When women present themselves in a way they hope is attractive to men, what are they aiming for? Is it to be beautiful? Or sexy? Or something in between?
Three Kinds of Beautiful
It can be difficult to know how to describe subjective impressions, but we all recognise some kind of continuum from 'beautiful' to 'sexy'. To clarify things I will distinguish three kinds of beauty:
- Simple Beauty
- Sexual Beauty
- Alluring Beauty
Simple beauty is attractive femininity of a kind that intends no sexual meaning. It is indirectly sexual of course in the sense that it is the beauty of a girl or woman. And it is not 'simple' in the sense of being plain or unsophisticated. The word simple is used here simply to mean uncomplicated by sexual meaning. So it is the kind of feminine beauty characteristic of all girls and women, from young girls to older women. It is represented in the accentuated feminine prettiness of a small girl's floral dress, or the stylish beauty of an older woman's ballgown.
Most of women's interest in beauty and fashion would fall into the simple beauty category. It can be highly sophisticated and take in all manner of styles. It tends to be a realm of interest for women that they share mainly with other women. Although it has men as a general reference point, it is not mainly aimed at men in any specific sense.
Sexual beauty is the overt attractiveness of a woman's body and adornments that directly intends sexual meaning and is only appropriate in private. It is how a wife might dress, or indeed undress, for her husband. It is not seeking ambiguity but is unmistakably sexual in intent, and encourages sexual arousal in a man.
Alluring beauty is 'in between' simple beauty and sexual beauty. It adds something to simple beauty and draws from some of the symbolism of sexual beauty. It intends to be appealing to men in a way they would recognise as intended for them, though perhaps with some ambiguity, however it does not seek to arouse men sexually but to draw an emotional kind of admiration, not to possess, but not exactly detached either.
To allure is to draw in. It seeks to attract by presenting something known to be distinctively appealing. Alluring beauty is not like a background, but it comes forward from the background so as to stand out somewhat. Simple beauty, beautiful though it can be, might nevertheless drift to the background of men's awareness. So alluring beauty 'comes forward' so as to stand out somewhat from that background. The strength of this effect can vary, from subtle to quite strong.
SEXUAL <-> ALLURING <-> SIMPLE
It is this third kind of beauty, alluring beauty, that women usually have in mind when they refer to their manner of dress and presentation as 'sexy'. It is in between simple and sexual, while not being either of them.
Two Dynamics in Alluring Beauty
Once you try to define beauty you quickly find that there are more subtle gradations. And so we could identify within alluring beauty two different dynamics, the enchanting and the sensual.
A woman with an enchanting presence gives a stronger projection of 'winsomeness with intent'. Enchanting could also be called fascinating or delightful. This effect might be achieved entirely by manner of presence, even while style of dress remains within the bounds of simple beauty. What is intended here by 'enchanting' beauty relies more on the face than the rest of the body. It involves a more accentuated use of smiling, eye contact, closeness, smoothness, graciousness and lightness of tone. All these are taken up a notch when directed towards men, or a particular man.
Using 'sensual' could be misleading here because the word has often been used to refer to what I am calling 'sexual'. The trouble is there just aren't enough suitable words to capture exactly what is being referred to here. By sensual is meant that the attractiveness of the body itself is somewhat more prominent. For example, a dress which bares the shoulders or the back has a more sensual effect than one which does not. Or a dress that reveals more of the legs has a more sensual element in what is perceived as attractive. Or the shapeliness of the body is accentuated without necessarily being more revealing. In any case the degree and manner in which this is done intends to stay on the alluring side of the line, and not have a directly sexual effect. The sensual effect is not only about dress but also movement and manner. Facial expression is still important but will tend towards more deliberate and knowing, regarding men with some playful detachment.
Accentuation and Moderation
In practice alluring beauty is a convergence of the enchanting and the sensual such that the sensual provides an energy of attraction that is moderated and elevated by the enchanting. It exists in a field of play that can move back and forth between enchanting and sensual. It is oriented towards the centre, not towards simple beauty or sexual beauty. It has its own distinct purpose. In the appropriate context it can lead on to the sexual, but in itself it does not seek to increase the sexual effect but to move towards its own centre.
This can be hard to explain. Someone might ask, what other purpose could this have other than being oriented towards the sexual? It's hard to put into words, but it could be described as 'abiding in the beauty of the other'. It is a manner of togetherness of men and women that is elevated, but centred in an equilibrium of mutual regard. It doesn't need any other purpose. It is a form of art. It is a form of social artistry. It seeks to accentuate the beauty of relations between men and women. It is not primarily about individuals but about community.
We are much more attuned to the idea of accentuated beauty as something essentially about trying to find someone special with the intention of establishing a personal relationship. Alluring beauty has that function as well, but here we are trying to disentangle this goal from another goal just as important - the beauty of relations between men and women in general, indeed of an enriched culture of relations between the sexes.
I think women have this hope, and even when it is not clearly articulated, they are seeking through their efforts to be beautiful to bring some of this elevation into social relations. They are often disappointed that men don't quite see what they are aiming at. They wish men would not jump so quickly to the sexual but would abide in the beautiful space opened up by alluring beauty.
It can be difficult for men to recognise this because they perceive sexual signals more strongly, and can tend to think of this field of allurement only as preliminaries to the 'real thing'. So they can interpret even small movements towards the sensual as invitations to a sexual manner of relating. This disappoints women because it cuts short what they are trying to do. They wonder, 'Couldn't we just enjoy this wonderful ambience of light sexiness without having to go on to anything else?'
It requires a lot of learning, practice and experience for both men and women to become adept at this kind of relating. Its widespread development would require a lot more than the sorts of opportunities currently available in most places. It requires a lot more structured and formal elements in social life. It can't be achieved in a merely informal manner. This is a big, further question in its own right, and is one of the main reasons for this Man+Woman magazine.