In the winter of 1997, I found myself on a trip to NYC, the reason for which has since escaped my memory; I was at college in Boston, there was a school-sponsored bus to New York, I got on it.
The trip completed, as we drove out of NYC on that bus, after having done God knows what, I caught a glimpse of an ad on an MTA bus shelter. The ad showed a plus-size model wearing a nondescript beige slip dress with a coat over it, mid-stride down a city street. Her unbuttoned coat was blown open, and the force of her walk combined with the wind she faced had flattened the dress against her body -- or rather, it had caused the flimsy dress to be anything BUT flat, to instead to settle in to every roll and crevice, even outlining her navel.
I would later learn that the image was advertising the yet-unlaunched MODE magazine, but at the time it didn’t matter to me what the model was supposed to be selling -- I wanted it, whatever it was.
As I passed it, trapped on my Boston-bound bus, I pressed my palms against the glass of my window and focused as hard as I could, craning my neck madly to see as much of that image as possible before it disappeared forever. I have never seen it again since (although if anybody’s got a line on it someplace online, let me know), and yet I remember it as vividly as if I had seen it this morning. It was a curiously revolutionary moment, seeing some pretty model’s chub rolls unabashedly displayed on a city street, and as such, it stuck with me for a long time, because I’d never witnessed such a thing before.
It’d be grand if I could tell you that this moment awakened an instantaneous new era of body-positivity in me, but it didn’t. In spite of having seen chub publicly displayed as a seemingly acceptable body attribute, it would be many years before I could even conceive of my own fat-enhanced bellyparts as something I didn’t need to obsess over hiding, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes resentfully. I even, for a time, ventured into the shapewear badlands in search of a sleeker fatness, right around when Spanx appeared with its friendly retro-modern GIRDLES ARE COOL AGAIN HOORAY brand. Never let it be said that I am not an impressionable consumer.
To be precise, in the early 00s I started investigating powermesh-enhanced options in an effort to specifically moderate my middle roll -- that fat part that doesn’t have a funny name like FUPA and which doesn’t really count as a muffin-top because a muffin-top happens as a result of too-tight pants-wearing, while my middle roll is present whether I’ve got clothes on or not. It is forever blossoming -- an eternal muffin. (Can we give this part a name? In my case, it has been there since middle school. I don’t expect to face life without its squishy presence anytime soon. I would like it to have a name.)
ANYWAY: I was wearing shapewear to try to squelch this chub-donut (?) section of my belly, and I grew to favor shaping camisoles from Avenue. Proper high-waisted Spanx -- which were my first effort -- just rolled themselves down to my waist, no matter how many times I rolled them back up, and trying to connect them to my bra resulted in HILARIOUS SHENANGIANS in which my choices seemed to be either a) having a snatch in constant danger of strangulation-by-Spanx or b) having a well-padded bra sliding down my midsection giving me an interesting quad-boob look like I was some miserable fat multiply-breasted alien. I blame the length of my torso.
And all of this isn’t even touching on (heh) Spanx’s creepy pee hole. Does anyone pee through the pee hole, seriously? I guess I could see it being hypothetically useful for impromptu sex but I am personally morally opposed to any garment that is so certain to interfere with my ability to empty my bladder before my kidneys explode that the manufacturers added a pee hole, just to be safe. Possibly to avoid lawsuits, in the event of peeing emergencies when you don’t have twenty minutes to de- and re-Spanx in a public restroom in which you are trying to touch as few surfaces as possible.
So Avenue’s shaping camis were the ticket, and I squeezed myself into their tender embrace on a near-daily basis, given that at the time I was wearing a lot of body-hugging knit wrap dresses (you know, the ones that are “flattering on every shape”? LOLZ all you assholes in fashion) so I felt I needed the support, as it were, to go fatting around my place of employment in flimsy jersey knits.
Eventually I started to notice that when I took the damn thing off at the end of the day, the relief was overwhelming. And then I began to have actual shapewear-related PAIN, that sometimes lingered for a bit even after I extracted myself from the hated cami after ten hours thusly imprisoned. And I was all, “WHY THE FUCK AM I WEARING THIS? AM I FUCKING CRAZY?”
So I stopped, and remembered what it felt like to breathe at work again. It was actually totally great.
And then I got angry, because I wanted to know what it was that made me feel like I needed to wear an oxygen-depriving garment out of fear that my VBO (visible belly outline) might offend one of my colleagues. Because fuck my colleagues, man. And fuck that pressure to be Barbie-doll smooth all the time, which I probably picked up because -- aside from that one chub-embracing bus ad in New York I saw all those years ago -- even plus size models and performers are Spanxed and airbrushed and we rarely see their real, unrestricted bodies, such that I thought MY normal body was somehow grotesque and would be dangerous to show the world without at least making an effort to compress it into the smallest sausage casing I could fit.
To be clear, I’m not anti-shapewear because I think it’s antifeminist or whatever -- as a general rule, I think it is usually a feminist act to do whatever you individually want with your body, and to tell anyone who doesn’t like it to fuck right off, me included. And before you get all COLD DEAD HANDS on me, I will assert that if you genuinely love your shapewear, then I support your freedom to rock on with your spandex-encased self.
My problem with shapewear is simply that I hate homogeneity, and while the individual choice to employ shapewear in your personal body autonomy is not something I would ever deny a person, the popularity (or even perceived necessity) of shapewear means we’re erasing a lot of our awesome physical diversity. When I think about how floored I was by that unshapeweared MODE ad in 1997, and then think about how many women’s bodies actually look like that, but we just never see it -- thus creating a cultural subtext that says these women’s bodies are not worth seeing, and are in fact supposed to be hidden from view -- well, it’s little wonder that so many American women have such overwhelming complexes about their physical appearance.
It wasn’t hard to give up my shapewear habit, not only because it was uncomfortable, but also because it kinda didn’t work; while there may be a level of minor-league flabitude that a bit of shapewear can eliminate completely, I and many others are way past that point. My shaping camis didn’t turn my chub-donut into a body-hugging pancake; they just firmed it up a little. I realized there was a part of me -- the tiny, sad, self-hating part I mostly keep locked in my psyche’s dark basement -- that enjoyed the discomfort, because it felt like punishment. It felt like I was reining in my outrageously out of control flesh and making it sorry for defying me. Never mind that I was, in fact, hurting myself, and not some external fatness that I could separate and distinguish from the rest of my physical body.
That self-punishment seemed an awfully toxic way of thinking. So I gave my shapewear up, forever, and instead took too going around in my natural fatness to add what diversity I can to the visual landscape of women’s bodies. Because it’s good to see a variety of bodies -- our own included. It’s important, in fact.
Thus, I am offering you a challenge this holiday party season -- the season in which even those who are not ordinarily shapewear fans will make the occasional exception to wear some slinky cocktail dress, or to mitigate the bloat from an abundance of cocktails in liquid form. My challenge is simple: go without! Can you go without? Will you feel like crap? You don’t need to feel like crap! But if you do, maybe think about whether the shapewear is actually helping with the crap-feeling in the long term. You're sexy and gorgeous in your unsquished flesh! Are you with me? LET’S ALL BE UNAPOLOGETIC ABOUT OUR AWESOMELY UNIQUE BODIES THIS HOLIDAY SEASON, YOU GUYS. And maybe expedite any surprise hookups without the whole shapewear-barrier thing to deal with as a bonus.
(Also, please do get back to me about the Spanx pee-hole. I really want to know if people can use that thing and NOT wind up with urine-soaked thighs, which in most cases is a pretty significant party foul, at least at the parties I have generally attended.)