What Lingerie Isn’t About: Why I Hate Compulsory Femininity

Chantal Thomass SS13

Chantal Thomass SS13

The genesis of this post is not one thing in particular, but a many, many things I’ve seen and read and heard all rolled up like an avalanche that finally needs to be addressed.

One thing that annoys me to no end is the way that mainstream media treats lingerie and femininity, as if one cannot live without the other and that lingerie is a necessity for perfect womanhood. Every time I read an article about lingerie in a fashion or women’s magazine, it seems to have an undertone that says, “You really should be wearing lingerie. Lingerie makes you feminine. Lingerie makes you a desirable woman.” And this drives me mad. I call it ‘compulsory femininity’ because it creates a frame of mind in which womanhood is a specific, prescribed path that must be followed a certain way.


Firstly, being a ‘real woman’ has nothing to do with the way I choose to wear lingerie. I have no desire to become the best possible woman according to some arbitrary standard of correct femininity. Whether I choose to dress in a feminine or masculine manner is just that: a choice. And the attributes of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ are arbitrary anyway– I use them as a shorthand because we are all inculcated enough in our culture to know what I am talking about.

But this isn’t just about lingerie– it’s also about how having the ‘right’ body (and the lingerie to get you there) is so tied up in femininity that the body shape to be a ‘real woman’ is all about being a feminine woman. I hate when people assume that everyone has the same goals and want the same body because it makes others believe that they should have the same goals and want the same body. I know that when I still thought I was straight, I would have that deep, unstoppable fear that I would never be attractive enough for a guy to like me, that I would never check all the right boxes.

I just hate this woman vs. woman imagery so much

The ‘Real Women Have Curves’ meme is problematic not only in its suggestion that certain types of bodies are better than others in their size and shape, but also in their suggestion that ‘real women’ should want curves. It goes without saying that curves do not make a woman, but it does need saying that these curves that are so associated with ‘real’ womanhood (and in this situation, an explicitly feminine version of womanhood) can bring an unwanted femininity especially because they are associated with this idea of the classically beautiful (read: classically feminine) woman. I hate when we act like beauty and femininity and curvy bodies are somehow synonymous.

Fenininity is so often tied up with breasts, so it’s no wonder that bras (and by extension, lingerie) have become such an important part of how sexual difference is embraced. As a marker of sex difference, breasts have become a fetishized object of extreme femininity, which is another reason that everyone is so obsessed with bras– beyond the simple mechanics necessary to keep breasts in place.

Playful Promises

To say something that should not surprise any of you (but would shock the writers of every piece I’ve ever read that prescribes feminine behavior), some women do not desire to emphasize femininity. Desiring a more androgynous or masculine appearance is not strange or unusual– and yet the first insult I hear so often is that some person “looks like a man.” And what exactly is “looking like a woman” in this day and age? I am not the best person to be talking about masculinity– there are plenty of other eloquent people out there who can do it. But it also, and secondarily, affects my femininity and makes me sometimes feel like it’s got me in a stranglehold that I can’t seem to wiggle my way out of.

In writing about lingerie, I so often see this emphasis on femininity that can sometimes feel stifling. I fear that the words that I’m writing aren’t mine but have been prewritten by someone else, that loving pink is a cultural norm that I have been hypnotized into believing. One thing I love about lingerie is the way it can transform and control your body– but that control becomes constriction when it doesn’t feel like you have the power to dress yourself.

Rue Magazine at Faire Frou Frou

I’m never going to write a post that tells you what the ‘right’ lingerie to where is or why you ‘should’ be wearing lingerie. When the onus of need or responsibility falls on lingerie, it loses all of its enjoyment. Truth to be told, I have a contrarian streak in me that hates to follow the pack (a streak that had me hating the Spice Girls and the color pink for most of my childhood). If a color is associated with traditional femininity, is it oppressive? There is a toxicity sometimes feels like it runs through the frilly girliness that I love so much, infecting every bow and rosette and piece of lace. If femininity is compulsive, it starts to become a competition. And that’s a competition I never want to be a part of.

All I want is to love my panties in peace, but people tell me how and why I need them is just making that harder.

How do you feel about lingerie’s femininity? Do you embrace it or fight it?

