Maroon lace. Soft pink with scalloped edge. Bright green and patterned. Deep blue tie-dyed cotton. Skimpy, black silk.
All of my underwear is decorative. Until very recently, I didn’t own a plain bra or pair of panties. When I was a young teenager, my mom would buy my underwear, and I remember her insisting on buying what looked pretty. Yes, she meant what was personally flattering on me, but more importantly what was just objectively pretty to look at. Bright colors, unique patterns, fun materials. I remember thinking it was a little strange that my mom wanted me to wear underwear that announced itself, that wasn’t shy about its presence. Was my mom trying to sexualize me, her young teenage daughter?
But over time, I realized that it wasn’t about appearance or pleasing others, it was about feeling good in what I was wearing—even, and sometimes especially, if no one could see it.
Locker Room Talk
Victoria’s Secret was the place to be when I was in high school. Changing in the locker room meant new purchases were perpetually on display. Victoria’s Secret was the place only the “cool girls” dared to enter, the girls who were trying to grow up early, who believed that sexier underwear made them more mature, more adult.
But walking around in there always made me so uncomfortable that I never ended up getting even close to buying anything. The lingerie was always so aggressively bright and pink, so aggressively sexual, so focused on pushing up and sucking in. It was horrible to shop in a store where I felt so out of place, like everything looked ridiculous on me. Why would I want to wear something meant to display what I was taught to think wasn’t good enough or what the store’s branding projected as a problem to be fixed?
This experience initially turned me off to the concept of lingerie. I associated it with walking into a blindingly bright store that seemed designed to make me feel unwelcome. So technically, I don’t own any “real” lingerie, but most of my underwear and bras probably come close. They’re brightly colored and often lacy or silky, unafraid of announcing their presence, but they’re not explicitly marketed as lingerie.
Whose Gaze Is It Anyway?
Lingerie comes with an element of performativity. It’s marketed to women who want to look and feel sexy in the bedroom. It’s meant as a treat, a tool of seduction, to display our bodies best to those we want to share them with. For women who have sex with men, this inherently means subjecting ourselves to the male gaze. Of course, the male gaze doesn’t always have to be oppressive, but it often is. Women are expected to fit a certain image to please men and are often only allowed to be sexual in that particular scenario, all while donning the uniform of sexiness approved by men.
But is it inherently bad to dress for sex? To dress to please a partner? Most people do it in some way, whether that’s wearing something they think their partner will like or wearing an outfit they feel confident and sexy in when they believe they may have sex. However, most of the lingerie I saw in Victoria’s Secret seemed to cater to men’s fantasies, rather than women’s desires or comfort.
The chief marketing officer of Victoria Secret’s parent company, Ed Razek, even admitted it. When asked why the company won’t use plus-size or transgender models in its VS extravaganza, Razek said, “Because the show is a fantasy.” And apparently, men’s fantasies, as determined and mediated by advertising executives, are all that matter. This exclusionary philosophy just goes to show that the lingerie industry at large is predicated on perpetuating a fantastical “ideal” of sexiness that excludes the majority of women.
The executives at companies like Victoria’s Secret have their own answers to this question, but what about lingerie is sexy? I think it’s important to examine what the marketing of lingerie has conditioned people to think of as sexy. Pink: innocent, feminine, sexy. Black: dark, dangerous, sexy. Red: bold, daring, sexy. This is what comes to my mind when I think of sexy colors. Most lingerie ads are all lace, strappy, skimpy, transparent, gauzy garments. What does lingerie teach us about sexiness? Is it its vulnerability? Its barely-there-ness, its readiness for removal? Or is it its edge? Its promise of more? And is sexiness defined by how we feel about ourselves or how we want others to see us?
Advertising often preys on women’s insecurities, projecting images of ideal bodies that could be yours (for a price!). Lingerie is generally expensive, and the industry is predicated on marketing to women’s desire to appeal to their partners; women essentially pay to fit a beauty ideal constructed by the industry itself. Companies like Victoria’s Secret know that fostering women’s insecurities is profitable because women will pay for what they think will make them feel sexy. Lingerie is aspirational—maybe you too can look like a Victoria’s Secret model if you just buy our lingerie.
For many young women, buying our first sexy bra or pair of panties marks a point of maturity. It’s meant to make us feel adult and often goes hidden in the back of our dresser drawers for years without anyone seeing it—hiding from a parent’s discovery and not yet ready for the gaze of a sexual partner. But if young women do wear these garments, they are often unwillingly sexualized.
I’ve been wearing thongs since middle school. I’m just used to them now, and I can’t imagine wearing anything else on a regular basis. That wasn’t a sexual choice—it was just based on comfort and emulating what my mom did. But is that a sexualized choice? Yes, because thongs are associated with sex, with promiscuity, with allure, with display.
Choosing My Underwear, and Choosing Myself
Over time, my views on lingerie have changed. Despite owning a lot of decorative underwear, I had previously thought of lingerie as nothing but oppressive and sexist. But now, I appreciate the intimate boldness of displaying my body for only myself.
In my opinion, dressing for sex or wearing lingerie is only a problem if you get no pleasure from it yourself. The pleasure of wearing lingerie could be derived from witnessing your partner’s pleasure. Holding a partner captive, gazing at my body, is empowering. I have both a dominant and a submissive side, and feeling confident in my almost-lingerie is a big part of what gives me confidence in seduction. It makes me feel powerful.
My decorative underwear is a fun surprise under my everyday clothes. It makes every day feel a little bit risky, a little bit new and exciting. I know I can’t rely on clothes to produce confidence within me, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m embracing the potential of empowering underwear. And what’s wrong with feeling sexy?
Of course, Victoria’s Secret is not the only brand that sells lingerie. There are some more empowerment-focused lingerie companies out there that are worth checking out. Size-inclusive brands like Knix, ThirdLove, Savage X Fenty, Torrid, and Aerie are good jumping off points for anyone interested in purchasing lingerie but not interested in the intimidation and exclusion that seems to come with Victoria’s Secret.
Lingerie is undoubtedly meant to be shared and displayed, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t take power from spicing up their underwear a little bit. This doesn’t necessarily mean going out and buying some fancy new underwear; it just means being more conscious of what you feel good in and deciding to choose yourself and your own confidence when getting dressed every morning.
The decision to put on a specific bra or pair of underwear is a deeply personal one, one that should be centered on what will make you feel best that day. It’s a private reminder, a message, a reassurance of your beauty, and most importantly, it’s only your choice to make.