The day after Valentine’s, Jenny Erikson blogged on The Stir about taking her 9-year-old daughter underwear shopping. This mundane bit of parenting trivia wouldn’t have caused a blip on the radar were it not for the fact that she mentioned where she was going: Victoria’s Secret. The post, which generated 73 comments and 443 shares on Facebook, caused such a “stir” that the American morning show Good Morning America hit Erikson up to do a segment.
After a clip showing Erikson and her daughter talking about their thoughts on underwear, the anchors brought in Mel Robbins, a relationship expert, who offered the following commentary: “I think this mother is asking for it. All you have to do is roll the clock forward four or five years — if you’re buying that nine-year-old lingerie, they’re going to be Snapchatting that lingerie in a matter of years, to their friends.”
The message is clear: if you let your nine-year-old near “adult” undergarments, you’re going to turn her into an unrepentant sext-fiend, a modern (if digital) version of the town slut. It doesn’t even matter what kind of underwear Erikson buys her daughter — the mere fact that she is taking her into a Victoria’s Secret store is sufficient to turn her into a total nympho. Really?
I fail to understand this logic, but then, I’m not American. Long before the age of nine, I knew about the available types of underwear for a very simple reason, imparted by my mother: one’s outfit should convey intent. Intent means putting thought into every detail. That begins with knowing where one is going; if the occasion is casual, it is not appropriate to overdress and similarly, if the occasion is formal, it is not appropriate to strut in wearing jeans. Long before nine, I knew there was a difference among business, black tie and white tie. I rarely had occasion for those three, but I knew them from watching my mother dress.
Dressing with intent also means not allowing an outfit to betray what’s underneath. Bra straps, for instance, are not to be seen unless you decide you want them to be seen. Oh, yes, I had halter bras and strapless bras and even a custom one-shoulder bra, as well as the little pasties that do away with one’s nipples in the event that one has no choice but to go without a bra. Similarly, I had a variety of different kinds of underwear, including thongs. Nothing, after all, is less intentional than riding breeches that display those awful lines created by panties. My mother would have disowned me.
By Robbin’s logic, I should have been a nympho by seven. Except I wasn’t. In fact, I found thongs to be insanely uncomfortable and treasured the moments I was able to wear the a-line dresses that allowed me to enjoy full coverage. My rebellion was boxers!
That said, none of the smaller types of underthings had any sexual connotations for me whatsoever. Even lingerie, which my mother also introduced me to before I was a teenager, was never about sex. Lingerie was the one underthing you could get that had nothing to do with an outfit going on top of it. Sure, I suppose you could wear it to school if you wanted, like your little secret hidden under your uniform but why? Lingerie was about dressing up in something small and delicate that enshrined you instead of covering you.
I didn’t think about lingerie as being something one used to attract sexual attention until I arrived in the United States. Here, women buy lingerie for “special occasions” that usually involve a partner or sex. This wasn’t the case for me growing up. Even now, lingerie for me is about the woman wearing it. It is selected for her body with nothing else in mind but the sheer pleasure of lounging around listening to Carlos Gardel, unwinding, catching up on correspondence and staring off into space “contemplating infinity, darling,” as my mother says. It is a part of the ritual at the closing of a week full of business deals and social events where a woman removes the phone from its cradle, strips the outfit she selected that morning (full of intent), takes a long bath, then dresses in something that enshrines her physical form with no one in mind but herself!
“Always buy lingerie like no one but you is ever going to see it,” I remember my mother telling me. And even today, there are pieces of lingerie I own that no one will ever see. These pieces are for me, for my little rituals. That’s not to say that I think there is anything wrong with sharing our likeness dressed in lingerie with lovers, of course. My point is that nothing is inherently sexual. Clothing is as sexy as we decide it is. When I look at pictures of women in lingerie in men’s magazines, I think of them as sexy not because the women are in lingerie, but because these images are giving the viewer entry into these women’s private moments. That’s the notion that I grew up with.
What notion are we bringing our daughters up with? If you put a mother on television and shame her for taking her daughter shopping for “cute” underwear, what are you doing but imposing your views of said garment on all your viewers? Frankly, I find Mel Robbins’ views more damaging than all the g-strings in the world.
The only thing about this entire conversation that I think my mother would find distasteful is the fact that the directives seem to be coming from everyone except the mother in question. No television host can tell you how to raise your kids, and while your kids should have a say in how they self-express, they should not dictate to parents when they are to be taken shopping or where.
Dressing with intent means being aware of what’s appropriate for a given occasion and letting that be the guideline for self-expression, not living your life based on what’s trendy or what your peers are wearing.
Header image by Amanda Cabral.