Catherine Zeta-Jones's take-no-prisoners oomph. George Clooney's let's-do-it eyes. Hugh Grant's crooked smile. Halle Berry's everything. n It's exhausting to think that we have to measure up to all that exceptional, multimagnified sex appeal. All of it so inaccessible, so expensive (what, no stylist? no trainer? no designer?), and so frankly impossible. Any sensible woman would conclude that you might as well pull up your faded comforter, grab some chocolate, and give up the idea of anybody ever finding you irresistible.
Please don't. Please consider that being irresistible is more a matter of interest and appetite than of anything else. You can forget about becoming everyone's physical ideal. Everyone has their preferences, their weaknesses, and even their hang-ups (even this author). There's nothing you can do about that. If he's mad for tall blondes and you're a short brunette, don't rush out for Clairol and three-inch heels. There's a better way. And forget about miniskirts (unless they look not only good but effortless on you). Forget about Are You Hot? and Lil' Kim and cleavage-to-there magazine covers; that stuff works only if you have all the equipment and not too much self-respect, and really, only if you have all the equipment. And if you do, you will of course wind up spending time with a guy who prefers the all-you-can-eat buffet to the great gourmet meal, and that might not be so much fun. But...irresistible is something else. It transcends the physical (not that the physical ever hurts—and your mother didn't lie; good posture is a plus), it plays fast and loose with the psychological, and it makes the world a bigger, more entertaining, more filled-with-possibilities place.
I have had two irresistible friends. One was a fat old man with plenty of minor illnesses, and despite qualities one and two, I can't count the number of times I had to push past attractive women of all ages to get to him. He wasn't rich, he wasn't powerful, but he had, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, nothing to declare but his genius for making every woman feel she was a hidden treasure. He listened, he flirted, he responded openly; he made married women feel that he envied their husbands and that only magnificent self-restraint kept him from throwing himself at their feet; he made single women feel that if he didn't so love his wife, he would make a fool of himself. Even when he was single, he managed to suggest, when flirting, that although there were some obvious, insurmountable impediments to true happiness for him and his current dinner partner/companion on the plane/ chance encounter in the bookstore, this moment, this hour or two, would always be one of the great pleasures of his life. He was unafraid to show interest, and even more, he was willing to show desire. He was willing to reveal that he was...willing. It was not a power struggle or a game or any kind of exploitation; it was a beautiful, charming dance, and it made his partners (whether for the evening or a long friendship) feel that they had been given a gift, however they chose to respond.
My other friend was only slightly more likely a player: a stocky, singularly unglamorous lesbian bartender. Like my older friend (and I'm sorry they didn't meet, but where would that have left me?), she understood that Venus, as Ovid wrote, favors the bold. She not only understood it, she had it made into a sampler hung above her enormously successful bar. And how did she come to own that bar? A devoted husband and wife, objects of her flirtatious affection and staunch friendship, bought it for her and, after spending $30,000, still felt they got the better end of the bargain because they had a great place to hang out and plenty of time to spend with her. She made men, gay and straight, feel that the only time she ever regretted being a lesbian was in their presence. She made old folks know she valued their wisdom and that it was a joy, at the end of a day, to move at a slower pace; she made young people feel they were the flowers of the world and she was delighted to admire them. And women—she made every woman she liked, gay and straight, feel that her presence was a joy, a brightening of the world. Her face lit up when she saw you, and that radiance made her beautiful. She never hesitated to say that she found someone irresistible; she never shied away from attraction or the vulnerability that sometimes comes with it; she was never desperate or needy; she flirted from a happy abundance of love and lust, not a lack of either, and so she was our Lady Bountiful, our irresistible force, and at her funeral beautiful women, handsome men, famous poets—and her devoted companion—all wept as if their hearts would break.
And then there's appetite: The thing women are not supposed to have (except in music videos, and then it's so clearly on display for the benefit of the viewer that I don't get any idea what Madonna or Christina Aguilera or Eve really wants for herself). You can fake blonde. You can fake tan. You can even fake sexy—for a while. What you can't fake is the real and unmistakable scent and feel of someone who actually likes...sex. You can't fake that Bessie Smith growl, the easy warmth of someone who wants a little sugar in her bowl and who is prepared, under the right circumstances, to have and give a very good time. Who would you rather have dinner with: the flour-fearing vegan or the happy omnivore who looks on dessert as a special occasion, not a torment? So it is with sex. Shame, guilt, and aversion are not attractive to most people. Confidence and an adult appreciation of pleasure—and of the amazing human machine, which despite imperfections and wear and tear, can do such a glorious job of delivering it—is appealing. People who know that and show that they do are simply irresistible.
The heart of sexual energy is making others feel beautiful, wanted, clever, charming, making them see themselves in the warm, pink light of our unembarrassed attention and allowing some of the flattering light to fall on ourselves, our strong points, and our frank interest. It isn't the tenacious, almost hostile, approach of the lonely man or woman who is only a step away from turning on us if we disappoint. It isn't breaking up marriages or insulting one's spouse. It is embracing the world and the people in it; it is embracing desire and attraction as sources of pleasure rather than shame, and appreciating what we have to offer as well as what they, the lucky objects of our desire, do.
Amy Bloom is the author of Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (Random House).