- Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) in Ten Things I Hate About You
I’ll always remember the rite of passage that was my first ever bra-shopping trip with my mother, aged 10. The idea of buying a bra was both the most thrilling and most traumatizing thing I could imagine at that age and the act proved to be a heady mix of both. Owning a bra signaled the move into womanhood I so dearly wanted to make, the most markedly feminine piece of clothing one could wear. However sharing the experience of this move with my mother felt completely humiliating. Having to acknowledge the fact that I was developing, with both her and the sales assistants in Marks and Spencers as they wrapped the measuring tape round my decidedly flat chest felt too mortifying to bear. So I combatted this pain with frequent yawns. For some reason feigning tiredness disconnected me from the embarrassment going on below my chin. Pretending I was barely registering the experience out of sheer exhaustion numbed the discomfort to the point of just about tolerable.
Despite the day’s agony when I got home that afternoon I was giddy with the ownership of two new bras. They were unwired and almost functionless but of gargantuan significance to me, one in white for school and one in a pale blue, “for the weekend”. Being as they were, underwear, this colour coding was unnecessary and I quickly took to alternating between colours, though preferring the blue by some way. More so than the sensible white, its colour denoted fun, girlishness and the faint silhouette of sexuality that I was too young to comprehend but knew was there in the background of my emotional response to this item of clothing above of all others. This was what made the shopping trip with my mother so mortifying. The fact that it was a shared task of buying something so tied up with my burgeoning sexuality - something you never want your mother to know of, despite being something you don’t really understand yourself.
And this is the funny thing about women’s underwear, its propensity as a signifier of sexuality. The very wearing of it is a reminder of nakedness often more so than its absence and so a woman’s choice of underwear is always significant. There dozens of articles online about “what your underwear says about you” – a lacey thong means she was planning to have sex, boy shorts mean she’s trying to play it cool but probably will, “granny pants” mean she wasn’t expecting it: “oops”. The discussion around women’s underwear almost exclusively relates to sex, despite this being one of the few activities women generally don’t wear underwear to partake in. All this is stating the obvious to a certain extent, but it is odd when compared to the non-discussion around men’s underwear. There is basically no significance in the garment whatsoever. I can remember the underwear I wore the first time I slept with my ex-boyfriend, but I don’t remember what underwear he wore at all during our relationship, and we spent almost every night together for 2 months.
Why is this? Is it simply just another outlet for the sexualisation of women’s bodies? Or is it an example of effective marketing? Victoria’s Secret changing underwear’s purpose from function to an expression of attractiveness. And more specifically, why is black usually the colour of choice when undressing with an audience? Black will always invoke sexiness for reasons I struggle to identify, but I for one am glad of it. I put on a pair of black panties safe in the knowledge that I am signaling “sexy” and that discharge marks are all but hidden in low lighting.