In an industry where Baby Boomers represent the largest market share (is it any surprise that people over 50 have the most disposable income to spend on lingerie?), they are some of the least represented in advertising, lookbooks, and other fashion imagery. Bluestockings readers are mostly Gen X and Gen Y, but take note: our society's erasure of older women is endemic.
Elisabeth Dale is out to change that. In many ways, she is the voice of a generation in the lingerie industry. Through her books, website (The Breast Life), and speaking engagements, Elisabeth is also an active voice on behalf of other underrepresented groups in the industry, particularly the breast cancer community.
Today, Elisabeth is sitting down with Bluestockings for an honest heart-to-heart about the business of breasts and bras. Her forthrightness inspires me on a regular basis, and I hope you all learn as much from her in this interview as I did.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I didn’t launch my professional writing career until I was nearly 50. I was a stay-at-home mom (although always in the car) to three kids and did a ton of volunteer work for charities and children’s schools. Once my oldest child went off to college, I realized that I had spent years encouraging my children to fulfill their creative potential, but forgot about my own.
I enrolled in a creative writing class and wrote a short, funny story about how my breasts had changed over the years. Everyone else was writing a memoir, so I dubbed mine a “mammoir.” This story was the basis for my book, bOObs: A Guide to Your Girls. I pitched the concept to an agent at a book conference, who signed me and sold it to a publisher before it was written. I went from spending 25 years raising money to support non-profits children’s organizations to encouraging women to be more charitable to their breasts. The publication of my first book in 2007 altered my life in ways I could never have imagined. I traveled and spoke to difference audiences, wrote and saw my first one-act play produced, and appeared on national radio and television (Good Moring America, Tyra Banks). I also ended my 25-year marriage, sold my home in Seattle and eventually made my way to Los Angeles, where I now live.
Over the past six years, I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery. I changed my name (not going back to a maiden name but moving forward in a new direction). I’ve taken creative writing, improvisation, and screenwriting classes. I live in the middle of Hollywood and take full advantage of every musical and cultural event this crazy town has to offer.
What brought you to the lingerie industry? What kinds of "hats" have you worn professionally?
Writing my book connected to me to the lingerie industry. My research began with a local lingerie retailer, Victoria Roberts of Zovo Lingerie in Seattle. Even though I’d worn bras for decades, I’d been ignorant of the complexity of dressing breasts and what went into a proper bra fitting. Even after I learned all about the process and got to know specific brands, I got it all wrong. That’s why I picked bra wear as the subject of the first in a series of The Breast Life guides. I want to correct misconceptions, and let women know there’s no science behind the “80% of women wear the wrong size bra.” I think that statistic has been used to bully women, rather than teaching them about variations in breast shapes, bra quality and fit. My book gives consumers positive ways to figure out what feels best on their body and what’s right for their lifestyle.
I’ve seen many changes in the industry, especially since the publication of my book. Consumers feel more confident buying bras online, and order them from all over the world. In my teens, there weren’t any full-busted bras and nothing over a DD cup in department stores. I also saw how my mother dealt with her post-mastectomy body. She used a breast form and pocketed bras (back when no one talked about breast cancer and long before the popularity of “pink ribbon” marketing). I struggled with sizing into nursing bras, and breastfeeding, over three very different pregnancies. I went through the first bra buying experience with my daughter thankfully while researching my first book. As someone who has had a cosmetic breast lift, I’ve worn post-surgical bras and felt the judgment that comes with making a decision to alter your breasts surgically. Finally, my most recent trip through menopause taught me (once again) that breasts are moving targets on my chest. Not unlike my professional career, they are constantly changing and rearranging.
Running a website and blog (my own and as a guest blogger on Huffington Post and other sites) has taught me to be open and flexible to reader views. It has bolstered confidence in my expertise. I’ve rebuilt my site three times since 2006, thanks to the changing software. I’ve had to embrace and build a social media platform dominated by a much younger audience. I’ve appeared before plastic surgeons, parents, and book groups. I’ve answered questions from middle school girls as “The Boob Lady.” Diane Sawyer interviewed me on Good Morning America (where I wasn’t allowed to use the word “boobs”). I rebranded to The Breast Life in 2012 to step up the conversation about breasts. I’ve attracted a wide range of readers and fans, including men who've developed breasts due to side effects from medication and sought acceptance and guidance.
American Apparel's 2014 campaign is one of the only ones to feature an older woman (Jackie O'Shaughnessy, 62) in recent memory
You address a variety of issues in your work, from breast cancer to maternity to aging. Do you see intersections between these issues, or similarities in how these populations are treated by the lingerie, and perhaps fashion, industry?
