I'm a body-positive feminist. I love my physical being for its miraculous ability to get me through life. My body breathes, it eats, it sleeps, it watches Netflix. What's not to love?
As part of my belief in body positivity, I'm knee-jerk critical of aggressive airbrushing, websites that "bump watch" celebrities if they so much as eat a sandwich, and stores like Brandy Melville that only stock clothes in size 0/2. As such, I've always been critical of shapewear.(In case you didn't know, shapewear is that modern-day take on the girdle, which promises to "smooth out" your body while shrinking your appearance.)
Recently, however, I found myself wondering if I had judged shapewear too harshly. After interviewing Meredith Shaw, a body-positive style expert and model, I started to reconsider my stance.
In our interview, Meredith describes putting on shapewear as being "like having a superpower." Since I do occasionally fantasize about being Wonder Woman, I asked myself, why not try it? I was inspired by Meredith's enthusiasm for what I had previously dismissed as "body condoms." After all, here was a gorgeous, self-possessed woman who seemed to believe shapewear could be a harmless little confidence booster.
Until a couple of weeks ago, the longest I had ever worn shapewear was for approximately 15 minutes one time when I was 22. My mom bought me a pair of Spanx to wear to my university roommate's wedding, but I found them so constricting that I took them off in the ladies' room of the Baptist church where the ceremony was being held. I stuffed them into my evening bag and went on with my night. Yes, I went commando in a Baptist Church, and I don't even like going commando at the best of times. That's how freaking uncomfortable I felt. At the wedding reception, my friend caught sight of the beige Spanx in my purse and asked why I took off my underwear in the middle of a friend's wedding. I'd already had four vodka tonics, so my reply was quite dramatic and very loud: "Because Spanx are a tool of patriarchal torture! I didn't graduate with a degree in gender studies to wear a girdle, did I?"
Now that I'm 30, however, I appreciate you often have to give something a chance for at least half an hour before declaring it a tool of patriarchal oppression. Bon vivant that I am, I figured I'd give shapewear one real, honest-to-goodness try.
An experiment was born! My research question was the following: Can Spanx and body-positivity really go together? I didn't know, but I was keen to find out.
Like any self-respecting feminist academic, I considered my research methods carefully before embarking upon my project. To answer the research question, I decided to wear Spanx every day for a whole week in the name of (social) science. In order to be as thorough as possible, I only took said Spanx off to shower or sleep. I have recorded my field notes below for posterity. Regarding the pictures that accompany this piece, I should say that I am terrible at taking selfies, so most were snapped by my partner.
In typical Sarah fashion, I have timed the experiment poorly. It's my first 24 hours sporting Spanx, and I'm staying at a friend's house babysitting her adorable — and very active — child. As soon as I arrive, my little six-year-old buddy entreats me to play a live-action Star Wars video game involving a lot of jumping and lunging.
Let me tell you, those games are far more aerobic than the video games of our youth! (It's like doing Zumba or something.) Dodging lightsabers while wearing Spanx is a straight up challenge. I keep getting winded, despite the fact that my overall fitness level is pretty good. My child friend is very disappointed in my performance, and frankly so am I. Spanx make spontaneous physical activity that much harder.
Despite not being able to play video games to the best of my ability, I do, however, look a little slimmer under the dress I'm wearing. My body appears approximately 5% more toned, like I've just spent six weeks hitting the gym with abandon. I like it, but I hate myself a little for liking it. Plus, it makes actual exercise more difficult, so my real muscle tone is suffering because I'm wearing an undergarment that gives me the illusion of having more muscle tone. That's ironic (in the correct use of the word).
I am wearing jeans with Spanx underneath. Denim is a rigid fabric at the best of times, so when combined with Spanx, it makes sitting (usually one of my favourite activities) a bit of a chore.
Unwisely, I decide to take my babysitting charge to see Captain America: Civil War, which requires me to sit for about three hours straight. Wearing Spanx is not the best way to see a movie. My lower half feels so stiff it's like I have a chastity belt on.
Besides the discomfort, I cannot determine if the Spanx are making any difference whatsoever to my body shape. My body looks how it normally does in jeans as far as I'm concerned.
Because I didn't bring many clothes with me, I wear my jeans again. When my charge sweetly asks me to play active video games with him this time, I decline.
I am simply too stiff in my 21st-century girdle to do all that jumping.
I lay on the couch doing work and watching my charge enjoy himself while I work up a minor sweat every time I take a deeper-than-average breath.
Babysitting weekend over! I am now back at work wearing my usual business-casual clothes. In the morning, I put on a cute floral skirt and t-shirt. I have to say, I do feel a bit more confident having the Spanx on my person. I feel a bit uneasy about it, because, well, why should looking skinnier make me feel prettier?
At the same time, I'm deliberately wearing a skirt I find unflattering to test the power of Spanx. It is a floral number I impulse bought from Banana Republic with a gift card a few months back. I'll buy anything floral, so when it's free, I'm definitely in, whether it suits me or not. The skirt usually hits my hips in an awkward position, but not so today! The Spanx manage to take a piece I'm self-conscious about wearing and make me feel that much more polished. The outfit does fit better with the body condom on underneath, and I enjoy my look immensely.
Sure, I can't do anything to exert myself while donning it, but my job isn't that physically taxing. I feel so freaking confident that I take myself out for a green juice after work to celebrate. When I get home, my roommate tells me I look fabulous. I don't actually think it's because I look thinner, though. The Spanx have made me more self-assured and now I'm grinning like a Cheshire cat at everyone I meet. I feel cute AF.
