Thursday, March 18, 2010

Underwear: What's Feminism Got to Do With It?

Yep, that's right. We're talking about underwear today.

Feminists are often (oh-so-condescendingly) called bra-burners as a result of a certain women's lib event in 1968, but did you know that this famed bra-burning never actually happened? In reality, protesters at the Miss America pagaent theatrically dumped symbolic items of women's oppression into a bin they called the "Freedom Trash Can." (Which actually shows quite a sense of humor, don't you think?) There was at least one bra among the items, as well as girdles, high heels, and pornographic magazines. But not a single thing was lit aflame - nor was it ever intended to be.

According to the women who were there, the fact that what lives on from this day is an insulting, nonfactual term for a very real movement is the most maddening thing of all. This article posits that the legend of bra-burning is a media-driven myth, and a mocking one at that. Bras were actually never meant to be a universal symbol of the women's movement (thank goodness).

Today's topic is a result of the comments on my last retro lingerie post, in which a few insightful readers asked how I consider myself a feminist and still wear constricting foundation garments. Excellent question!

I bring up the mythical bra-burning, because like the feminists who were there and saw what really happened, I get a little weary of certain items somehow becoming universal symbols of women's oppression. A girdle is a girdle, and yes, you can imbue it with characteristics of subjugation, or you can choose to just think of it as a piece of material with a certain sartorial purpose. However, the real answer is probably somewhere in the middle ground between those two extremes.

But the sticking point for me is trying to think of an undergarment as either feminist or not. What is feminism, after all? The movement for women's equality. And yes, an uncomfortable girdle can certainly keep one from feeling liberated (believe me, I've been there). But a girdle cannot work for women's freedom or detract from it on its own. Here in the U.S., a group in Utah was recently trying to pass legislation that would make miscarriage a punishable crime on par with homicide. Now THAT is anti-feminist.

I think the mythical bra-burning has sunk into our collective conscience more than we can really know. Hence the reason things like Spanx become major points of conversation in the feminist arena. But isn't this all a sort of sideshow that distracts from the major issues?

In terms of body image issues, I think the question is a trickier one and its connection to feminism is tenuous. But it boils down to this: Can women truly love and accept our bodies if we're trying to Spanx them into an oppressive ideal? I think it depends on the person and the motive. If you're a size 10 and you desperately want to believe that you're a size 8 so you squeeze into a too-tight foundation garment to look like you think you should look, then yeah. You're probably not feeling the body-acceptance love. But if you have a dress that could benefit from a smoothing or shaping garment and you don't have crazy expectations of what it's going to do for you and your self-image, I think that seems like a healthier approach. What doesn't seem healthy is feeling like a bad feminist if you want to experiment with different foundation garments.

As for how this all relates to sewing? Well, in the making of my last two pencil skirts, I've found that the fit is so good that there's no reason I would need a bodyshaper. Yet another point for sewing as a body-positive activity!

What do you all think? I know you'll have some opinions on this one!


  1. I think it's also important to recognize one of the fundamental aspects of feminism here: choice. It's not the 1950s. You're not forced to wear constricting undergarments by virtue of their ubiquitous availability and the lack of options to buy anything else. You're not wearing it in a context where it takes on metaphorical significance in comparison to the societal restrictions in your life. In short, you're a) cognisant of the history that comes with it, but b) are able to own that history and make it a positive choice for yourself.

    Frankly, I'm not seeing much of a difference between wearing 1950s lingerie that is physically oppressive and 1950s fashion that might be much more symbolically oppressive, so I'm surprised people here might have a problem with one and not the other. Reclaiming the things that have oppressed us in the past is often a common tool in many equality movements.

  2. You're right, some of these things have become huge symbols and it's hard to look past that. Even full skirts. I remember Erin from A Dress a Day mentioning that some people assume she's not a feminist because she dresses so 1950s.

    My personal view is, I do not appreciate having to defend my leg-shaving/makeup-wearing/bra-padding habits (thankfully, this rarely happens!). I am an educated, vocal feminist, I am aware of the associated issues, I do have some body-image issues which I deal with the way I see fit, and I can damn well look the way I please.

    I mean, if people's point is that you don't HAVE to wear girdles, well, you're aware of that. You've chosen to anyway. End of story.

    (I love the picture you posted! These women look like they're having fun.)

  3. Well, the difficulty of differentiating your self-worth as a person from your worth to others as a pleasant body to look at is historically a feminist issue, as is the degree to which disciplining the body into a sexualized shape is mandatory or expected. There were women in the 1950s who didn't wear a girdle and went around the world in a loose-fitting housedress and sensible shoes - there weren't girdle police going door to door. We all know that social pressure works in much more subtle ways then that. I imagine the way it worked is that they were judged and expected to feel bad about themselves, just the way we're supposed to feel bad about ourselves if the tissue-thin polycotton currently in vogue reveals to the world that our bodies are not perfectly smooth from head to toe. Given that we live in a world where women are expected to perform prettiness and discipline their bodies to conform to other people's desire to look at them no matter what, I've always found emphasizing ideological differences over specific non-injurious ways of performing "pretty" to be splitting hairs. There. That's my academic answer, which is probably a bit tl;dr for this early in the morning!

  4. As a sahm I have to believe the feminism is about choice since at first glace my life could fit in the 1950s. Though not if someone took a closer look at how my husband and I actually parent. That was not the question though.