What I’ve seen over the past decade is an explosion in choices for many niche populations, especially in the area of the deep cup, plus size, and nursing bras. But the post-mastectomy bra market is way under-served thanks in part to the way we talk about breast cancer. Mastectomy is an amputation, not a cosmetic “boob job.” Some women choose no reconstruction, use forms, or have their breasts rebuilt in a number of different ways (body fat to implants). They have little if any feeling, in these reconstructed breasts. They have unique fitting issues because of different surgical sites and treatments. Between the complicated insurance reimbursements and the lack of post-mastectomy retail outlets, it’s hard for this segment of the market to gain any ground.
One of my pet peeves about lingerie advertising and fashion is ageism. Women over 40 are invisible for the most part. We don’t age out of our bras though. Many older women have the disposable income to spend more on their intimates. It’s too bad because I know many women who are way more at ease in their older bodies than they ever were in their 20s (me included). We buy lingerie for ourselves. Yet the focus of the intimate apparel brands is appealing to the 20 to the 30-something young woman. It’s about wearing pretty lingerie to attract the hetero male gaze. That leaves out a whole bunch of people, doesn’t it?
How have you seen the industry change over the course of your professional career? What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the lingerie industry today?
I've seen a tremendous change in the industry since 2006, and it's light years away from where it was when I bought my first bra. There are many more choices in sizes, materials, design and construction, and price points. Social media has made it possible for start-ups to find customers and build new businesses.
An active lingerie blogging community has been crucial in bringing attention to underserved groups, especially the full bust market. A few (like The Lingerie Addict) ask tough questions and bring up issues that no one else addresses. But brands and bloggers, for the most part, represent a very narrow age demographic. No one is talking about the lingerie needs of women post-baby or over 40, except as a way to make our boobs or butts look youthful. At my age (59), I know there’s no turning back the clock. Maybe that’s why I’m happier with my aging body than at any other time of my life.
The most pressing issue to me, from a purely practical standpoint, is inconsistent sizing across styles and brands. Bra wearers tend to define themselves by “cups,” but that letter is meaningless without knowing the band size. The lingerie market is now global, but it’s hard to find one chart that uses the same letters and numbers. Some companies are adopting methods of measurement no one else uses. It adds another layer of confusion for the consumer.
The other big issue the lingerie industry should address is ongoing lack of diversity in advertising (sexuality included). The industry needs to be more inclusive. The term “nude” shouldn’t be used unless it refers to a variety of skin tones. Women who have had breast surgery, cosmetic or reconstructive, should have their needs addressed. Those who don’t fit the mainstream ideal of female beauty (including flattoppers that go without recon after breast cancer) need lingerie choices. And who knows? Maybe the win on marriage equality will push things forward. It does give new meaning to the term “bridal trousseau.”
One thing I think the general public overlooks is the power of consumer clout. It’s easy to voice your concerns on social media. You can change the conversation by buying from brands that match your values and beliefs.
Elisabeth's new book, The Bra Zone
You have a tremendous new book coming out this September, The Bra Zone. (One that I am so excited to read!) Can you tell us a little about the book, and also about your writing process?
The Bra Zone: How to Find Your Ideal Size, Style, and Support is the first in a series of short books. It addresses the practical aspects of buying and wearing bras. It’s consumer oriented, with helpful information on styles and resources. It includes a section on bra wear and care, plus how to recycle bras. I also touch on the unique bra fitting needs of specific bra wearing markets; nursing mothers, post-mastectomy patients, and men with breasts (gynecomastia).
I’ve found that I need to be significantly more focused when writing my manuscript. It helps to turn off social media and ignore email for a few hours, or days, at a time. It’s easier to write a blog post in one afternoon. The more enjoyable part of the book is in the rewriting, editing, and adding my personality to the manuscript. It’s an act of self-love when I’m not beating myself up.
What are some of your go-to lingerie brands?
My go-to bra brands at the moment are Panache, Prima Donna, Marie Jo, and Chantelle. My favorite local bra boutique is Jenette Bras. I’m thrilled with a new Marlies Dekkers bra. My most recent purchase was a Dita Von Teese demi in bold teal, which I love.
You've written a lot recently on the lack of representation (and underwear options!) for women over 50. Can you say more about this issue in the industry and how customers and advocates might work to address it?
More lingerie bloggers in my age group would help, but I’m not sure that’s realistic. It may have to wait until some of today’s style icons and designers, like Dita Von Teese, hit menopause. Some brands have started to take note though. JD Williams just launched a new lingerie line dedicated to more mature women. I haven’t tried their styles but hope it's the start of a trend.
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