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updated 7/11/2008 8:44:50 AM ET 2008-07-11T12:44:50

Sexiness, like love or nostalgia or sinus congestion on a pollen-free day, has a way of sneaking up on us at the most improbable moments.

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How do we account, for example, for that ineluctable feeling of desirability that can come over us when we are traipsing home from the yoga studio in sweaty leggings and flip-flops that reveal more about our pedicure history than we'd like? And how, by the same token, do we explain the ease with which many of us can slip into our most reliably fabulous Balenciaga dress and Louboutin slides and still feel as sexy as a bag of carrots?

There are, of course, as many reasons for this cruel dichotomy as there are ways to feel bad about ourselves.

We can blame hormones, headaches, pimples, bloating, bad moods, bad hair, or bad lighting. We must also consider what it is we're staring into. Mirrors, as all women know, are highly politicized entities. For reasons that I am convinced are more complicated than national health care, it is entirely possible for me to look and feel reasonably hot in front of my own mirror and, less than an hour later, catch a reflection of myself that suggests some shapeless creature from Jim Henson's workshop has borrowed my outfit and copied my hairstyle, and is blithely chatting up my friends, all of whom are too polite to say anything.

There have, of course, been times when I have felt almost unbearably sexy for no apparent or justifiable reason: retrieving the newspaper in pajamas and clogs, standing over the kitchen sink washing dishes, pondering the produce selection at Whole Foods. None of these occasions led to or had anything to do with an actual sex act.

In other words, let's get one thing very clear: The phenomenon I'm discussing has to do with sexiness, not horniness. There is a sizable, if nuanced, distinction. If this were the analogy portion of the SAT, we might say that sexiness is to horniness as epicureanism is to hunger. Whereas lust tends to limit its reach to particular people or stretches of time (and, like hunger, can presumably be sated via fairly standard channels), sexiness is a state of mind. It is inextricably linked to sex as a concept but wholly separate from fornication. Despite our preoccupation with the sexiness of women, sexiness applies to both genders. Despite the youth-centric tyranny of our times, it transcends age. As much about posture and voice intonation as it is about cleavage or skirt length or the dimensions of our posteriors, feeling sexy is, at its root, about owning ourselves. It's being at home in our own skins. No wonder it is so damn elusive.

After all, pretty much anyone can have sex.

Capturing the essence of sex and customizing it to our own needs and tastes is more difficult. Hence, another analogy: Having sex is to being sexy what conceiving a child is to raising a child. The first, age and health permitting, is more or less a biological function. The second is an art: a complicated, ever-evolving process that no two people can possibly do the same way. And just as the parents who are most successful at child rearing are often those who pay the least attention to its fads (heated diaper wipes) and socially constructed paranoias (the idea that the child will suffer due to unheated diaper wipes), women who possess an innate eroticism tend to do the least amount of worrying about how they measure up to popular images of sexiness.

The Unlikely Hot Girl
Enter the Unlikely Hot Girl. We all know at least one of her, more likely several. She's the less than totally attractive woman who mysteriously draws men to her as though she were the last female on a remote tropical island. In other words, men don't simply like her, they want and need her; they require her. It's not that she's ugly. She's just notably imperfect. Maybe she has crooked teeth or substantial hips or a bump on her nose. Maybe her breasts are too small or saggy or possessed of any of the myriad flaws that, here in the Plasticine Age, are avoided only by way of artificial mammary enhancement. Maybe the worst thing we can say about her is that she's not as attractive as we like to think we ourselves are. So why is she being madly pursued by the guy we've met several times but who never remembers our name?

Conventional wisdom might say, "It's the pheromones, stupid!" Most often associated with insects and those intriguing advertisements in the backs of magazines — "Attract the Mate You Want: Order Now!" — pheromones are chemicals that trigger a variety of biological responses. There are pheromones associated with danger from a predator, with the marking of a trail, and with claiming territory. In other words, pheromones are the chemicals released when bees sting, when ants travel to and from their nests, and when dogs urinate on everything they pass.

Notice that none of these examples involve people being asked for their phone numbers in bars. That's because despite the widespread assumption that pheromones are inextricably linked to erotic appeal, there’s a long-standing debate as to whether humans even have them. (William Shatner has said, "I'm told that my pheromone count is very high and that I am just naturally attractive to women and, I think, sexual deviants.")

"The whole notion of human pheromones was a popular thing with psychiatrists in the 1970s," says Mary Roach, author of "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex" (W. W. Norton), which looks at the elaborate lengths researchers have gone to in order to untangle the mysteries of Eros. "But increasingly it looks like a nuts-and-bolts chemical thing. It has to do with the insect world."

Still, as Roach describes in "Bonk," the idea that a human sex hormone can be identified and isolated (and even packaged and sold) has long captured the scientific imagination. In 1971, University of Chicago psychologist Martha McClintock, then a Wellesley College undergraduate, published research suggesting that, thanks to pheromones, women who lived in groups tended to get their periods at the same time each month. That same year, Richard P. Michael, a British behavioral neuroendocrinologist studying rhesus monkeys, professed to have isolated whatever compounds in vaginal secretions cause male monkeys to initiate sex when they sniff them. The assumption was that, due to genetic similarities between primates and humans, the existence of monkey pheromones must prove the existence of human pheromones. Unfortunately, in 1977, when a sample group of married women were asked to apply synthetic rhesus monkey hormones on their chests at bedtime for three months in a row, they reported no change in their husbands' interest level or behavior.