    As for undergarments. I recently went in for a bra fitting and got 3 nice bras that lift the girls back up to where the good lord put them to begin with and boy does that make me feel better. I don't currently have spanks that fit bc of dramatic weight loss but I'm sure I will again. Sometimes I just feel better if I don't jiggle and there are some parts after 2 kids and a good 15 years of obesity that will always jiggle unless I have plastic surgery. Personally I'd rather put on a girdle from time to time.

  5. p.s. After all, I say to myself, is being expected to diet life-long and spend all one's time at the gym doing cardio so that one's un-girdled, liberated body can look good without support garments really that liberating? Because it sure seems like restricting the body harshly to me.

    (On a related tangent - oh, I should stop typing before coffee - leaving fast fashion off the table, I think a more gender-equal planet wouldn't think fashion was silly women's business, anyway - I think if quirky self-presentation wasn't so gendered, and wasn't imbued with so many gendered power dynamics, there wouldn't be this weird refusal to treat it as a basic art of living instead of a female whim. Okay, now I have to have coffee and stop running my mouth on this thread, which is very interesting to me.)

  6. Gertie, you know the Utah governor recently signed that bill into law. But that's another rant ...

    At my age, I appreciate the smoothing-of-jiggles from Spanx and control-top pantyhose. Like others have said, feminism is about choice ... usually! (I'd like to be a SAHM, but I've been the breadwinner for almost 10 years. Not what I'd planned!)

  7. Back a million years ago when I was a wee lass in 8th or 9th grade, my history teacher made us do projects for National History Day.

    Mine took me to the national level in DC.

    It was about the role of women's fashion through the ages, and how it reflects the relative amount of freedom that they experienced. I had lovely little drawings of the decades, and barbie dolls all dressed up. I didn't *specifically* go into underwear, but it was touched upon in the accompanying paper.

    So, you know, I kind of have to point out that clothing CAN be a reflection of women's liberty. After all, if you can't wear pants, how are you going to be a plumber???

  8. i'm always so torn on this subject. i feel two ways about it.

    on one hand, i feel like nothing is more feminist than having the choice to wear what you want. if you wanna wear it, then wear it, and make no apologies for it.

    on the other hand, when it comes to shape wear, i know i used to wear it because i didn't feel slim enough. that is when it becomes a bit, i dunno how to say it, anti-feminist.

    we are subjected everyday, wether we recognize it or not with images of "ideal", picture perfect women. what i find sad, and a tad oppressive is when we women, in that moment of feeling inadequate, roll on our spanx to feel better.

    i like that we have the option to wear it. i like that it makes us feel better when we look lump free under our clothing. (and you are right, some clothing calls for it) but at the end of the day we are hit with a dose of sad reality the minute we have to take the garment off. "oh yeah that's right, i'm wobbly and lumpy." "i'm not angelina jolie, my body is not perfect." :)

    while men may feel a bit of pressure to stay slim, or appear slim, there's a reason why spanx for men isn't a reality. their bodies aren't, and never have been held to the same standards as ours have.

    and therein lies our current culture of a quiet oppression. we may not be required to wear corsets like we used to. however, if our bodies, makeup, hair, or clothing are imperfect in any way, we are made aware of this. through the media, through music, and even through the people we know. i'm sure we all have that friend who feels the need to tear down another woman for her appearance behind her back.

    as women our bodies are scrutinized, by everybody. especially ourselves. and once again, that is why i'm torn on the topic. if it makes you feel better than do it. but if it makes you feel anything but good, maybe wearing certain garments should be reconsidered.

    and let me also say. i could never, would never, have never go without my bras. i am a d cup, and that would hurt. if i magically shrunk a drastic amount, then yes i would happily give up my bras, but until that day comes, my bras are staying right with me.

  9. What kept coming to mind for me was the flip side of the coin - what do men's clothes say about men's liberation (or societal roles)? Does the restriction to only certain tones of 5 colours reinforce the pressure not to express oneself emotionally? Not being able to wear skirts and dresses and trim reinforce the pressure not to express oneself creatively? And if men today go against the current casual trend and wear 3 piece suits, are they accused of wanting to bring back the days when men didn't swear and had to bring home the whole pay cheque?

  10. I need my bra, it's not a question of freedom, it's about health!!!(at least for me).

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  12. "I can damn well look the way I please" yes! Thank you! I know I am going on a tangent here but, I am so sick of older men telling me to "smile" like happiness or contentment was something I had misplaced. It's not my job to keep there spirits lifted by being the happy, care-free, pretty younger woman, I am not a public art display for your viewing pleasure, this is my face and I will do with it what ever I like.

    Also what Krista said. I think the reason why spanx for men hasn't exploded onto the market, because they do exist, is because the majority of men are too unsure or uneasy about doing anything that would associate them with being fem. Remember the uproar about men wearing pink or washing their faces with products made for the face, and that was in the middle of the metro-sexual movement and queer eye was the best show on tv. That era has passed.

    Also I know that the word choice is used a lot when it comes to the feminist movement but the word reminds me too much of neo-liberalism and neo-capitalists which I find to be very unfeminist idea's. I like the word decide a lot more. Men make decisions about their career, but women choose.

  13. I recently read that the bra-burning never occurred. But yes, it's been turned into something that just proves "those crazy feminists" are, yes, "crazy."

    It probably is something to do with choice and the first commenter said. I remember reading about the undergarments worn on set of Mona Lisa Smile and being truly astonished. At the same time, there is something very nice about the whole polished "vintage" look and maybe it's hard to pull off without those undergarments. But the reason I like vintage looks is not for some "idealized" 50s world (that never existed, either, by the way) but just the contrast with clothing today, and that goes as much for men as women. All these things are a matter of degrees aren't they? Care for appearance vs. vanity vs. sloppiness.

