Enlightenment and Lingerie

It is a terrible burden having breasts.

Let me amend that statement. It is a terrible burden having large breasts. Large breasts are an unfortunate yet undeniable reality of being a woman. They are something every preteen in a training bra longs for but an unwanted annoyance once they arrive. They’re like your period – highly anticipated until it arrives and suddenly ruins every semblance of normalcy you had worked so hard to achieve. Big breasts are the Kimmy Gibbler of embracing your femininity – annoying and unavoidable, and the more you try to suppress them or pretend they don’t exist, the more apparent they become.

Large breasts make every aspect of life more difficult through small yet highly irritating inconveniences. They invite unwanted attention, scrutiny and comments from people who don’t actually know you well enough to be commenting on the size/shape/overall aesthetic of your chest but who do so anyway. They become the center of outfit planning (“Is this shirt too low cut for a business meeting?”), dressing room visits (“I need a bigger size because it’s too tight in the chest”), and brunches with your girlfriends (“At least you have a woman’s cup size! I’m over here in a 32A like a preteen!”). They get in the way every time you go to the gym, despite your best efforts to buy an ultra-minimizing sports bra that won’t leave them bouncing like two sugared-up toddlers on a trampoline when you hit the treadmill. They collect crumbs when you eat a muffin while wearing a v-neck. They become the only thing your significant other ever wants to focus on, despite the numerous other alluring erogenous areas of your body. And, perhaps worst of all, they make shopping for undergarments a bitch.

At one point it became apparent to me that I needed to invest in some new bras, mainly because I realized I only had one that fit me properly without gaping weirdly under my armpits or digging into my under-boob area. Being a well-endowed woman, I’ve always been jealous of my small-chested sisters and friends who can pick up a cute polka-dotted, soft-as-a-baby’s-bottom cotton bra from the Target lingerie section during their weekly grocery shopping trip, throw it in the cart, and know that it will fit them more or less like a glove when they try it on in the comfort of their own home later.

I can’t do that. I must set aside a sizable chunk of my afternoon to undertake such a task. I can’t just meander through the Target bra aisles during a routine shopping trip, lest my frozen fruit thaw completely during my search for an under wire that won’t poke my ribs. No, I must scour the lingerie department for bras that actually come in my size. Then I must carry eight different styles to the fitting room and try not to act embarrassed when the fitting room attendant counts all the bras to make sure I’m not going steal them by walking out of the store with multiple bras on beneath my t-shirt or whatever. I have to try on that many different bras to make sure the straps won’t slice through my shoulders, the hooks won’t pinch my back fat, and the cups are big enough that my breasts aren’t spilling over the lacy fabric like bread dough rising out of a mixing bowl. But I’m sure the seventeen year-old 34AA fitting room employee doesn’t understand this, so I just fake a smile and proceed into the tiny, fluorescent-lit stall with eight bras and all that is left of my dignity. In short, bra shopping is something that rarely ends well for me, so it is something I try not to do very often.

Unless, of course, I am in desperate need of a well-fitting bra. Which, as I tried on a bunch of outfits after Christmas and noticed how saggy and unsupportive my once-cute bras had become, it turns out I was. So I gathered up all my self-confidence and strength and headed to one of my least favorite places on earth: Victoria’s Secret.

As a self-respecting feminist, there are a lot of things I could hate about Victoria’s Secret. The name itself, the marketing, the stick-thin models, the tendency to put sexualized phrases on the buttocks region of various articles of clothing, or the fact that it enforces the very concept that lingerie should be so important to a woman that she spend upwards of sixty dollars on one bra, the purpose of which is merely to support her bosom. I could refuse to shop there because the store goes against all the beliefs my strong, independent mother imparted on me when I was a young girl, and that would be a good enough reason. But really, I just don’t shop there because the store terrifies me.

Walking into Victoria’s Secret should be like walking into the Mecca of colorful undergarments. Unlike Macy’s or JCPenney, they sell bras and underwear with fun patterns, bright colors and exciting designs – there are no simple nude or black bras on display here. There are stripes, polka dots, lace, rhinestones and tiny hearts everywhere you turn. Walking through this store delights the senses and makes you excited to browse their extensive collection of thongs, hipsters and boyshorts. At least, that is the assumption the Victoria’s Secret Gods made when designing their store, and they are probably right, at least when it comes to their average clientele (read: sexually active teenagers and middle aged women looking to please their husbands).

