The Distinction between “Beautiful” and “Sexy”

The most random conversations can lead to incredibly profound reflections. The other day, I had an interesting dialogue with two friends of mine. We had all recently watched Suicide Squad, and obviously got to talking about the fountain of perfection that is Margot Robbie. After fangirling over Robbie, we moved on to talk about Blake Lively’s new film, The Shallows. My male friend began to drool over how beautiful he thought Lively was, and my female friend agreed. I, on the other hand, told them I found Robbie to be more beautiful than Lively, to which my male friend replied: “Yeah, but Margot Robbie is more, like, hot, you know? She’s sexy, she’s smoking, but Blake Lively is more classy, more beautiful.”

I didn’t necessarily agree with his comments but I let it go, because it was ridiculous to fight over which privileged white woman we thought was more beautiful. But my friend’s remarks stayed with me. Robbie is a curvaceous beauty. Why does my friend consider her only “hot,” while he considers leading ladies like Lively “classy” and “beautiful”?

The answer is simple. For a curvy girl to thrive in Hollywood, she has to flaunt her curves. She becomes a sex symbol, a siren, and her costumes are designed to make the most of her form in order to please a thirsty audience. Curvy girls must wear tight clothes that hug their figures in order to show that they have small waists, perfect breasts and a perky butt. They must prove they are not “fat,” but rather glamorously curvaceous.

Meanwhile, skinny actresses are more likely to be dressed up in clothes that cover them up, since their small frames generally look good in anything. No one is worried they will look “too fat” for the big screen. This aesthetic choice extends to the types of roles that actresses can be cast as. For example, Lively, a relatively thin actress, was cast as the title character in The Age of Adaline, playing a classic, timeless beauty who exuded elegance and grace. In the TV series, Gossip Girl, she played Serena Van der Woodsen, a young socialite who, despite being an openly sexual character, is still considered “classy” and “fabulous” in popular culture. Meanwhile, Robbie has often been cast as a fiery, bodacious blonde, whose sexiness (whether consciously flaunted or not) is her main asset. In the short-lived series Pan Am, Robbie played an innocent, wide-eyed 1960s stewardess who nonetheless wore very tight, short skirts and inspired lust in many male characters; in The Wolf of Wall Street, she played a sexy trophy wife whose main weapon was her sexuality; in Suicide Squad, she played a crazy sex kitten whose shorts routinely rode up her bum. In all these roles, Robbie was flawless and sexy, but rarely has she been reviewed as a classic, timeless “beauty.”

Such a distinction is not only present in today’s weight-obsessed society. For decades, curvy and skinny actresses have been, for the most part, cast in two distinctly different roles. Take Marilyn Monroe and Sofia Loren, for example. Though both women had absolutely beautiful faces, they were often cast as the sexy temptresses because their breasts could properly fill a revealing corset. As a result, they have gone down in history as glamorous sex symbols, but often have been disrespected by critics who do not take them seriously. For example, when reviewing Monroe’s hit film Some Like It Hot, modern critic Robert Ebert decided to comment on her physical appearance instead of her acting, stating that Monroe had been “poured into a dress that offers her breasts like jolly treats for needy boys.” Meanwhile, Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, both relatively thin women, played more subdued, respected characters (Hepburn was the elegant title character in Sabrina and the Princess Ann in Roman Holiday; Bergman was the beautiful, intelligent Ilsa Lund in Casablanca). If you compare the costumes worn by these two women throughout their careers with the costumes worn by Monroe and Loren, you will see a definite distinction between “pretty, beautiful and classic” and “sexy, sultry and glamorous.”

Women in the 1960s had little power to change a media industry dictated by rich, powerful men. But women today have more power and possibility to speak out than ever before. So why does this stereotypical casting remain, for the most part, unchanged?

Because, whether we realize it or not, “curvy” has become synonymous with “sexy” and “skinny” has become part of the criterion for labelling a celebrity as “classy.” Nowhere is this more obvious than in America’s obsession with the Jenner sisters. While Kendall Jenner, a relatively thin model and the face of Estee Lauder, has been lauded for her beauty and grace (despite having also posed in risqué positions and clothing), her younger sister Kylie Jenner is almost always referred to as “smoking hot” thanks to her crazy curves, large lips and revealing clothing.

I believe all women should consider themselves beautiful. Don’t think that you belong to just one “category,” just because years of media dictation have put forth a specific image of what kind of woman you should be. Your body type does not dictate who you are. Your fuller breasts do not make you a sultry sex goddess if you don’t want them to; having a big butt doesn’t give people the right to touch it without asking; a rounder, non-angular face doesn’t diminish your beauty in any way. If you are a curvier girl who wants to dress in Audrey Hepburn’s classic, covered-up style, do it. Who cares if Vogue says you’ll look pudgy in a box dress? You get out there, and you work it.