    All that being said, I never wear skirts in winter because I find hose too annoying.

  14. Although it can be hard to tell which choices we are truly making of our own volition and which are influenced by outside opinions and social norms, I still think it boils down to how you feel. Does shapewear make you feel better, more confident, prettier? Then wear it. Does it make you feel oppressed, uncomfortable, like you're trying to conform to some imposed standard of beauty? Then don't wear it. To say that we're ALL being forced to conform and that anyone wearing a pair of Spanx is unwittingly participating in patriarchal oppression doesn't give women much credit for being thinking beings who make choices.

    As for beauty regimens and exercise being anti-liberating, these things are also choices. As has already been pointed out here, some women have always and will always shirk those expectations. They may be made fun of or ostracized to some extent, but it's still about priorities. If total acceptance is the priority, they'll find a way to conform that works for them. If personal preference for comfort or use of free time for non-gym activities or use of money for non-cosmetics is the priority, then they'll choose not to conform. Most of us find a happy medium.

    It really chaps my hide when women get accused of not being feminist enough because of how they dress. Why would full skirts and feminism be mutually exclusive? There isn't one kind of feminist any more than there's one kind of Christian, or federal employee, or mother.

  15. I forgot also to say that this topic has often come up between my mother and I. Too spanx or not too spanx, can we do it as feminists? Mum says no, I say why not.

    Corsets are often brought up in this conversation. When I told a friend of mine that I was thinking about making a corset he took this as a dig for compliments, and said I didn't have too. I replied that it wasn't about squishing any part of me, just that made really well they are beautiful as an object and creating a beautiful object is what it was about.

    I've just recently discovered a blog you might have heard about
    Jo is sewing every corset pattern in Norah Waugh's book, Corsets and Crinolines. I don't think she is planning on doing it in a year. Very interesting and beautiful examples.

  16. I think these questions become problematic for women when they become questions of identity. Do I build my identity upon preserving a youthful silhouette? Is that my ultimate goal? Without that silhouette, am I worthless?

    I know this discussion is about underwear, but I think you could substitute other words like "money" or "family" or "influence" and have a very similar discussion. Without any of these things, who am I? I'm sorry for taking this in my own direction -
    I am not very familiar with feminist ideas so am ill-equipped to talk about them... I just can't help but read this conversation as being about our struggle through life to understand how we fit into the world, and how we measure our worth: I mean all of us, including women and their pressures to be pretty and independent, men with their pressures to succeed and demonstrate strength, and all of us striving to stay young and fit forever, no matter the cost. This question of identity has recently become one of the major questions of my life - and I believe it's one of the most common questions we all have. I think we all struggle with this. It's not really about the can-opener, it's not really about underwear...

    I hope this wasn't irrelevant.

  17. This is such a tough one. Feminism has to do with the freedom to make choices, yes, but "choice" doesn't occur in a vacuum--it's shaped by societal expectations and pressures and media images and... everything! While wearing a corset now might be a choice, it wasn't much of a choice when MOST women were expected to wear the damn things.

    Where do we draw the lines--at breath-restricting undergarments? At painfully pointy-toed stilettos? As much as some women find those uncomfortable, many others love wearing them and feel fabulous in them.

    And then there's lipo and plastic surgery... and crash dieting... when is it ok to judge what other women do?

    But I agree with you completely that it is SUCH a mistake to conflate a woman's feminism or lack thereof with how she dresses or how much makeup she wears. Despite societal pressure, it really has to be up to each woman to decide what she loves to wear and to resist the best she can outside pressures...

    Personally, I'm a HUGE feminist, but I've come up with my own set of style rules for myself--just for me!-- of what I do and don't wear. I wear flats and mid-heel pumps, but never pointy toes or high heels, despite all the magazines telling me pointy toes are the only way to look skinny and tall! (Not because I don't think other women should wear them, but they hurt me too much, and I broke my foot twice last year, so: Not for Me). I wear makeup and occasionally nail polish. I love lingerie and I am ALL about serious supportive bra architecture. Slips and shapers can create smoother lines under dresses, much like a lining, though I generally only wear the former.

    I've been to quite a few feminist conferences and it is such a false stereotype that all feminists are Birkenstock-wearing non-fashionistas--but there's nothing wrong with that either! I love fashion and retro styles and dressing up all girly, but women shouldn't HAVE to do any of those things to be taken seriously.

    I also draw a series of cartoons about body image called "Your Yucky Body" and I've resorted to the tack of mocking the PRESSURES put on women to wear certain items or buy ridiculous products or modify their bodies or hair or skin in certain ways (like surgery to remove toes to better fit into stilettos) rather than attacking individual women's choices, if that makes sense.

    P.S. Body image issues and pressures aren't just about gender, either--racism comes into play with Eurocentric beauty standards, too. My husband and I just watched Chris Rock's light but serious documentary Good Hair and he talks about his little girls coming home and asking "Daddy, do I have good hair?" I'm so scared someone is going to tell my not-yet-born daughter to be that her hair isn't pretty or "good" because it isn't shiny and straight... So to return to choice not occurring in a vacuum do women really have a free "choice" if employers discriminate against them for wearing braids, locks or other natural hair styles?

  18. I have worn "shapewear" maybe a dozen times in my life. I don't remember it feeling particularly restrictive... Was I doing it wrong? LOL.

