure that, at nearly 50, I'm pretty much invisible, and at this point I don't care if people are assessing me or not. Ironically, I still get the most positive comments on my appearance when I'm dressed down, making me wonder if the person in question forgot his glasses.

I have a lot of other things on my mind than aspiring to be a modern-day Mae West. Does this mean I've grown, or lost something? I don't know. Despite a bad marriage and years of being single, my current thought is that if and when I'm in a relationship again, he needs to find me sexy — and he will, if I bring the right attitude about myself into the mix. I don't care about what everybody else thinks.

The next generation

By the way, I was digging through my drawers when I stumbled on those black-and-white plaid hot pants. So I gave them to my 18-year-old daughter— who, having been freed from high school, seems to have just realized that she is sexy. Some days, she wears short skirts, some days, she wears sweats. Mainly, I see her as a young woman who owns her femininity and is awakening to a power within her that has nothing to do with men. Which is either a great definition of sexy — or a much more important consideration.

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