  1. “that control becomes constriction when it doesn’t feel like you have the power to dress yourself.” Love it. Thank you for writing this.

  2. It would be wonderful to see women buying lingerie less because “they should” and it’s the “womanly” thing to do, and more because they truly love the way it makes them feel and look (however that might be).

    Also, I know where the last image is from. It’s a shot from a photo shoot done at Faire Frou Frou for Rue magazine. Here’s the blog post they wrote about it: http://froufroufashionista.blogspot.com/2011/01/rue-magazine-frou-frou-fairytale.html

  3. Thank you so much for writing this! It’s like you took my jumbled thoughts and eloquently transcribed them into this post. It makes me feel a lot better that there are others who are troubled by this too.

  4. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m drawn to things that make me feel happy. Not “Oh, I should wear this because it’ll make me look like a girl,” just, “Oh, this looks fun to wear.” The things that I find most fun to wear tend to line up with modern Western ideals of femininity, but sometimes they don’t. I might wear hiking boots with a pink floral dress, or a black fedora with a satin rose pinned to it. Overall I’d say I’m more high femme than hard femme, but it’s not because I’m trying to conform to a feminine ideal. High femme does tend to be pretty non-conformative, at least where I live, with its over-the-top theatrical quality. But does something have to be non-conformative to prove that it’s not compulsory? I don’t think it does. I believe everyone should find a style that makes them happy, and for some people, what makes them happy is going to line up with society’s fickle, ever-changing ideals if only for a moment. If that happens, enjoy it while it lasts and enjoy your counter-culture cred when fashion changes its mind and you get to be a rebel again.

    • Yes, the fickle nature of fashion definitely makes lining up with any beauty ideal a moving target– I’m so glad you pointed that out. I always try to wear just stuff that I love and make me feel happy and like “me”, but occasionally I still can have a niggling part that says, “Is this the right choice?”

  5. I love this post – but since I just had a huge coffee, I’m too jittery to type up an eloquent response. But seriously, this is one of the reasons I love your blog. Also, your comment that fashion/beauty ideals are a “moving target” couldn’t be more precise!

    • Thank you so much! It means a lot that you say such nice things about my blog and I love it when you all understand exactly what I’m trying to say and where my frustration lies. This definitely is a topic with plenty more to explore (which is why I’m looking forward to Windie Gardie’s promised post!) and I’m definitely going to be thinking more about it and writing more about it because it feels relevant.

  6. Great post hun. This post resonates deeply for me as i’m a slim female who actually feels rather insulted by the whole ‘real women have curves’ thing. so if i’m not overly curvy i’m not a real woman? I’ve actually battled with weight issues my whole life (wanting to put on weight though not lose it) but I’m finally at a stage where i’m completely happy. Ignoring the media and the ideals they perpetuate has helped. I love lingerie and the way it makes me feel and wear it for that reason. Not for men and not because i’m female and should love lingerie.

  7. Love it! I do think this extends to more fashion than just lingerie, but lingerie is so especially charged with sexuality in the societies I know that it’s a great place to start.

    I often find lingerie that’s available in my size to have too much lace or bows to suit my aesthetic tastes. I enjoy wearing power suits, having clean lines and sharp angles. So yes, I consider most lingerie way too ‘girly’, ‘feminine’, ‘pinup’, ‘retro’, etc (note that the terms are quoted because I think they’re loaded but don’t know what to do about that. While I appreciate that the full bust market is trying to give me choices besides ‘dowdy’ bras in the past few years, they aren’t choices I actually want. Busty does not equal all those terms I listed above!

    I wear clothing as a means of expression when I can- if I could find expressive lingerie that’s ‘me’ it would have geometry, stark colors, and clean lines. No bows, ruffles, lace, or flowers. Other male or female persons may adore them for themselves or their partners, but they are not for me. The thing I do now is buy mostly basic lingerie, but if something that does pop up that makes , I’ll invest in it. A bra may have excellent reviews and be comfortable and give great shape, but if it’s carnation pink, I just won’t buy it.

    Thank you for that thought-provoking post.

    • Oh that just reminded me– high school was the worst. I battled clothing conformity so much, until I was desperately convinced that I needed to wear things like that to be attractive..

  8. Women are never allowed to be happy with their bodies. Slim women get told they’re not womanly enough and curvy women get told their fat and that fat is a bad thing.