    I am expecting to have a very different body shape soon (have already had 1 baby and am expecting twins this summer), and I may be more inclined to wear it then because the postpartum overhang of loose belly skin is... well, I had a little of it after the first baby, and let's just say it's awfully disconcerting to have to tuck a skin flap into your pants.

  19. Liz, I don't think your comment was off-base at all! What it brings to mind is how often we seem to scrutinize others -- and others seem to scrutinize us, more importantly -- to see if we really "fit" into the labels we give ourselves. Are you a "real" feminist? A "true" Democrat or Republican? Are you black/gay/white/Hispanic "enough"? To me there seems to be -- especially on the national political/cultural level in our country right now -- such an eagerness to exclude people from groups if they don't exactly conform to the speaker's standards. "I don't wear full skirts and you do, so you're not a real feminist."

    I know that's veering a long way from underwear, and I hope it makes sense -- I'm only halfway through my first cup of coffee!

  20. Gender related oppression is not something that is inherent in a garment or any other object for that matter. It is the meaning we ascribe to objects which offend our feminist sensibilities that give them that power over us. That said I think that the overwhelming emotion that makes us feel oppressed with respect to the girdle, for example, is guilt! If you feel guilty for being anti-feminist because you're wearing a girdle, then don't wear one! No man has ever espoused the keep-her-down merits of the girdle to me, it's always women who are offended by another's perceived desire to be thought of as perfect by a man. Most women I know dress for other women; I don't get up in the morning wondering what my boyfriend will think is the most stylish! He wouldn't notice. I think we need to stop feeling the guilt of potentially reinforcing anti-feminist stereotype with what we wear and how we act. Not to sound like a Hallmark card, but just being yourself as a woman and doing what you feel is right IS being a feminist! Wearing girdles doesn't give anti-feminists power over us, we do that by feeling guilty about it and tacitly agreeing that it is an anti-feminsit act.

  21. For me, I do believe that historically and still in contemporary North American culture, ALL garments are imbued with abstract ideological associations due to marketing and advertising. While Mad Men is a fictional show, it does do a great job of highlighting some of the actual boardroom meetings that ad execs attend on a regular basis, while highlighting the process that, for example, a bra goes through, from being just an undergarment, to a powerful symbol of all sorts of abstract concepts--abstract concepts which are designed to make us see the product as essential to our lives, not just to hold up our breasts, but, according to some ads, to make us more desireable and attractive to men, to "liberate" us somehow, to take us from being invisible to popular, etc etc. In short, in this day and age, especially, to think a cigar is just a cigar is impossible. Victoria's Secret would not be a billion dollar business if a girdle was just a girdle.

    What this all connects back to for me is the fact that the feminists of the 70s understood the symbolic representation of high heels, bras, etc in patriarchal magazines and ads as representations of abstract notions of femininity (i.e. women as sex objects as opposed to intellectual subjects) and rejected it by placing the items in the equally symbolic trash can.

    Final point: I commented before on this subject when you posted about it and I'll comment on it again. For me, undergarments come down to levels of comfortability and mobility. When I wear a girdle or other constraining items, I am unable to breathe, think, and move freely. I truly believe that the physical construction of certain garments, by design, end up making women have to make certain choices--form or function, beauty or practicality, mobility or looking svelte. Spanx and some other modern innovations are moving things towards being able to have both, but not quite. I totally agree that women should not judge one another based on their own preferences and choices, or see some choices as "feminist" or "oppressed" or whatever. However, I personally feel for myself it's evident that my own body issues, feelings of inadequacy are not my own problem or my own creation. In a world where advertisements filled with messages that to be a desireable, happy woman one must look and act in certain ways that often involve major beauty regimes, creams, uplifting bras, etc etc, I don't think it's a coincidence that we have young women like celebutante Heidi Pratt going for 10 plastic surgery procedures at once in her mid 20s. THAT for me is the scary next step: women have gone from choosing to wear girdles or bullet bras to achieve a particular look that they feel comfortable with to internalizing the girdle and the bra in the form of plastic surgery. A woman has the right to choose, certainly, but for me personally, choosing to continue to alter my body through dangerous means that could cost me my life is just not something I think is particularly liberating.

  22. This is a rich discussion and a great read. I'll add my two or three-cents.

    There's oppression and there's Oppression. Think about our lives as human beings in 2010: where are we truly oppressed and lacking choice?

    We live in a world of jaw-dropping inequality, where billions of people cannot sufficiently nourish themselves, find access to clean water, or experience any kind of economic security.

    Governments the world over, our own in particular, in collusion with the hyper-rich and the corporations they control, rob their citizens blind. How many people -- women or men -- can afford secondary education or good quality healthcare or find secure jobs?

    We are in a period of severe economic contraction and these issues are only going to intensify moving forward.

    It's interesting to debate power, gender oppression, and the undergarments of the past, but I think this can become a big distraction from the larger Oppressions we are up against.

    We're all oppressed in ways big and small and we internalize this oppression as well. No woman has to wear a girdle today if she doesn't want to -- and it's not like you'd be thrown in jail in the 1930s for not wearing one either -- and nobody has to feel guilty for liking the feeling or the look of one today.

    The girdle itself is just a thing. Still, it's hard to erase all the socialization we're experienced living in the world, so for some, a girdle is laden with negative associations it it isn't for others. Women of Betty Friedan's generation might be appalled at a young woman wanting to wear Spanx. But a younger woman who just wants a vintage-style dress to fit more smoothly won't have a problem with it.

