Looking for looks

Sex on Tuesday

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Like my father, I’m a shoe slut. I see a snappy set of pumps or a sharp pair of wingtips, and I melt — I need them. I currently have a pair of silver sparkly Chelsea rain boots, which I wear almost daily and which never fail to get compliments. To my mind, that’s the point of shoes: to control my image and catch someone’s eye.

I spend a fair bit of my mental energy trying to look as desirable as possible, and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable use of time. For me, looks and body image play a primary role in sex, and wanting to seem more attractive, I’ve always concealed or corrected parts of my appearance.

I thoroughly respect people who argue that we should focus on being our natural selves and love our bodies, but that philosophy has never really worked for me. For one thing, I can’t get myself to believe in self-love 24/7, and for another, always “being your real self” can sometimes take the fun out of things: Performance and illusion can be priceless parts of sex appeal.

So although I encourage people to love how they look, I’m a hypocrite about it. I‘d rather look the best I can — sometimes “loving my body” be damned. Strangely, I obsess less about how other people look (lots of people catch my attention), but I still assume everyone else examines me with an unsparing gaze. And that’s a problem.

One time in high school, I was lying in bed with my then-girlfriend when she pinched my stomach flab and said “chub, chub, chub” in what I know was an absentminded, affectionate throw-away comment. But afterward, I was withdrawn and less relaxed; as always when someone accidentally steps on one of your insecurities, the experience was mortifying. For years before I’d ever had sex, the thought of it intimidated me precisely because I feared someone might see my naked body and think something like “chub, chub, chub.”

Looking my best has since become a kind of armor — a sort of insurance against someone finding me especially ugly or undesirable — but that defense mechanism itself is dangerous. Although I’ve never suffered from an eating disorder, I’ve lost 10 pounds over the past few years, and I used to skip meals on days I felt particularly bad about my appearance. And even if people do find me attractive, they probably don’t go crazy for someone who always looks icily put-together.

At times, obsessing about my looks has also probably left me more self-conscious in relationships, still able to celebrate someone else’s body but sometimes uncomfortable accepting any interest in mine. Such insecurities or lingering worries take away from the excitement of sex or hookups, leaving you distracted even when you’d like to let loose and have fun. 

Currently, I’m terribly nervous around a girl I like because she’s incredibly good-looking, and I often can’t stop worrying about how I look long enough to flirt properly with her. Before I see her, I often spend most of an hour doing my eyebrows and getting dressed, and I don’t really relax until I leave. Paradoxically, worrying about being attractive has, at times, actually sapped the joy out of the very relationships I sought to attract.

Not all of my image-control habits necessarily have to do with sex, but many do. All but the most narcissistic of us probably worry sometimes that someone we like won’t be interested in us; since I think I have a relatively friendly outgoing personality, most of my fears are about how I look.

Sometimes, though, wanting to be sexually desirable throws me into situations I’d never imagine otherwise — and these can be lots of fun, even when they don’t impact my relationship status. For instance, this summer, I got every inch of my lower body waxed — as much for myself as for my quest to look good. I probably hate the hair on my body more than anyone else would ever hate it, but I’d also never get it waxed off if I didn’t think somebody might then find me more attractive. Aside from being abundantly painful, getting my legs waxed was exhilarating; even if I was initially outside my comfort zone, I hoped I might turn more heads.

At its best, looking good can even get results when you’re not expecting any. During my freshman year, I got home after running (a habit I picked up to get in shape) and noticed a gorgeous boy walking down the block toward me. He and I did multiple double takes of each other, and the implication was clear: He thought I thought he was as cute as he thought I was. We exchanged numbers, and a few days later, we were making out in Cloyne after a date that left me smitten with him. But if I hadn’t looked athletic and been topless in the street, Cute Boy might never have noticed me.

So, sure, there’s always a way to let self-consciousness and image insecurities get a damaging grip on your life, but there’s also a way to love your body by experimenting with it, pushing yourself to try new looks or to work toward your own image ideal in healthy ways. Running and grooming are probably good habits, while skipping meals and overthinking are clearly bad. But above all, I need to remember that looking for looks only gets you so far when you’re searching for sex; to have fun with my body, I probably need to get out of my head.

Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected]