The Sexy Problem

By nvk_/Flickr

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

New to Zumba, I love the chance to channel the jump-around-like-crazy energy of my late twenties again—here at fifty. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had with exercise in a very long time. Unlike the pleasingly prescriptive yoga, which makes me feel serene and strong and slightly, hopefully elastic, Zumba is freeing. I jump on my two left feet. I sweat. I even unleash a few long-dormant “woot”s during class.

I’d never imagined the Y to be a sexy place. Others bring the sexy in; I certainly do not. I pretty much jump up and down when hips are supposed to unleash juicy moves I can’t imagine I’ll ever make—or have ever made, for that matter. I am far more at home with that crazy aerobics class energy of my late twenties (late ’80s and early ’90s) than anything so bootylicious. I’ve made it this far as a rounded (physically and metaphorically), strong, terribly self-critical woman.

Other people follow directions better. The class ranges from teen (almost always the good-girl daughters accompanying their cheery moms to class) to white haired ladies, with a few men, gay and straight, sprinkled in. Attire runs the gamut from Ts and shorts, to workout gear, to one woman’s “uniform” of a sundress and bare feet. Like my town, the Y—and the Zumba class—runs casual. At the same time, the most canned of the Zumba songs not only instruct participants to “move your body,” but to “shake your body,” and to feel and inevitably be—or at least channel—S-E-X-Y. The choreography orchestrates hips to shake and gyrate and suggest … things I’m not about to do during or right after class in the non-privacy of my very own kid- and teenager-filled home.

While I don’t want to make those signature moves, I don’t mind them. I’m especially tickled when the twentysomething instructors lead the class—and unleash their playfulness in shiny workout costumes with glitter on their faces. One spacey man half-points and gestures and magically enlists each participant to stand in as leader, like a Zumba whisperer.

In fact, the only time the make-it-sexy aspect of Zumba makes me terribly uncomfortable is when the class is taught by the middle-aged white ladies a.k.a. my peers (neighbors, fellow moms). Yesterday, for example, the teacher wore her carefully blown-out, long hair down. She wore makeup. She wore an ’80s-style cut-up T accompanied by black bike shorts and black Zumba shoes. I wore a skort and tank. Skorts are fun and flippy but decidedly not sexy. During class, I expended my energies in nearly equal parts between exercising and perseverating over the notion that to try to dance sexy at the Y in midlife could be fun, appropriate—not weird, not desperate.

I reminded myself how much I hate the judgy part of me. This woman’s wardrobe, hairstyle, or sexiness is neither my call nor my problem: my discomfort with her is all about me. And my unease isn’t new. Nor is it entirely about age. My peers’ aggressive delivery of sexiness has always made me squeamish. That’s because I’ve never been at ease with any sexy edges in myself. I grew up heavy enough to feel self-conscious, and regardless of pounds on or off, my self-consciousness has never fallen away. I wouldn’t have worn glitter—not in my twenties, not ever. I barely attempted makeup before I had kids. But I’ve never been prim, either: my cardigans aren’t buttoned up to the top and my skirts aren’t necessarily below the knee. Even before the mom-style overtook me, I liked cute clothing that aimed for cute, sweet, innocent sexy—and never a step further. My vanity has always had very strict bounds. I’ve never worn long hair down to an aerobics class. Practicality always won—with flat shoes over heels, clothes that never bind, and silver hair.

When I’m in Zumba class, I feel pretty … fit. After all, I can push myself to jump around for pretty much the entire hour even if I will not shake my booty, merely “jump and bounce.” Here at fifty, a healthy and fit self is my aim—in public. I want to feel pretty. I like to feel capable, or at least strong enough. I want to keep going.

I only want to let sexy out when and where I’m comfortable doing so. That’s in bed with my husband. We’ve got teenagers, teenage sons. Sexy has no other berth here. With teenagers around, my self-image is all about chill, or at least cool enough, slightly batty, and available to help if you need me.

