My relationship with lingerie has always been complicated. It coalesces with another relationship I have that carries even more complexities: femininity.
From the bedroom to the Victoria’s Secret runway, lingerie is praised as the pinnacle of female eroticism. It carries connotations of submission, objectification, and mystique. To want to distance oneself from the gender binary can make one’s affair with intimate apparel turbulent, to say the least.
Throughout most of my teenage and young adult life, I’ve struggled between embracing and distancing myself from femininity. I’ve never had curves. In my early teenage years when I thought I was merely a late bloomer, I weirdly felt trapped in a boyish frame. I spent my meager allowance on push-up bras, like many do, to compensate for what felt like an absence of physical femininity.
Yet years later, I found myself wanting to distance myself from my femininity as I traditionally knew it. When I finally came to terms with my sexuality in the summer leading up to my first year of college, it was as if a switch flipped. To accept queerness felt, to my 17-year-old self, like a complete liberation from complicit heteronormativity and the need to be and present as feminine.
That was, of course, a honeymoon phase. I would eventually have to come to terms with the fact that being queer wasn’t a ticket out of the structural forces that shape and enforce norms of femininity. Still, I longed to reclaim my femininity in a way that made sense to me.
At times, purchasing lingerie felt like carrying all the unwanted baggage of hyperfemininity. It still does. Spending part of a paycheck on intimates that I’d wear once in a blue moon began to feel like a frivolous obligation—not to mention that a handful of big-name lingerie brands, including Victoria’s Secret, use prison labor to craft their lacy undergarments.
Yet at the same time, I felt a sense of control that seemed to justify the price tag. In a way, wearing lingerie feels like a secret. Could an outfit for a night out truly be complete without an equally (if not more) alluring lacy set underneath?
In my own intimate encounters, I’ve taken notice of a strange power dynamic that lingerie enacts in the bedroom: the tension of mystery, the unveiling of a surprise. It’s a break from routine; in my experience, it’s often the most effective when least expected. To have a sense of control over my partner’s libido is unspeakably powerful.
To dig deeper, I reached out to my circle to see what their takes on lingerie were. I wanted to know—is lingerie really empowering for them, or does it ultimately just feed into the infamous, lurking male gaze? Is it merely a corporate scam, or can it be reclaimed as something more meaningful? Interestingly, a number of respondents saw lingerie as a way to wield control over the male gaze.
“I think it’s okay for us to utilize things that make us feel attractive for our own benefit,” said one 20-year-old college student. “It feels like a personal gain, more than something you would do strictly for your partner.”
One thing that the lingerie industry does treat us to is the consumer reward of choice. We can revel in soft, submissive white lace or take charge in dark leather and latex. In a sense, our selection of intimate apparel can determine a certain narrative we want to play out.
“As women, we are raised being trained to act under the male gaze. For many of us, that gaze is internalized and follows us everywhere we go. In my opinion, wearing things like lingerie or other things that make us feel confident can help give us control over the gaze,” said a 20-year-old visual artist.
In a way, there’s real power in toying with the gaze. When not tainted with the need to perform, lingerie can be used to play with power dynamics in the bedroom. Like any object brought into sex, be it a toy or a lacy set, lingerie can be arousing and fun.
Of course, not all lingerie-wearers have sexual relations with men—nor do all identify as female. And yet, existing outside the gender binary can make the act of wearing lingerie, stereotypically viewed as “feminine,” uncomfortable.
Recently, there’s been an increase in size-inclusive and gender-inclusive lingerie brands that offer a genderless selection of ready-made undergarments. After decades of accessible lingerie options being limited to the hypersexualized pink and black corridors of Victoria’s Secret, these storefronts offer much less alienating and much more inclusive alternatives.
Taking these factors into account begs the question: can lingerie ever truly be liberated from its exploitative reputation? If it is so intimately intertwined with the ideals of traditional femininity and submission, does reclamation mean distancing oneself from these ideals entirely?
Perhaps the answer isn’t as black-and-white as that. After all, other respondents saw lingerie as a way to welcome their feminine side.
“Lingerie helps me embrace my femininity, as well as my body, in ways that other clothing never could. It truly makes me feel like a woman: mature, elegant, and sleek,” said a 19-year-old college student. “There’s nothing I love more than lounging solo in silk. It’s a time for me to be intimate with myself, appreciate my body, and allow myself to feel gorgeous. It’s like putting a painting in an ornate frame,” she added.
It’s a sad misconception that lingerie must be reserved for partner intimacy. Really, lingerie can be a vehicle toward getting more intimate with oneself. Despite its connotations, there’s no formal prerequisite to have a partner to enjoy lingerie. Nor does there need to be an intention of getting undressed for someone else in the first place. It can just be an act of self-love.
Reducing lingerie to mere eye candy does just that. We can choose to make it a means of empowerment rather than objectification. The power dynamics embedded in lingerie are fascinating; it can shift bedroom dynamics in a way that can be pleasurable for both parties. Instead of being a product of the male gaze, it can be reclaimed as a way to get more intimate with the self.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sex as an experience rather than a performance, and it’s only recently that I considered lingerie as a factor. I’ve realized that much of my qualms with lingerie are centered on treating it as part of a performance. While lingerie may never fully part from its negative connotations, I have hope that we can see it as liberating—not just objectifying.
By Cierra Bettens