“Are you looking for anything in particular?” My boyfriend asked me as we ambled down the sidewalk toward the subway station by our apartment. I was on my way to meet with Cora Harrington, the founder and editor-in-chief of the delightful and immensely popular intimates review blog, The Lingerie Addict. It was Labor Day, and we’d made plans to go lingerie shopping together in Manhattan.
I smiled a bit shyly. “I don’t know. Is there anything you want me to buy?”
It felt instinctual to ask for his thoughts on the matter, since ostensibly he would be the chief beneficiary of my purchase. But immediately after I asked, I felt a little icky. Was I really meeting with the body-positive queen of lingerie to help pick out a visual treat for my man?
Later when we meet, Harrington tells me, “I’m not trying to be sexy.”
We’re standing in the middle of a small, lavender-themed boutique surrounded by satin teddies, brassieres with completely open cups, and racy two-piece sets consisting of straps and lace panels and little else.
I’d gotten there a little early and had worked myself into a nervous tizzy looking through the store’s selection before Harrington arrived clad in an elegant afternoon dress and started asking me detailed questions about my underwear preferences.
Harrington is a woman on a mission. She wants to open the world of lingerie to absolutely everyone by providing accessible, in-depth information about intimate apparel of all kinds. She wants to reframe our current attitudes toward it. In addition to fueling the blog, that mission is also the backbone of her new book “In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear and Love Lingerie.”
“I grew up in middle Georgia, a hundred miles from the closest lingerie boutique. I didn’t grow up in a place where I had access to all of this,” Harrington tells me later. She figured she could save her readers the time and effort it took her.
“In Intimate Detail” includes a detailed guide to figuring out your breast shape and which bras fit best for it, history lessons on the various categories of lingerie, a glossary of all the relevant terms (plus-size vs. full bust, gussets and welts, chemises, caftans, babydolls, etc.), a step-by-step instructions for how to wash items, and appendices addressing the specific underwear concerns of pregnant people, menopausal people, trans women and nonbinary people.
I tell Harrington about my interest in strappy one-pieces and high necklines. I tend to gravitate toward black because it screams “sexy” and makes me look older. I hate anything that emphasizes how small my breasts are.
“But I guess I shouldn’t be thinking about that stuff with the whole body-positivity thing,” I say. “What about you? What kind of stuff do you like to wear?”
Harrington first assures me there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me wanting to pick out some purposefully sensual pieces for special occasions.
I envy her confidence immediately.
She loves silky robes and classic slips, things she can wear around the house to feel comfortable but indulgent. I hadn’t really realized robes would be considered lingerie. Lingerie includes everything from the skimpy get-ups I’d envisioned to pajama sets, camisoles and tights.
After about 15 minutes of walking around the store, I end up in a dressing room with several sets of lingerie, most of which are loungewear.
I stare at myself in the mirror, dressed up in the first set: a sheer, pastel pink three-piece consisting of a frilly bralette and a loose-fitting panty peeking through underneath some ruffled tap shorts. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever worn before. It’s not an overly sexual outfit by any means, and I can neither imagine myself wearing it on an anniversary with my boyfriend, nor is it something I could hang out in the living room if any of my other roommates were home.
And yet something about the way it loosely frames my body, highlighting my breasts and hips in a pale rosy color, causes my heart to flutter. I smile and pose in front of the mirror.
It took me a very long time to embrace my body. Growing up, my mixed-race features made me a perplexing outlier. I was far from “pretty” according to white American beauty standards, but even among fellow Asian Americans, I felt out of place and unattractive. Compounding the unfamiliar ethnic features were my gangly limbs and flat chest. Even when I began to embrace my mixed identity and love my unique facial structure, my body still failed to qualify as anything close to conventionally “sexy” or “desirable.”
Bra shopping, fitting, and maintenance were all excruciatingly awkward and anxiety-inducing; there always seemed to be space between my bust and the cups, no matter how I adjusted the sizes and straps. Small is the only way I can describe the feeling. Bras, for so long, made me feel very small.
Most of my experience with lingerie has been fraught with frustration, self-consciousness, and desperate deference to a male partner’s opinion. Even as I got older and more confident in body, I simply started to accept that sexy, quality lingerie was not for me. I was too scrawny, too brown, too flat-chested. To me, accepting these facts was me finally gaining a mature sense of self-awareness, a better understanding of what my “style” should be. This was growing up.
Lingerie can be viewed as a physical manifestation of a culture’s rules and values, Harrington explains. The American view of lingerie is crafted around a few guiding principles: A woman’s body is unruly, and so it must be hidden from public view. At the same time, it must also be attractive according to current beauty standards dictated by a male gaze.
She cites America’s “obsession with the T-shirt bra” as one of the clearest examples of the strange byproducts of the country’s puritanical roots.
“If you go to France, for example, there’s a culture of lingerie there where the idea is you wear these beautiful bras for yourself because you enjoy them, and they complement your outfit. They complement your attitude for the day. They complement your personality,” she says.
“The most popular bra in America is a beige T-shirt cup or a beige contour cup, and that says some really specific things about what we think about women’s bodies and how those bodies should look,” she adds.
At the same time as women are being told to change, fix or hide their breasts from the world, they’re also being told to perform a certain breed of sexuality. Lingerie originated for completely practical purposes – supporting a person’s bust physically, or protecting expensive clothes that couldn’t be washed regularly from the sweat and grime of human skin, for example – but current conceptualizations of lingerie still assume this whole fashion category is only for sexual activities and nothing else.
“It’s only for your presumably male partner. It’s never just for you. And that affects what people feel comfortable buying,” Harrington says. “So many people think, ‘Oh, if I don’t have a boyfriend, then I can’t buy something nice.’ Or they think, ‘Oh, well, my boyfriend won’t appreciate it so I can’t get it.’ It’s another way of shifting your own wants or desires away from yourself and to a guy. That’s patriarchy.“
Add that to the pressure to live up to the same ultra-thin, busty supermodels we keep seeing in the media these days, and it’s no wonder many people find lingerie so intimidating, inaccessible, and even hostile to attempt to approach.
She wants to transform our current conception of undergarments from one of shame, fear, and people-pleasing to one of personal expression, comfort and empowerment.
I keep running my fingers over the sheer three-piece, Harrington points out. Even as I’m trying on the rest of the items, my hands keep returning to the frilly set. Later when the two of us are sitting in the dressing room together discussing all the options I’d tried, I was still lovingly opening and folding the same set in my lap over and over as we talked. That’s how you know it’s “the one,” she tells me.
At the cash register, my total rings up at a little over $150, including an $8 bottle of special lingerie wash.
I play it cool, but it feels like a breakthrough. I’d only ever envisioned myself in sultry black or seductive red lingerie. And yet, it now seems obvious to me: My entire room is shades of that same blush pink, from my bedsheets and curtains to my towels and rugs, and I wear primarily large, oversized clothing. All these years, my desperate desire to be read as “sexy” and “mature” when my outerwear came off had kept me from realizing those same colors and shapes I loved in all facets of my life would obviously appeal to me in intimates as well.
I’m waiting for a lazy Saturday when I can truly pamper myself by putting the outfit on. It’s a radiant treat I have saved up for myself, pocketed for a rainy day. Or a sunny one, even.