Underwear: Tools of objectification or foundations for confidence?

// 13 September 2008

My wardrobe isn’t particularly diverse, and it would be difficult to define my dress-sense. I like bright colours, prints, but am not averse to the odd bit of tweed and corduroy. I wear jeans, trousers, a-line dresses, wrap dresses, and more recently purchased a number of 50s-style blouses and black patterned tights in pursuit of a more retro look. But I wouldn’t describe myself as well groomed. I loathe using the iron. My ruffled clothes usual clash rather than match, and being in possession of a scalp full of curly hair no matter how long I spend trying to craft it into a carefully coiffured masterpiece, I still look like I’ve either just got out of bed after a particularly rough night, or spent the afternoon rolling around in the hay somewhere, pivoting my entire body around my head. So, I usually don’t bother. My socks don’t match, and more often than not contain more holes than a good Swiss cheese, and having short legs, it’s not uncommon for my trousers to fray as they drag along the ground, getting licked by concrete, puddles (and substances I’d rather not think about), as they snake behind me. But they’re comfortable, which is what I like.

However, I discovered the secret to feeling great and confident no matter what I’m wearing when, aged about sixteen, I was given a blue and pink matching knickers and bra set as a Christmas present. It wasn’t particularly sexy, nor was it from a lingerie shop. Sexiness wasn’t even anything I factored in to my assessment of it as the prettiest underwear I’d ever had (it was from my mum), and having been something of a prude for the vast majority of my life (who can sadly still blush at the slightest hint of sexual innuendo if caught off guard), I felt it looked nice. Until that point my underwear draw had overflowed with nothing but plain cotton knickers and ordinary white bras, functional but not particularly aesthetically pleasing. This was something that made me feel good, and was never motivated by the desire to want to look sexy for another person. Even now, dressing up in what’s considered to be sexy underwear for the sole purpose of offering titillation for a man is something that doesn’t appeal to me. After all, presumably every layer of clothing is going to be removed anyway, so why wear my nicest underwear when it’s going to just end up in a heap on the floor? (Not that there’s anything wrong with it, as long as the woman in question feels comfortable and it is something that she has chosen to do in order to fully embrace her sexuality and gain personal gratification, rather than being told that’s what she has to do in order to be desirable.) I indulge this for my enjoyment and pleasure, and until today this was something I had never discussed. Nobody else can see, after all. Plus, my penchant for nice underwear has always rested a little uneasily alongside my feminist sensibilities, but maybe this doesn’t have to be the case?

This is something I have been considering since reading about the new underwear range designed by Queen of burlesque Dita Von Teese, and manufactured by Wonderbra. I have been a fan of Von Teese for a long time. She is a strong, independent woman, who has fostered a lucrative career for herself in an industry that is traditionally considered to have oppressed women. But what intrigued me more recently was Von Teese’s philosophy on the adornment of fancy underwear:

Lingerie shouldn’t be something you just put on for your lover; you should do it for you. It’s not about seducing men, it’s about embracing womanhood.

Yes, I realise that Wonderbra is the same company that brought us the ‘Hello Boys’ campaign back in 1994, featuring a beautiful Eva Herzigova gazing wistfully down at her bountiful breasts, held firmly in place by the Sara Lee bra. The campaign was supposedly so powerful that male drivers were distracted to the point of accident, which is believable. However, what it didn’t do was represent the idea that a woman’s choice of underwear is purely subjective. Rather it confirmed the notion that women are playthings to be dressed-up for male gratification, with this particular poster campaign promoting the idea that if a woman wants to be considered sexy by the male population then she needs to try an emulate Herzigova’s sexy pose.

The premise behind Von Teese’s new lingerie range, however, if different. While womanhood is, of course, about more than wearing a pair of sexy scanties, what she does centralise is the idea that it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to embrace her erotic side, and see celebrate her status as a sexual being, without firstly being in a relationship, and secondly having to express her sexuality in a way that is considered distincly attractive by others. So, is this not a feminist act?

