Unpacking the 2016 sexy
When anti-fit clothing became fashionable, boxy 'cholis' with handloom drapes redefined the fall of the sari, and P.V. Sindhu became a cover girl
Is “sexy" a compliment? Does it mean being sexually attractive or is it just a thoughtless substitute for nice ? The question came from an attractive woman, perhaps in her 40s, chatting with a man roughly her age. This was many months back, one Friday evening, at a pub in Delhi. “There is certainly an erotic charge if someone calls you sexy—man or woman," said the lady’s male companion.
It was a conversation I overheard, silently disagreeing with the man’s simplistic, “erotic charge" argument. What about the evolved, post-erotic value of sexiness?
The many dimensions of erotic as sexy hit me again last week at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as I stood gazing again at some pieces of art, including a reproduction of French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s bronze, The Kiss, a personal favourite. Provocatively sensual, none among them appealed as “sexy" in the current context. Quite like the Marilyn Monroe-Madhubala construct of voluptuous coquettishness that represents the sex appeal of female movie stars of the last century but doesn’t echo the present moment. Something has changed from the viewer’s side of the fence.
Especially this year, when the face of the “new sexy" in India was a gorgeous and gritty sportswoman. From the “wow" moment of victorious shuttler P.V. Sindhu, the vast territory of symbolism between Alia Bhatt’s winsome girlie-ness that usurped the dressed-up enamour of Katrina-Kareena-Kangana-Deepika, and the 2017 Pirelli Calendar, Emotional, that doesn’t have a single nude, to the reinvention of the blonde and thin Barbie into a body-positive toy, sexiness peeled off many layers. It revealed the female mind.
If Victoria’s Secret, the official headquarters of the upwardly mobile cleavage, started making athleisure-friendly bralettes to counter falling interest in the brand’s trendsetting push-up bra, if Vogue UK made a statement with Desperately Seeking Cleavage in its December issue, or if plus-sized model Ashley Graham was one of the three cover girls on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annually bombastic Swimsuit special, something other than lacy cantilevers and pressurizing body perfection was defining the new sexy.
“They are... nude while being fully dressed. It is another kind of naked, more important than body parts. What is more than being naked is to show yourself the way you are," photographer Peter Lindbergh said at the Paris unveiling of the 2017 Pirelli Calendar this month. There were images of actor Helen Mirren in a blanket, Kate Winslet’s hands, and Uma Thurman in a roll-neck sweater. This year the calendar, which is known for its photographs of scantily clad women shot in heavenly locations, features 14 actors from four continents aged 28-71. It includes Alicia Vikander, the youngest in the group, whose high-collared Louis Vuitton gown at the Golden Globes this year was listed as irreverent towards the cult of the cleavage by Vogue. Lindbergh was quoted at the launch as saying that as an artist he was responsible “for freeing women from the idea of eternal youth and perfection", adding that the camera had “stripped them to the very soul".
There was indeed a song in the air this year. It resonated from Sindhu’s silver medal at the Rio Olympics, to pop music diva Beyoncé taking ownership of her black identity and making a case for the Black Lives Matter campaign through her album Lemonade. One gripping a racket in a yellow badminton outfit; the other in a Gucci dress—a brand that made androgyny desirable this year—in the Formation music video released on the eve of the Super Bowl. Both incredibly sexy and purposeful, watched with awe all over the world.
These girls generated the kind of buzz a selfie creates, where the image and the image-maker are one and the same. It’s your own creation, you control the flash, it’s a self-portrait. “A self-portrait is not just an artist saying, “this is how I look", but also, “this is what I believe in," writes Frances Borzello, the author of Seeing Ourselves : Women’s Self Portraits.
That defined the new sexy this year. Of women, by women, for the world. Being attractive to the male gaze remains important, but it’s no longer enough. Your body must be strong and sinuous and you must know how to bare your soul.