I wear an unforgiving black skirt I love, but usually don't put on because it's so clingy you can see my underwear. If there's anything I despise in this world, it's a visible panty line, so this piece has been gathering dust in my closet. I did, however, remember my mother telling me shapewear can even out any unsightly "lines," so I thought I might as well give it a shot.
Ultimately, the verdict is yes, Spanx do hide panty lines.
This may be, however, because you are not actually supposed to wear underwear underneath them. Having said that, I totally cheated for most of the experiment by refusing to give up my undies, and I still didn't have any VPL. As I said before, I do not like going commando, and I will never consider a science girdle like Spanx to be proper underwear.
I feel so cute and confident in my beloved black skirt that I am hugely productive at work despite my constricted lungs. The Spanx, however, do impede my enjoyment when I meet my best friend for our weekly fajitas dinner. Enjoying a mound of delicious chicken when your Spanx are trying their damnedest to shrink the stomach that's supposed to digesting your meal is unpleasant. My body feels like the subject of a territorial dispute between fashion and food. I'm not entirely sure who is winning in this conflict, but it definitely isn't me.
Today I decided to take the plunge and FINALLY experiment with wearing Spanx as they are meant to be worn: on their own, without a protective layer of underwear between me and them. I am not brave enough to try this at work because of the awkward hole they have in the middle, which is intended to make it easier to relieve oneself, but really just facilitates flashing.
After arriving home from work, however, I do take off the underpants and wear Spanx the way their inventor envisioned. At first, wearing Spanx as they are intended to be worn is fine. I go for a walk around my neighbourhood. I debate whether I should buy myself a green juice or a gelato for my snack (I grudgingly choose green juice).
So relaxed am I from my evening stroll that I almost forget about the hole in the middle of my Spanx. In light of this, for 30 entire seconds, I decide to sit on a bench in my local park soaking up the sun. Unfortunately, I see a passing family with a toddler in tow. This reminds me I am wearing a dress on a bench without my lady business properly covered. I am one gust of wind away from my frock blowing up, exposing my bits to the world. Not wanting to have to register as a sex offender, I get up and go home. I am not cut out for this sort of stress.
Obviously, for Day 7, I got back to wearing Spanx with underwear beneath; I do not have the constitution to leave lady-garden exposed to the elements. I have great respect and admiration for those who do. I do not intend to throw shade here, but honestly, I can barely wear a V-neck shirt without a camisole, so undergarments that allow one's nether regions to catch the afternoon breeze probably aren't for me.
I'm too paranoid. I genuinely worry about what would happen if a passing insect noticed the lack of coverage, and decided to build a nest inside my cervix. As for how I look, I am wearing my absolute favourite outfit for the last day of the experiment. It's a white floral skirt with a simple black t-shirt. It's pretty flattering, unlike some of my other ensembles, and it doesn't make me look different or feel more confident to team it with Spanx. Today, all the Spanx do is make it harder to digest the sandwich I order for lunch.
My overall verdict is that Spanx are neither devil nor angel. To elaborate, I get why so many people like them. In a world where, unless you're a rich person who can afford couture, your clothes will rarely fit you perfectly, I understand Spanx can be a useful tool. Hell, now that the experiment is over, I may still wear mine on occasion! They took some ill-fitting clothes I love and made them flattering.
Spanx transformed some pieces I previously thought were unworkable and made me feel adorable, and that's not exactly a disempowering experience. At the same time, as a body-positive feminist, I do resent how Spanx interfered with my enjoyment of my body in the name of reshaping it. They impeded my ability to play with children, my sacred right to enjoy a huge plate of fajitas with my best friend, and my ability to sit on a park bench without worrying about indecent exposure charges. Like most most things marketed at women in the name of beauty, Spanx are a mixed bag.
Will I ever wear Spanx again? Well, the truth is, now that I've given them an honest-to-goodness shot, I do see how they can fit into my body-positive approach to life.
While I do not believe I should have to make my body smaller for anyone, I also know there is technically nothing wrong with my vampire-pale skin. At the same time, when I want to wear a colour that washes me out, I do apply some blusher first. Similarly, while I dig my curvy hips and have no real desire to shrink them, I may avail myself of the smoothing powers of Spanx when I wear something unforgiving in the future. Spanx may even embolden me to experiment with wearing sateen! It's a brave new world!
At the end of the day, I'm still a body-positive feminist who knows she doesn't need to shrink herself to be a valuable human being. Having said that, being a woman is hard work. The beauty standards with which we are raised are basically impossible to meet. As a girl who grew up playing with Barbies and reading photoshopped fashion magazines, I know I cannot always conquer my internalized insecurities.
While I spent the first 30 years of my life eschewing Spanx, there were insecure days when I hid my body under a tunic so over-sized a family of four could have gone camping under there. Is that meaningfully different from wearing the body-conscious sun dress I love but arming myself with some Spanx for support? No, it's not. I see that now. You do what you need to do to get through the day. So while Spanx are definitely not ideal for every situation — i.e. any situation where you have to move very much or plan to eat — they can be a useful little helper when you're feeling down.
On a bad day, they can take something that's already great — your body — and make you feel that much more secure in your own skin. I was wrong. Putting on a body condom like Spanx doesn't mean you hate your body. It just means, in that moment, you want to protect your body from the insecurities you project onto yourself and the world projects onto you. Like with a real condom, knowing I have a body condom at home makes me feel a little safer.