With pop culture infusing sexy into his first-grade daughter, Tom Burns tries to explain what he can’t.
When I became a dad, I tried to prepare myself for all of the stereotypically “difficult” questions that are supposed to arise when you have a kid. I researched “Why is the sky blue?” I lurked in parent forums where they debated how best to respond to “Am I going to die one day?” I even practiced, what I thought was, a refreshingly honest (and physiologically accurate) response to “Where do babies come from?” But, of course, as any parent can tell you, children are ninja masters at knowing exactly how to knock even the most confident of parents off-balance, which is exactly how I felt when my six-year-old daughter casually asked me one day, “Dad, do you think I’m sexy?”
The speed with which I blurted out “NO!” was pretty staggering, as if I was being timed on my response time. Even though we were sitting in our own kitchen, I frantically looked around for incriminating witnesses and fought a strong urge to ask my daughter if she was wearing a wire.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked as nonchalantly as I could. “Do you know what it means?”
“I dunno,” she shrugged. “Like ‘Am I sexy?’”
“But what do you think that word means?”
She paused. “Maybe like ‘hot.’ Like ‘good-looking’. Never mind.”
And with that – she walked away. Like any good bomber pilot, she didn’t need to see her payload detonate to instinctively know that she’d hit her target.
The sad thing was I didn’t even need to ask her where she’d heard the word “sexy.” Oddly enough, “sexy,” as a term, gets thrown around first graders WAY more often than you’d think.
As a veteran of a few grade-school sock-hops and at least one daddy-daughter dance, I can tell you that songs like LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style” are definitely dance mix favorites in almost every elementary school around the world. And, I speak from experience, kids go NUTS for those songs. They can’t get enough of them. “Sexy and I Know It” gets the kids’ blood pumping, lets them swagger a bit. They get to say crazy words like “Lefreak” and, eventually, they get to “Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.” It’s like an infinitely hipper version of the “Chicken Dance.”
“Gangnam Style” taps into that same dance music craziness vibe, but it distinguishes itself by making “sexy” one of the only five or so English words in the entire song. Thus, with the help of a wacky video and the power of pure repetition, “Gangnam Style” just burns the word “SEXY” into the brain of every kid who hears it. It’s definitely a little creepy. (Believe me, you haven’t properly contemplated the downfall of Western civilization until you’ve witnessed a gym full of grade-schoolers doing The Pony in unison as they all moan out “Heeeyy, sexy lady” over and over again.)
I don’t find the ubiquitousness of the word “sexy” with young children creepy because I’m a prude. (Again, my kid has a solid scientific understanding of where babies come from.) But it’s just such a loaded, abstract word to throw at a child. I’m not thrilled that my six-year-old uses the word “hot,” but that’s a fairly easy term to explain. While “hot” might imply a level of erotic passion that I’m not going to get into with a first grader, saying that the word “hot” is roughly equivalent to “really good-looking” isn’t that much of a reduction. It might omit some details, but it’s still accurate.
However, saying that “sexy” equals “good-looking” – that’s not accurate at all. If something is sexy, it implies a certain level of arousal or excitement on the part of whoever’s using that word. And, while I’ll concede that first-graders can have definite opinions about whether they find a person handsome or pretty, I’m fairly certain that they’re not becoming physically aroused by that “sexy lady” twirling her hand in perfect sync with everyone else in the school gym.
“Sexy” is a great word, a powerful word. When you understand the emotions and drives behind that word, you can totally understand why it can be used to describe everything from sports cars to Marvin Gaye songs to people whom you don’t find particularly attractive, but whom definitely seem to push the right buttons for someone else. But it is, at its core, an achingly complex word, which is why I rankle when it’s used so casually around children.
That said, most societal attempts to keep the word away from kids are fairly pathetic. Kidz Bop offers cleaned-up, re-recorded versions of most popular songs, but most are so offensively bad on an aesthetic level, if given a choice, I’d probably rather just let my kid hear the naughty words. My kid’s elementary school actually has a school policy regarding Psy’s “Gangnam Style” – which is bizarre in and of itself – a policy that dictates that, if a kid is singing the song at school, the teachers require the child to change the lyrics from “Heeey, sexy lady” to “Heeey, it’s the latest.” (Honestly.)