    As others have said, the question is, Do you have a choice? I think the answer is, Yes.

    But it's also interesting to examine where in our lives we truly ARE denied choice, why that is so, and what we can do about it.

  23. You make a REALLY good point about girdles, SHAPEwear and yes even corsets: They have never been called "shrink wraps" now have they? Support garments, foundation garments, shapewear garments...NEVER have they been intended to SHRINK a person, to make them a smaller SIZE than they are. Corsets could be argued that shrinking was their intent, but the goal was a specific body SHAPE...not necessarily size although the waist was the obvious highlight. There are also garments that have been called "minimizers" but the main intent there was to minimize a stomach.
    In ALL vintage ads and articles about girdles, it is thouroughly expressed that one MUST be wearing the right SIZE in order for the garment to be comfortable for all day wear and to do its job. Which is to support and allow clothes to hang properly on the figure! NOT to make the figure fit into clothes 2 sizes too small. If your girdles is too tight, it will be uncomfortable, restricting and will see oppressive. If it fits properly, it should feel supportive and while its never going to feel like your naked, you should still be able to MOVE any way that you really need to.
    I don't understand how on earth people can feel that the clothes of yesteryear are "oppressive". Wasp waists? Girdles? Bullet bras? Yes that is what you see on Mad Men and highlighted as "the 1950s" in the media, but that was CELEBRITY and high fashion. Yes women wore these things at home, but A LOT of women also wore simple cotton dresses with basic foundation garments. They were still allowed to CHOOSE what they wore, the same as today. Why can't we have a big debate on 5" stilettos being oppressive? To me, I don't see a difference at all!

    My rant-replies on your page are always so unorganized...I'm sorry :P

  24. I wear a waist cincher and a fluffer with my full skirted dresses, but ONLY with those dresses. I consider it part of the outfit - an outfit that is appropriate for some things but not for others. The benefits to me of improving my whole posture and making my carefully created dress look its best are totally worth it. Negating post-baby jiggle and wiping out diet/gym guilt is a nice bonus. Looking like a pinup (not a Spanx sausage!) while I get ready to go out is another big bonus for my inner sex goddess and a nice perk for the man I love. I don't consider wearing something I like (that he also likes) to be bowing down to the patriarchy, especially when it reinforces "sexual empowerment" or "claiming my sexual self" or whatever the old-school feminists called it.

    I also wear full skirts and t-shirts (without a waist cincher) to chase my baby around. I'll take the freedom of movement over the restrictiveness of jeans, be they skinny, low rise, or unforgiving of the fluctuating size of my waist, hips and thighs. I have a very curvy bottom half and I feel like it's totally on display in pants. The full skirt, with or without fluffer and cincher, gives me freedom from being self-conscious about my body. That's the real freedom I appreciate as a result of the work of the feminists who have gone before me.

    Proud third-wave feminist, signing off!

  25. One last thing again on the celebrity/high fashion world versus REAL LIFE. Amy over at It'll Take The Snap Out Of Your Garters is always posting "Real people" posts highlighting candid photos of people in the 30s/40s. You take a look at some of those and try and tell me those women were "Oppressed" and only had certain choices of dress. We really seem to forget so often when looking at fashion of the past that the same as today, there is the mass industrialized fashion complex...then the REAL things that people wore.

  26. I’m convinced that the urge to alter/embellish is a human one, not a gender one. (Thinking of penis gourds here…) I agree with what Peter and others have said, the critical factor is choice. Choosing to wear foundation garments strikes me as a pretty benign expression of this urge.

  27. Peter, you are so right that there is oppression and Oppression, and we should always keep that big picture in mind, but I still think small-caps oppression is worth a close look. Yes, war, poverty and starvation are much more pressing and urgent issues than women's undergarments, but women's undergarments are still well worth discussing, and have certainly tied into the history of gender-based oppression over the centuries.

    If we can discuss presser feet and fabric choice when there is war going on, we can certainly discuss restrictive undergarments!

    And there is ACTUAL discrimination and bigotry out there based on appearance and size and manner of styling/dress/hair... Definitely worth the analysis!

  28. It certainly wasn't my intention to shut down the argument or suggest it was frivolous.

    I could talk underwear all night -- and often do!

  29. Very interesting reading, everyone! Being one of those who first pondered a bit about femiminism and body-acceptance, it's great to read all these ideas and views.
    I think it's easy to loose track along the way, to forget that feminism can be found in the choice to wear a style, rather than the style itself. To forget that of course I don't strive for 40s/50s ideals just because I strive for the look of those decades. So thank you for reminding me!

    However, I find feminism vs style to be the easy part of the question, and body acceptance vs shapewear (of all sorts) to be the tricky one. In theory I buy all your arguments, both Gertie's and the commentator's, BUT... From a very personal point of view, I doubt I could separate the good reason for wearing shapewear (a helpful and perhaps even comfortable tool in creating a look) from the "bad" reason (changing the body to a shape better in line with society's ideals for women's bodies).

    I mean, it's all good in theory, but in real life? I think, for me, the theories and great ideas would disappear and be replaced by my mirror-image finally telling me what I've been wanting it to say for so long. And the conclusion would be that my body isn't good eunough on it's own, and that I shouldn't be happy with it. I know that would be a bad reaction, but I also know myself, so therefore I stay away from shapewear.

