IN CASE YOU HAVEN'T NOTICED, GIRDLES are back! I've seen at least three articles now that insist they're back! And just days ago there was a half-page ad for "shapewear" in my newspaper. I had to laugh. You say shapewear, I don't picture the sleek, feminine-looking things shown in the ad. I remember the scary beige thing with little rubber threads poking out of it I used to find in the bottom of the clothes dryer.
I'm in my late 20s now, so I came in as girdles were on the way out. Therefore, I have some questions about them, like: How exactly do they work? Where does the unwanted flabbage go? I mean, doesn't the water-balloon theory apply here? If contents under pressure are squeezed from one area, mustn't they end up somewhere else? ("Check out that woman at the bus stop, has she got a great ass or what?" "Yeah, but don't you think her head's a little, well, big?") And is it possible to walk in one?
One step ahead of skeptics like me, undergarment companies are eager to have us know that today's girdle is nothing like your mother's, or her mother's. Today's girdle is made of Lycra (the miracle fabric!), not rubber, and it's not even called a girdle, it's an Under Wonder! Or a Hip Slip, or my favorite, the One-Minute Diet. Whatever they call them, the manufacturers all breathlessly agree that they are the Undergarment of the '90s. Uh-huh. Kind of like shoulder pads were like the undergarment of the '80s, right?
I decided it was time to call my friend Meghann. Meghann is a paralegal with the much-admired (by me) ability to pass immediate, accurate judgment on the trendy but ridiculous. Usually a single word is enough to get her started. "Girdles?" I said in greeting. "Yes?" she said hopefully. "They have great ones at Victoria's Secret." "Say you're kidding," I pleaded. "I'm not kidding," she said. "In fact I'm wearing one right now!"
I may have miscalculated her reaction, but I had indeed gotten her started. She's busy, she explained. With her job, law school, husband, dog and friends to manage, ritual exercise was eliminated months ago, so who can blame her for cheating? Sure they ride up a bit, but they have these great rubbery squiggles inside the hem that kind of grip your leg (What? Ouch!), and who really cares where the unwanted flabbage goes as long as it's not anywhere you can see? It's like having your cake, eating it and hiding it too, she said. Apparently she approved of them.
Feeling very much the sheep, I resignedly herded myself over to a department store and selected three pieces of shapewear to try on. The saleswoman seemed as enthusiastic about it as I was pretending to be. "You'll love these," she gushed as she let me into the dressing room. "In fact," she said with a sisterly wink, "I'm wearing one right now!"
She walked away (suspiciously tiny steps, I noted). Alone, nuclear underwear in hand, I had that threshold-crossing feeling I get when I'm about to do something I remember my mother doing. I did some stretches and yawning in order to open myself fully to the experience, and then tried them on.
I guess I owe the undergarment companies an apology. First of all, they were not scary. They were sort of pretty. And they weren't all beige. One was black and one was a very attractive blush pink. I could walk. And as for the Lycra, I must say there was a certain, almost nice feeling about it. Kind of together. Kind of like if I suddenly felt like power-lifting a piano, I could relax about getting a hernia. And, as Meghann predicted, I'll be damned if my dress didn't look awfully good.
So did I buy one? Am I, in fact -- wearing one right now? No, I didn't, and here's why. One side of me agrees with Meghann. I'm busy. I want to look good, and what do you expect a girl to do? The other side grew up among women who taught me that stuffing oneself into a too-small garment to fit a media-dictated ideal is pathetic and stupid. Though I'll admit to some serious stuffing in my time, some of that advice must have sunk in, because somewhere a little voice in my head is saying: "Girdles are back? Cool! What's next, foot binding?"
Exercise still seems like a better option (at least until the day after Thanksgiving, when I may very well change my mind). And just when are we going to do all this exercise? Don't ask me; I'm still trying to figure that out. The reward for being politically correct has never been a washboard stomach.
While I don't have an answer, I do have a prediction based on what I've observed (and taken part in) over the past several years. First we had aerobics -- no, wait, first we drank Tab and skipped meals. Then we discovered aerobics, but too many overzealous aer-heads sustained real injuries, so we turned to a kinder, gentler version. Liposuction became an option for the truly impatient, and now (again), for the more sensible, girdles. Do you see where this is headed? Be the first on your block to sport the Fashion Must of the Next Century: Buy your muumuu now.
HALLEY SUMNER is a free-lance writer.