I was talking with one of my lingerie industry friends a few months ago when we happened to be in the same city, and during our conversation, I mentioned my ex-husband.
She almost spit out her coffee.
I realized we’d never talked about him before, so I gave her the short version, and we moved on.
It occasionally hits me, when I realize that my life now is full of people who have only known me as, well, me: who have no idea that I was ever married to a guy, no idea that I ever identified as anything other than queer, no inkling about the cultishly conservative strain of Christianity I grew up in.
We tend to accept people as monoliths, as always having been as they are when we met them. We demand consistency of our politicians and celebrities; we demand nuance and dynamic growth but simultaneously reject it in those around us.
It used to be a big deal to “come out” to people about my former life. Enough time has passed that it’s not really a big deal anymore. But it also means I have to do a lot of explaining when I casually mention something about Christianity or having been married, and the person across from me looks like they have whiplash.
As this friend put it, “You just seem so confident--like someone who’s always been out.”
The necessary disclaimer: lingerie isn’t always about sexuality. Some very smart, very progressive bloggers and designers in this industry have worked very hard to separate the two, to deconstruct our cultural equation in the west that lingerie = [cishet] sex and [cishet] sex = lingerie.
But sometimes, lingerie does have strong connections with sexuality, if only because we have to reckon with the fact that this equation is where most of us start on our lingerie journey. Given that I grew up in the United States in the wake of Victoria’s Secret’s explosive growth, and also under the strict rigors of an emergent Religious Right, it’s not surprising that the lingerie/sexuality equation is the framework of my story.
I’ve structured it loosely around four “lessons,” but we’re gonna get personal here, yo. Feel free to bounce at any time.
Lesson #1: Lingerie taught me that my satisfaction was more important than someone else’s.
Suffice it to say, when you grow up extremely religious and are told to not have sex with men, and it’s the 1990s and there aren’t any out LGBTQIA+ people in your community, and you have no idea that Ellen DeGeneres exists, and you know men can be gay but there’s never any mention of women. And also, any sexual desire before marriage at all is sinful. Welp. It’s really easy to call it all sin, and it’s simultaneously really easy to attribute any lack of desire towards men to a really strong faith.
For those of you who can read between the lines of “cultishly evangelical” and “got married young,” you can imagine that my bachelorette party was really interesting.
And so was the lingerie I was given.
My bachelorette party was a lesson in heteronormative socialization. Ironically, even though I’d grown up the way I had, I still pursued a triple major in English, Politics, and Women’s Studies at a liberal arts college, so I had the tools to digest what was happening even as it happened. The entire point of this kind of party is instruction on how to entice a guy, and being given the tools and props to do so.
Suffice it to say, my bachelorette party didn’t pass the Bechdel Test, and I don’t think I’ve ever been to one that did.
Every item I was given had been purchased with my husband-to-be and my new status as “wife” in mind. I got silky underwear with the word “bride” on the ass (effective branding in more ways than one), lots of sheer shit that I emphatically did not like (it was not Dottie’s Delights, y’all), and various other traditional garters and outrageous gag gifts (like vagina firming lube -- but actually).
What was overwhelmingly apparent was how much my friends had all thought of my (now ex) husband and how little they’d thought of me: these women who loved me so much, some of whom weren’t even religious, had all thought about my honeymoon in the context of him. Lingerie was to be the #1 tool in my arsenal, but none of it was to my taste.
I threw almost every piece of lingerie from that party in the bottom drawer.
There was one exception. My younger sister (one of my rocks in life) gave me a silky black robe from Victoria’s Secret. I really liked it, and gradually grew to love it. This was a robe for me. It was soft against my skin. I felt luxurious and sensuous and like myself when I wore it. I felt like it wasn’t “for him.” It felt like the only thing I’d been given that night that was actually for me.
It looks similar to this
That robe was like a cocoon against the world, where I could just be myself and focus on myself. As my marriage disintegrated under the weight of my increasing self-awareness during that first year, lingerie like that robe became really, really important.
To wit: I still have that robe.
Lesson #2: Lingerie taught me how to notice when my agency was being robbed.
In 2011, I got married, moved to Boston, and started graduate school.
There was a long period where I did not buy new underthings and especially did not enjoy them, because I did not enjoy sex. I hate linking those two things so explicitly, but this was my experience at the time. If I wore fancy lingerie, then my ex-husband would be enticed -- my ex-husband who I did not want to have sex with. In the realm of fundamentalist Christian marriage, a wife who entices is a wife who consents. My ex-husband also adhered to a conception of marriage in which there are no individuals; only a marriage unit plus Jesus Christ. At the time, I gave lip service to that model, but the complete erasure of myself as an individual, and the complete denial of what I as a person separate from him needed, was like an incessant itch under my skin.
So, lingerie. It was this small thing, so small as to be barely noticeable. There was a strong impetus for me to not wear anything remotely enticing, even for myself. Anything that could lead to sex had to be avoided. It was too much to explain why I didn’t want to have sex -- for a while, I didn’t have the words to explain it, even to myself.
(Just because you come out as LGBTQIA+ doesn’t mean you have the language. You have to learn the language, just like anybody else.)
And let’s all take a moment here and acknowledge that sex is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to sexuality than any physicality we may speak of. But for me, an aversion to physicality within my relationship was an immediate trigger that something about the entire situation was very, very wrong.