The reason why I spend a great deal of time on choosing matching underwear is because I feel happier when wearing nice undergarments. It’s hard to articulate the reasons why. I think in part it emanates from the fact that it’s not something that’s visually apparent to the people I meet everyday, it’s a personal choice not influenced by anyone else and, as I have got older, it has (in all honesty), helped me appreciate my body more, and understand that, while I may not be traditionally attractive, that I am still a sexual being. Plus, considering the fact that I do not dress sexually on a day to day basis, I like the contrast, something about which (until now) only I knew about.

But what do you think? Does anyone else enjoy wearing whatever undergarments they like, for no purpose other than self-pleasure? Do you enjoy the power of knowing, on a daily basis, that no-one else knows what’s underneath? Is this not just a simple issue of choice? And surely, if one does feel more confident wearing sexy underwear, regardless of what clothes they are wearing, then shouldn’t we perhaps pay more attention to what’s underneath?

Comments From You

Mich // Posted 13 September 2008 at 8:12 pm

Love it. Although it’s almost sad that one has to be apologetic about being both feminist and feminine these days… I’m most likely to wear new, matching and super awesome undies when I have my most scary talks to give, and am wearing my most conservative black trouser suit. My partner jokes that it’s my hidden Xena uniform underneath, the audience just doesn’t know what they’re dealing with!

Audrey // Posted 13 September 2008 at 8:28 pm

I see exactly where you are coming from. As an academic I have seen one of the key achievements of the feminist movement to be women’s reclaiming of authorship over their own sexuality (as opposed to the passive, patriarchal, forbidden sexuality of the Bible). At the end of the day, I buy underwear for me, not for my boyfriend. He sees it as better off anyway! And lets face it, pearls and broidery anglaise were never designed by men for men were they? Nope.

Sarahcl // Posted 13 September 2008 at 10:38 pm

No, there is nothing intrinsically feminist about buying stuff

Spider // Posted 14 September 2008 at 1:13 am

I’ve always been a bit blessed that my husband’s criteria for sexy is ‘you’re comfortable in it.’ So we synch up perfectly in that regard.

I like matching. It doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be, really) sexy, but having a cute pair of underpants and a bra that matches (my favorite pair currently are a hideous purple/fuschia/yellow stripe) just makes me feel more put together from bottom to top, like I took an extra little bit of care. And since it’s care that only I know about, it’s care I took of myself for myself.

Lizzie // Posted 14 September 2008 at 12:42 pm

Interesting topic, like it.

Although i object to aspects of lingerie ad campaigns such as the unrealistic size of the models used and the way they pander to male fantasy, i also love buying, wearing and just looking at lingerie.

In recent years I have started buying more ornate, pretty and sometimes sexy underwear. I even colour code my knicker drawer. But it’s for me, and no-one else.

I am also permanently slightly scruffy and don’t put much effort in to my appearance on a day to day basis but the underwear i have on underneath it all makes me feel great anyway.

And if someone else who sees it also likes it too, that’s just a bonus.

For me, underwear is a beautiful, enjoyable and confidence giving aspect of my wardrobe.

I only see it as a method of objectification in the way it is advertised, or if a woman feels obliged to buy/wear certain items in order to appeal for a partner.

The increasingly popular range of ‘control’ underwear, however, angers me for many reasons.

But that’s another issue.

Alex T // Posted 14 September 2008 at 1:05 pm

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. As far as I’m concerned, feminism is about having choices and being happy. If you choose to wear nice pants and it makes you happy, great! Don’t let anyone – male, female, feminist, misogynist – criticise you for it. If you like wearing 5-year old grey rags, ditto. I won’t criticise you for it and nor should anyone else.

lemur // Posted 15 September 2008 at 4:00 am

I see no problem in buying pretty underwear. To me, its almost a secret I’m sharing only with myself. What bothers me is how I am judged for buying a push up bra, when it is genuinely more comfortable for me.

Anne Onne // Posted 15 September 2008 at 12:49 pm

It’s like most choices: there will always be an element of patriarchy in it, because the very reason we have pink frilly playboy knickers is because of the patriarchy. Whilst society is as it is, it’s impossible to claim that the triaditional trappings of the sexualisation of women for men (conventional sexy underwear, burlesque and stripping, sex work etc) is a feminist act in itself because of the context and the role it still plays in the majority of society, which is to portray women as sex objects for men.

