Emboldened by tumbling taboos and enabled by advancing technologies, women are going well beyond Botox in the quest to enhance their appearance and explore their sensuous side.
Erotic accouterments, cosmetic enhancements and activities once blushingly associated with Playboy playmates and exotic dancers now comfortably fit into the repertoire of corporate lawyers and soccer moms. Even the most intimate cosmetic surgery is as easily accessible and openly discussed as an episode of "Desperate Housewives."
Some consider this a healthy reawakening of the seductress innate in every female. Others bemoan it as further evidence of the over-sexualization, or "stripperization," of American girls and women.
Either way, it's happening, it's proliferating and it's a growing business.
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Out of the strip clubs and into the strip malls, classes in striptease and pole and lap dancing are popping up around the country for women who want to learn to look hot while they burn calories.
On June 18, Toronto-based Flirty Girl Fitness made its U.S. debut in Chicago's West Loop, kicking off what it plans as a national franchise chain featuring such classes as "Chair Striptease," "Hottie Body Boxing," "Booty Beat" and, of course, pole dancing.
"I've had doctors, attorneys, pharmacists, police officers and housewives. Women from 19 through 68 take my classes," said Mary Ellyn Weissman, owner and instructor of Empowerment Through Exotic Dance Ltd. in Chicago Heights.
And then there are matters of intimate personal grooming. In 21st Century America, young women increasingly favor body waxing to remove pubic hair in styles ranging from the barely there "Brazilian" to its extreme cousin, the "full Brazilian." Some apply hair dye as well.
Nancy Jarecki, founder of betty beauty inc. "the first-ever color for the hair down there," has sold nearly 100,000 units of her growing line of betty color kits since the New York company marketed its first product last September. This fall, betty is to launch in Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands, Jarecki said.
California surgeon David Matlock, a pioneer in so-called boutique cosmetic gynecologic laser surgery, has developed the trademarked Designer Laser Vaginoplasty cosmetic procedure for women unhappy with the external appearance of their genitalia and the Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation technique to tighten vaginal tissue. The surgeries average one hour and cost between about $6,000 and $8,000. Both procedures are marketed as enhancing women's sexual experience.
Increasingly, women, particularly Boomers, are interested in reviving sensuality that may have wilted under the pressures of work and family.
"This started, I think, in the late 20th Century, and it has ratcheted up. That's what is really interesting to explore: Why is it women are so willing to invest time and energy and money in everything from coloring their nipples to decorating their pubic hair and, then, changing their genitals?" asked social historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a professor emerita of human development and gender studies at Cornell University and author of "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls."
She cited two factors. Over the past 25 years the concepts of beauty and health have become conflated. For example, the idea that being thin is not only "beautiful," but "healthy," she said.
"I also think there is a demographic thing here. More and more American women expect to be gorgeous and sexual athletes into their 80s," she said. "It's great."
But is it realistic? Many women seem willing to try. Stacey Smith, a Chicago police officer, is one of them. Smith loves her pole-dancing classes at Weissman's Chicago Heights studio.
"It's a blast. I dress like a man every day. I wear men's clothes, and I work with mostly men. Then I come home, and I'm mommy to four. And I'm a master's student in public safety administration. So, I don't have a whole lot of time to be feminine. This kind of helps to get your sensuality back, not to mention physical fitness," she said.
"Another influence is just hitting menopause. They're trying to fight back. We all know we need to work out more as we reach menopause," said Weissman, 47. "What better way to do it than kill two birds with one stone and reclaim our sensuality?"
Kerry Knee, 36, who founded Flirty Girl Fitness in December 2005 with her 32-year-old sister Krista, agrees. "I think every single woman, I don't care who she is, how old she is, wants to be sexy. They want to be thought of as sexually attractive creatures, but no one ever teaches you how to do that," she said, noting she finds the increase in confidence among clients striking.
Jarecki, a movie producer, came up with the betty product line after watching Roman women leave hair salons with doggie bags of dye for their nether regions. Her best-selling kit is FUNbetty, a hot pink hue particularly popular in Middle America, she said, adding, "Who knew?"
"Our new demographic is older people. People are dating again and at an older age," said Jarecki, noting many buy betty not "just for the gray, but for fun."