But I’d like to experience the middle-aged ladies’ bids for sexy just as I do the twentysomethings’ bids—as theirs. I’d like to believe that my limitations in class—more jumping and less shaking—could feel as if they aren’t signs of a cop-out. I don’t know that any part of me wants to cultivate my inner-sexy, but I’d like to strut my stuff, on my own terms. If I felt as if I exuded strength and competence and had utter certainty of my beauty… I don’t feel that way, though. The problem with my ideal terms is that they involve a self-confidence that I do not have.

Despite the fact that I don’t possess that self-confidence—and by now, I imagine I might not ever find it—I don’t entirely feel that way. I’m too hard a worker to ever give up entirely. And I do long to experience that exuberant inner-something—if not sexy, then something close. So, as I obsessed about the teacher’s sexy aspirations, I asked myself whether I think that you must check your adult sex-having, sex-seeking, sex-loving self at some imaginary gate when you have children. I don’t. I asked myself whether I believe that you have to give up upon channeling a certain kind of sexy vibe when you reach a certain age. I might, I realized, even though maybe I haven’t even begun to try. I’m not at all sure what sexy looks like at forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five. I don’t know how it translates in this world that equates youth with beauty and sex appeal and power. I wasn’t even thinking I’d contemplate these issues all that much—and certainly not during exercise class at my local Y. But here I am, wondering whether I will surprise myself one of these days—and shake that body.


SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.

Pin It

12 thoughts on “The Sexy Problem

  1. I’m an anthropologist, a nonfiction writer, a wife and a mother of grown up kids.. I’m touching fifty, have bad knees, and guess what? I’m also a zumba instructor. I started doing zumba during one of the darkest periods of my life and believe me, it is hard to gyrate your hips, walk sexy and strut your stuff while choking back tears. What I found as i sweated profusely and my tears and the rivulets of sweat became one constant fluid raining down my face, is that zumba is mightily liberating. It sets my body free from the demands of my mind (middle-aged mother of three with bad knees and a head full of silver hair); it allows my hips to go right and left and right again and in the middle of those turns and those gyrations, I found a woman I didn’t even know I had inside.
    I teach zumba in the middle east. At one of the gyms, the women come all covered in full black-garb, anonymous, impossible to distinguish one from the other. But the moment the music starts, they become something else: fearless, free, whole. Some of them can’t keep up with the music, but they all look like a tribe of sweaty women nobody, nobody wants to mess with. Now, that’s sexy.

    1. Love this! All of it! On a non-literary note, if one were to try and do this at home (owing to one’s writer’s life penury) what video serious might aforementioned one pursue?

  2. Zumba whisperer! No one will understand why I’m laughing an hour from now when my Zumba instructor wordlessly enlists class participants to lead the class. I love this essay. You know, I’ve felt this sort of bemused unsexiness since my mid-twenties, when my foray into Latin hip-hop cardio confirmed that I am neither Latin nor hip. Maybe it’s as much about being a writer-observer as it is about age.

  3. It’s amazing how sexuality is such a significant part of our whole person, but we compartmentalize it out of necessity. The pleasure of being sexy on my own terms and its importance to my well-being plummeted when I became a parent. It takes energy to be sexy, even if it’s just from a natural glow and a pair of decently-fitting jeans. Sarah, I enjoy how your essay is making me question what sexiness is in the first place. Like real, everyday sexy. Not magazine sexy.

  4. I can do without most of the Zumba lyrics, and I don’t pay much attention to sexy or not, but those gyrations seem to really loosen this 5o+ lower back…

  5. Zumba totally freaks me out — even saying the word brings eye rolls from my own teenage sons. I admire you for embracing it and feel inspired to maybe, just maybe, try it myself! I especially loved this sentence: “With teenagers around, my self-image is all about chill, or at least cool enough, slightly batty, and available to help if you need me.”

  6. Life begins when the last kid goes to college and the dog dies. So does sex. Much to look forward to! The sixties are a new Renaissance — wait and see!

Comments are closed.