Elle Québec Sarah-Maude Beauchesne cover

Women presenting as both sexy and smart are still controversial in 2022

The photo of Sarah-Maude Beauchesne on the cover of Elle Québec has stirred up some strikingly backwards criticism.

Stand-up comic and writer Léa Stréliski recently shared the front cover of Elle Québec for the month of April on Twitter, letting her followers know she had interviewed the “cover girl,” novelist, screenwriter and actress Sarah-Maude Beauchesne. 

“I love women of words,” Léa wrote. “She’s one of them.”

The cover features Beauchesne wearing a baseball cap and jacket and donning what appears to be underwear, a bikini bottom or short shorts. It’s hard to tell because one of the white sneakers she’s wearing is strategically placed on the chair, showcasing her long naked legs. It’s a conventional glamour shot, with just a soupcon of risqué thrown in — the kind one routinely finds on the cover of a women’s magazine. Beauchesne’s pose is hyper casual, confident, sexy. A young woman comfortable in her own skin.

It took exactly three seconds before someone (a man, unsurprisingly) commented on her appearance. 

“Would it be inappropriate to ask why a woman of words would be photographed with her crotch prominently displayed?”

Beauchesne isn’t flashing her crotch, she’s showing her sneaker. But the idea of a barely concealed vagina was apparently enough to rattle some of you. The author first made a name for herself back in 2010 by writing Les Fourchettes, an unfiltered blog about sex, sensuality and relationships that appealed to young Quebecers. It’s not exactly out of character or in contradiction to whatever brand she’s built so far to be photographed in this fashion. Now in her 30s, the former teen model (and soon-to-be Elle Québec columnist) is enjoying a successful career making the decisions she sees fit to make.

Should a ‘respectable’ woman show skin? 

The Elle Québec cover featuring Sarah-Maude Beauchesne.

What the question, “Should a woman of words be showing her crotch?” was really asking is, “If you want to be taken seriously, should you be presenting yourself in this fashion?” The rhetorical question, of course, is an implicit accusation. The conclusion has already been reached by the person asking it: you can’t possibly be both sexy and respected for your brains — you must choose. If you’re overtly sexy, you won’t be seen as smart. If you’re already smart, why would you need to showcase your sexy? Nowhere in any of these possible scenarios does the element of choice come in. 

Even in Quebec — a place some grudgingly claim is too much of a matriarchy — antiquated, patriarchal expectations persist about what a woman should look like and how a woman should act. We continue to be judged by some strict binary — the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, the sacred or the profane, the virginal or the raunchy, the smart or the sexy. We’re often defined and judged by how much or how little we choose to highlight our sensuality, and, even in “modern, feminist, equal” societies such as ours, people continue to conflate sexuality with morality.

While many found it normal that someone who’s capitalized on writing about sensuality and relationships would pose like this for a cover photo, others found it unnecessarily hypersexualized, taking the focus away from her work and her words. To them, it was degrading, un-feminist, someone of “value” treating themselves as “valueless.”  

These reactions, of course, betray our own issues with the female body, our hang-ups about femininity, shaped by a patriarchal world that both values and penalizes women for their looks. Even in 2022, smart women who are comfortably sexy confuse people. They scare them. They turn them off. To be smart and yet still showcase your sex appeal means you’ll be questioned about your motives, your values, your very own agency. 

“Who decided this for you?” “Who made the decision to ‘sell’ yourself like this, to present yourself in this light?” 

Because, it’s implied, it couldn’t have possibly been you. 

Stop policing women’s bodies

Bill 21 Islamophobia Muslim
Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva

We claim we celebrate women who are liberated, free and confident, yet we squirm when they’re a little too liberated and too comfortable with nudity. We conflate the hyper-sexualization of women imposed by marketing companies and the sexist objectification of women with a woman’s own celebration of her sexuality decided upon solely by the individual who owns that body. 

On the flip side, we say we want women to make their own choices about their bodies, but when a woman decides to freely cover up and wear a hijab, we shout, “No, not like that!” We immediately ignore her own agency, insisting she must be brainwashed, oppressed, a powerless victim who needs our rescuing. Our reductionist perspectives of the hijab (she’s either a religious extremist or a helpless fool) doesn’t allow us to see a woman wearing one as a free human being who’s simply made a different choice. The idea that someone’s physical appearance dictates the kind of person (or professional) they are occasionally affects men, but never to the extent that it dominates women’s lives.

Of course, men, too, suffer from and internalize many stereotypical, limiting measures of what constitutes masculinity (known as toxic masculinity) but not to the extent that women do. When it comes to us, society still has a harder time with contradictions or extremes that shatter our own simplistic, often binary and unidimensional notions about what a woman should be. 

Pretty, but not too pretty. A hint of sexy, but not too sexy. Smart, but not too smart. In shape, but not too muscular. Confident, but not too confident. A go-getter, but not a bossy bitch. Covered up, but not too covered up. Uncovered, but not too uncovered

At its very essence, feminism is about choice — women controlling our own bodies and our own lives. Our own reproductive choices, the choice to have sex (or not) with whomever we choose to, our choice to engage in sex work without conflating it with sex trafficking. Our choice to wear a hijab despite societal pressure to remove it. Our choice to remove it despite societal pressure to wear it. From the minute a woman is the one making the decision, it’s her decision to make. 

Smart and sexy confuses

Julie Lalonde Women presenting as both sexy and smart are still controversial in 2022
Julie Lalonde. Photo by Brendan Brown

The reason people consistently trip over the combination of sexy and smart is because it contradicts deeply held (often, subconscious) beliefs and socialized internalized misogyny about how women are supposed to behave and look. This inevitably creates a tension between beauty and intellect and a knee-jerk reaction even in the most liberated. 

Women’s rights advocate Julie Lalonde, a smart, outspoken woman who’s spent years teaching bystander intervention, also loves high heels and shooting boudoir pictures. She recently revealed that every time she posts sexy pictures on social media, she loses followers. I suspect that some people don’t have a clue what to do with her. They need to slot her in a category and this duality of sexy and smart short-circuits their brains. Does posing in silk stockings and sexy lingerie make her IQ plummet? Not to my knowledge. She continues to be the beautiful, brainy educator I appreciate. Why are the two not allowed to coexist? 

If women capitalize on or freely celebrate their sexiness, they’re seen by some as anti-feminist. If women choose not to cater to any societal expectations of femininity by downplaying or choosing not to amplify their looks, they’re accused of being dowdy, frustrated man-haters. Unless you stick to some extremely limiting, socially acceptable middle space (always defined by others), you will be questioned or criticized. And the clichés abound!

Older women can’t be sexy. Big women can’t possibly be getting laid. Sexy women can’t possibly be smart. Young women can’t possibly have anything of value to say. Smart women can’t possibly be hot. 

Women are like avocadoes, reaching maximum desirability for five glorious minutes on the social acceptability scale and then it’s apparently over. And if we dare show our legs in a fashion photo shoot, we risk undermining our reputation as a woman of substance — or so conventional wisdom dictates. 

Incidentally, Beauchesne is also appearing in a just-launched awareness campaign by the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation, urging young women to take breast cancer seriously. Unsurprisingly, in those images she’s wearing a turtleneck. It’s almost as if she were a complex, multidimensional individual perfectly capable of deciding all on her own when and where she dials up the sexy, and you don’t get a say. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.