WonderBras: Is Feminism Wasted on Women?

September 05, 1994|By TIM BAKER

I've been having this recurring nightmare. It's always the same thing. I'm sitting at the breakfast table. I open my newspaper. There's a full-page ad. The headline blares: WonderJock

Goes on Sale

Monday at Noon.

I'm standing in a long line at a men's store. Hundreds of other guys are there. We're all buying these new miraculously uplifting jockey shorts. Some men are putting them on before they even leave the store.

In my dream I'm trying to put on a pair too. But they don't seem to fit. I can't get comfortable in the underwire foundation. The angled panels pinch my legs. I can't figure out where the fiberfill pads are supposed to go. For one awful moment, I'm afraid I've got the whole thing on backward.

The thought of wearing it out the door terrifies me. Suppose I get caught in a thunderstorm? I don't even know if this thing's grounded. Worst of all, what if somebody sees me?

When I finally wake up in the morning, I breathe a sigh of relief. It was only a bad dream. Thank heavens, I don't have to put up with that nonsense.

How do women stand all the contraptions and concoctions they use? Stockings and hair curlers, girdles and pantyhose. Mascara, permanents, high heels and falsies.

Now women's fashion has escalated to these new padded push-up bras. It's not just the wondrously advertised and breathlessly awaited WonderBra. There's Super-Uplift, It Must Be Magic, Intrigue, It Really Works and the Miracle Bra. They're all engineering marvels made of latex, underwires, fiberfill, straps, panels and lace.

Feminists must be beside themselves. High technology has stabbed them in the back. It's invented another way for women to contort their bodies to make themselves more sexually alluring to men.

For 30 years, feminists have been fighting a valiant war against the sexual objectification of women. Nothing's aggravated them more than the macho male's obsession with big breasts. But just when feminists hoped they might finally be changing men's attitudes, they look behind them and see their own troops breaking rank, racing off to the nearest department store, and buying these bosom stuffers.

Victoria's Secret has sold a million Miracle Bras in the last year, and a WonderBra is sold every 12 seconds. For some women, these bras may be more comfortable or provide a better fit. But that's not why they are flocking to buy them. By now, you have to wonder if feminism isn't wasted on women.

Of course, some women still blame men. ''Look what you make us do.'' Apparently, there will always be some women who see men only as oppressors and themselves only as victims. But intelligent women realize they must take responsibility for the manner and means by which they display and conduct their sexuality, just as they expect men to take responsibility for the ways in which they respond to it.

Women who flaunt and manipulate do as much harm to gender relations as men who hoot and harass. In fact, the women's behavior may be more damaging because it reinforces old stereotypes which undermine the credibility of feminism's social critique and the seriousness of women's aspirations.

The truth is that America's on-going culture wars about gender issues are not fought by battalions of women attacking entrenched armies of men. It's never been that way. Women joined with men to create and maintain a sexist society and a sexist culture. Together they worked out the gender roles and stereotypes that still restrict and oppress both sexes. That arrangement was, and still is, enforced by women as often and as effectively as men.

A generation ago, however, brave and determined women set out to challenge the prevailing consensus. Some men joined them. Some women didn't. Today some women want more change. Some want less. Others want everything to go back to the way it was. Men are divided on the issues too.

Sexuality arouses and aggravates these controversies and conflicts. It's a vulnerable arena for both women and men. We all want to be attractive. The media exploit our vulnerability. Movies, television and magazines bombard us with unrelenting messages.

For women, it's their bodies. They must be beautiful and thin and have big breasts. For men, it's their status. They must be rich and powerful and drive fast cars.

So far, men haven't rebelled against the cultural expectations pounded into them. By and large, we dutifully soldier on, from high school sports through high-pressure careers.

But feminists have fought back. It's been one of their toughest struggles. They're up against a vast machine -- the multi-billion dollar women's-clothing, cosmetics and advertising industries. Ms. magazine even went out of business for a while rather than publish the kind of beauty articles demanded by cosmetics companies. Now subscribers must pay much more for their ad-free issues because Ms. won't give up.

Look, however, at just about every other women's and girls' magazine. Watch the content. Month after month, the emphasis is always on appearance. How to look good. How to be sexy. How to lose weight. Count the number of covers emphasizing breasts and cleavage. And while you do, remember that most of these publications are managed and edited, as well as bought and read, by women.

WonderBras aren't the issue. They can be worn appropriately as well as attractively. The real question is how women and men define themselves and each other. When they're used for that purpose, WonderBras and WonderJocks are both bad dreams.

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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