As a child of the sixties, I remember when women were burning their bras while their mothers were still wearing rubberized girdles. I actually never saw in person a woman burning her bra, but I’m pretty sure the bras were sensibly priced ones from the sale table at JC Penney, not ones as spendy as Victoria’s Secret these days.
But even though I wasn’t a bra-burner, I was a happy partaker in the freedom from corsets and girdles. Until it came to my wedding. My sisters and I went shopping a few days before the nuptials, for panty hose (amazingly thought a freer option than stockings!). At the lingerie store they were having a girdle sale. Having never worn one, I thought I might need it to look svelte in my gown, so while I was in the dressing room, I sent one of my younger sisters out to grab a girdle.
She brought in this piece of impenetrable material, and I tried to put it on. I pulled, and pulled, and pulled. Finally it was on, and I realized I couldn’t breathe without great effort. I thought, “I guess this is what all the demonstrating was about. This is torture!” But I wanted my wedding day to be perfect (actually by that time, I just wanted it to be over), so I told the sales clerk to wrap it up.
On the morning of the wedding, my mother came into the bedroom to help me dress. She saw the girdle on the bed, looking as though it were destined for my upper arm, not my torso. She picked it up and said, “Fran, dear, do you really think you wear a ‘small’ sized girdle?” Wow, no wonder it was so tight! I had certainly never in my life worn anything in a size ‘small.’ It was too late to return it, so I decided to go with it. I figured it would slow my walk down the aisle to a graceful, if breathless, stroll, rather than the four-minute mile pace I felt like taking. It was a few years before I quit second-guessing my sister on nearly everything.
Now I find myself in a lingerie renaissance. Girdles are back, billed as shapewear. Women, even preteens and teenagers, spend hundreds of dollars on lacy underthings that are supposed to make various body parts perform antigravity tricks. And once again I found myself in the lingerie department considering whether or not I needed some shapewear to shape the parts of me that have become…shapeless.
I picked out a brightly colored (Nantucket Red) top that looked like a sleeveless T-shirt. I planned to wear it under a thin white blouse. As I stood trying to see a difference between the medium size and the large size, a saleswoman came by. I asked what size she thought I should wear. “It depends,” she said, which I already knew. She suggested I try them on. So into the dressing room I went with two pieces of Nantucket Red shapewear.
Now you don’t usually think about the dangerous nature of lingerie dressing rooms. But there I was, all alone. I undressed and began to pull the shapewear over my head. It was a bit snug going over the shoulders, but then slid down over my torso and voila! I definitely had some shape, although not quite the shape I had imagined. I was more Lily Tomlin than Dolly Parton. But it didn’t jiggle, that’s for sure.
“I’ll take it!” I thought. Then I tried to remove it. It slipped up over my torso to under my arms. At this point I tried crossing my arms, grabbing the material up under my arms and pulling the thing over my head. No go. By now it was beginning to cut off my air. I tried again.
“Oh, no!” I thought. “I might have to call for help!” I tried to get into position to open the door and stick my head out to attract the attention of a sales clerk. I couldn’t reach the lock because my arms were stuck above my head. I was beginning to panic when I decided to give it one more yank.
You’ve read about women who can summon superhuman strength in times of extreme crisis to lift cars off their husbands or fight off moose. Well, I found superhuman reserves within myself, gave it all I had, and with a grunt that could be heard as far away as Wimbledon’s Centre Court, freed myself from the dangerous shapewear. Lingerie shopping should only be undertaken on the “buddy” system in case of such events.
In spite of it all, I bought the thing, and I guess it worked, because a woman asked me if I had lost weight. Of course she asks me every time she sees me, shapewear or not. And believe me, I didn’t try to take it off until John came into the bedroom. “Stay here,” I said, “until I get this thing off.” I think he misunderstood.