As I came out to myself more, I became more confident in establishing my boundaries around sex more. No meant no, and that was that. This also meant that I became more confident in wearing whatever I wanted to wear, regardless of how it may “tempt” anyone.
Cause the thing was: I actually liked lingerie. I wanted to wear it. I had a history with it.
A little background here:
I grew up working class, which meant there wasn’t a lot of money for frivolous expenses like fancy underwear. But around the time I started middle school, my mom got a better paying job, and one of her treats for herself was going to Victoria’s Secret. Since I developed a chest and curves super fast (causing the ladies at church to flip out and talk to my mom about my “inappropriate” clothing on a regular basis), she took me with her, and I occasionally got Victoria’s Secret, too. I knew this was a HUGE treat, and something that we absolutely would not have without this better paying job.
All this to say: since the time I was twelve or thirteen years old, lingerie has been fun. Victoria’s Secret was my favorite stop at the mall. My mom would go do her thing, and I would browse through every section in the store, examining all of the shapes, all of the colors, all of the fabrics. It was, in my humble opinion, the best store. Except for Borders (RIP).
The older I got, it became harder to fit into their bras. I was one of those people who sized up ridiculously far in the band, thinking that DD was as high as you could go. I think I ended up at a very ill-fitting 38DD or DDD before I realized I just could not keep shopping at Victoria’s Secret.
Enter Forty Winks.
Lesson #3: Lingerie helped make me more confident.
I bought my first truly adult bra at Forty Winks in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was twenty-four, and it was my second semester of graduate school.
Okay. If we’re getting technical about it, it wasn’t actually my first adult bra. I’d been pushed and prodded into various bras at Macy’s before, mostly soft cup Wacoals in boring neutrals that didn’t suit me at all. They all sat at the bottom of my drawer while I continued to wear ill-fitting push-up bras in black and red from Victoria’s Secret.
But this was different. Forty Winks had a great selection. When I walked in on that first trip, I had the budget to buy one bra (nothing has changed). I tried on everything they had in my size, and I walked out with a gorgeous black Dame de Paris balcony bra by Marlies Dekkers.
This bra has been singularly life changing. It was an instant confidence boost. An instant, this is you. This is the leather jacket and the cowboy boots and the all-black and the emerging queer lady -- this. is. you.
The Marlies Dekkers aesthetic is unique. It’s strappy AF and made for showing off. (Hello, exhibitionism.) I love wearing this bra with tank tops, showing some peek-a-boo. It’s supportive for everyday wear. I have worn it to death -- it most definitely no longer fits, but I can’t bring myself to get a new one. I’ve picked up more Dame de Paris bras in other colors, but the black is my favorite. Hell, my partner is emotionally attached to this bra, which is saying something.
But here’s the truth. This bra has seen me through hell and back. Some days, when I was in the deepest depression during my divorce, putting it on was how I made a small promise with myself that my day would start okay -- because every day that starts with this bra is a good day.
This bra was self care.
It was confidence.
It was reclaiming myself. And finding myself.
It was the start of this completely insane lingerie journey.
Lesson #4: Lingerie taught - and is still teaching - me how femme is queer.
When you’re a queer person wearing lingerie, there’s a lot of untangling to do in your psyche around the lingerie/sexuality binary. A lot of work to do deconstructing myths you’ve bought into about how lingerie is a tool of the patriarchy, or about why it is people wear lingerie, or why you wear lingerie, or why you should enjoy wearing it, or why you shouldn’t enjoy wearing it.
There are a lot of "should's" to ignore, basically.
As a femme presenting person, I come out every day. Back in September, journalist Biju Belinky interviewed me for a piece on queer women in fashion in Broadly. One of her questions was, “Do you feel like fashion is strongly connected to your personal identity as a queer woman? How so?”
My initial gut response was, no. In spite of lingerie. In spite of the fact that I come out literally every day, if not verbally then to strangers on the street whose heads whip around when they see me kiss my girlfriend. There is a constant tension between everything the world perceives about my physical presentation and how I live my life. I fight for other femmes to be able to express themselves and occupy queer spaces on the regular. But, weirdly, it seems that I've personally still internalized the message that femme is not queer "enough."
Well, fuck that.
I've very effectively said "fuck you" to the haters when it comes to lingerie and queer representation, both personally and professionally. It's about time I adopted a similar attitude about the rest of my clothing.
Learning to wear lingerie for myself parallels coming out, because coming out was the most purely selfish thing I have ever done.
Coming out puts me at the center of my world. It says that my needs, my desires, my livelihood, my life are more important than the people around me -- my partner, my religion, my family, anyone. It considers others, but decides that I am more important.
Women are praised for unselfish actions and characteristics, so to do something so wholly selfish, so wholly self-focused, so wholly self-loving, is unthinkable.
I think there’s a big connection between what we put on our bodies and how we value ourselves. Not the arbitrary worth of what we put on our values -- not its price tag. Rather, the thoughtfulness behind it.
Do we treat ourselves with care? Do we show ourselves love? Do we exhibit curiosity towards our minds, our hearts, our wants, our desires?
This is what lingerie teaches me every day.
This is how lingerie helped me come out.
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