The art of attraction
But that hasn't stopped other researchers from fighting the good fight. In 1986, research biologist Winnifred Cutler and George Preti, a chemist from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research institute in Philadelphia, published data showing that male sweat extracts secreted from sexually active men's armpits promote more fertile menstrual cycles.

Cutler went on to claim that in the same way that women who live together experience a synchronization of their periods, "women with unusually short or long menstrual cycles get closer-to-average cycles after regularly inhaling the male essence." (That essence, according to Cutler, is comprised of male hormones, sweat, and body odor. "You just walk into a male locker room," she told a reporter in 1998. "That's the odor.")

That scent isn't exactly a recipe for feeling like hot stuff. But further research — such as a study suggesting that women who applied armpit secretions donated by other women to their upper lips had sex more often — led Cutler to extrapolate that human pheromones attract members of the opposite sex.

Preti, who now questions some of his and Cutler's research methods and conclusions, is no longer associated with Cutler. Meanwhile, if her name sounds familiar, it may be because her pheromone potions, which include an "aftershave/cologne additive" for men and a "cosmetic fragrance additive" for women, are advertised in magazines and sold on her Web site. The prices: $99.50 and $98.50, respectively, for one sixth of an ounce.

In case you're wondering, I've never heard of anyone experiencing any effects, positive or negative, from mail-order pheromones. Back in 1999, Roach tried them as part of research for an article in the online magazine Salon, and reported that people made more eye contact with her, but only because she was staring at them trying to discern if they felt uncontrollably drawn to her. That's not to suggest that William Shatner doesn't have a "high pheromone count." It's more likely, however, that what he really has is a healthy dose of ego. As we've been told by every self-help author, talk-show shrink, and platitudinous celebrity, the many portals to feeling sexy are accessible via a single key: self-confidence.

"It's all about knowing who you are, about owning yourself," says April Masini, author of "Think and Date Like a Man" (iUniverse), which essentially tells women to stop sabotaging themselves with needless self-loathing. "To any woman who walks into a room and feels too old or not sexy, I have three words: Camilla Parker Bowles," Masini says. "She wasn't as conventionally sexy as Princess Diana. But she got the prince."

Granted, Parker Bowles isn't everyone’s idea of a femme fatale. But the fact that Prince Charles held deeper affections for this relatively ordinary-looking woman than for the princess whose beauty and sex appeal were universally recognized and relentlessly celebrated serves as further proof that what Mom told us is true: namely, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Also, stand up straight. (Diana, for all her loveliness, never mastered that one.)

Sexiness is evanescent
The Unlikely Hot Girl, on the other hand, has the posture of a dancer even if she's zaftig, the smile of a beauty queen even if she has a space between her teeth, and, perhaps most importantly, a fashion sensibility that truly places sensibility over fashion. That is to say, she does not purchase clothes solely on the basis of having seen them on the body of a 16-year-old celebrity. She also, according to author and sexologist Yvonne K. Fulbright, doesn't ignore her flaws so much as embrace them.

"She recognizes that she's sexual and that there's no excuse for how she was made," says Fulbright, who's now an expert on CherryTV, a new video-based Web site focusing on women's sexuality and health. "She's good at channeling her energy to focus on desirable traits."

Moreover, says Fulbright, a lot of Unlikely Hot Girls have figured out how to resist the pervasive cultural message that being sexually attractive requires impersonating a stripper or a porn star. And on that front, their closest allies can be the very forces that less enlightened women live in fear of: age and wisdom.

Mary Roach suggests that the trick to feeling sexy is to tap into the freedom we can feel in a dark bedroom. "In this culture, what's hot is tits and youth," Roach says. "The majority of us don't have enough of one or the other, or either. That's why it’s easy to be sexy in a dark room. In your own mind you can be Jennifer Lopez. But when you walk into a bathroom with unflattering light, it makes you crumple. So perhaps the thing to do is focus on that feeling of having the lights out, of being anything you want to be, rather than thinking about how big your ass is."

That's an interesting angle, but most of us live chiefly in daylight (or, worse, under an unforgiving fluorescent glare), where flaws are relentlessly pointed out and commented upon with an eye toward correcting them. So how do we own our natural sexiness in a world that’s constantly selling us an artificial version of it? Self-confidence is great, but where does it get us in those moments when sexiness, like a name we can't summon at a cocktail party, has escaped our grasp? When our elaborate lingerie stares menacingly at us from the drawer; when we can't accept a lover's compliment; when we're convinced we've lost our looks; when we wish that the Unlikely Hot Girl would, for once, look in the mirror and consider the possibility that she's not all that hot — we need guidance.

What do we do? Perhaps we do nothing. The answer — insofar as there are answers to this fundamentally unsolvable puzzle — is to realize that sexiness, by its very nature, is evanescent. It makes appearances only on the grounds that it will soon disappear. Like a skilled flirt, it always backs down before we start to take its affections for granted. Like a wise teacher, it reminds us that true knowledge means knowing we'll never really know.

True appreciation, on the other hand, is an infinitely worthy goal. Most of us will never feel sexy all the time, or even most of the time. But there's something to be said for taking what we can get — and enjoying it while it lasts.

Copyright © 2012 CondéNet. All rights reserved.

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