It took me ages to be OK with my body.
I was 26 when I realized I was unhappy with how I looked, and always had been, and that my unhappiness had been normalized by me (and by some of those who love me). Things hit a tipping point one autumn day at the Gap: I realized I couldn’t fit into the maroon corduroys (a size up from my already-plus-size) I’d brought sheepishly into the change room with me. I decided that was it: I wanted to look – but especially to feel – differently about my body.
Fast forward 17 years, and I weigh only marginally less than I did that day. Though my body is now fitter, stronger, and – most importantly – makes me feel proud and strong and happy every day. I celebrate regularly by buying clothes that I think look amazing, no longer believing they are not “for me.” ALL the clothes are for me, and for my beautiful body, yo.
But lingerie. Man, oh man, lingerie. The final frontier.
(An image of a thin white female torso and upper thighs, wearing low-rise panties with an image of Deadpool giving the thumbs-up and a word bubble that says “approved!” Basically all lingerie trauma in one handy meme.)
To be honest, I hadn’t much considered lingerie, ever. Once I’d become more fit and shifted my body image, I bought dresses of all kinds and enjoyed admiring myself in mirrors everywhere; I embraced versions of the feminine that fit me and that felt like me. But lingerie: well, it felt like a thing you buy so you can get sexy with someone you also find sexy, and I didn’t have that in my life. For a while I pretended that was totally fine, until I just couldn’t anymore.
Some of you may remember my adventures in online dating – a challenging place for a feminist to seek satisfaction. I’m pleased to report, though, that I met a really wonderful human on Tinder, of all places; I marvel every day at what it feels like to be treated with tender, supportive respect by someone who also really fancies your body and wants to see you in lingerie.
Wait… say what?
D told me early on that he was very keen on lingerie, if I was into it; I was flattered but also daunted by the prospect of purchasing the goods, so I let it drop for a while. Then, as our relationship progressed, and as we got more invested in one another, our sexual connection became more intense. I realized that, yes, I did really want to buy some lingerie: for him to celebrate and enjoy my body, but also for me to celebrate and enjoy it with him.
But lingerie shopping! Man oh man, the shopping.
Here’s what happened when I dove into the lacy capitalist fray.
(A vintage, sepia-toned, “western”-style poster featuring a white woman sporting a cowboy hat, tassled black gloves, a gun in a holster, and a bra with seriously pointy boobs. She gives us a sly, full-on look as she reaches for her weapon. The poster reads: “I dreamed I was WANTED in my Maidenform bra.”)
Take one: the pressure cooker
I was having lunch at my favourite grungy diner with a good friend and his son, in an upscale shopping area in downtown Toronto. I trust P and know his queer sensibility jives with my feminist one, so I asked him about good places to buy fun, sexy, lingerie. He had lots of advice, but it was more involved than I’d hoped: it included a trip across town, some recon in the gay village, and perhaps more conversation about preferences with (admittedly amazing and sensitive) staffers than I imagined I’d want to have. (I felt like I was in a hurry, though maybe I was just scared.)
After we parted, I remembered a shop I’d been to in the neighbourhood with another friend, years before. She was practiced at the lingerie thing and it seemed to work for her, so I headed over on a bit of a whim.
This was my first mistake.
The shop had a kind of “foyer,” with stairs leading up to the main retail area; there were a number of older, well dressed, white women milling about, and I could tell quickly that they were staff – and that they outnumbered customers, most likely on purpose. I smiled but tried not to make eye contact with any of them; I was immediately and completely uncomfortable. I felt myself trying to make myself shrink a bit, sort of disappear. I should have run for the exit, but my feet felt like lead. I didn’t want to be rude.
Just as I began fingering a few lovely-looking slips, discovering to my horror how expensive they were, one of the well dressed women approached me.
Did I know the majority of their selection was in drawers? She asked. What was I looking for? How much time did I have?
Anxious, I mumbled maybe 20 minutes, half an hour. (A lie: I had, like T-minus-get-me-out-of-here.)
Oh, that’s plenty of time! my WDW cooed. She began locating more slip options for me. (I have no idea why I told her I was interested in slips. I wasn’t. I was interested in sexy, hot, amazingly bodacious shit. Yet telling her this seemed, somehow, both impossible and gross.) Before I knew it I was in a change room.
I put on the first slip – a beautiful sky-blue number that was, admittedly, elegant and fell prettily over my waist and hips. WDW asked if she could have a look; I opened my change room door awkwardly, just a bit. Oh, we’ve cracked it! she cried. It was made for you! (NB: this is WDW-speak for “spend $300 on this now.”)
Other WDWs then crowded around to look at me, up and down from head to toe, as my mortified soul left my body and slid between the floorboards.
Now you need panties, my WDW told me, and she was off; she returned moments later with a thong made of polyester with a funny little flower at the back, right at the top of the butt crack bit. It seemed SO TYRA BANKS, but without the RuPaul irony. I could not imagine myself in it. It was $95.
Try them on over your own, go ahead, she instructed. I did what I was told.
(Another vintage magazine image: this is from a French publication circa 1950, and shows a white woman from behind. She is dressed in netted stockings and a corset, lacy panties and evening gloves. She has curly shoulder-length blond hair and a neutral expression. Though she appears to be posing with hands on hips for effect, the image is structured to suggest she is dressing, or being dressed, and has only just reached the part with all the trussing.)
Then, something odd happened.
I realized that I did not want to buy these two items – even though part of me actually kind of liked these two items – but that I was definitely about to buy these two items. I would purchase them for reasons I could not quite fathom in the moment, but which had a very clear and firm hold on me nevertheless.
The feeling was overwhelming. It was not rational. I thought a lot about it afterward, as I clutched my shopping bag sadly on the train ride home.
