Oh the shame. Maybe shame is too strong a word. The horror; that first unguarded glimpse of someone who looks vaguely familiar reflected in a glass paned window. Shuffling passed, wheeling a stroller, you wonder whose body is that attached to my head? Breasts racing to a finish line at the navel; who would walk around like that?
It was this bracing moment after the birth of my second child that brought me into a coveted neighborhood lingerie shop in Greenwich Village just a few blocks from my apartment. I had read an article in the New York Times about the store, La Petite Coquette, and its formidable owner, Rebecca. She was saddened to see from her perch on University Place, the number of women ignoring the simple fix of the right undergarment. Busy raising my kids, I thought (evidence to the contrary be damned) my body looked the same as pre-pregnancy until one day I couldn’t ignore the truth anymore. Now in my late thirties, it was time to re-evaluate the inventory.
Seven years into motherhood, my overall appearance had a whiff of giving up; clothes, utilitarian; hair, an afterthought. A little mascara, always–I was not a heathen. However, nothing is more revealing then seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes. This became abundantly clear to me when I bumped into a former colleague from work. He was stepping out for lunch with his new work friends, all dressed like grownups. Me, I was straddling the kinds of clothes I wore as an 11 year old (baggy jeans, sneakers, hoodie) mixed with mom-wear (multi-pocketed jackets stuffed with mini CSI scenes of broken cars and headless Goldfish).
Passing the store on the way to the playground, the windows silently beckoned. Like an alternate universe, the minimally-dressed mannequins were oblivious to seasonal change. Their faces were static but I knew what they were thinking: come in, shed the denim and corduroy. So with that in my head, I crossed the doorway’s threshold where the world inside was all rosy-hued, and smelled great; a smoky, seductive incense odor.
Hopeful that I could just run into the store, pick up an all-purpose white bra, and leave unnoticed, I met Rebecca head on. First lesson learned—she does not sell white bras. Apparently it wasn’t just my laundering skills; whites look dingy in short order, therefore they are verboten.
For the next hour I tried on everything she handed me. With each fitting she surveyed, evaluated, and revised her decisions. She gave me a t-shirt to try on with each one so I could see what the world would see. The world at this point consisted of me, the park, a husband oblivious to my shape-shifting ability, and moms too tired to string words together to comment.
Every dressing room was filled. I wondered if, like me, they were all breaking out in a sweat, their faces alternating shades of pink, trying on bra after bra. Maybe they were anticipating romantic plans for their purchases, giddy and excited to show them off. Soon they would be exiting, continuing on their perky road, whereas I was on lockdown.
Up until this point, my personal choice, sports bras, were for sheer comfort. They were reminiscent of the undershirts I wore in grammar school. As a grownup with a slightly different body, I knew the uni-boob look was not attractive. On desperate laundry days, nursing bras got dragged out, but wearing them once your child is no longer nursing, is just embarrassing.
My conversation with Rebecca was mainly ‘underthings’ related when suddenly she asked what my sign was. Hoping she was about to share some secret female information, I said Pisces. She responded with, ‘Yeah, I thought so.’ Trying on yet another basic number, I gave in and asked why. “I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I guess because you are easy.’ Easy? Well, I did try on 47 different bras. But wasn’t it really for the greater good that I would be one less woman drooping down the street?
When Rebecca was finally satisfied that I was presentable, I felt pretty good, or maybe just relieved. I bought 4 pieces; two for t-shirts, two for the possibility of wearing something that I didn’t just pull over my head. Thanks to this woman’s singular obsession, I was ready to take on the park with renewed confidence.
Years later I can still hear Rebecca’s proclamation as she passed each dressing room…high and round ladies, high and round!