From a young age, most women are taught to aspire to sexiness. We get articles touting the best way to dress to score a partner (or at least turn some heads), tutorials on how to exude sexiness "naturally," and tips for acting as sexy as possible once you've gotten your object of affection into the bedroom. Lingerie is frequently encouraged (as long as you keep it indoors) but readers are regularly warned against showing "too much" skin, since that just means you're trying too hard or crossing the line into perceived promiscuity.
There's external pressure to adhere to the exact right amount of sexiness — and that arbitrary "exact right amount" often varies depending your weight, age, race, and other degrees of privilege. And, in general, it's clear that, when aspiring to sexiness, you should be doing so to please someone else.
But sexiness doesn't need to be a quality that a person affects in order to seduce a partner. It doesn't need to be a tightrope that women walk between appearing to be "too prude" or "too slutty." Feeling sexy can be good for your health. If you've ever put on an outfit that made you feel smoking hot, you know that oozing sexiness — whatever "sexy" looks like for you — can boost your confidence.
So screw those lists of tips that claim expertise on what sexy means and looks like. These nine women are defining sexiness on their own terms. They feel sexy wearing everything from your classic lacy lingerie to homemade tutus to a pair of gym shorts. And rest assured, they're doing it for themselves.
"Everything is better in leather!" Shaniqua says, explaining why this dress from Curvaceous Boutique is her go-to for occasions on which she wants to feel sexy. Even though she estimates that 95 percent of her wardrobe is leather, this particular look is a favorite because "it accentuates all my curves and shows off my legs and thighs," she elaborates. As Shaniqua moves in front of the camera, it's obvious she's feeling herself in this LBD.
Learning to get excited about showing off your curves is something many people struggle with, and Shaniqua has specific memories about purposefully covering up in the past. "I was (and partially still am) a tomboy," she says. "And I hated that I was bigger than all of my peers, so I would cover up."
Shaniqua started high school around the same time more plus size models and celebrities like Ashley Graham and Danielle Brooks "started making waves." Seeing people who looked more like her represented in a positive way helped Shaniqua started to shed some of that self consciousness surrounding her body. "My legs and thighs are just as sexy [as someone skinnier's] and I have the right to show them off," she proclaims. "They aren't fat and ugly, they're thick and juicy!"
Carine describes herself as a "chill kinda gal" who "values comfort over everything," which is why this super soft wrap dress from Boohoo with a touch of red lipstick makes up her ultimate sexy outfit. "In my 20s, I did the whole 'be uncomfortable to be sexy' thing," Carine says. "I used to wear high heels everywhere! Even if I were making a simple grocery store run, I'd be in stilettos!" Of course, there's no shame in stilettos if that's your game, but "now that I'm in my 30s, I need to be comfortable," Carine continues. "I've got kids!"
Despite being surrounded by a society that often shames mothers who act or dress in a way that's deemed "too sexy," Carine found that having children helped her feel even more in tune with her body. "I embraced 'my sexy' at a young age, but after becoming a mother I felt like I was superwoman," she explains. "Feeling that way boosted my confidence even more and I exuded that from the inside out. My swag adds that sexy touch to my chill style."
Jahleah has always loved the way she feels in workout clothes, but came into the shoot with particular inspo in mind for the occasion: Bella Hadid's aerobics-themed video for LOVE magazine. "I'm going to be a bronzed, workout goddess," she tells me, laughing as I lead her to hair and makeup.
Rocking workout clothes from Forever 21, Jahleah practices some of her shadowboxing moves for the camera. "I like being able to see all my muscles after a workout," she explains. In school, she was on the basketball, baseball, and rowing teams in school. "My strength in sports I played drove a wedge between my femininity and I when I was younger, but today I would say it's a fundamental piece of my sexuality," Jahleah says of her journey to feeling comfortable in her own skin.
"My relationship with my sexuality is something very personal for me that's never been for others," she continues. These days, she loves to look at her sweaty self in the mirror after a workout, and these types of skintight, athletic outfits make the experience even more pleasurable for her. "I feel bare in workout clothes," Jahleah says. "And I associate them with being proactive."
"My legs are my favorite part of my body, so anything I buy has to show them off," Nicole says, explaining that "none of my jeans are just basic jeans." This particular pair is from Zara, and she picked them out because she loved how the embroidery drew attention to her legs. When I ask about the orange high heels, Nicole explains she figured they would pop on camera. "I love styling," she says. "I think about everything I put on."
Feeling comfortable is a huge part of feeling sexy for her, too, which goes down to what's underneath her clothes as well. Although she does "wear the traditional sexy little things" under her clothes from time to time, Nicole often opts for more basic bras, largely in part to the lack of options she sees for women with DDD+ breasts.
But Nicole doesn't feel like that lace shortage in her underwear drawer lowers her sex appeal. "In my opinion, sexy is an entire package," Nicole tells me. "[Sexy] is the presence of a person. So, yes, my style is more casual, but I'm able to make it look sexy when I need to."
When Stephanie responded to my callout for this shoot, she teased her "pretty extensive lingerie collection." She started amassing lacy bras, teddies, and other sexy pieces in college, "when other people started seeing me in my underwear," Stephanie explains. This look is from Yandy, one of her favorite brands thanks to their plus size selection. Her expression of sexy goes beyond what she's wearing; Stephanie came onto set ready to go "full glam" with her hair and makeup.
