When I was in college, I worked at Frederick’s of Hollywood. If you knew me back then, you knew this, because it was the only thing I found interesting about myself. It’s how I branded myself in my online dating profiles and dorm hall mixers. I was sexy, I thought I could tell myself, because I sold a perception of sensuality for minimum wage. Someone’s going to love me, I thought. I had a direct line to all the best Tools.
I was good at selling lingerie because I really did believe in its magic. I thought if you collected the right combination of lace, underwire, thigh-high stockings and maribou-topped slippers, you could unlock the secrets to affection. Like a video game puzzle. I stood by the idea that babydolls worn by the Fem-Bots in Austin Powers were great for anybody and that corsets were perfectly acceptable daywear options. Those who disagreed with me (as in, left the store without running their credit card for three digits’ worth of crotchless panties and fringed bralettes) were Hopeless. They’d go and buy their underwear in a plastic-wrapped 5-pack from the same store where they bought cheese and motor oil. These tasteless, boring individuals would rather be comfortable than sexy, and I felt oh so very sorry for them.
I will never be one of THOSE people, I said, putting on a kettle for hubris’s eventual visit.
In the fourteen years since filling out the Frederick’s application on a Lloyd Center Mall bench and taking the employee screener test next to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels (a phone number you called and answered questions like “is it ever okay to steal money from the cash register?” by pressing 1 if yes, 2 if no), I’ve had to reckon with the little white lies that I repeated to myself and my customers. Things like, “thongs are actually way more comfortable than bikinis” and “oh you can totally lace this corset by yourself.” One by one I cast off the tiny beautiful things that I collected with my 30% discount, like the circus-inspired bra and panty set, and the pink satin bustier with the cheetah print ruffles, and the blue silk nightslip that never, never, ever actually covered my ass. These pieces were victims of purges between apartments and the inevitable shift from a 20 year old to 25 year old to 30 year old body. They didn’t just stop fitting my shape, they stopped suiting my life.
I fell in love. I got married. I adopted old t-shirts, my husband’s worn-out boxers and yoga pants as my Evening and Weekend Uniform. Every so often I’d get inspired by an upcoming weekend trip or minor holiday to think, hey, maybe I should get something special to wear. I’d go into Victoria’s Secret (my first lingerie store job, while I was still in high school) and replenish my dose for 2-3 more years of reminders why I never go in there. Up until all the brick and mortar locations shuttered in 2015, I’d go into the old Frederick’s that had long forgotten my former self’s presence there and find the same things I’d peddled all those years ago offered at the full price with none of the idealism. The problems I’d encountered back then remained, but I was no longer able to ignore them for the sake of remaining a best girlfriend candidate. Sleepwear with any kind of support for a woman with a D/DD cup (depending on who you ask) was either padded and lined enough to be wearable but was otherwise a flimsy, skimpy, ridiculous garment you weren’t supposed to wear for longer than 20 minutes at a stretch, or was an elegant and/or functional nightgown with absolutely zero padding or lift. They didn’t just give in to gravity; the stretchy cottons and lacy necklines seemed to bow to it, adding a freakish decade of age to a chest that, honestly, deserves better.
So I gave up on actual sleepwear for all of my post-Frederick’s tenure because, as I discovered time and time again, it “wasn’t made for me.” I collected my literary journal t-shirts from AWP and my yoga pants army and just prayed that I didn’t get invited to any sleepover parties.
Up until last weekend, when I was in Target to get some ~*special occasion*~ nylons. Matt doesn’t like shopping at Target (because he is a non-human who hates joy) so I was making a quick beeline from the entrance to accessories, bringing me past the pajama area that never catches my attention. This is where those 5-packs of underwear live, along with Minions adult onesies. But when I planned to zoom past the area, a burst of tropical flowers caught my summer-hungry gaze. On the corner was a rack of bright nightgowns with the strangest feature I’d ever seen.
“Is this a nightgown?” I wondered aloud, examining a bodice that was much more substantial than most of the dainty sundresses trotted out this time of year. The material was thick and stretchy, like the best kind of sports bra. My hand caught a feel of luscious curved foam–padding.
“THIS NIGHTGOWN HAS PADS!” I screeched as Matt gazed on, off into some distant realm where his Sunday wasn’t spent groping Target nightgowns. This unicorn of a nightgown was $19.99.
“I don’t believe in it,” I told him, “but I have to try it.”
I brought it home. I put it on. I looked in the mirror, and even though they weren’t duct-taped, my boobs were cradled. Protected. Ever-so-slightly lifted. Thought of and taken care of. This was more comfortable than my yoga pants and my t-shirt, and infinitely more beautiful. I have been wearing it every single not-office moment since ripping the tags off and falling in love with every possibility a cute summer house dress holds.
As I created a Target account to order every other print and size the company offered, that 19-year-old voice crept into my head. “Target nightgowns? I thought we weren’t going to give up.”
The depths of my youth’s insecurity keep bubbling up as a bottomless well of fear and need. I heard this old voice, but it wasn’t so much an order as an echo. An old recording I used to run to reinforce my precious, precarious world order. The concept of being simultaneously attractive and relaxed would have sent her into a tailspin. What was it all worth if it didn’t matter?
This is one of the most shimmery facets of being thirty, wanting to feel pretty but also stretch and water the flowers and walk out to the mailbox without needing to change. Knowing that no one gives a shit if you have stupid underwear on, and that the $40 you’d spend on the lace boyshorts at Nordstrom could be frivolously spent elsewhere (on, say, $40 lip colors that make you feel ten times sexier than the underwear ever could). It’s having a ton of fucks and pouring them into all the things that make you happy and fulfilled, instead of what your childhood bedroom pile of magazines promised would fill your heart. It’s working with your tits, not against them.