I Sing the Body Elastic
Saturday Night, Beacon, N.Y., 1968"Laugh now, sweetie," my mother said, cramming her scented body into a flesh-toned girdle. "Someday you'll understand."Saturday Night, New Haven, Conn., 1997"Feel my ass," squawked Dora to her girlfriends at her 30th birthday party. "Go ahead, pinch it." We poked and cupped her derriere like sailors on weekend leave. Four gals with the gift of gab were speechless.Dora's arse -- resplendent in a Mamie Van Doren-esque cherry-red floor-length number -- was impenetrable by bazooka, bayonet or the French Foreign Legion. Dora's rump was curvier than the Pacific Coast Highway and firmer than a Dale Carnegie handshake. It was as if an invisible orchestra followed her around playing "The Girl Can't Help It." Her secret lay not in a Thigh Master or slimming program. Dora's bottom -- a fine specimen to begin with -- was temporarily molded into pin-up perfection by a brand-spankin' new Smoothie foundation garment.Being the only one at the party not born on Connecticut soil, I was unfamiliar with this thing called a Smoothie. "You know that old factory on Olive Street that says Smoothie in big letters on the side of the building that you pass by every day," barked a smart-alecky pal. "That's Smoothie. They've been around for ages."My interest was piqued -- not only by the old girdle factory, but by the notion of women my age dancing cheek-to-cheek with ovary-crushing contraptions again. Some of my girlfriends (not the body-conscious gym types) admitted to occasional one-night stands with slenderizing garments. We're the control-top pantyhose generation, hardly born under the sign of the Playtex 18-hour girdle. The closest I ever came to putting on a girdle was wearing two pairs of Slenderalls under my Calvins.Dora was held in by a something called a Waist Eliminator Brief by Smoothie. It's kind of a sleek, high-waisted bicycle short made of shiny Lycra/Spandex. Dates with nookie in mind would need a sandblaster, but the results were impressive. Dora's foundation wouldn't earn any blue ribbons for pizzazz, but it was far better than our mothers' flesh-toned, zippered monstrosities.I guess you could say I fell off the turnip truck when it comes to foundation garments. If I gain weight, I just buy clothes with more material and no waistband. I've become the Flax queen -- the women's clothing company name says it all. (Flax has the same ring to it as "ooze.") The image of my mother wiggling into her girdle, cursing like a truck driver, sticks in my head. I always felt she was a fashion prisoner.One by one, my friends spilled their guts about the contents of their underwear drawers. "I have the Tummy Eliminator," whispered one. "Yeah? I can beat that, Toots. I got the mother of all girdles -- the Body Re-Former IV," belted another. "It's a Smoooooothie."I asked them if they were all losing their minds. After all, we like, vote."Look, you have a kid and see what happens," said one. "I don't wear the damn thing every day, but I'm not gonna give up wearing something sexy once in a while. It makes me feel good.""Hey, we're all chow hounds, and who here is going to get up at 6 a.m. and jog," said another friend, cramming a fistful of chips in her mouth. "So what if we cheat and get a little outside help."The next morning, after four slabs of leftover bacon and a curled-up slice of pizza, I decided to look into this girdle craziness. My Harriet the Spy juices started to flow. (OK, so I admit I became a reporter 'cause of her nifty spy belt.) If there were behinds out there, I wanted to pinch them. If there were girdles out there, I wanted to flush 'em out. I wanted to get to the bottom of Smoothie, of the old building, and why the hell my friends are shoving two pounds of bologna in a one-pound sack. I took out a fresh notebook and labeled it The Case of Dora's Butt.Gir(d)l(e) ReporterIn order to crack the case, I have two choices: either goose women on the street, or take the safer route and call local lingerie shops. I called three to see what women are buying these days. Sure enough, they say, girdles are back. "But don't call them girdles," they woofed."Why?" I asked."Because Baby Boomers remember what their mothers wore and they hate that," they all replied. "Call them shapers."I smelled a misnomer, but continued to listen."Even younger women are wearing them, ages 23-40," said one owner. Another said smaller (under size 10) women are also buying "shapewear." Men wear them too.Hot sellers these days include waist eliminators, "hip slips" and body reformers -- strapless one-piece numbers that suck in the tummy. One owner said she's starting to get requests for padded behinds.Shapewear is a $400 million-a-year business.Padded behinds? Waist eliminators? Body reformers? Men? Had I gone to sleep one night and woken up under Zsa Zsa Gabor's wig? Was I slipped a Mickey and airlifted to Beverly Hills?I needed my mother.Booty CallWho else could clue me in on girdles but Mom -- the woman whose dresser drawers were fair game for dress-up and torpedo launchers? The poor woman's unmentionables have been hats, fort covers, slingshots and binders for three-legged races.That wasn't her doing. My mother's bottom drawer -- where she kept her most precious booty -- was intended to be off limits. Her girdles and bras were always washed by hand and perfectly folded. They always smelled of her White Shoulders perfume.My mother and her contemporaries wore girdles during the height of foundation garment popularity, the '40s through the '60s: the era of the traveling salesman and the three-martini lunch. Young hetero boys would make a mad dash for the toolshed with a copy of the Sears catalog, living for the day they'd catch a glimpse of a real-life girdled thigh.So I called Mom in Florida. "Hey, Mom, why do women wear girdles?" I asked."In my day, we didn't really have a choice," she said. "Most women started wearing them in their teens. God forbid you have a roll or a bulge.""Ever hear of something called a Smoothie?" I asked."Yes, of course I heard of Smoothie, but I was a Warner girl," she boasted. "Women back then were devoted to a particular brand or two. Department stores of all sizes had specialty departments, with a counter and a wall lined with little drawers filled with bras and girdles and beautiful displays. Women got fitted by a salesgirl, who measured our busts and hips. It was almost like going to a doctor."Most women never left home without