Gina Barreca: A Girdle is a Girdle is a Girdle

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.

Could you be talked into purchasing a foundation undergarment so restrictive, so unyielding and so draconian it makes a wetsuit look like a nightgown?

This is why I ask: There’s been a pop-up (rarely has the term been so grievously misused) ad appearing in the lower right-hand screen of my computer, which at first seemed only persistent; it turns out, however, to have been irresistible.

It offered me a product that would, through cunning and science, give me a better figure.

This week, I relented. Casting my integrity to the winds, I clicked on the link.

What I saw made me gasp, then wince, then toss my head and offer the hollow laughter of film sirens who’ve discovered their boyfriends were no-good, gun-slinging liars.

The website was selling girdles. They didn’t call them that, but that’s what they were.

A girdle is a girdle is a girdle.

I grew up watching early women’s-rights activists burn their bras and girdles.

Now times have changed and women are putting their undergarments into the flames for a different reason: They’re doing it to forge the steel infrastructure more thoroughly by placing them in the refiner’s fire.

That’s why they’re called foundation garments, they’re made of metal and concrete. They’re supposed to support the whole structure, from the bottom up and the inside out.

These new products differ from the girdles worn by women of my mother’s generation only insofar as there are now girdles for the legs, girdles for the arms and girdles for an adult’s entire body.

Turns out you don’t just have to flatten your stomach anymore. You have to flatten your whole self.

I started looking at various other links for women’s foundation garments, there are more than 28 million entries, so I narrowed my search to the first 75,000, and it seems as if the most popular brand at the moment is a product called Spanx.

Name aside, I don’t believe this product has anything to do with the act of spanking because, as far as I can tell, the hand of the person attempting such an act would ricochet off the taut trampoline-like surface of the fabric and in all probability cause the spanker to put out an eye or cause severe damage to his (or her, but you know would be his) wrist.

In some cases, of course, that would be appropriate.

But what might start out as playful could become deadly and we should all remember that, especially before wearing an item of clothing that resembles a lace-edged iron maiden.

The premise behind Spanx is this: if you put Jell-O into a thermos, it won’t remember it’s Jell-O.

This realization did not prevent me from wondering whether I might not be wise to purchase one. I’ve always been fond of thermoses, which are the cleverest of appliances. You put in a hot beverage, it keeps it hot; you put in a cold beverage, it keeps it cold. As the old joke goes, “How do(es) it know?”

But so-called “shapewear?” It turns out they’re not so intelligent. That’s why smart broads were eager to shed them.

Today’s advertising rhetoric says they will “smooth” your silhouette, which sounds rather comforting and benign, but with a little research (reading another 48,000 articles) a person can start to believe in conspiracy theories concerning the deviousness of underwear manufacturers that rival those put forth by UFO abductees.

Researchers argue that these arcane garments will cut off the circulation of blood to several of your favorite major organs, especially those having to do with digestion, and cause reflux, heartburn and flatulence.

Given that the fabric is virtually airtight, I picture ladies, smooth ladies, every one, wafting toward the ceiling at the end of a gala evening and bobbing up there like so many balloons.

Surely at some point they, and their self-esteem, deflate and return to earth?

So you’ll not be surprised that I decided to skip the equation that beauty equals bondage, even when it’s trying to pass itself off as a textile buttress.

Women don’t need to bring back the whalebone in our corsets; what we need is to develop enough backbone to be comfortable in our various shapes and sizes.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

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