This is the first installment of a new, reader-driven series on the Bluestockings Blog, "Real Stories." As the title suggests, these stories are personal and come directly from the Bluestockings community, which includes longtime supporters, customers, and blog readers.
Please note that the Bluestockings Blog is a Body Snark Free Zone. Comments are subject to moderator approval.
Today's story comes from Jess Bean. Many thanks to Jess for sharing her story with us!
When I was 14, I was a skank. Or a ho-bag, if you prefer, in the parlance of my classmates. Not because I was having sex (I was way too afraid that my Irish Catholic mother would drag me down to Hell herself if I did), but because I wore slutty underpants and told everyone about it.
Like a good suburban teen, I spent most of my weekends at the mall. And on nearly every trip, I bought a pair of $3 underpants from Wet Seal. Those nasty, shiny satin pants. Those neon mesh thongs they market to teen girls. I showed everyone on the bus my sparkly red bra.
Why? Well, my butt needed a bow on it because it was a present to my future husband. Duh. Just because I was young didn’t mean I couldn’t understand the way the patriarchy worked! I had to dress up every day on the off-chance that my Prince would swoop into my high school and whisk me away (but only after ascertaining that I cared enough about the relationship to be wearing a matching bra-panty set).
Looking good was the only kind of feminine power I could imagine. Remember how the FDA wanted all women to consider themselves “pre-pregnant”? Well, all through high-school I considered myself “pre-married.” I had to keep my body ready.
When I partnered off with the guy I thought I’d marry, at 18, I was ready for the challenge of knocking his socks off, every day, with my underpants. Now, I’ve always been a person who gets Dressed. I create looks like “1970s housewife discovers Satanism” and “Kathleen Hanna as semi-pro tennis player” and wear them to the grocery store. I often enjoy wearing eccentric clothes that piss people off. But underwear was something different. It was for my boyfriend’s eyes only. I didn’t want to piss him off at all, ever.
Every morning I rolled out of bed and thought: “What underpants should I wear for him today?” I am not exaggerating. I asked myself this question every. Single. Day. If I wasn’t going to see him, I’d wear the ones with a hole on the hip or with a period stain. If I was going to see him, I needed to be ON, ready for the spotlight, in my performance lingerie. If all the good underpants were in the wash, my morning was almost ruined and I walked around expecting his disapproval.
Now, this guy was no judge of women’s underwear. He really didn’t care. But for the eight years we were together, every morning started with me figuring out if the foundation of my outfit was good enough for him.
In my two relationships after that, I found myself in the same pattern of mentally ranking all my underpants based on his or her preference. This was even more stressful because neither of them really cared, either. Oh, the dismay when I wore my special underpants, the ones I’d bought in PARIS, to a lukewarm response! If you don’t like the underwear that I’m wearing just for you, what is even the point of my existence?
I broke up with my girlfriend last July. I had started to feel like an actress, rushing on stage without my makeup done, lines not fully memorized, every time I was with her. (She’s a fantastic woman and we’re both very happy to no longer be dating each other.) At that point, I became single for the first time in ten long years. I didn’t have to perform anymore. I thought I could “keep” someone if I always wore the right underpants for the occasion. Now I had no one to keep. This felt good, and I was excited to be free.
I did a lot of strange things with my body during my alone time. For example, I stopped washing my hair for three months. (I highly recommend this, but that’s another blog post.) I experimented with all the purple lipstick and glitter eyeliner that my ex-girlfriend thought was silly. And I wore the nastiest underpants I could find every morning.
The saggier, the better. I wanted to wear all the fraying, ripping pants until I wore them out. I put on underpants that I’d cut up and stitched back together with teal embroidery floss. Underpants with bleach stains, underpants that I’d had since college. I often cackled like a witch when putting on The Bad Pants. I jumped around my bedroom, howling “FUCK YOUUUUU” to everyone who would never see my underpants. My grotesque panties were my own hilarious secret joke with myself every morning.
As a single person, I got really into self-care, and making my body feel exquisite without anyone else’s help. People would ask me, “So, are you dating anyone?” and I’d reply, “I just tried a new bath bomb from Lush!”
There is a significant crossover between Internet communities that evangelize self-care and Internet communities that revere lingerie. I remember reading a blog post about how you should “wear good lingerie for yourself.” Screw that, I thought. Lingerie has always been about making other people happy. I stopped wearing a bra for a while, and let my lumpy, uneven boobs be themselves.
I deeply enjoyed the rebelliousness of my saggy-underpants phase. But I also knew that someday I would have to buy bras and underwear again. I needed to figure out a NEW way to wear underthings. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has described femme as “any way of being a girl that doesn’t hurt.” To be flip: I needed to find a way to wear underwear that didn’t suck.
Now, I can’t stop being feminine, even if I try. (And, as a baby queer, sometimes I tried!) My identity as a queer femme is very important to me. And so I set to wondering: what does it mean that my own femininity got so caught up in objectifying myself, in making my bum into a present for a lover, in serving myself up like a damn wedding cake? Had I really liberated myself by making this offering “for” other women, and not “for” men at all? Could it be just “for” myself?
I learned a lot from feminine ace-spectrum friends and writers, IRL and online. They were muddling through “how do I fashion?” just like me. But they weren’t using clothes to attract sexual partners. The people they were trying to attract with their clothing were…other people who were interested in talking about clothing! What a concept. They seemed to wear things because they enjoyed them. I’d always heard feminists saying, “I wear make-up for me!” and had assumed they were lying. These femmes showed me otherwise.
I’m not a femme just for myself, but I’m a femme for my femme community, too. And the more loving I can be to myself, the more my femininity is a source of strength, rather than an offering to society or a sexual partner, the better I can be to my community.
During this whole time, I was talking up Bluestockings something fierce, telling everyone about this AMAZINGLY INCLUSIVE QUEER LINGERIE SITE RUN BY A LOCAL FEMME, despite the fact that I had no intention of buying underwear ever again. But by the time Bluestockings opened, I was ready to reconsider this position. Underwear is just clothing -- it should fit well and help me feel good on an aesthetic and tactile level. I’d gotten properly sized for a bra at Forty Winks. Wearing a bra that didn’t pinch or smush me, that didn’t force me into a size that the USian bra industry thinks is normal, that let my breasts be the shape they were meant to be -- now that was validating!
If I want to get into silk underwear and start reading Proust, I can do that. If I want to walk around the gayborhood without wearing a bra because it’s uncomfortable, I can do that. If I want to wear beautiful underwear on a day that no one is going to see it, I can do that.
I’ve had to recalibrate my lingerie aesthetic. It must be for me, because I can please no one but myself. For example, I’ve finally had the courage to try bra silhouettes other than a standard tee-shirt, push-up look. My boobs feel happy in a silk cami, so who cares if they don’t look quite as perky? I found pictures of myself as a 6-year old high femme in babydoll pajamas and immediately wanted a new pair, because as a bossy 6-year old, I was definitely feelin’ myself.
My body belongs to me. It took me 28 years to get here. I’m happily stunned on a daily basis that my mind, my body, and my time are my own. I’ve figured out that if I have underwear that makes ME blissfully happy, that affirms my gender, that turns me on, then that’s enough.
Jess Bean is a family therapist and femme-enthusiast living in the Paris of the East.
P.S. To share your underthings story, email us at info@bluestockingsboutique with the subject line "Real Stories."