Sex in the Eye of the Beholder: is any Clothing Inherently Sexual?



Artwork by Maisie Mannering


“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don't take it off until you're thirty-four.”

—Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck


Many quotes stuck with me when I read Nora Ephron’s timeless collection of essays on womanhood, but this particular musing was one that I quickly ran with. Admittedly, I don’t spend much time parading through life wearing a bikini these days—I live in the middle of England, and I haven’t been on holiday in almost two years, so my lack of bikini-cladding is down to circumstance rather than choice—but the sentiment still stands. After previously struggling with body dysmorphia and an eating disorder, I currently feel happier in my skin than I ever have before, so I see these words as an excuse to fully embrace and celebrate my body.


As I’m not wearing a bikini very often, I have channelled the essence of Ephron’s advice through the modern art form of unashamedly posting pictures of myself on Instagram. But, whilst I have no reservations about posting pictures of myself dressed in minimal-coverage gym gear (or a bikini, when the time calls for it), I recently found myself apprehensive to share a photo of me posing in a new bralette. Rationally, my reluctance doesn’t make sense; I had no more skin on display in this bralette than if I were to wear a sports bra or bikini top—if anything, I was showing less—both of which I am happy to be seen publicly in. But, unlike a sports bra or bikini top, I had strictly relegated this bralette to the not-for-public-consumption “underwear” section of my drawers, unwittingly setting myself a precedent that is tricky to override.


I know that these self-imposed, arbitrary rules aren’t a product of the social landscape I’m currently residing in. My Instagram algorithm has been carefully curated so that I see plenty of empowered, sex-positive feminists who wouldn’t think twice about posting a photo in a cute lingerie set, and the increasing normalisation of platforms such as OnlyFans has begun a cultural shift in how individuals may reclaim autonomy over the sexualisation of their bodies. And, as an outside observer, I know for sure that I don’t even feel a twinge of judgement for anyone who pops up on my feed in only their underwear—especially whilst trying to adhere to Instagram’s famously tough-to-navigate guidelines. So why does such a small action as sharing a selfie in a decidedly unprovocative bralette still feel so radical to me?


The ironic thing is, I’ve been a regular participant in the “underwear as outerwear” trend over the past few years, with most of the bodysuits that I wear on nights out having been knowingly purchased from lingerie sections. But the widespread popularity of this trend means that these outfits are more of a fashion statement than a feminist one. And it’s not just bralettes and bodysuits that have been embraced by fashion: corsets, slip dresses, and even fetish wear such as latex dresses have all been reevaluated and repurposed to become socially palatable style choices. These garments, once symbolic of the taboo subject of female sexuality, have all undergone a public recontextualisation in tandem with our changing views on sex and sexual expression. But it shouldn’t be down to fashion to dictate whether or not our bodies are sexualised.


One of the most positive aspects of social media—tucked in the folds of its many, many flaws—is its ability to give users control over how they craft their public image. Whilst the worlds of advertising and media are still trying to brush off the messy remnants of patriarchal beauty standards and the male gaze, an individual’s social feed is purely an expression of self, where sexuality may or may not play a role. Whether or not someone chooses to embrace their sexuality when posting pictures online, the important thing to note is that it is their choice.


Underwear may be historically connoted with sex and intimacy, but individuals now have more power than ever to reframe these images in a desexualised context. Particularly after a year of lockdowns and isolation, underwear is a symbol of so much more than one’s sexuality: it can reflect a need to be comfortable, in the case of unwired bralettes and ultra-soft briefs; it can highlight the complex journey someone has been on in beginning to accept their body, as evidenced by the abundance of people proudly posing in their underwear in the popular “body positivity” and “body neutrality” hashtags on Instagram; or it may simply represent the instinctive need many of us have had to feel confident about ourselves after a prolonged period of extraordinary hardship and uncertainty. People may post these pictures to feel sexy—which is nothing to shame someone for—but there are always other nuances at play beyond the view of the camera.


Another part of this conversation that needs to be addressed is the fact that many individuals are automatically sexualised regardless of whether they’re wearing underwear or fully clothed. For some, sexuality isn’t merely a facet of their identity, but rather a fixed lens they are filtered through to be reduced to nothing but an object of desire. This problem spans from sex workers to women with naturally curvaceous body types, and even stretches beyond those who are old enough to legally consent to sex; a survey has found that 35% of young girls have been catcalled on the street whilst wearing school uniform. If women, teenagers, and even children can be sexualised without their consent, can we really blame individuals for wanting to regain some autonomy over their own perception through the pictures they post online?


Ultimately, there is a limit to how much we can shape other people’s ideas about us, as individual prejudices and biases will always play a huge role in how we are viewed by one person compared to the next. Much like sexuality exists on a spectrum, our personal views and relationships with sex do too; what may seem provocative and daring to one person may not even induce the slightest raise of an eyebrow for another, depending on everything from personal experiences to culturally instilled opinions. When we accept that beliefs about sex and sexuality will vary drastically wherever we look, we can begin to accept that there is only so much control one person can have over how they are perceived.


We may not be able to avoid age-old patriarchal values and regressive views about sexuality, but we can work to empower and uplift those who choose to push against them—even if we don’t yet feel comfortable enough to do so ourselves. Whilst I probably won’t be posting pictures of myself posing in only my underwear anytime soon, it is important to remind myself of the power I do possess in contextualising my own persona.

Article by Olivia Cox