I was laughing about that while talking to a good friend who lives in Sheffield, England, when he informed me that his daughter’s school has the kids change the lyric to “Heeey, sausage lady,” which is apparently British slang for “lunch lady.” The “Heeey, sausage lady” revision should win some kind of award for being both a million times more surreal than Psy’s original lyrics and for trying to fight the pervasiveness of the word “sexy” by bludgeoning it to death with an even worse unintentional double entendre.
So, as a parent, what are my options? “Sexy” is, unfortunately, now a vocabulary word for first-graders. Do I lie about what the word means or do I bludgeon my kid with a level of context that I simply don’t think she’s ready for?
In the end, I picked something in the middle, which is a nice way of saying, deep-down, I probably feel like I punted it. The next time my daughter mentioned the word “sexy,” I asked her again, as non-confrontationally as I could, if she knew what it meant. When she shrugged, I told her that it meant that you thought something looked really, really good. But I stressed that it didn’t mean you were just talking about someone’s appearance. I said “sexy” meant that something was appealing, that you wanted it, that it made you excited.
I said that some people could find roller coasters “sexy.” Other people could find ice cream “sexy.” I said that, when Psy sang “Heeey, sexy lady”, that probably meant he was really excited about that lady. He really liked her and was excited to do stuff with her. (I honestly said “do stuff with her.” May the gods forgive me.) That was the only part of the conversation where I really felt like I was flat-out lying to her, but, more than anything, I didn’t want her to only connect the word “sexy” with the word “sex” in her mind. Because, even though they’re tied together, those two terms don’t always have to go hand-in-hand. Most of all, I didn’t want my daughter’s perception of what the world regards as “sexy” to influence her attitudes or opinions about her own sexual identity – her sexual identity, which will eventually emerge, YEARS FROM NOW, when she stops being a pre-sexual minor.
After a while, our conversation skidded to a halt. Wanting somehow to make more of an impact than I was making, I said, “It’s a mostly an adult word. I know kids hear it, but it’s a word for adults.” My daughter picked up on the subtext and gave me a nod, silently acknowledging that she knew I was implying that she should be careful about who heard her using that word.
It felt like a cop-out and it was. But, at the very least, through my non-sexual attempts to explain the word “sexy”, I think I conveyed to my daughter that “sexy” was a loaded word – a word that parents couldn’t explain easily. And, by confirming to my daughter that the word had such power, I ensured that both a). she would use it more carefully and b). that she would never, EVER forget it.
Ultimately, as a parent, all I could do was engage with my daughter, acknowledge that she knew the word, and attempt to place “sexy” into context, albeit as vaguely as possible. I think she probably left the conversation with a sense that a word like “sexy” was a mystery to her, an enigma that would eventually be revealed to her one day, possibly around the same time she could drive or buy her own clothes. And I’m fine with that, because that’s actually fairly accurate.
The world is a weird, confusing landscape for young kids, filled with everything from eccentric Korean pop stars to the sausage ladies of England. They’re confronted with the mysteries of the universe every day of their lives, so occasionally acknowledging that a word like “sexy” sometimes has to remain one of those mysteries isn’t the end of the world.
But, at the very least, questions like “Am I sexy?” are great reminders that, as parents, one of our most important responsibilities is to provide CONTEXT for our children. If you think “Am I sexy?” is a hard question to answer as an adult, think about how confusing that question must be for a kid. Even if you fail miserably and give the least sexy definition of the word “sexy” ever—like I did—ANY attempt to rein in the chaos and complexity of that term for a younger audience, in my opinion, is a positive step forward. It’s a step towards, one day, a long time from now, everyone involved reaching a deeper understanding of why such a powerful, loaded word is used in so many desperately catchy and painfully silly songs.