When I was 12 years old, I saw a man shopping alone at Victoria’s Secret. I’d picked up my usual 32AA and was headed to the register with my mother, when we spotted him: an unaccompanied man of thirty-something years, fumbling with delicate lace. The look of bewilderment on his face and the indelicateness of his approach – crumpling panties and tossing rejects aside without regard for their earlier arrangement – repulsed my mother. She quickly removed me from the scene. After all, we were there to shop for ourselves, uninterested in dressing for the male gaze.
Looking back, I can’t help but laugh. He was probably buying a gift for himself, disguised as a gift for his girlfriend. But I was buying a bra that I wouldn’t grow into for another two years. Neither of us belonged there, at least not then. In the years since, I’ve encountered many male panty shoppers, some accompanied, others not. Few have been brazen, selecting sets, consulting on colors and cuts, following their partners into fitting rooms only to be turned away by staff. Many have been bashful, trailing meekly behind their partners or standing guard by the door.
At age 16, my AAs became Bs and I had my first kiss. The concepts of brazen and bashful were put into context for me. I discovered that there is a certain power in being desired, which I conflated with being desirable.
There is a certain power in being desired, which I conflated with being desirable.
As my first relationship progressed, I tested the boundaries of desire. I’d rest my forearm on the center console of his Marina blue car, a signal for him to take my hand in his. I’d walk a few paces in front of him, prompting a comment on how I looked from behind. I’d even pull away during a kiss, just to be pulled back in again. Each time, I’d feel a flicker of validation more powerful than the last. Several times, my ex offered to buy me Gymshark leggings, the lingerie of athletes and teenagers alike. He thought they’d make my butt look good, which made me blush. How scandalous, I thought. What would my mother think?
We settled on jewelry instead.
The garment was for us – not for me to put on, but for him to take off.
At the beginning of my next relationship, my partner and I couldn’t keep my hands off of each other. Or in the middle. Until the near end, really. He wanted me, all of me, and I felt empowered by his desire. But his attention didn’t give me power as much as it provided me with an assurance of commitment. If I was woman enough, sensual enough, he wouldn’t leave. And if he didn’t leave, I was worthy of love. I bought a sheer, coral bodysuit with an open back and snaps in all of the right places, from Urban Outfitters because I thought it would arouse him. The garment was for us — not for me to put on, but for him to take off. I never wore it again. It’s still crumpled in the back of a drawer.
One year after the coral suit, I purchased a sheer black number. It had a lacy brassiere and fine mesh bodice, and wearing it with jeans or leather pants once again made me feel powerful, desirable, yet unattainable. The lingerie was intended to be for me, to remind me of my worth and sex appeal in the absence of romantic love — but I only wore it once. And while I didn’t wear the lingerie as a weapon in my seductive arsenal, it was still a suit of arms shielding me from heartache and embarrassment. I acted against someone, not for myself.
Seduction can feel both empowering and degrading, and garments can be a tool we use to both prolong and excite. We infuse ourselves with sex appeal – the kind that comes from within – but act for another. Somewhere between the relationship’s inception and demise, the dynamic shifts. Sex grows impersonal; we feel insignificant, powerless. And the garment loses its purpose.
Is the power I once felt misnamed? Is it that what I perceived as my desirability simply afforded me what felt like the one with the choice to have sex or not, giving me the illusion of a leg up in the relationship? The “choice” I speak of is not consent, but rather, the acknowledgment of lust, love or sexual desire on the part of someone else. The desire of one party or another to engage in a sexual act cannot and does not replace informed, active consent; we mustn’t mistake the cessation of agency for the assumption of control. The power – or illusion of power – is derived from my choice.
I’ve only desired lingerie for the right reasons once. After a particularly grueling midterm season, I went shopping with friends. We tried on the garments and danced around the dressing room, remembering what it was to be young girls twirling in dresses whose skirts dance as you do. We were no longer children, and the Flora Nikrooz Showstopper Chemise was hardly a dress, but I felt like a princess in it. If it weren’t for the price tag I would have purchased the chemise on the spot. I felt beautiful and sexy in it, and neither were contingent on the male gaze.
Moving forward, I’m only going to shop for lingerie when I am not craving objectification disguised as sex appeal. And I’ll wear said lingerie for myself, to feel feminine and free — to dance around my studio apartment listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy,” twirling until I’m drunk on the freedom that accompanies untethering one’s self from expectation or obligation. And I hope one day to be able to wear lingerie with someone, not for them – without the expectation of sex or manipulation or retribution.