By Priyamvada Asthana
My love affair with lingerie began at the precocious age of nine. I still remember the day my mother bought me my first training bras. I remember the busy shop front, and the allure of the salesman bringing out the colourful tiny ‘slips’ with a flourish. Mumma bought me a pack of three. If you asked me to, I could probably describe each of the three in great detail. From the polka dotted fuchsia one to the electric blue one and finally, the royal purple one. I could describe to you their shiny white straps with the little bows made out of satin ribbon affixed to the front of the double strap. I could tell you how proud I felt the first time I wore them and then, proceeded to promptly hang upside down from the jungle gym because I wanted to show them off. The effect wasn’t quite what I had imagined because mumma insisted on a chemise under my tops, but, a love affair was born. The sheer confidence that stemmed from wearing a bra — a beautiful bra — was instilled in me. In later years, it would grow to include all forms of lingerie.
But, as a teenager with large breasts, my options were restricted. When you develop full size breasts, worthy of gracing a much older curvaceous woman at 11 years old, and a scrawny 11 at that, your mother’s primary concern becomes managing your assets. My mother was more concerned about spine problems and sagging breasts than about pretty lingerie. My concerns were quite different. I detested the plain white cotton-strapped bras that were bought for me. I still do. By the time I was 13, it was plainly obvious that sleeping in a bra was my only option if I did not want the twins getting squashed or squashing me. I have never managed to sympathise with people who cannot wait to take their bras off. My bras are the only things preventing me from being suffocated in my sleep. The only concession I make at night is to wear a looser band size. And, in the week preceding Aunt Flo’s visit, I can’t wait to dry myself after bathing so I can put on my bra and be done with the tenderness. However, I digress.
When you’re buxom, there are a few things you find out. Like, you either get a fit in your size or a style you like. The two are largely mutually exclusive. Styles in larger sizes are terribly restrictive. I remember the first set I bought that wasn’t white or plain. Candy striped, pink and white, to my 13-year-old self, it was perfect. Mumma had smiled rather indulgently. I realised why the smile was a touch patronising. I never wore the set after the first time. It was the most uncomfortable set I ever owned. I finally threw it out after almost 10 years of sentimentally hanging on to it. It occupied a corner of my lingerie drawer and never saw the light of day after that time. However, there began my search for lingerie that was both functional and beautiful.
After the first few horrors, I learnt what a bra roll was, that satin was not the thing to wear in the summers because not only did it not absorb sweat, it also caused copious sweating, that there were brands where I could try out my size, but never find a bra that suited me and even a band and cup size four sizes larger than mine refused to either hook or contain my breasts. The upside is that now, if I ever decide I want to look like Ariel from The Little Mermaid, I know the exact brand where I can pick any regular style off the shelf (in my size or large); there’s really no difference, and voila! I can have my own sea shells. Those shells apparently serve a large number of women fairly well since this is a reputable brand. And the sweating! People have waxed eloquent about sweat pooling in the underside of big breasts for as long as I can remember. There have been jokes, frustrations vented, resignation, I could go through the entire range of emotions, and perhaps I’d still fall short. As if the summers weren’t enough, winters would be quite another story — I wouldn’t be spared from the freezing either. Sweat pooled in my cleavage and under my breasts, requiring that the elastic of the band — which, drenched in my sweat, acquired the characteristics of rope, and twisted itself into my back — be dug out. There is something oddly comforting about that too. It defies the seasons. There’s a certain stolid quality to it. And my plain white cotton bras turned yellow from all the sweating. As if I’d needed another reason to hate them.
It took me a few more years to figure out the brands that would suit me. Through it all, mumma burned money, buying me every fancy little bra that I found pretty, knowing I wouldn’t wear it after the first time, all the while stocking up on dependable cotton ones. However, once I figured out what suited me, there was no looking back. The pretty bras turned into beautiful ones. I bought matching knickers in every colour of the rainbow, and then some more. I gradually found that nudes were much better if I needed to camouflage my lingerie. That didn’t stop me from stocking up.
Today, I own enough lingerie that I could open a store of my own. There’s satin and lace and pretty cotton, there are matching knickers. Even as I’ve experimented with styles, I haven’t worn virginal white in years. Boy leg, hipster, high waist, bikini cut, thongs… I’ve tried them all before settling on the style that suited me best. I’ve ensured that any time I want to match my lingerie to my dress, I have a perfect match so that there are no visible lines. And the sports bras! Their neon reinforcements are reassurances that no matter how bad I am at sports, no matter that my breasts are more fat and soft tissue than muscle, they will always hold me tight and strong, always protect me from injury or strain.
Sometimes, when I haven’t worn them for a very long time — as hard as I try to be impartial, I always have favourites — I bring them all out, wash them and hang them out to dry in the shade, because harsh sunlight would damage my beauties, you see. Fluttering in the wind, they blasphemously remind me of Tibetan prayer flags. The difference is that these are symbolic of practical luxury. Those carry prayers with the wind, my beauties carry prayers of a different sort, memories of a different bead, of different names uttered in moments of ecstasy, invocations of gods of a different sort. My lingerie hides my secrets in itself. Some days I wonder, if their prayers are as powerful as the flags they remind me of, if they travel to lovers in distant lands, if the flash of colour under clothes remind them of me.
I invest time and money in my lingerie. I have never managed to figure out why lingerie, while drying, is supposed to be hidden. It isn’t exactly a shameful secret. On the contrary, they’re just clothes, perhaps just as ordinary, just as normal as the ones worn over them. But then, I wonder, how much of the shame associated with lingerie has to do with the idea of owning your sexuality. I wonder if its taboo because female sexuality is an idea that makes people uncomfortable.
People would say I am being extravagant, but I’ve discovered the potent power of beautiful lingerie. Nothing boosts self esteem and self confidence as much as the knowledge that I’m wearing beautiful lingerie. It keeps the posture erect. It has nothing to do with holding the head up high, but it has everything to do with keeping the back straight, the chest out. It supports, uplifts, caresses. Nothing is more important than self esteem and self confidence and beautiful lingerie, I’ve found, has a lot to contribute to both.
In an odd way, it adds bounce to your steps. In many ways, it is an armour, protecting you from the vagaries of the world. No matter what the world thinks of you, if you are in love with yourself, there is nothing that can stop you. This is why I always tell young girls to spend money on themselves, to invest in lingerie. Not because of what lingerie is, but because of what it signifies. To be comfortable in your own skin, to not care what the world outside thinks of you — to own your sexuality is power.