    Perhaps this is an easier question if one has never bordered on BDMD (sorry, getting a bit personal here). I'm working very hard on seeing my body as it is, and be happy with what I see. Somedays I succed, some days I don't. Working out (seeing my body for what it can do instead of how it looks) is a good thing for me, shapewear would be dangerous. Maybe the day when I'm always happy with what I see in the mirror, or don't even feel the need to check a mirror every day, then I'll be happy to try wearing a girdle. Until then I'm sticking to my cotton thights or suspender belt with stockings, and enjoy's the pictures and stories from all the gorgeous gal's out there using girdles, waist cinchers, shapewear etc. You are fabulous and inspiring!

  30. girdles and other shapeware always make me think of the scene from Mona Lisa Smile where Julia Roberts' character is incised by her students apathy towards being independent women and shows them an ad for girdles stating " 'A girdle to set you free!' What does that even mean?!"

    Somehow, I'm ok with Spanx, they're so much more comfortable than any previous tummy smothers I've ever owned. The worst being my mom squishing me into some really uncomfortable shapeware of hers for my HS prom in the late 90s. I'd wanted to look like Kate Winslet in Titanic in a beaded sheath she made me (huzzah for designer fabric stores that sell pre-beaded organza), but I was not quit as trim as Rose even in HS. I wish we'd had spanx then, how did women even sit down in girdles? Is that where the wife in the heels vacuuming in the advertisement came from? You had to put on your shoes, then get dressed since you can't bend once you put on your girdle?

  31. Peter- very good point, and thanks for the reality check.
    Rueby- Yep. When I was in Costume History, the teacher often reminded us that it was really History of What Rich People Wore.

  32. Oh, my what a wonderful discourse, thanks to Gertie, once again.

    I agree with so much of what's been said here in terms of general theory that I'm going to use my 2 cents to talk about personal experience.

    I went to a women's college in the early 80's, was involved in single sex relationships for 14 years, and was very happy to rant and rave about stereotypes and body image to anyone who would listen.

    I went braless and in sweatpants to class, wore whatever I wanted, and gave people dirty looks if they were disapproving; it's my body and I'll wear what I want, it's not my duty to meet your criteria, etc...

    All that time, I was a size 6 and could eat whatever I wanted without gaining a pound. Lucky me, right? (note: size-ist attitude?)

    After college, my partner started to freak out when I started to shave my legs and wear dresses. She accused me of "working for the man" and oppressing myself. I just wanted to feel pretty. I left her. (Men don't mind it when I shave my legs. They're so much less trouble for me! LOL!)

    Now that I'm older and I can gain weight just LOOKING at food, I realize that I actually do have body image issues. It was easy to ignore when I was skinnier. But I am now truly oppressing myself with my own negative self-talk about my body. My ex was wrong back then, but she's right in a way, now.

    It all comes down to whether you buy the Madison Avenue hype or not. Do you internalize it, or not?

    I have to consciously stop myself and say, "You look healthy. You look happy. And if you want to lose weight, go ahead, but stop judging yourself."

    The only one I really have to please is myself, and if I can't, I need to start there, with the girl in the mirror.

  33. I see I'm late to the party here, but I'll add in my two cents to what everyone else has already said. One book I really recommend for people who are interested in body image/feminist questions is "The Body Project" by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. It's about how girls in different time periods experience their bodies generally, but she argues that using shapewear is no different than the ways that modern women try to refashion their bodies through diet and exercise to become more culturally acceptable. She also argues that the body is a source of self-worth for girls now moreso than before; and it's not just looking the right way that's culturally valuable but also the work it takes to become that body shape is something our culture values as a virtuous activity and the sign of a person cares about themselves and has self restraint, etc. I think one think that would be useful to think about for this discussion is whether wearing shapewear is a way of "working" on our bodies to make them conform or is something that we "play" with for our enjoyment.

    Like others have said here, I think that this question has to be assessed on a highly personal level. I personally chafe at things that feel "required" rather than optional (like leg shaving -- the looks you get if you decide to go hairy!). I also try to be really honest about whether I actually enjoy wearing something, or whether I'm just attached to the idea of wearing it. I love fancy shoes, but the reality is that most really kill my feet. I'm still trying to resolve that one for myself, and often end up with nasty blisters because of it :-/

  34. Your post today reminded me of a comment one of my first grade students said last week. She smiled and sighed, "Its so fun being a girl." Shouldn't feminism also be a celebration of your femininity? Some women may do that through writing or speaking, while others through fashion. Like you said, as long as you are doing for the right reasons, we shouldn't be made to feel guilty about making ourselves look good.

  35. Agh, my comment never posted! (that's what happens when a kid start yelling for their peanut butter when you're thinking.)

    Basically, total recommendation for "The Body Project" by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, everything centrallyisolated said about it is perfect. She (Brumberg) even specifically talks about how foundation garments were in some ways much easier on women than the modern pressure to have that same unrealistic figure without them (not that she thinks we should go back). It's really a must-read if you're at all interested in body image issues and how to actually help the situation (she gives concrete ideas).

    Also, I think it's important to remember that 2nd wave and 3rd feminists will probably never agree on subjects like this. Both groups/strains/whatever are active and the tension between them is, at times, intense. You can't really discuss this sort of subject in terms of a general "feminism" because there's no consensus what that means, really. And I doubt the two groups will ever agree on this sort of thing, so arguing will go on endlessly.

    Being mindful and true to yourself is more important (to me) than worrying about what anyone, feminist or otherwise, thinks.

  36. Peter, I'm sure you weren't trying to shut down discussion AT ALL! I just wanted to throw that out there, I know you love talking underwear! And it IS a good reality check!