The new sexy is easily defined by the athletic, toned look currently so popular among women across age groups and societies. It puts fitness, nutrition and self-care above the old-style come-hither sex appeal that hinted at orgasmic abandon or reproductive ability. Sindhu just naturally owns this look. But so did Priyanka Chopra on the October-November cover of Condé Nast Traveller India in a specially designed strappy white T-shirt with the words “refugee", “immigrant" and“outsider" crossed out by a red marker to portray her as a “traveller".
Multiple other happenings took sexiness beyond the body. Right before the 75-year-old comic book character’s first film coming up in 2017, the UN named Wonder Woman, both soldier and sex symbol, as the honorary ambassador for the empowerment of girls and women. Only to backtrack within two months after protests that a thigh-baring female mascot was “discriminatory and unreal".
Not that the stereotypes vanished. Red lipstick ruled, celebrities like Madonna and Bella Hadid, among many others, strode red-carpet events without a hint of underwear at the Met Gala and Cannes, respectively. “Natural" beauty consumed unnatural amounts of time and money. India’s fairness complex has gained industrial proportions. Cosmetic surgery is a roaring global industry with a bevy of counsellors convinced that silicone injected in boobs can save relationships. The female pantsuit embodied by Hillary Clinton became the symbol of a failed presidential bid that let down working women. The threat of rape stalks and brutalizes women who rebel through their sexuality or their bodies. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Girls & Sex: Navigating The Complicated New Landscape, listed by Time magazine as one of the 10 best non-fiction American books of this year, puts it quite aptly in the book’s foreword: “I was trying my best to raise a healthy daughter at a time when celebrities presented self-objectification as a source of strength, power and independence, when looking desirable seemed a substitute for feeling desire, when Fifty Shades Of Grey, with its neurasthenic, lip-chewing heroine and creepy billionaire stalker, was being hailed as the ultimate female fantasy..."
In India, the concept of sexiness is even more muddled, often a judgement rather than a value, and sexual morality is fuzzy. Yet there were still wrangles with the new. In films and real life. Parineeti Chopra’s weight loss made no difference to the “empowerment “ of the female body but Sakshi Malik’s electric smile upon winning the Olympic bronze for wrestling, as well as the conversation around sexual consent in the film Pink, did. Even though the body remains the dominant image of sex appeal in our country, with actor Sunny Leone gyrating in joyful abandon in the trailer of the forthcoming film Raees as the must-have item girl, there is an increasing curiosity about the new sexy. It lives in the anti-fit clothes worn by young girls, the boxy cholis with handloom drapes that don’t fall as dreamily as Sridevi’s chiffons in Yash Chopra films, in the clamour of fashion magazines as they oscillate from Bollywood glam girls to label Sindhu as the “next"cover girl.
Unaddressed questions remain, of course. Is sexy a compliment for women today? Do men find women with a naked mind sexy? Sexiness must be about sex, after all, and it’s a verb, so can it be entirely ring-fenced from the erotic?
2017 may throw up some answers in literature, photography and popular culture. In bedrooms and in boardrooms. In relationships or the end of them. Till then I plan to redo my 2017 wardrobe to celebrate the summer of the female mind.
Clothes that told stories
The pantsuit:US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s chosen garb, the pantsuit became symbolic as the tool to break the glass ceiling. Clinton’s loss was seen as a rejection of the concept of equal rights for working women
The burkini: Thirty coastal towns in France tried to ban the full-bodied swimsuit. The ban led to labyrinthine debates on attitudes towards Islam
The barefoot diva: For the premiere of ‘Money Monster’ at the Cannes film festival, actor Julia Roberts, dressed in an Armani Prive gown, came barefoot. Was she rebelling against the festival’s insistence on heels for women?
The pregnant bride: For the finale of the Lakmé Fashion Week’s Winter Festive 2016 edition, a radiant Kareena Kapoor Khan wore a pearl-grey Sabyasachi bridal ensemble and a ‘maang tikka’, stunning fashion pundits and fans alike