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The Politics of Underwear…

Post by Karen Irwin on Aug. 17, 2009 at 2:52 pm with No Comments »
August 17, 2009 2:52 pm

This article will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

When Hillary Clinton was in Africa last week, her first visit to those nations as Secretary of State, she was asked what her husband thought about a nine billion dollar deal between the Congo and China.

I imagine it was one of those "oh, no you didn’t" moments, one in which the air instantly gets sucked from the room, cameras cease flashing, and a lone pen falling slow mo to the floor makes a deafening sound.


"My husband is not Secretary of State," Clinton snapped. "I am."

Turns out the real question got lost in translation. The student claims he wanted to know what her boss, the President of the United States, thought about the deal, but given Clinton’s clipped tone, something tells me "what does your husband think?" has been whispered before at parties and fundraisers during her former political career as "the wife of."

The whole interchange resurrected the dreaded "f" word. Feminism.

Many of us would like to believe we live in a post-racial post-sexist society but now might be as good a time as any to ask: When it comes to feminism, just how far have we come baby?

Well, according to a new and fascinating exhibit at the White River Valley Museum in Auburn the answer to that question might be right under our clothes. Think of it as the politics of underwear.

The exhibit titled "Suffer for Beauty" shows the historical relationship between women’s freedom and their fashion. According to this exhibit, put deftly together by guest curator and historian Dr. Michelle Marshman of Green River Community College, underwear has been holding women back for decades.

To wear the Victorian corset (see photo) a girl had to grip something sturdy, a four-poster bed for example, while another person leaned away using their full body weight to pull it tight. Putting on underwear in the 1800s must have looked like a Cirque du Soleil act. It took time, practice, muscle and flexibility. It took pain.

I’m talking rib crushing body deformation pain. We now know that these contraptions caused curvature of the spine, poorly developed muscles, and caused difficulty in childbirth, even miscarriages and obstructed breathing.

One could argue this isn’t some mass male conspiracy but rather it’s anthropologic. Erogenous zones like the neck, breasts, shoulders, hips and feet have been accentuated by every culture during every time period and that accentuation usually involves discomfort.

And women have not been the only victims of vanity. I’ve got the ghost of George Washington whispering in my ear "You think wearing powdered wigs and wooden teeth were a picnic?"

But the exhibit tells a compelling story, one that not only answers the age-old question: "When in the course of human evolution did woman think girdle?" but it addresses something a little more malevolent.

Witness the hobble skirt. Popular when women fought fiercely for the vote, the skirt was long and tubular. Dainty steps were required just to walk. If circumstances dictated a woman run in such a skirt she literally had to waddle like a penguin. It is said Charlie Chaplin got his signature walk from watching a woman chase her wayward toddler.

And that’s the thing about fashion isn’t it? Too often it goes unquestioned. Today, lingerie stores let out their secret and tell us that long slender limbs and curves in the right places are the ideal body image, to which I say: "Oh really? Pass the gravy."

But who am I kidding? I’ve been known to employ a little Lycra on the rare occasion I literally need my underwear to hold me back, but Lycra is nothing compared to the lengths some women are willing to go. The fastest growing plastic surgery request in Beverly Hills is a "designer vagina." Given the choice, I’ll take the Victorian corset.

But I don’t have to choose. I don’t have to wear tight underwear to appear respectable, I don’t have to wear underwear that makes me look like a window display in Amsterdam, I don’t have to get crazy surgeries to feel pretty and like Sec. Clinton I don’t have to answer a question if I don’t want to.

When it comes to underwear I am a loose woman and proud of it, and that’s how far we have come baby, that’s how far we have come.

Taking notice
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