Though the lingerie collection is on the newer side for Stephanie, relating to this type of glamorous sexuality isn't. "Regardless of how I've felt about my body, I've always felt like a sexy person," she tells me. "I knew that even if I didn't feel or look my best (in my mind) there was something in me radiating sex appeal and I really enjoyed that." She cites people like Angelina Jolie and Marilyn Monroe as her "sexy icons," and recalls videos of her applying makeup from as early as three years old.
Although Stephanie occasionally wears a lacy thong or flirty bra under her everyday clothes, she generally keeps her lingerie for special occasions when she can show it off to someone else. "I love how [lingerie] makes me feel, but as a performer I like to put it under the spotlight," she says. "I think there's definitely a power that comes with being sexy."
"You can't find tutus for adults! Except for really small ones," Zaida says, explaining why she started making her own back in 2009. Brought up in a conservative household, Zaida wasn't permitted to experiment with fashion — and tutus specifically were off limits. In some ways, Zaida says that restrictive upbringing still affects the way she dresses. "My comfort zones are constantly challenged," she says. "But I wouldn't have it any other way!" This particular tutu was made for a Halloween party, but Zaida has since found it goes surprisingly well with all the leather and biker-inspired pieces in her closet. "I brought little Spanx [to the shoot] but I decided not to wear them," Zaida says of her outfit, which also involves a corset. "The whole point is you feel sexy right? And this is how I feel sexy!"
As many people who dress boldly have likely also experienced, Zaida's expression of sexiness often grabs the attention of strangers. She talks about catching people giving her looks of surprise when she walks into a bar wearing one of her homemade tutus. "I experience those looks a lot and I get some laughs, 'cause they can't believe I would wear something bold or what they consider crazy, especially because I'm a plus size woman," Zaida tells me. "For me, there's no other way to deal with people's reactions than to not care about what they think." Zaida loves her tutus, so she's not about to stop wearing them outside of costume parties just because of a few double takes.
"Those who know me now look forward to seeing what crazy or bold getup I'm going to show up in," Zaida says. "They don't expect anything less from me!"
Tatiana only started wearing super sexy outfits like this one about a year ago. What made her take the plunge to wearing outfits like this sheer dress by Selah Boutique? "Having dresses in my size!" she tells me. In the past, she remembers trying to shop for date outfits and not even being able to find a simple black dress that fit. "Every black dress was either too long, too short, or made for maternity," Tatiana explains. And any sexy underthings were completely out of the question for someone with her measurements. "Buying lingerie would be so time consuming because not one matching bra and panty set would fit," she says. "I'd have to mix and match." Now, she says, she can "walk into a Calvin Klein, Talbots, or Elie Tahari store" and find something in her size 18.
It's probably not a coincidence that Tatiana started wearing things like sheer dresses a year ago, around the same time she began modeling professionally. In fact, the majority of the models at this shoot know each other from other modeling gigs; it's clear from the abundance of hugs and excited "omg you look amazing"s that the community is incredibly supportive. "My confidence was spiked even more when I began attending curvy events, plus size designer pop ups, and speaking to my community," she tells me later. "The style many of my peers have is just divine!"
"Futzing isn't sexy," Farin says, explaining why this custom-made piece from SmartGlamour makes her feel sexy. The dress was literally constructed to perfectly fit Farin's body, which means she doesn't have to tug at it or adjust the hemline every few minutes. "I feel physically secure in this outfit," she tells me. "It flatters my body in a way that makes me feel comfortable." With its scoop neckline and knee-length hem, it also shows off the exact amount of skin Farin most relates to sexiness. "I have no problem with over the top sexy, but it isn't always what I want to do," she says.
Farin tells me she feels that the hardest part of dressing sexily is "managing other people's reactions." Farin, like many women, finds herself frustrated by the way outfits that show more skin can make others around her feel entitled to comment. She recalls a recent outfit that involved shorts and a tank top, and a man who, after she refused his advances, asking why she dressed in such a revealing way if she didn't want attention. "I think sexy is a really positive feeling!" Farin says. "Like, yes, if you find me sexy, thank you! But don't expect me to take your arousal itself as a compliment."
Jenna's sexy LBD is actually a bra from Vanity Fair paired with a vintage high waist skirt. "I was going for a vintage vibe," Jenna explains, a style she channels often on her personal blog. Though she doesn't look to one single person as her fashion icon, Jenna says that vintage style clothes always appealed to her, mainly because it was the first place she saw "'curvy' women dressed beautifully." When I ask her which decade from the past is her favorite (sartorially, at least) Jenna says, "I feel inspired by '50s style a lot. But in all honesty, I feel the most attachment to our time, now, in this decade, because it's changing the [fashion] rules for all plus size women."
About a year ago, Jenna wouldn't have been so quick to jump in front of the camera wearing a bra as a shirt. But once she discovered the body positivity community on Instagram, her worldview changed. Jenna says that seeing women feeling confident in a body that looked like hers "honestly saved my life." After following along for a while, she started her own, semi-secret Instagram page focused on plus size fashion. With each outfit photo she posted, Jenna felt more and more comfortable with herself, and started experimenting more with breaking what she calls "what bigger girls should wear rules." Eventually, Jenna started being approached for modeling gigs, which surprised her at first. "Now, I'm like 'Take it or leave it,'" Jenna says of people who comment on the way she looks or dresses. "You like it or you don't. But it's for me."
Hair: Lorenzo Diaz using Oribe
Makeup: Inna Mathews using Giorgio Armani and Viseart
Design: Bry Crasch, Brit Phillips/Bustle