Instead, for me walking into VS is like walking into a nightmare, a dizzying maze of bright hues, glittery signs, and luxury fabrics that I don’t think my boobs or butt are worthy of. I have breasts that sag more than a normal 24 year-old’s should and an ass that is flat in all the wrong places. How dare I shop in this well-lit land of perky boobs and firm butt cheeks? Victoria may have a secret, but it has nothing to do with cellulite.

Regardless of my inherent fear of this vomit-inducingly pink lingerie store, I knew I had been doing bra shopping the wrong way for most of my adult life, and so I decided to try it fresh by hitting up the Victoria’s Secret Semi-Annual Sale. You know, the one the scantily-clad supermodels wearing fake angel wings breathily moan about to you in commercials every few months. While the prices included in this “sale” don’t really match up with my idea of what is thrifty, I still figured I’d save a decent chunk of change considering I needed to invest in multiple bras to save my poor, unsupported breasts. I went the Monday after Christmas, naively assuming that the mall would be less busy after the weekend and I wouldn’t have to sidestep all the bleach-blonde teenagers and their Botoxed moms when I got to the store. However, I had forgotten that not only were all of said bleach-blonde teenagers still on winter break from school, but they had hardcore Christmas cash burning holes in the pockets of their pre-destructed, “vintage”-wash Abercrombie & Fitch jeans. As soon as I stepped into the store, I had the immediate impulse to leave again, but I swallowed my fear and made myself do a lap through the entire place before leaving.

Not even knowing what size I needed, I found a few cute styles in prints that I actually liked, and grabbed the first “big boob size” I could find. Victoria’s Secret has these weird dresser drawers organized by size beneath each style that is on display, so you literally have to dig through a drawer of bras to find the one you want, just as if you were in your own bedroom (if your bedroom surfaces consist only of mirrors and white and black plexiglass). After tugging each bra out of its tightly packed drawer and making a mental note to refold all the clothing in my own dresser once I got home, I hesitantly approached the fitting room.

The Victoria’s Secret fitting rooms are designed to make you feel simultaneously like a soap opera star and a low-end stripper. (How else are they going to convince you to spend half of your paycheck on lingerie you don’t need?) Each black and white stall resembles a celebrity’s dressing room, adorned with playful nicknames in pink script – certainly fancier and shinier than your run-of-the-mill department store fitting room stalls. When the fitting room attendant leads you to a room, she makes sure to introduce herself, ask your name, and motion to a tiny doorbell-like device on the inside of the stall, labeled “press for service.” This is how you alert the employee that you need additional sizes, or maybe that you’re ready for them to send in your first lap-dance client – the fine details of the button escape me. I watched a few other girls enter the fitting room area, their arms loaded up with push-ups and demis and balconettes of every color and pattern imaginable. I couldn’t help but assume I was the only idiot in this dressing room who had no idea what she was looking for.

When it was my turn, I followed the fitting room girl, who introduced herself as Ashley, to one of the first doors and listened to her rehearsed routine. “Do you need a bra fitting today?” she asked, just as I was about to close the door in her cute face, desperate to try on my pile of bras, pick one, and get out of there. To be fair, Ashley did seem much more down-to-earth than the rest of the girls working in the store, most of which resembled people I had graduated high school with, complete with the thick black eyeliner, teased hair, and highlights. Ashley wore glasses over subdued purple eyeshadow, her hair hung in its natural curls, and, though she worked in a lingerie store, she was dressed in classic black clothing with no obvious cleavage. I wanted to like her, and I even thought she might be relatively helpful, but instead I quickly stammered in response to her inquiry, “No, er, um, I don’t know, maybe!”

As Ashley rushed off to fetch a 34A for some lucky flat-chested bitch two doors down from me, I turned to face my own reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror behind me. Under the soft, non-fluorescent lighting, I hated looking at myself a lot less than I normally do when I step into a fitting room stall. Kudos, Victoria. I guess your “secret” is your flattering light that doesn’t make insecure women want to go on a juice cleanse every time they try on your lingerie. It wasn’t until I was half-naked and about to squeeze myself into my first hastily-selected lace-covered bra, however, that I noticed the large pink letters at the top of the mirror: “STRIP.” The command seemed ill-timed since I had already done so, but I tried to ignore the fact that the store I was about to throw my hard-earned money at in exchange for a couple of bras and maybe (depending on my strength) some panties was employing signage that would usually only be found in a gentleman’s club.

Of the three bras I brought into the stall with me, none of them seemed to fit quite right. I put my worn-out, saggy bra back on and got dressed again, then, remembering my original mission, pushed the Lap-dance Button to alert Ashley that I needed assistance.

