I’m wearing a hot pink bra and matching thong. It’s sexy enough to turn my boyfriend on, yet has (just) enough material to hold me in place. The mirror in the department store dressing room has three lighting options: office, outdoor and evening. It’s currently set to the last, lending my skin a warm, powdered glow. I think, This could work.
Out of curiosity, or a twisted need to confront my worst nightmare, I push the button to office mode. The room dims in blueish tones. The circles under my eyes darken. The vibrant fabric dulls like rotting watermelon against my skin.
I slap the button to outdoor and squint as a blinding glare reflects every flaw of my Casper-white body: the shaving rash under my arms, the lingering sunburn across my chest, the two stubborn bulges along my upper thighs. Now I remember why I haven’t shopped for lingerie in nearly three years – it’s a very specific kind of torture.
The fluorescent number is snapped off and tossed into the reject pile that’s now approaching knee height. I put my clothes back on and skulk out of the dressing room, avoiding eye contact with the saleswoman, who wishes me a good day. I wince knowing hers will be spent cleaning up the carnage of my visit.
You’d think this would be easier by now. I was prepared for this ritual from the first signs of puberty, when Mum bought me my first training bra. She stood behind me in the dressing room, expertly adjusting the straps of the white cotton bralette. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt like life was finally starting to happen. But a week later as I entered the locker room to change for afternoon swim practice, I watched the other girls parade around like they were born wearing real bras. Push-up bras. Satin bras. Cheetah-print bras. The kind of bras liked by the boys I liked. Not like mine, a bit loose and lacking, with not much to work with.
‘You’ll grow into it,’ Mum said.
I was well into my thirties when I finally allowed a shop assistant to fit me properly. She stretched her measuring tape over and around my bust while I stood mannequin-still, staring up at the halogen lights.
‘You’ve been wearing the wrong bra size,’ she announced.
‘Not possible,’ I replied.
‘Try these,’ she said, passing me a few samples.
I stood in the dressing room gaping at my reflection; somehow my A breasts actually filled a B cup. I insisted on trying other brands in the new size until the mounting evidence proved she was right. I left wondering how I could get something so fundamental about my body wrong for so long.
After the cruel lesson in sub-par lighting conditions, and with my self-esteem slack around my ankles, I peer up at one last shop. I walk in, collect a handful of hangers and proceed to the dressing room where I stretch, hook and pull my way into each candidate.
No, no, no, no, no. Yes.
The bra is made of blush-pink lace, accented with hand-stitched flowers and playful polka dots. The scalloped edges of the matching underwear smile across my hips. The label reads Made in Italy, and I imagine I’m Monica Bellucci, strutting in stilettos across the cobblestones of Palermo, ignoring the ragazzi yelling, Ciao Bella! from their Vespas.
I glance at the price tag. The set costs the equivalent of a week’s pay.
I think of the bottom drawer of the tallboy at home, already so full it’s hard to close – a wasteland of lingerie that will never be The One but are kept around for Maybe Someday. I’m also unsure my boyfriend will like the colour, and I’m annoyed at how much this weighs on my decision. The saleswoman is anxious to know the verdict, too.
‘You okay in there?’ she asks, knocking on the door. ‘We’re closing soon.’
‘Yeah,’ I mumble. ‘I’ll be out in a second.’
A week passes before I awaken my new Italian dream set from its tissue paper bed. I hand-wash the lace with delicate detergent and lay it on a soft towel to dry. When date night arrives, I slink into the designer number anticipating my boyfriend’s reaction at the end of the evening. Yet not even an hour into dinner, the lace is chafing my skin and I’m squirming in my seat
‘What’s going on over there?’ he asks from across the table.
‘My new bra is really scratchy,’ I say.
‘Is that the expensive one you told me about?’
‘Yes,’ I sigh.
‘I don’t know why you bother. You could totally pull off the no-bra look. It’s way sexy,’ he says, grinning.
I know his comment is well-intentioned, but I’m not the kind of woman who would dare go braless, and his assertion leaves me wondering if he’s ever known me at all.
That night, as I rub cream onto the rash along my bustline, I wonder why lingerie is still so damn complicated. What is the point of wearing a harness that binds my chest every single day? And why do I feel incomplete without one on, even if it’s murderously uncomfortable?
Maybe the undergarments aren’t solely to blame; no stretch of elastic or foam padding or underwire can make me okay with the not-so-okay parts of my being.
I suspect more training is required.