    Back in high school I was purposely rocking the androgynous look. I didn’t want to wear pink or come off as girly (not that there’s anything wrong with ‘girly’. It just wasn’t what my high school self was looking for.) And shopping was a terror. There was literally nothing in the girls section that could be gender neutral. Everything was body formed and tight fitted or put dumb slogans across the breasts, or pink and frilly. It felt like fashion had decided, ‘this is what girls wear’ ‘you don’t get the funny tee shirts’ ‘you have to show off and look sexy’. There were racks full of clothes and it felt like there weren’t any options. I ended up wearing a lot of boys clothes even though nothing fit me well.

  9. I wonder who writes these articles and pieces that seem to demand a certain style is the correct way, and all must conform ? Are they written by women for women, or do men have a hand in setting these “correct” trends ? I wonder ?
    Everything I have read just goes to demonstrate that there is NO specific type or style, we are all individuals, perfection can be found in all ages body types shapes and sizes, with or without addition and decoration, you ladies are so free to experiment, dress as you like, change and metamorphose into style you desire without the disproval of society, (unlike men, trapped in grey and blue dowdy outfits !)
    So enjoy the freedom you have, ignore the “pink aisle” in Toys R Us etc., be yourself and take no notice of “trend gurus”!

  10. This is a brilliant post!! I choose to wear lingerie that makes me feel good – some days that’s something pink and frilly and some days it might be a t-shirt and bonds (an Aussie undies brand). I don’t like being told that I should wear something because it will make me fit a certain mould and we all need to stop this “real woman” bullshit! Having a vagina makes you a woman (or feeling like a woman if you weren’t born with one of those), not the size of your breasts or curve of your hips! Slim and athletic shaped women aren’t the stuff of fairy tales – they’re very real!!
    I lost weight a few years ago and strongly remember a friend telling me I no longer had a shape because I’d lost my bum and boobs. At the time I felt devastated by those comments and saw the “this is better than this” pic floating around on Facebook not long after and that just twisted the knife! But I feel much better about myself and my shape now and I don’t feel the need to fit with these ideals. I’m happier being fit and healthy rather than trying to turn my body into something it’s never going to be.
    Sorry for the rant, I just think that women need to stop being told and stop telling each other that what we are isn’t enough and that we need to change – all that needs to change is our attitude!

  11. Once again I’m extremely appreciative for your eloquent non-conforming mind and the courage to challenge some deeply ingrained perceptions in our society. It made me think what lingerie means to me, why I choose different styles and colors, and how my choices may or may not differ from those of most other readers of this fine blog (disclaimer: I’m a bio male identified as a bigender).

    As for the “acceptable” body types argument… There’s no doubt that our society is way more judgmental of how women are supposed to look, even if that “look” is not always the most functional, comfortable, or even attainable. I think much of it comes from the capitalist system that wants us to buy stuff. Advertisers often pick on our insecurities, in effect telling us “There’s something wrong with you, but we can fix it. Buy it now!” And for some reason or another women are way more likely to be the targets of those nasty campaigns.

    That said, it should be acknowledged that women (as well as part-time wanabees like myself) generally have more choices with clothing styles, colors, and fabrics.

  12. Thank you for this very good post. I’m as guy wear bra because gynecomastia. I think it’s not important what gender we be. Bra for me is functional clothing to support my boobs. Media coverage to pressure women in sexual role, to enhance their feminity I don’t understand. Feminity and masculinity – I think this would be terms to control our behavior.

  13. I just want to say I love this post, and I love that you’re making these unspoken issues public, and I love that you’re sparking so many interesting and important conversations. 2013 is going to be your year.

  14. I 1. totally agree with Cora, thanks for posting this Caro. And congratulations for your feature on The Lingerie Addict — 2013 is definitely the year of The Lingerie Lesbian. You always bring a unique perspective to the lingerie table, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this!

    “There is a toxicity sometimes feels like it runs through the frilly girliness that I love so much, infecting every bow and rosette and piece of lace. If femininity is compulsive, it starts to become a competition. And that’s a competition I never want to be a part of.”

