Under Where?

The male gaze dilemma meets pretty panties

“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” – Dorothy Parker

While borrowing lines from Hamlet to describe panties may seem like a stretch no elastic waistband should endure, Ms. Parker’s witty remark raises many questions concerning what we choose to put on underneath our clothes. It’s a simple decision that arises daily for both men and women, often thought to be mandatory and thoughtless, but is it? For myself (and I hope I am not alone in this one) countless daydreams are filled with visions of me slipping in and out of lingerie; of waking to the early sunlight in my darling (but too rarely worn) vintage babydoll slip. I wish for the moment when passion stops to observe the way silk skims a nipple. But more often than not, these moments are either lost or pass within a flick of the light switch. So why do we invest so much of our time and money on a moment so brief?

One understanding is that our obsession is centered around conforming our bodies to an attractive ideal. From the Victorian corset to spanx, many women have attempted to chisel their way to the ‘perfect’ feminine figure with elastic and whale bone. Jill Fields, author of An Intimate Affair, links the evolution of our unmentionables to the ever-changing gender distinctions and transformation of the twentieth century American woman. While this socio-historical approach helps us understand how we have evolved from bloomers to thongs, it hardly explains our fascination with undergarments within the context of the bedroom.

In her novella Simple Passion, Annie Ernaux describes the events of her intimacies with a married man. At the height of their affair, she pauses to illustrate the wreckage of their most recent encounter: “I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the over flowering ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway.” The garments, meticulously prepared, lay discarded amongst the carnage of the evening. Ernaux’s illustration is a scene that I’m sure many women have woken up to, or even caught their feet in as they stumbled sleepy-eyed from the bedroom. The tableaux provokes a common interpretation of intimate apparel. We picture Ernaux, the blood and guts of her affair, and a pair of red lace panties. She dresses—and undresses—for him.

Feminist film criticism has brought to us the idea of the male gaze, and as Fields points out specifically in the case of lingerie, “Women construct themselves in dress and deportment as ‘to-be-looked-at,’ which requires them to look through the male gaze to see whether their bodies are attractive objects on display.” But this is where I seem to fail. I can say with confidence (based on many years of field research—please don’t tell my parents) that hours shopping and countless dollars and debt later, I have found that the only reason a guy ever remembers the colour of my bra is because it was resting on the nightstand beside his iPhone. So why persist?

As I sit on a rainy afternoon, making a chart of sexual encounters, what I wore, and the reaction, I come to a hypothesis. And while I have never been one to air my dirty laundry, here it goes. The results of my oh-so-scientific chart seem to point to one small black g-string as the undefeated champ—which I’ll have you know I have only worn a handful times out of necessity, under a super tight pencil skirt, or this one pair of jeans that fit like they came out of the last musical number in Grease. Revealing cellulite, stretch marks, and the obvious deviance from my squat routine, this particular delicate would not be my first choice. Instead, I tend to opt for things you would expect to see circa Valley of the Dolls. These items, a tiny bit more modest than your average g-string, are how I have chosen to represent my sexuality—despite the often lackluster response.

In the past half century, feminist art has been subverting women’s status as sexual objects by claiming this very status and exercising their ability to choose how it is represented; in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “To make oneself an object, to make oneself passive, is a very different thing from being a passive object.” While I would never claim my high-waisted satin briefs to be a feminist statement, something does seem to bind these two ideas together. Is our time spent rifling through Victoria Secret catalogues a forfeit to the demands of the male gaze? Or could my obsession with the latest Agent Provocateur collection be a reclaiming of my body and sexuality? While I would prefer to place myself in the latter category, it could very well be that I am simply stuck in a male gaze of decades past, where the movements of Lana Turner across a screen would have forced me to tighten the elastic of my wrap-around girdle. Pushing up and into the unmentionable adventures of my future, however, I will strive with every eye-hook latched and every stocking unrolled to ensure that these private garments become my own quiet reclamation; that, like my outer layers, what I put on under my clothes will remain how I want to be represented, both as a woman and sexually.

photography // Laura Tuttle