  37. I'd forgotten about "The Body Project" which is ironic since I know the woman who wrote it; she's a professor at the university where I work...Time to go check the library for a copy.... Thanks for reminding me!

  38. Wow Gertie, this was incredibly well written and so honestly expressed. I think it all boils down to what makes you feel free? Isn't it one of our freedoms to wear whatever the hell we feel like? If a woman wants to strap in to something that smooths away some insecurities in the mirror, or let the girls swing free, that her choice! (Maybe my body, my choice shouldn't just apply to our uteruses?)

  39. Nancy: I actually TAed for her summer course one year! Her book on eating disorders ("Fasting Girls") is really interesting as well.

  40. Slightly off-topic (but not really), I actually find an article like this oppressive (to me):

  41. This is such a huge topic, but for me it is simple - it is a personal choice. Whatever makes you comfortable. I have a round belly and hips and cannot stand being constricted by foundation garments or 'tummy control' panythose. Uggh. I also have a huge bust(my child puts my bras on her had as a hat and the cup fits, she is 8!, and feel more comfortable wearing a bra. I find it much more difficult to stand walk and run without one and my back hurts. Very simple for me.

    I don't feel though that I can choose for someone else. I hope that women can choose foundation garments, (or not) based on comfort and maybe a smooth line of a garment not to distort their shape.

    Also as confident women doesn't our liberated outlook come from within not from the presence or absence of foundation garments! And if we want to help someone who maybe isn't there yet, chastizing them for the use of garments that distort their shape will do nothing to help them move forward. Sometimes gentle suggestion and emotional support goes much further.

  42. This is such an interesting discussion! Personally I never thought underwear and feminism were a clever pairing - mostly due to the bra burning thing. The inventions of bras gave women a choice and liberated them from corsets. This paved the way with more freedom in activities to -yes- work! And I would never ever attempt to go 10m without a bra! Thanks Gertie for putting that right!

    Body image and the different things people (women as well as men, women still a bit more) are doing to achieve it are not only symbolised by underwear. As others already stated, you should not forget i.e. diets and pilates. This is -more or less- a social problem. We are human, I guess we tend to judge on appearances and have ideals. And unluckily for us there are such things as photoshop which produce pictures nature didn't produce.

    Underwear, on the other hand, has so much to do with sexuality and who you are. They are one area where you actually are free to express yourself - unseen to all the "unimportant" people you meet. Think fishnet stockings under pants, frilly silk knickers or lether thongs...

    :) Underwear is goooooood!

  43. Umm, not I do not regard underwear (restrictive or not) as being capable of "keeping women down" or the lack of it as helping them to be free. Caring about looking neat and trim does not actually equal being a brainwashed and spineless dupe.

    Actually, your point about helping to boost confidence is very valid, and I agree with it. There is power in sexuality as well. Knowing how to use it can also be a good thing. We do not have to look like men or be sexless to command respect.

  44. Gertie- I always look to your blog for great discussions on body image, so I thought that you'd find this article rather interesting (

    Researchers have found that women have lower self-esteem looking at plus-sized models... I found this finding to be very unexpected. Thoughts?

  45. Re: having "internalized" the girdle -- the cruelty of it is maddening! Thinking that while women's clothes have become more and more revealing, and shaping undergarments less acceptable (think about Bridget Jones's embarrassment when her guy catches her in "granny panties"), we are still expected to be a certain shape and size. I'd rather wear a girdle than go on an extreme diet or have unnecessary surgery, any day.

  46. I think that body acceptance is the key. If you don't like your body and you are trying to squeeze into an unrealistic ideal you hold for yourself, then it is going to show. You will look uncomfortable and insecure.

    Looking at pictures of you, Gertie, especially in your Emma outfit, you look so beautiful and happy! I wouldn't even care what size you are, I would only hope I look so happy and gorgeous in my own skin and my own clothes!

  47. I personally don't think foundation garments do much for anyone except smooth a little. I personally like to wear them because they make me feel a certain way. They make me feel more feminine, like I'm ready for anything and pretty good in general. I think I like what they do phycologically more than physically.

  48. Hi there Gertie. I read your blog a lot and am learning a lot. I've been making clothes for a long time (since I was about 12 - so 28 years!)but can always pick up a tip or two from you. I am SO jealous of your access to fabrics and notions. In the UK (outside London at any rate) fabric stores are just disappearing and it's really hard to get hold of stuff. Anyhoo, about the underwear (sorry to blather on) - I took to wearing Spanx etc (I'm a curvy size 14 UK) to try to get rid of lumps and bumps under my clothes. I found them hot and uncomfortable. One day my other half said "why do you wear that ugly stuff, you have lovely curves and I'd rather know you were wearing some sexy underwear under your clothes than all that horrible stuff". Now, I know it's up to me but you know, he's right. I feel more sexy with lovely underwear and it's a lot more comfy. I would call myself a feminist too.
    Phew, glad i got that all off my chest!

  49. As usual, well-written and interesting post, Gertie! AND a great discussion! After reading the comments, CHOICE seems to me to be the essence. Nevertheless, we'll probably always be influenced by the body image trend. I guess having a Brazilian wax would be seen as just as oppressive as wearing girdles, or bandaging yourself to get that boyish non-curvy looks of the 20s.

    May I come with a assertion? It's not necessarily thought-through (it's Friday morning after all): Women dress up for other women, and a lot of our self-esteem is based on other women's opinion of us? I would say that a woman's criticism is of higher importance to me, than a man's... Is this just naïve rambling?

