By Mary Dunnewold
When I was a girl, my mother bought me “Lollipops” underwear, the kind that come up to the navel and bag a little in the behind. My sisters and I called it “big underwear.” It came mostly in white, occasionally in pastel solids, always 100% cotton. I didn’t like big underwear much, but I didn’t realize one had choices when it came to underwear.
In practical terms, big underwear is the best kind. It doesn’t creep up, fall down, or cause panty lines. It also makes great dust rags when the seams shred and the elastic wears out.
But one morning, while painstakingly experimenting with which of the three underwear openings her legs should go into and in what order, my four-year-old, Elena, asked me, “Mommy, why don’t you have any Barbie underwear? If you had Barbie underwear, we could look the same.”
“They don’t make Barbie underwear for grown-ups, honey,” I told her, wondering if that was true.
But she was persistent. “Do you have any Elmo underwear?” “Nope.” “Dora underwear?” “Nope.” “Little Mermaid underwear?” “Nope. I have mostly plain old white underwear. But I like your fancy underwear.”
She looked perplexed.
“But Mommy, why don’t you buy some fancy underwear too? Then we could be the same, and your bottom would be happy.” She finally got her legs in the right openings and did a little underwear song and dance to celebrate.
I went to my bedroom and looked in my underwear drawer. All cotton. Mostly white. A few beiges, a few faded pinks and blues. Hard to tell what was originally an uninspiring pastel and what just turned out that way in the laundry. No trimmings.
That night in bed I asked my husband, “Would you like me better if I wore fancy underwear?” He didn’t look up from his crossword puzzle. “You’re beautiful. I like you just the way you are.” I tried harder to get his attention. “Would you like me better if I didn’t wear underwear?” “Sure. What’s a three letter word for sister?”
I lay there for the next half-hour working myself into a state, ready to believe that his lack of attention resulted directly from my years of uninspiring underwear. If I wore underwear like Scarlett Johansson’s, he would never even pick up a crossword puzzle.
I’d worn big underwear most of my life. Sure, in high school, when I was 5’8″ and weighed 120 pounds, I wore bikini underwear, like most skinny high school girls. But it was always cotton and always white or pastel. I could wear bikini underwear because there wasn’t much to cover up, and I probably thought panty lines were enticing. In fact, high school boys seemed enticed by the mere suggestion, including panty lines, that girls wore underwear. My mother was still in charge of buying bras, so I wore plain, functional models since she wielded the credit card.
Then in college I became a feminist. Being a feminist meant wearing plain cotton underwear as a political statement. Cotton was the healthiest choice; it allowed air circulation and prevented infections. And I refused to pander to the patriarchal conception of what the female form should look like or be clothed in! This meant bras were out. I wore men’s white undershirts to keep warm.
This phase lasted for a few years post-college, until I was faced with the prospect of getting a real job. Real jobs meant real clothing: pencil skirts instead of jeans; snappy jackets instead of shapeless sweaters; actual shoes. Career women are seamless and don’t sag. So when I went to the store to buy underwear, I had a new reason to buy big cotton underwear: no one would take me seriously if I had panty lines. Bras were a must, but I had to ease back into them gradually, so I bought conservative, expensive models.
A few years into my career phase, I got pregnant. Pregnant women have few underwear options. Basically big, really big, underwear. Plain cotton is best (to avoid yeast infections). Bras were the same story. Bigger than I ever imagined. The easy access panels of nursing bras were a novelty, but were intended for the wrong audience. Besides, after the baby was born, nursing pads and baby stains killed any inclinations towards sexy.
Then came early motherhood. In those days, I could hardly remember the last time I changed my underwear, let alone care what it looked like. I sometimes lapsed into the no-bra look, but mostly because I couldn’t find a decent one to put on, not to make a political statement.
But here I was. Thirty-five, kids past toddlerhood, married for over ten years, and I’d never even tried on fancy underwear. I decided to start small.
The next time I was shopping, I causally slipped a three pack of black cotton briefs into my cart. When I got home, I sent the kids out to play, then went into the bedroom to try them on. I discovered I had picked up a package labeled “low rise briefs,” not my usual full coverage affair. They rose only half way to my navel. I felt wonderfully daring. I couldn’t bring myself to wear them with my white bra, though, so I shoved them into the back of my underwear drawer and returned to my usual white.
But that night I put the black “low rise” briefs on under my flannel nightgown. I felt like they were glaringly obvious, begging for notice even under the heavy flannel. I expected my husband to immediately drop his crossword puzzle and demand to know what had possessed me. If he noticed, he didn’t comment.
A few weeks later, while the kids were at school, I went to a department store and tried on bras. Lacy bras, silk bras, push-up bras, bras that somehow made me look like I was 22 again. I kept expecting the sales clerk to politely inform me that bras for women my age were over there and point to the rack of standard issue white armor. I chose a lacy black push-up decorated with a few pearls in front. I wore it home under my sweatshirt.
The next day, I wore the entire black ensemble under my jeans and t-shirt. To my surprise, nothing happened. My mother did not call to demand an explanation. I was not expelled from the PTA. I went around all day feeling like I had a terrific secret. I was sorry to take it off and put on my flannel at bedtime.
In the next few weeks, I made a number of covert stops in lingerie departments. I discovered tap pants, camisoles, teddies, chemises; matching bras and panties in shocking colors and elaborate florals; fancy embroidery; tiny bows. I acquired a small collection and began wearing them every few days. I cleaned out the worst of the washed-out cottons and put them in the ragbag.
I felt like a new woman. For the first time in years, it seemed, I was doing something because I wanted to, because it made me feel good. Not because I had to; not because it was practical; not because someone expected me to; not because I’d always done it that way and never thought to do it differently. I began to wonder, if I could change my underwear, what else could I change?
And one morning while Elena and I were sorting laundry, I noticed her examining a pair of lavender silk briefs with lace insets and a matching bra. “Mommy, whose are these?” she asked, eyes wide.
“Those are mine, honey.”
“Mommy. Where did you get these?”
“At the store.”
“Can I have some just like them? Your bottom must feel like dancing all day when you wear these.”
Someday, I told her, maybe she could have some just like them. But to wear underwear this fancy, you have to be really grown up.
Mary Dunnewold is an attorney and writer from Northfield, Minnesota.
Illustration by Christine Juneau