Can you help me figure out how to modify my behavior so that I put out a more sexy/flirty (but not desperate) vibe, and less of the quirky-best-friend-just-there-for-comic-relief vibe I’m currently broadcasting? I’ve worked really hard to get my male peers to see me as an equal (e.g., by not showing off my body in any way) because I’d rather that any guy—friend or romantic interest—be interested in my brains, not my body. But obviously what I’m doing isn’t working, because I am never seen as a romantic prospect, and I really want to change this, because I want to start dating. How can I move into this new state of being without compromising my personality or my values? —I Can’t Stand Being Called “Cute” One More Time

OK, here’s how you know I’m on your team and that I’m gonna try to be as straight with you as possible, my friend: I didn’t open this answer with some bullshit joke like “Hey there, cutie!” So I hope you can trust my continued frankness as I get one thing out of the way here at the start: The kind of dude who thinks females are vapid or otherwise unequal to him if they choose to show skin is not your peer. He is actually beneath you and/or whatever person he is unfairly holding in contempt for making her own choices about her clothes. If you prefer to keep yourself covered for your own reasons, that’s rad and you should do you, but it won’t somehow subtract from your cumulative banked intelligence if you decide to subtract some inches from your neck- or hemlines at any point in the future. The myth of being either “sexy” by showing skin OR smart/funny/kind/otherwise a person with subjectivity and character traits is just not true to life. Please do not, under any circumstances, read this as my being judgmental or saying, “SO JUST TAKE YER SHIRT OFF ALREADY,” as I want you to make yourself happy and comfortable in everything you do, including but not limited to getting dressed. I just had to bring it up before we get involved in the answer you actually asked for, because I don’t want you to look at your or other girls’ bodies and feel anything even tangentially related to shame, ever.

Now, on to your question: I spent many of my early teenage years feeling like I was always the sidekick, never the…not…side…person (I am a ~very eloquent writer~, I know) and scheming about how I could solve that. I detail parts of what I (and other Rookie staffers) learned about the sacred art of ssseduction in this piece, but it seems like you’re asking more for ideas about how to change your image than suggestions about how to pick people up. The first thing I’d like to suggest to you is not very original, but it’s the only thing that I know for sure about making people want to be around you: Being happy, fulfilled, and confident in who you are on your own makes people want to be around ya, and that includes dudes who are looking to date you up. That’s not very SEXXXY, I know, but it’s the gol-durned truth, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you know, first and foremost, that having a life that you actively like, regardless of who else is up in it, is the most attractive thing that there is. The thing about people is that they’re actually really impressionable: If you tell them that you’re rad just by BEING rad in front of their faces, they’ll agree—and then, sometimes, ask you out for ice cream floats or what have you.

But I know that this is the kind of thing you can hear and know to be correct but not actually feel until you’re ready to feel it, so let’s look at some other, quicker ways to project confidence and babe-itude into the world without having to do a top-down self-esteem overhaul. One thing that makes me feel good about how I’m presenting myself to the world is feeling “done up” in terms of how I look when I leave the house. This doesn’t necessarily mean I’m wearing a slinky sex-jumpsuit (not sure if this is a thing, but whatever) with perfectly blow-dried hair and a full face of makeup—just that I look like the person I picture myself as on my best days. Sometimes this means I’m wearing an apron over my skirt because I think it looks cool, or I did my eyeliner in that weird and awesome way I saw online and kept wanting to try. For you, it might mean doing a cool braid or a red lip. What makes you feel polished or put-together? Do those things! People can tell when you know you look good, regardless of how covered-up you want to be as part of that. And remember how said people are mad impressionable? GO FORTH AND IMPRESS THOSE HANDSOME DOPES WITH YOUR INIMITABLE STYLE AND PANACHE, ALREADY!

As far as changing up your actual interactions go, I have two words for you: BREEZY TOUCHING. These are subtle, casual moments of contact where you put your hand on someone’s arm while you’re emphasizing a point or lightly grazing their leg with yours under the table when someone in class says something dumb but you can’t laugh out loud about it. BTs shouldn’t feel invasive or forced, but should instill the idea in your love-target’s mind that you could potentially be flirting with her/him—or maybe not! Maybe you’re just affectionate! They don’t know!!—but they’ll probably want to, nahmean? When deployed correctly, BTs can work wonders. Probably stay away from butt-based BTs at first, though, unless you happen to be Tina Belcher (in which case, get it, girl).

The final part of alla this for me, which also relates to the “desperation” aspect of your quandary, was learning that some parts of my personality, when I turn them on full-blast right away, can be a little unsettling to other people. For example, when I like someone in a romantic way, it’s all I can do to not be like HEY HI WHAT’S UP DO YOU WANT TO SEE ME RIGHT NOW I KNOW IT’S 12:41 AM BUT I MISS YOU I CAN JOG OVER TO YOUR HOUSE REAL QUICK all the time, because I’m egregiously enthusiastic about the things and people I like, once I like them. I had to learn to curb that impulse—not entirely, just enough to convince people that I wasn’t, in fact, an eternally available and desperate backup plan if they didn’t have anyone else to hang out with (I spent a lot of time as the “best friend” of dudes I was desperately in lust with as a young teenager). Being self-aware about that aspect of my personhood was definitely an enormous factor in my going from,”Huh. Why didn’t he return my 12 caps-locked IMs?” as I did when I was adolescin’, to having a normal and not way-too-intense-right-away interaction with whatever Love Hottie I had my bugged-out eyes on at the time. Once I got more familiar with someone, I could show them that part of me more fully without scaring him or her away.

You are probably not as overeager as I was, but is there a (generally wonderful) personality trait of yours that you notice changes the interactions you’re having from potentially date-spawning to just “friendly”? Are you quick to jokily put yourself down when someone pays you a compliment, or can you not help correcting people when their grammar is less than sterling? You might be sabotaging yourself without realizing it, so sometimes it’s helpful to examine the ways in which you interface with people and check out their reactions. It was only when I took a very clear-eyed look at how my crushes were responding (or, more often, not responding) to my chronic over-communication was I able to rein it in. Be your own LUV DETECTIVE, and you might figure out what the friends-only deal is on your own.

So that’s what I’ve got for you: Go into the world feeling fresh as hell as only you know how, BT (but refrain from the B[UT]T), don’t text/IM away your dignity, think about what you’re projecting to people and whether you even care what they think, don’t spend time with dummies who police other people’s clothing, and, if all else fails, go have an ice cream float on your own, because it’ll taste just as good and make you probably even happier than 98% of dudes, anyway. —Amy Rose