    Well, I still hope that my choices are relatively independent, and because I choose to do so-and-so, not because I unknowingly feel that I have to.

  50. Thanks for a really interesting post, Gertie. I think the question of choice is an interesting one. I've always believed that "choice" was the benchmark by which I should judge feminist questions. But I'm wondering if we should look more carefuly about the factors that affect those choices. I've been advised by my (female) boss to wear high heels and red lipstick for an interview to help convince the interviewers that I'm a confident and capable woman. As a feminist, I want to be judged on my abilities, not on the colour of my lipstick. But as an ambitious employee, I want the new job. If I choose to wear lipstick and heels for the interview, does that mean that I'm supporting the interviewers' assumptions about women's appearance? Or is it alright because I've had the opportunity to choose not to?

    Hmmm, I may have wandered from the question of underwear a little...

  51. When I think of girdles I think of Jackie Kennedy.

    She had a number of pregnancies, two babies who died at birth and other miscarriages. No way she had the flat little body we see in those White House photos.

    Maybe she did have that compact little body (maybe not smoking would have helped her with the baby-making), or maybe she zipped herself into a girdle before those photographers.

    I'm glad those days are behind us. When my sons both told me last year that Michelle Obama had a "womanly" body I felt like the times had changed.

    It's fine with me to wear a little spandex to smooth over a bump or two, but if you don't want to do that it's fine with me too.

  52. Actually, I agree with you completely. And you said it better and far more concisely than I ever could.
    -Andi x

  53. I was delighted when I stumbled upon your blog - first for the pictures, then for your writing style and now for the issues you raise.

    Agency and choice make the woman (or man). I am grateful to live in a time and place that affords me more of each than my female ancestors have ever experienced.

    As a queer, kink-and-sex-positive femme, I have my own relationship with femininity and my 360 pound body. I experience power in my feminity, and that often includes wearing corsets and other shapeware.

    For me it is not about trying to look like the ideal beauty (cuz honey, I am about 200 pounds away from that and no amount of cinching is going to make me look skinny!) but about feeling alive in my body. The ultimate, most comfortable, best representative self-expression of my inner life includes Wearing beautiful feminine clothes that I make myself and the undergarments that make those clothes fit well.

    I am a proud feminist. And I'm a proud kinky queer-femme poly girl. For some, these two sentences might look contradictory (note the self-descriptive "girl" when I'm turning 40 this year), but for me, they are but two descriptive sentences of my complex, delightful, post-modernistic 21st century life.

  54. And, I must add, living in a world where women my size (again, I weigh 360 pounds) are told that there is something wrong with us, embracing my body, and decorating it to be displayed and admired (as I interpret those qualities), is the ultimate form of power, and, dare I say it, liberation.

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  57. I know this is a super late comment, but I've had this post open in a tab and have been thinking about it for a while.

    I mean, as feminists we have the choice to do whatever we want to our body and the choice to clothe it however we want. Totally true.

    However, clothing conveys meaning and how we chose to clothe ourself also conveys meaning. Well, actually they convey a variety of complicated meanings. ANYWAY. I do sometimes wear corsets as part of sexy fun outfits, but I also don't corset myself tightly enough that I feel negative effects. I usually could squish down more, but I prefer to give myself room to move and to breathe.

    With "shapers" and girdles, I usually buy them "too large" because I don't want maximum squish. I don't want to feel like I'm trying to hide my fat, or that I can only wear certain items if I compress my flesh and have no hint of jiggle.

    For me, part of fat acceptance is being OK with having a visible belly, fat rolls and jiggle.

    A friend of mine recently wrote a post about Spanx you might like:

    She's completely anti-shaper while I'm Ok with them in moderation.

  58. Hey, found your site looking for info on how to sew men's tight, short shorts. I've been thrifting and modifying with gussetts, but never getting it quite right. Surprise, surprise, not much out there!
    But I like what you said and wanted to comment that men (especially American men) need to find their liberation too. The more they put it off, the more they will tend toward the subjugation of women, albeit in ever subtler forms. Outsourcing their own inner feminine realization. Pansies! Point is, I'm sick and tired of being surrounded by other men who hide behind boxy, baggy, boring clothing.
    I like to think that, with my fashion habits, I'm doing my part to lighten the load off of women and make other men feel like wimps for not being more daring, more human, more sensual, and more interested in the tight, the constricting, body-form revealing type of clothing that women wear.
    Yeah, sure, I know this is all about feminism, but I tend to think that if men don't come to realize all the ways in which they've repressed themselves, they will never be able to treat women as true equals.
    There are so many men's issues that get short shrift. Yes, society has long been oppressive toward women, but in other ways it has been very oppressive toward men. For example, I don't recall ever having been asked whether or not I wanted my foreskin cut off. Oh wait, that's because I was only an infant, and so of course I couldn't have consented.
    Funny thing, one website against circumcision said that it too is a woman's issue--as if men can't have a single issue, even regarding their own bodies. But yes, I do get it: it is up to the mothers to stop this deplorable practice.
    Now I'm just rambling...
    Thanks for listening

  59. I am strongly pro-lie and a feminist. Half of those babies killed are girls.


    Nearly all of the things you point out happens to be astonishingly precise and it makes me ponder the reason why I had not looked at this in this light before. This piece really did turn the light on for me as far as this particular topic goes. But there is one particular factor I am not necessarily too cozy with and while I attempt to reconcile that with the actual main theme of your issue, allow me observe just what the rest of the subscribers have to say,Very well done.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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