one," she explained. "We never really gave it much thought; we just put them on everyday, rain or shine. Even in summer."She wanted to know why I was snooping into her unmentionables. I told her younger women are wearing them -- well, not the old-fashioned kind but modern, shiny ones. To each their own, she said and hung up.Sex and the Girdled GirlMom answered my question without really answering it. Girdles were second skins for them. But what made them do it?I sifted through a pile of old magazines I'd picked up at a tag sale.The articles and ads of my mother's generation -- all rosy-cheeked gals with soft curls -- aligned girdles with romance, sophistication and the other accouterments of glamour: lipstick, perfume, stockings and the now-famous "Butterfield 8" full slip. Models were displayed jetting off to Paris or attending New York nightclubs with men in tuxedos, all due to a slim waist and fine bosom.Many ads were erotically charged yet prudish. An uplifted skirt, revealing a longline with a hint of lace, was more flirty than rolling around in the mud nude.Most images were shot through cheesecloth or tinted, or the women were standing on a cloud of tulle. "The Look That Counts," "Won't Ride Up," and "Magic" were the slogans. Girdles were the answer to everything: men trouble, tummy trouble, school trouble, hostess trouble. Women were bombarded with girdle imagery for more than 30 years.How in the hell did the girdle survive the braless, Farrah Fawcett, clingy fabric '70s?I did what every modern girl with a girdle dilemma would do next: run to the Internet.Survival of the FittestTurns out, the girdle almost died after 1967. Three years later, Erma Bombeck wrote a mock requiem:"This generation must be doing something right. I read in the paper last week where a girdle factory closed down for lack of sales. I regard the obituary of a girdle factory with mixed emotions. It's like having your mother-in-law move out because you have snakes in your basement. There is something good to be said for girdles. Maybe I'll remember what it is.""This dramatic shift in opinion can be traced to a unique conjunction of technological and cultural forces," says Virginian, historian and keeper of Zona -- The Girdle Zone Web site (http://www.win. bright.ner/~pwimsey). "With the development of pantyhose, the need for a girdle to hold up one's stockings no longer applied. At the same time, changing conceptions of a women's role led to re-examination of the emphasis traditionally placed on female appearance. As old assumptions were challenged, the girdle shaping function became a special target for feminist scorn."Virginian illustrates this theory: "Though the 'bra-burner' soon became a derisive epithet for feminists, there is, in fact no documented record of an actual bra-burning ceremony in the United States. However, at a late '60s demonstration held outside the Miss America beauty contest, demonstrators set fire to a barrel containing cosmetics, hair curlers and girdles. As the pyre burned they chanted No more girdles, no more pain, no more tryin' to hold the fat in vain."Modern variations of the Lycra/Spandex girdle made a comeback after the '70s. It was the beginning of yet another regeneration of shapewear.My confusion over girdles only worsened after I did some light reading. (Sometimes a gal should stick to TV Guide.) Read on.Femininity vs. Feminism vs. FetishismFrom Betty Cornell's Teen-Age Popularity Guide, 1951:I am firmly of the opinion that every teen needs a girdle. ... Don't turn your nose up at the idea of wearing these modern aids to figure beauty. The reason I am so adamant about girdles is that I know of no other way to keep a figure well in hand. Even a teen with a trim figure needs to coax her curves a bit when it comes to wearing slim skirts and slacks. To me there's nothing more repellent than a protruding fanny or a bulging tummy marring the outline of a narrow silhouette.From a Web essay by NPR commentator Bernadette Noll, 1996:Last Monday morning, I was sitting at the kitchen table in flip-flops, easing into the day with a coffee and the local paper. And then all of a sudden I was wide awake and staring at a full-page ad for women's girdles. Not girdles as in sexy fun lingerie, but real '50s-style, full-body, knee to breast, hold the flab girdles. I choked on my coffee.It bugged me. It baffled me. I couldn't believe that in 1996, over 20 years after the proverbial bras were burned, women were once again suffering and sweating in these contraptions.What do they [girdles] say about a women's role today? What do they say about what we have to say? Are we not worth as much if we have a belly or breasts that don't protrude as bullets? Aren't we over that?If you know a woman who has given in to the fashion world by encircling herself with a too-tight piece of elastic, stop her. Do her a favor and gather her with a bunch of other women. Show her that it is a rare woman indeed who holds the Barbie physique. Sing to her the chorus of "Please Release Me , Let Me Go," and don't stop until she lets it all hang out.From feminist critic Beatrice Faust's Women, Sex and Pornography, 1980:Fetishism is described as an almost highly masculine adaptation. Most analyses of corsets and high heels -- including analyses by feminists -- concentrate on the visual impact on the male of slender ankles, rolling hips, and jutting breasts. They neglect the experience of the female wearer or assume that it is uncomfortable. But there may be method in the madness of women who resist rational dress and defend bizarre fashions. These frivolous accessories are not just visual stimuli for men: they are also tactile stimuli for women.Walking in high heels makes the buttocks undulate about twice as much as walking in flat heels, with correspondingly greater sensation transmitted to the vulva. Girdles can encourage pelvic tumescence and, if they are long enough, cause labial friction during movement.Retro rhetoric, fascist feminism and fetish folderol. Cripes.Case ClosedIn the end, I guess, women flock to frilly things for different reasons. But if women want flat stomachs, so be it. Beats dieting.Will I wear one? I've got a 20-year high school reunion next year. If Jeff Kost goes, I'll be first on line for the Gut Buster Thigh Ripper Widow Maker Super Deluxe Model. I can always throw it against the wall in the morning, then head for the continental breakfast.In the end, it's like my momma says: To each our own.