But then again, I’d ague why we have to try and define everything as ‘a feminist choice’ or ‘not a feminist choice’ in the first place. Yes, discussing the theory is one thing, but when it comes down to the acutal choices that people make, they should be happy. As long as we analyse where each choice is coming from in terms of context, the ‘right’ choice for you is what you decide will make you happy. If it makes you happy to wear turquoise lace undies under your work overalls or even your sexy designer suit, and if the reason you wear it is because you love how you feel in them, that’s great!

I can’t say that most women I know buy underwear for men, anyway. The women wo really like funky underwear like wearing it as much when they’re not in a relationship, and when the underwear won’t be seen by anyone, as they do when they’re with someone.

Whilst I don’t think it’s wrong to be happy if your partner likes an item of clothing, I do think it important that impressing a partner, especially a male one, is not the main reason behind the clothes that a woman wears, because society puts so much pressure on women to dress for other people, not themselves.

Lizzie: my pet peeve is padding. Why the hell would someone with a large cup size need/want padding?! I’d understand if there were a few models with padding at any size (and I love it when the same pattern/design is offered with and without padding!) but the majority in many shops seem to have padding no matter what size the cup.

Kath // Posted 15 September 2008 at 1:20 pm

I can’t say I get this. If I’m hoping to take my clothes off in front of a special someone then I might wear some special (but still comfortable) underwear. If I’m just going to work and no-one’s going to see it then who cares what it looks like, so long as it does the job (ie stops my breasts from jiggling about and keeps my trousers clean and my bum warm)?

It’s not a problem, if it makes you happy. But I do feel that the advertisers have manipulated women into feeling that it matters what we look like under our clothes and that underwear can make us feel ‘sexy’ and ‘confident’ ‘for ourselves’. It’s not good enough just to be ‘sexy’ when we’re in the mood for sex, we’re supposed to be so all the time because it’s an essential part of our ‘womanhood’.

Lynsey // Posted 15 September 2008 at 1:42 pm

It’s the same as the make-up debate; I have had men say to me, would you wear make up if you were on a desert island, and I would, because I’d feel better (only a bit of mascara- not a big deal). They have found this hard to believe.

I often wear my prettiest pants with no sniff of a man in sight.

Why? Because I like them.

Vicky // Posted 15 September 2008 at 1:48 pm

I wonder if we should be thinking more about who makes the underwear than whether underwear is liberating/ objectifying for the wearer? I try and buy second hand or fair trade clothing, but it does seem harder to find fair trade underwear. As a feminist, I’m far more concerned that the women who make the clothes I wear do so in fair working conditions and are fairly rewarded.

Northern Jess // Posted 15 September 2008 at 2:52 pm

I have absolutly no problem with women doing whatever it was that made then happy but this is blatently pandering to consummerism! You don’t NEED these things! I have no problem with women feeling sexy, if that is what you want to do, but why do you have to rely on a piece of molded and ruffled material that costs upwards of twenty quid to feel sexy? Aren’t you sexy as you are? I know Dita Von Teese designed it and what have you and well done to her, but at the end of the day, most shareholders in companies like this one (and that is where the profit is going) are men whilst most of the women who make this stuff who earn a heck of a lot less are women.

lucy // Posted 15 September 2008 at 3:02 pm

huh? i don’t understand what’s feminist about deriving self esteem from conforming to mainstream/patriarcal beauty ideals… espceially when it involves investing in sweat-shop produced “wonderbras”.

The idea that womens’ confidence comes not from their abilities, but from lacy lingere just sounds like a marketing joke… but apparently a very sucessful one.

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 15 September 2008 at 3:46 pm

I have breasts and a cunt. I wear pants. I occasionally wear a bra, most often not. I’m perfectly happy with my “womanhood”. I have plenty of sex, thanks very much. So I really don’t need Dita Von Teese, beautiful as she may be, telling me that I need an overpriced bra and panties set – no doubt the product of other women’s underpaid labour as commenters have pointed out – to make me feel either womanly or sexy. I avoid girlie underwear for this very reason, it just pisses me off.

