6 Ways What's Sexy To Me At 26 Is Different Than It Was At 21

With my 26th birthday less than two weeks away, I'm realizing more and more how what makes me feel sexy has changed in my 20s. Of course, every woman's journey to self-acceptance is unique, and there's really no wrong way to love your body. Your list of what makes you feel sexy in your mid-to-late twenties might be very different from mine, and that's OK. Personally, though, I can't seem to stop thinking about just how much the things that made me feel sexy in my early twenties no longer matter to me — and I'm guessing a lot of women can relate.

When I first entered my twenties, it took working out up to six days a week, highlighting my hair every few months, tanning my naturally fair skin, slathering on makeup, and strapping on a push-up bra to make feel like a goddess. Fortunately, very different things make me feel sexy in my mid-twenties. Nowadays, I usually feel sexy whether I'm wearing zero makeup or just some mascara. Sporting men's flannel shirts with nothing but bralettes and graphic tanks underneath them makes me feel like a hot, androgynous fashion model; and going almost a year without highlights doesn't keep me from feeling like a pretty, hippie queen.

Don't get me wrong — despite mostly fitting the Western Beauty Standard, (blonde hair, blue eyes, thin, tall) I still have plenty of days when being body positive feels like hard work. That said, in my experience, feeling sexy gets easier in your mid-twenties, and it's awesome. Here are a few ways my idea of what's sexy has changed since I was 21.

1. Dressing Comfortably Makes Me Feel Sexier Than Dressing “Hot”

When I say dressing in comfy clothes makes me feel sexier than dressing "hot" does, I'm by no means trying to say my wardrobe consists solely of sweatpants and hoodies. (Though I do wear those items a lot.) My love for revealing fashion hasn't faded over the years, either. When summer rolls around, I probably won't wear a real shirt for three months, and I still think high-waisted shorts are adorable.

But at the beginning of my twenties, I only felt sexy when I forced cleavage and dressed "feminine." Case in point:

What's changed for me fashion-wise in my twenties, and what I think changes for many women in their twenties, is this: you stop feeling compelled to sacrifice your comfort for the viewing pleasure of others.

I'm finally realizing that I've spent most of my womanhood dressing for other people instead of myself, and nothing about that makes me feel hot. For a long time, I avoided wearing androgynous fashions because one of my exes told me my men's shirts made me look like "an art school lesbian." (Which I now realize I could have taken as a compliment, but I took it as an insult back then.) I had very little confidence in my fashion choices in my early twenties, because I was always dressing to please other people. Fortunately, as my twenties have progressed, I've let most of that sh*t go.

In the 10 months since my last breakup, I've realized that dressing for other people never really made me feel that sexy anyway. I see now that all the time and energy I put into "packaging" myself for the visual pleasure of others only fed my insecurities. When it finally hit me that I was seeking validation from my now-ex, my friends, and even strangers by dressing how I thought a sexy woman "should" dress, it kind of broke my heart. It made me feel like a bad feminist and a huge hypocrite, too. How could I write about feminism and self-love if I was dressing to please others? Thanks largely to that breakup, I only wear what makes me feel sexy now — and what makes me feel sexy these days is comfort.

2. I View Tattoos As Sexy & Body Positive

I'm a big fan of natural beauty, but one of my most body positive experiences so far was when I finally let myself get tattoos. I'd wanted a tattoo since I was about 18, but I was worried it would make me less attractive to men. (Ugh!) Fortunately, it only took a few months of being single and 25 for me to realize that bodily autonomy is the raddest, and I can simply elect to not date men who are turned off by tattoos.

Maybe you were a way cooler 20-year-old than I was, but it's taken me until my mid-twenties to understand that being a woman who isn't afraid to make independent decisions about her own body is sexy AF.

