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What is ‘sexy shaming’ and where does it stand in terms of feminism?

ByOlivia Fallon

Mar 1, 2020

The Pussycat Dolls’ return has been far from smooth. With the release of their music video ‘React’, alongside their first live performance in decades back in December, tabloid press and complaints from the public have branded their conduct “highly inappropriate”. The girl-band have fought back fiercely, criticising the “sexy-shaming” they have faced. But what is “sexy-shaming”?

Similar to “slut-shaming” – “the practice of disparaging women […] for acting in a manner that violates “norms” regarding sexually appropriate behaviour” – “sexy-shaming” applies less to actual or rumoured sexual acts, and more to behaviours that can be interpreted as sexually suggestive, such as certain poses, dance moves and clothing.

These phenomena are all common features of pop performance culture in the modern world, so why the sudden conservative response, and why specifically The Pussycat Dolls?

One argument is age. With a combined average age of 40, the Pussycat Dolls are comparatively ‘old’ in the context of their industry. In contrast to the 419 Ofcom complaints about the girl- band’s recent X Factor performance, parents happily escort their daughters to concerts by the equally scantily clad Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and Little Mix.

As young women, our self- esteem issues are often dismissed by older women who tell us to “appreciate what we have before we lose it”. The other, and equally problematic side of this coin is the perpetuation of the idea that women “lose” something with age, whether it’s beauty, sexuality, or just plain value.

The Pussycat Dolls’ own Ashley Roberts commented to Glamour, “I was told by someone that at my age I should be dressing more conservatively and not as sexy. It made me think, “do I feel that way?” […] We should be able to choose when we want to be sexy.”

Our generation are slightly more amenable to this perspective, as our exposure to Instagram culture and online dating provides us, like The Pussycat Dolls, with an (admittedly less) public stage to express and assert positive female sexuality.

However, it’s easy to see how others, used to equating images of female sexuality to oppression or exploitation, could struggle to recognise empowerment in this pattern of reclamation. In the words of Kimberly Wyatt, “Sometimes the power of a woman scares some people” (Glamour).

Despite the name, The Pussycat Dolls are not five barely clothed girls throwing themselves around on stage like blow-up-dolls. Insanely fit, toned, and flexible, they possess physiques that women in their 20s work long and hard to achieve, never mind post- childbearing 40-year-olds.

Nicole Scherzinger herself has asserted, “When we wear clothes like that we come out as dancers, performers and as warriors […] You don’t see us floundering around out there, you see us killing ourselves.”

Perhaps the problem is not the skimpy nature of their costumes, but the tendency of audiences to take a negative view of female body confidence? Stepping back reveals an impressive display of physical fitness and talent beyond the visuals, one that is disregarded by those who label The Pussycat Dolls “inappropriate”.

Women are endlessly passively sexualised in the entertainment industry. Why shouldn’t The Pussycat Dolls reclaim their sexuality by taking active control over its expression?

Illustration: Frannie Wise