Reflecting on the whole episode a few days later, with Cate and with my friend Natalie, I tried to get to the bottom of why I seemed to have lost all of my agency in that funny bi-level store, among those well-dressed older white women.
I realized that the entire experience had reminded me of the shame I used to feel when shopping for what felt like my bad, wrong, ugly body.
Of how I would find it easier just to be swept along by the maternal figures throwing fabric at me. Of how my mom – bless my mom, and all her own tricky body issues, and her best of intentions –would begin every one of our visits to clothing stores when I was a teen by demanding of staffers, “do you have this in an extra large?”
That feeling of being judged – it cascaded over me, got into my pores and seams, began to crush me.
That feeling of being looked at, constantly looked at, but not being seen. Not being even remotely seen as the woman I want to be.
The WDW was not my mom, but she might as well have been; she might as well have been all of the well-meaning women in all of the stores that litter my ugly-body history. I realized I would have done anything, anything, both to please her and to get away from her, as quickly as I could.
Take two: the feminist local
Natalie said: that experience sounds horrible! Did you know, though, that R’s friend’s wife runs a great lingerie shop just up the road from here?
We were having coffee in her neighbourhood, and I put two and two together: the shop I’d passed on my way to meet her – the one with the hot mesh body suit in the window, the one that seemed so welcoming and warm from the street – was the shop she was talking about.
(This is a photo of a sexy black mesh body suit on a mannequin in the window of Stole My Heart, an amazing west-Toronto feminist lingerie store. I took it through the glass storefront window on a cloudy afternoon, and we can see an apartment building, some trees, and sky reflected in the window, as well as some big red peonies. I have no idea where they came from, but they totally rock the shot.)
Let’s go together, Natalie said. And one Saturday afternoon in March we did. This time, the experience was remarkably different for me, in every way. For one thing, it felt safe. Natalie is loving and supportive and I knew she had my back. But also: the shop was small and all on one level; there were sexy, fun, come-what-may pieces on mannequins and hangers all over the place. Ashley was tending shop on her own, and greeted us right away as friends (and, I suspect, not just because she knows Natalie.) Instantly I felt at home. In fact, I felt protected.
The shop is called Stole My Heart; co-founders Amy Pearson and Ashley Holden opened it precisely in order to counteract the kinds of experiences I had with the WDW. They write:
Lingerie has the ability to make women feel confident, beautiful and unique, but those aren’t often the feelings we experience while shopping for underwear. Having braved many a lingerie store together, we’ve been pushed up and sucked in, all the while struggling to find flattering pieces that we could get excited about trying on. We decided that we all deserve better and Stole My Heart was born. (Click here for more.)
Amy and Ashley’s aim in building the space and curating its collection was to celebrate body diversity, to support women designers and sustainable brands, and (this is my favourite bit) to “speak to the many definitions of femininity” that women inhabit daily.
(Stole My Heart from the back looking at the window: lingerie on hangers, a brown wicker light fixture, black and white furniture signalling laid-back Victoriana. The writing on the wall literally says: “take your own breath away.”)
I knew none of this going in, note: I had not looked online, not Googled a thing. I had Natalie’s word and a glance through a window to go on. And yet instantly I could feel how different this vibe was: I was ok to be myself, to be honest and to be awkward if I needed to be. It was all good.
Emboldened, I said to Ashley: I want something sexy, for me and my partner to play in. But I’d like it to be comfortable, something I can wear and enjoy anytime.
Nat and I grabbed change rooms, and Ashley brought us all manner of things: stuff I’d picked out with her on a go-round the shop, stuff she’d remembered she had in a drawer, stuff from up high and down low. (The body suit, natch.) She thought I should start with mediums, but instantly I knew those were too small. I called out: could I have the mesh body suit in large? from behind the curtain; Yup! she hollered cheerfully back. And try this one, too!
She measured me and confirmed my bra size, then presented me with an array of gorgeous options I’d never have looked at myself. The one I least expected to want stole my heart.
I bought it for me, and I bought the body suit for me and D. (Bonus: it’s made of recycled fabric! It’s eco-lingerie!) Nat bought herself her first-ever proper nightgown, to celebrate an amazing new job.
As we paid (no sales counter – just an iPad along the wall, next to a comfy sofa and a table laden with chocolates, to which I helped myself, OF COURSE), we chatted about the experience I’d had with the WDW. Ashley commiserated. I mentioned what an utter delight this experience had been, the polar opposite – enough of a pleasure to make me want to come back, again and again, kind of just to hang out, actually.
Neither Nat nor I wanted boxes for our purchases; instead, Ashley wrapped them beautifully in tissue paper, and then put them into bespoke cloth bags, with “Stole My Heart” on one side, and a strong-ass bitch in a body suit on the other. (I like it almost as much as I like the new bra.)
(Best. Tote. Ever. This image is of my Stole My Heart cloth tote bag, which is black and features a white drawing of an ordinary-sized female body with long hair. She is flexing a bicep and looking at it admiringly.)
Shopping is hard, my friends; we know this. But it’s not hard because there’s anything wrong with our bodies, or anything wrong with being firmly, proudly, openly sexual – even in public. It’s hard because of the structures that shape our consumption. As women, we’ve long been coached to hide our bodies, demure about things sexual, even despise ourselves for spending money on ourselves. Lingerie shops often reproduce this vibe – because they are usually heteronormative spaces that institutionalize a particular kind of femininity-under-patriarchy, but also because they know that shame sells. Once caught in the net, I’d spend anything to be free.
So let’s seek out spaces that resist this vibe, that challenge our received body norms by making structural changes to curate a different kind of shopping feeling. Not shame but joy. Not fear but pride. Not the long, judging look of the matriarch, but the supportive and generous vision of the friend, the peer, the equal.
The look you give yourself, when you take your own breath away.