3. Having Healthy Skin Feels Sexier Than Wearing Makeup

There's nothing wrong with loving makeup. If wearing a full face of makeup on a daily basis makes you feel sexy, that's awesome! You do you. That said, for me, committing to a daily skincare routine that works boosts my self-esteem much more than makeup ever could. I have more love for my face wash, eye cream, and coconut oil than I ever had for my foundation.

Even the fanciest of foundations would leave my face feeling smothered and greasy, and no amount of facial exfoliation and deep moisturizing could keep my foundation from caking in patches, either. I tried special sponges and primers and setting sprays, but none of it looked or felt better on my typically clear skin than the light coverage of a tinted moisturizer — or no coverage at all.

I still wear makeup frequently — more often than not, when I leave my house, I'm wearing two coats of mascara and one coat of brow liner. But the difference is, there was a time when I wouldn't have dared to post a selfie unless my face looked like this:

Fortunately, covering up my facial "flaws" all the time just doesn't do it for me anymore. In my early twenties, leaving my apartment without hiding my dark circles left me feeling self-conscious and ugly. Now, I don't even own concealer, and I feel like a damn fox most of the time.

4. Being Called "Forward" Makes Me Feel Way Sexier Than Being Called “Ladylike”

When I was younger, I used to waste energy trying to "act like a lady." In my early twenties, when someone would describe me as "ladylike," visions of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn danced in my head — whereas being called "forward" left me feeling like I'd done something wrong.

Now that I'm closer to 30 than 20, being called "ladylike" makes me feel sick. I no longer strive for this "compliment" because, to me, it feels condescending and limiting. Being described as a "forward woman," on the other hand, leaves me feeling like a friggin' queen, because it shows how far I've come from the timid, eager-to-please, easily-manipulated girl I once was. Even when it's meant to be taken as an insult, being called forward makes me feel brave and capable.

5. Having A Loving Relationship With My Body Feels Sexier Than Having Flat Abs

Even though I was working out pretty hardcore when the above picture was taken, I still felt like my tummy wasn't flat enough. I'm still into working out regularly for both my mental and physical health, but my relationship with exercise used to be really unhealthy. If I missed a workout, I'd feel guilty as hell and berate myself with negative self-talk.

In my early twenties, I was obsessed with having abs and I was always trying to make my butt bigger and rounder with sculpting exercises. I was trying to force my body to fit the mold I thought my now-ex would like best, rather than embracing the beauty of my natural body type and just working out to stay strong and healthy. I constantly compared my body to those of other women, when I should have been celebrating my health and unique form.

Honestly, I don't know if I would have realized any of this if I hadn't taken some time to be single, because being single allowed me to own my body in a new way. My ex was possessive, and I was insecure enough to mistake it for love. So for nearly four years, I appreciated my body primarily for all the ways it could make him happy. After we split, it didn't take me long to start appreciating my body for what it can do for me, rather than who it can arouse. Now, I think my booty is pretty bangin' as is, and I don't even want flat abs, because they're just too much work. This is how my tummy looks, and I feel way better about my body.

6. I Find Respect Sexier Than Validation

In my early twenties, I mistook jealousy for passion, and toxic relationships for epic love stories. I stayed in an unhealthy relationship for years because I was afraid of losing the "passion" of my first love. I now know from experience that you can deeply love someone who is really wrong for you.

Now that I'm in my mid-twenties, nothing turns me on more in a partner than compatibility. I need to be with someone I have lots in common with, not just someone who gives me butterflies. I need a partner who likes to travel, who doesn't think that feminism is stupid, and who will support my career goals. More than anything, I've realized that real love isn't just saying "I love you" every day. To me, real love is a combination of respect, friendship, trust, and freedom.

This probably isn't the case for all women, but when I was 21, I looked to my now-ex partner for validation — even when I knew being with him wasn't a healthy choice. Now that I'm almost 26, I don't want to make the person I'm dating responsible for my happiness. I just want them to be a best friend who I get to have awesome sex, conversations, and adventures with — that's what's sexy.

Images: Elizabeth Enochs