“Madeline?” she called, knocking lightly on the door. I was floored that she remembered my name. “How are those working out for you?”

I opened the door and grinned sheepishly at her. “I think I need to get fitted after all.”

“Awesome!” she chirped, and hopped right into the room with me. Like a seamstress from a Disney movie, she pulled a pink measuring tape from around her neck and instructed me to lift and then relax my arms while she measured around my bust and waist. “I’ve got you at a 36DD,” she announced. “I’ll be right back with some styles for you to try on!” And then she was gone again.

The dressing room stall was pretty sizable, considering its only function is for one woman to try on lingerie and then leave, but there were no seating options within it save one small circular ottoman, upon which I had already piled all my outerwear, my purse, and the reject bras. So instead of taking a seat while I waited for Ashley to flit back into my room, I stood awkwardly, staring at my own reflection beneath the fluorescent pink “STRIP” and wondered what kind of women actually liked seeing their half-naked self looking back at them beneath such a marquee. Strippers, I answered my own question. Strippers like that. Or maybe that’s just what we are supposed to assume. Do real strippers shop at Victoria’s Secret? Or do non-strippers just enjoy feeling like a stripper when they try on lingerie? Do women who are treated like strippers throughout their shopping experience spend more money on lingerie? Have there been studies done on this? Before I could finish pondering the psychological and social implications of the dressing room word choice like the analytical, liberal arts educated dork that I am, Ashley returned with three different plain black bras for me to try out.

As she walked me through the differences between each style and how they were each intended to “enhance” my bust, I half-considered just picking one of them and getting out of there. But Ashley was so excited to show me her personal favorite bra and have me try it on that I couldn’t abandon my mission yet.

Much to my surprise, the size she put me in actually fit quite well. When Ashley knocked on my door a few minutes later to see how things were going, she asked if I would be comfortable with her taking a look at the fit. Half an hour ago, I would have been firmly against another woman ogling my chest, but I didn’t want to refuse her help since she clearly knew what she was doing when it came to bra fittings. It wasn’t until after I let her into the stall, partially undressed in only my sample bra, a pair of gray tights, and knee-high boots, that I realized how long it had been since I last shaved my armpits.

Thankfully, Ashley ignored my stubbly pits (and the fact that I was currently topless with only tights on – not my best look) and examined the fit of the bra, asking me questions about how it felt and what else I was looking for. She then checked on each subsequent bra I tried on to make sure the size was correct for each.

Ashley’s personal favorite bra that she claimed to wear every day herself ended up making my boobs look amazing. It was comfortable, cute, and sexy. When I told her how much I loved it, she clapped her hands and exclaimed, “Yay!” Then, as I exited the dressing room, she handed me a pink card on which she had written my size and circled the styles that I tried on, with a little star drawn next to both of our favorite. She quickly led me through the store to show me where the dresser drawers holding each style were located, and I thanked her for being so helpful. Despite the fact that my only purpose in shopping for a bra was so that I could own an undergarment that properly supported my breasts beneath all the baggy thrift store sweaters that frequent my body during the winter, I suddenly felt excited to browse all the fun colors, patterns, and lace. I didn’t care that no one would see my fancy brassieres, I loved the fact that I was picking them out for me, and that they made me feel confident. If self-confidence is the mission of stores like Victoria’s Secret, then I guess they achieved it. They broke through my stubborn, skeptical exterior and warmed my (non-stripper) heart through the perfect mix of warm lighting, customer service, and well-fitting undergarments. They convinced me to try on things I wouldn’t usually pick out for myself. They helped me find an expensive bra I didn’t mind spending money on.

Though, I’m not going to lie, when I brought my final selections to the cash register and the fake-tanned cashier told me my total was $82.50, my stomach did turn a little bit. But I still handed over my card and watched as she wrapped each bra in hot pink tissue paper and placed them in a fancy bag. That bag, with its hefty price tag and gift-wrapped contents, represented an unexpected and unbelievably positive shopping experience. Despite all my doubts about what that pink striped bag stood for, it reinforced my belief in the power of treating your body well, and trust me, I never expected to be saying that after walking out of Victoria’s Secret.

I guess life still has its little surprises . . . like gaining enlightenment from a lingerie store.

Madeline Allen is a writer and dreamer currently residing in the Midwest. Read more from her on her blog or on Twitter as @madelinemallen.

Featured Image via Shutterstock

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