Sex Appeal and Strutting our Stuff: Sexual Power or Real Power?

I hate to admit it, but I love watching the way the celebs dress for the Grammys and the Oscars. What really struck me at the Grammys was how Adele was dressed -- fully-clothed: no cuts to the navel; no butt cracks showing. She exuded a kind of power, a real personal power that comes from being comfortable with herself, knowing who she is and what she stands for, a power that didn't rely on her looks. Fully dressed and beautiful, she was like a breath of fresh air, her modest garb almost radical and oddly making Lady Gaga appear conventional.

Now I'm not saying it's not fun to be sexy, and if you have a beautiful body and work hard to keep it that way, why not show it off. But if sexuality is a vehicle for actualizing personal power, that's a limited and superficial path, a pursuit of power where women can end up making themselves into sexual objects and sabotage their real power.

The confusion is apparent in the recent phenomenon of the SlutWalks that have erupted around the world. They started in Toronto after a police officer told female students if they didn't want to be victimized, they should stop dressing like sluts. Whoa! Kind of misses the point, doesn't it?

How about the fact that one in five female students have been sexually assaulted or a victim of an attempt? How about the fact that students who have been raped are rarely believed and encouraged not to file charges? How about the fact that aggressors are rarely expelled or suffer any serious consequences? Women rightly reacted with ire to another example of blaming the victim: the aggressor is not responsible for his impulses, the victim is responsible for keeping his manly urges in check.

In response to this injustice, young women in a show of solidarity marched together skimpily dressed, proclaiming their power to dress any damn way they pleased. But I'm scratching my head. I have a whole issue with the word "slut" but that's a tar baby I'm not going to address in this blog. Is SlutWalk an example of women realizing and demonstrating their real power? Or did it undermine their real power?

Who does this highly sexualized version of woman belong to anyway? The ads in images targeting women and featuring women teach us to see ourselves not through our own eyes but through the eyes of fantasizing men. As a result, many women internalize a male perspective of themselves, which represents not our natural sense of ourselves but a sense of ourselves being lusted after by another. John Berger said it well in his 1972 book, "Ways of Seeing": "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female."

Women are often fighting a battle they don't even know they are fighting. As they internalize these images subconsciously and try to look like them, sexual power and titillation gets confused with real, personal power. How we are supposed to look replaces the question of how we want people to see us.

I'm not knocking being sexy. It can be fun to be sexy. But when the perception of a woman is limited to her sexuality, she paradoxically becomes invisible, in spite of all she is exposing. By emphasizing and spotlighting her sexual power, people see her but never know her. I remember walking down the cobbled streets of Lamu, a resort island off the coast of Kenya. The culture is Swahili Muslim and women dress in black burqas with everything covered except their eyes. Mingling with them were American women tourists wearing halter tops, short shorts, and big sunglasses revealing almost everything except their eyes.

In a strange way, these two modes of dress are two sides of the same coin, the positive/negative image of each other that shared a commonality. Neither was seen for who they were. The burqa blinded the observer to the woman. The emphasis on body parts also blinded the observer to the woman.

So when I'm watching the Academy Awards this Sunday, there are two categories I'll be paying attention to: sexual power and real power. And the winner is?