By Naomi Miles, Chair of Trustees, CEASE
My new knickers are bright fuchsia pink and ribbed cotton, probably the softest I’ve ever had. I’ve also got a new seamless bra which goes on like a crop top over the head and has subtle elasticated support.
No cups, fiddly latches, straps, padding or embellishment in sight. They are both so comfortable and I’m ridiculously excited about them.
I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing about my underwear. It’s not that I’m against fancy underwear- sometimes it’s in order, just not every day. Which is why I feel relieved that recently, there seems to be a lot more women’s underwear designed with comfort and not just aesthetics in mind.
Perhaps post-lockdown, fresh with the memories of whole days spent in our pyjamas, we women are less tolerant about suffering discomfort in the name of looking ‘hot’ underneath our clothes. Innovation seems to be directed away from making lingerie that’s endlessly exotic, sexy and skimpy and towards making bras and pants that are seamless, tag-free and spun from lightweight, breathable, cloud-soft fabrics which feel like wearing nothing.
About time too!
I do think this is a real marker of gender equality. The default for a lot of women’s underwear is (or at least has been) sexy. It’s a symptom of how women’s bodies are sexualised and men’s are not. Men have always got to wear unremarkable, comfortable, practical elasticated cotton or jersey boxers. Even the idea of men’s sexy pants is faintly comic: leather thongs exist, but not in M&S.
I didn’t always feel this way about underwear. I grew up in the age of Victoria’s Secret models, Baywatch and Eva Herzigova stopping traffic to say ‘hello boys’. Female soap stars stripped off for calendars, and even female cartoon characters had enviable cleavages- just think of Jessica Rabbit!
Aged 10, I couldn’t wait to hit puberty. I bought a bra before I really needed one and stuffed it with tissues. But even fully developed, my “assets” never quite reached what I deemed to be acceptable proportions. My hips were also wider than I felt they should have been, and my legs weren’t long enough.
Like countless others, I had quietly imbibed the notion that a woman’s sex appeal was an essential aspect of her worth, a secret weapon that she could use to secure admiration, respect and valuable social capital.
This is why I was so concerned about getting the elusive “perfect body”. The amount of time, money, energy and headspace I and my classmates wasted worrying about it… and for what?
Of course, being eyed-up or wolf-whistled was hardly akin to being respected. No one “checking us out” was remotely interested in our characters and interests, hopes, dreams and aspirations. What’s more, our bodies were rated and ogled at by boys who never experienced the same kind of scrutiny or gaze themselves. They didn’t worry about VPLs or cellulite.
It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair.
Following the #MeToo movement, culture has woken up a bit to the harms of objectification. Page 3 is no more, sites like Everyone’s Invited and the Everyday Sexism Project are collating stories to combat rape culture, and schoolchildren are campaigning to have school uniforms removed from sex shops after facing harrassment in the street.
Of course, there’s still the small matter of the misogynistic, racist, violent and sometimes illegal online pornography that enjoys mysterious immunity from criticism and accountability.
But given the scale of the task before us, perhaps it’s important to enjoy the small victories. Like the iconic moment when England footballer Chloe Kelly took off her shirt to run across the pitch in sheer unadulterated joy at having scored the winning goal. Here was a woman unselfconscious and in the moment, her sports bra utterly unremarkable.
To me, as to many others, she seemed to embody the message that women’s bodies aren’t just for sex or for show. That, in fact, we’re so much more than our bodies!