The underlying message, of course, is that the two feelings go hand in hand – the key to being and feeling like a woman is to be and feel sexy. It’s a message that does fuck all for women’s self esteem and props up a never ending cycle of production and consumption of shit that we don’t really need.

So, fine, buy pretty underwear if you want – get off on it, use it to get others off, admire yourself in the mirror, feel good about it – but let’s not pretend it’s any more important, empowering, or pro-woman than our choice of socks.

Laura // Posted 15 September 2008 at 5:32 pm

Just re-read that and it sounds rather hostile – I didn’t mean the last comment to be directed at you, Abby!

Carol // Posted 15 September 2008 at 9:45 pm

I don’t mind at all if some feminists are happy wearing underwear that some others consider sexy.

I would like to wear underwear that fits with my sense of identity (ie quite androgynous) and looks good (according to my perception). But I very rarely find any that meets with these criteria. Most bras and knickers I see in shops is of the femmy, frilly, lacy kind. Whenever I go shopping for underwear I usually end up feeling frustrated at the lack of real choice.

I usually buy the smartest of the least femmie kinds of underwear I can find, but it’s usually a compromise.

Cara // Posted 15 September 2008 at 10:29 pm

But I don’t see where anyone said pretty underwear *is* empowering, important, or gives them self-esteem etc.

A couple of posters said they enjoyed it, that’s all.

Some posts sound a bit judgemental of those women who do choose to wear nice underwear.

No, it’s no more significant than a choice of socks – exactly. Who cares whether we choose to wear pink, glittery, fluffy socks – or plain grey ones? Whatever. It’s just a personal choice and is neither feminist nor unfeminist.

There are more important things to worry about.

lauredhel // Posted 16 September 2008 at 12:01 pm

Carol: I just bought completely non-femmey, non-frilly bright red underwear with rocket ships on it, from Thunderwear (New Zealand). They have one UK stockist, if that’s where you are.

Laura // Posted 16 September 2008 at 1:37 pm

Carol, I buy boxers and y-front style boy pants from Topshop.

Cara, I was refering to Von Teese’s attitude when I mentioned the idea of underwear being empowering.

chem_fem // Posted 16 September 2008 at 3:28 pm

Fortunately this debate is made easy for me because I already know that Ms Von Teese’s undies will not come in my bra size. The Celeb ranges (bar one or two by Elle) never do – maybe I’m sexy enough?

No, since those wonderful moulded seam free t-shirt bras started to emerge in my size I’ve never had to look back. They are fab! I wish they’d made them in my size sooner.

Rhona // Posted 16 September 2008 at 7:32 pm

I like nice pants. I like mascara, too (it’s like fancy dress!).

However, I have never worn either because somebody told me to. I wear them because I enjoy them.

Just out of interest, has anybody ever asked boys if they like nice pants? Or a wee touch of makeup? Not because they’re dressing up for anybody else. Just because, in a hectic life, sometimes it feels nice to do something for yourself?

Katie // Posted 16 September 2008 at 8:45 pm

Anne Onne – to answer your (possibly rhetoric) question: women with large breasts still need some padding in their bras because without it our nipples show through our shirt whenever the office fan happens to turn in our direction. It also happens to be a pet peeve of mine that once you get above a D cup it becomes increasingly difficult to find a comfortable bra with padding. Oh, and I hate that if you’re not a ‘normal’ bra size you are forced to buy all your underwear on expensive websites; as a lingerie shop manager once told me: “if you’re out of the 32A-40D size range, then you’re screwed.” Lovely.

Jane // Posted 17 September 2008 at 4:52 pm

I don’t agree that most of the underwear for women is ‘frilly and lacy’. There’s a huge range of affordable bras and knicks out there, from simple Sloggis, plain t-shirt bras, and solid support pants, to frou frou silk things at Agent Provocateur. I once invested in a brilliant bra at Rigby and Pellier and yes they really can guess your cup size just by looking. Currently I am wearing some snug boy cut knickers emblazoned with the slogan: ‘Made you look . . made you stare’ on the waistband. I bought them because they made me giggle.

I wear nice undies because they make me feel great and I’ll continue to do so.

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