    I think anyone who wears lingerie has his or her own reasons for it. I personally know that I’m more confident when I’m wearing lingerie that makes me feel sensual. This might sound selfish, but I hardly ever buy it with my partner in mind… and media that markets lingerie as such (of course, especially now, with Valentine’s Day coming up) make me cringe because they take advantage of the insecurities that society creates around women and the issues they have with their own bodies and present lingerie as a solution (i.e. if I buy this set, I’ll look like Gisele).

    I applaud your refusal to succumb to this marketing mess, as I think it can be quite difficult (as a consumer) to be immune to compulsive femininity. Thank you for bringing some dark issues to light. :)

  15. As a freelance model for a little over a year, I learned how narrow the society’s idea of what a woman is supposed to look like.

    Here in Southeast Asia, we are brainwashed into thinking that fair skinned, long haired, C-cupped and above, skinny bodied, lanky limbs are the “ideal”. Yes, nothing is wrong with any of those features but what about everyone else?

    Countless times I have been told that I should grow my hair long and/or get bigger breasts because it’s “better”. In their eyes.

    I am a straight woman who has been “accused” of being a boy-girl or bisexual. I felt hurt not because it was insulting, it’s not because I wish I am attracted to women but I am not, I found it hurtful because it was used as an insult!

    I have made the decision to shave my head next month (in time for Chinese New Year) to give these idiots who think they know what the “ideal” woman is supposed to look like a slap in the face.

    There’s nothing wrong with having a flat chest or dark skin or short hair or muscular thighs or anything!

    Too often I see ads that say otherwise :(

    I hope one day with my work in writing and modelling, I can change the perception of the public.

  16. “All I want is to love my panties in peace…” EXACTLY what I feel whenever my mother picks up one of my more interesting pairs and asks me “And who are we wearing THIS for?”. Me. My underwear. Put that down.
    Thank you for a great article!

  17. Just saw that Jezebel reposted this–congrats on the exposure! I wanted to visit your site again before it crashes with all your new visitors =)

  18. You know I feel really bad for straight women because so often it seems like they are willing to get laid by anything and will grovel for a compliment from any gross dbag on the street. That impression is just from what I see on a daily basis. I personally find insults and compliments from strangers alienating and gross, mostly because I didn’t ask for an opinion. I’m sorry your blog just reminded me of my morning commute!

  19. I’m not entirely sure how to respond because each paragraph presented another, “AHA!” moment, and same with many of these comments. Thanks for continuing to confront issues like these, constructions, binaries and essentialisms that are so easily overlooked. The skinny vs. curvy woman is frustrating for me because I lie in the middle, as surely millions of others do.

    On a random note, I’ve met a few hippie girls that don’t focus on their outward appearance, let their leg and body hair grow wild and (presumably) don’t invest into lingerie — they were some of the most beautiful, inspiring people I’ve met! Perhaps it has to do, really, with self-esteem and being comfortable in ourselves. It’s difficult trying to navigate in a society that never stops poking until we’re uncomfortable.

    Your blog is fantastic!

    • Thanks so much! I certainly think that there are plenty of totally gorgeous people who don’t care about clothes/lingerie etc– it’s all about what makes sense to you and what means something to you, and not telling other people how they should or should not present themselves.

  20. I LOVE presenting as androgynous or with masculinized femininity (if that term makes any sense?). The reaction I often get when I do is usually along the lines of “but you’re so PRETTY and NATURALLY FEMININE, you done have to dress that way!” Well no, but I like to! Blurring my gender presentation is wonderfully freeing. I can feel like myself either in a fitted suit, or with sparkly makeup and a pretty dress. I can be ANYTHING, and still be me. I love it.

    I’ve never been terribly comfortable with lingerie, but admittedly I haven’t had much inclination to experiment with it. I don’t think I’d bother to get any just for myself, it would be an experience I’d want to share with someone else. However, that someone would have to accept and appreciate my own tastes and desires for what I want in it. I wouldn’t bother sharing it with them otherwise, any more than than I’d share my favourite books with someone who doesn’t care for what I like to read.

  21. Dear L.L.,
    I don’t know where to ask my question so herev it goes: do you have an idea as to what percentage of your followers are lesbian, gay, straight, female or male ?
    All the best.

  22. Pingback: One Year Blogiversary and Angela Friedman Corset Giveaway | The Lingerie Lesbian

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