And then my husband did something deeply disquieting.
He took me to Victoria's Secret.
This was not a sneak attack. The purposes of our outing today were 1) go to the beach, and 2) go to Victoria's Secret. I knew it was coming. Still, I've been there only once in the past two years, and that time I desperately needed new panties. So I ran in like my hair was on fire, swiped a couple of cute pairs, and got the hell out.
My new status as A Person Some People Know As a Feminist makes bra shopping an interior battle of mythic proportions. Before the Salon article came out and I embarked on trying to parlay this project into a book, I liked Vicki's. I like to shop, and I like their stuff, and there was a time when I had no problem wearing sexy lingerie with a partner because it made sex more fun. I enjoyed it. It was empowering, and nary a thought for The Male Gaze entered my head.
But with my new eyes, the message that was screamed at me amid the thumping music and powdery scents was, "YOUR BOOBS NEED TO LOOK BIGGER. AND PERKIER. YOU SHOULD WANT MEN TO LOOK AT YOUR CHEST, LIKE, CONSTANTLY. YOUR UNDERWEAR ISN'T ACTUALLY FOR YOU-- IT'S FOR THE DUDE WHO'S LOOKING AT YOU, EVEN IF HE'S A STRANGER." Every single bra was lined, padded, push-up, liftseparatesparklemagnify stuff. I could not find regular, unpadded, comfy ones-- there were a couple of lace bras near the front that weren't padded, but they didn't come in my size. It was like they were saying, "Only women with huge breasts have no need for padding. You B cups... we can help!!"
Adding to my confusion is the fact that I don't really know what bras are for-- not for me, anyway. The straps always fall down and my boobs are small enough that I don't need the support. I do know that for some women, not having the support of a bra makes their backs hurt; I know some wear them because they like the way bras change the shape of your body. As far as I can tell, in my case, bras are for preventing men from staring at my breasts: some men seem to think that bralessness is an invitation. Also there's the nipple thing-- which doesn't bother me personally (WE LITERALLY ALL HAVE THEM, SOME MORE THAN TWO) but it does seem to be distracting to some guys. Then again, is that really my problem? Whose comfort am I protecting with two puffy cups strapped to my chest?
Eventually, the braless questions became too much for me, so I started wearing one of those elastic ones from Target just to be safe. But recently I've been onstage a lot, and when I reach my arms up the bra rides up and voila, I have four boobs. And I can't fix it readily because I'm in front of people. Also, it's not super-sexy, and although my man loves me for my mind, no one likes to take their spouse's clothes off to find thoroughly unsexy undergarments every single night. That's no fun.
So yeah. I needed a new bra, one that stayed put. I selected four that were cute and, I thought, minimally HEY CHECK OUT MY RACK-y. Two were comfy. Ish.
I walked out with a bunch of new underwear, bought by my husband. I let my husband buy me a bunch of lingerie. Oh, the guilt.
Buying underwear really shouldn't be this hard.
But the thing is, in our hyperconnected world where even the best intentions are always objected to by someone, every single thing we do feels like a political action. I let my husband buy me sexy things: am I a kept woman? Or am I accepting gifts from someone who loves me? I'll be wearing a sexier bra from now on. Am I protecting myself from discomfort because I hate it when men stare at my braless chest, or is it their responsibility to keep their eyes on my eyes so I don't have to have underwire cutting into my ribs? I like wearing pretty things. Am I a manipulated consumer, or do I have high self-esteem?
I'm all for dialogue. But after two years of trying to have sane, reasoned discussions about feminism online, I found myself frozen in the Temple of What Female Sexuality Is Supposed to Look Like, overwhelmed, guilty, and totally unable to enjoy something that I used to love.
Makes me wonder where the merit of "healthy debate" is in an age where your detractors are never in the same room as you, and millions of people can weigh in on whatever millions of other people are doing. I think it makes many of us suffer more than it helps.