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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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Lingerie scared me as a teenager. Later, it scared me as a wife, mother – and, perhaps most surprising, even as the owner of a lingerie company. For most of my life, I didn’t know what to wear, how to wear it or what to do in it. That’s what scared me most. Something happened – or was supposed to – when you put on lingerie. Latent expectation lurked behind every seam. Frills and thrills adorned by pouting, scantily clad models fuelled a collective consciousness of sexy.

Growing up in 1974 in Kingston, Ont., I wasn’t sexy. I was 11 years old and had just gotten my first period and my first bra. Playtex provided a solution for both the blood and the boobs. With bras serving a purely functional and utilitarian purpose, lingerie remained elusive, often pronounced in a giddy, stretched out way, “lingerieee.” Girls graduated from training bras to deep plunge, the latter of which disturbingly implied sex. Not yet clear on the differences between first and second base, I definitely didn’t want to wear anything that might suggest otherwise. I wanted a boyfriend to read me poetry on the beach and there didn’t seem to be any lingerieee” for that. So I spent my teens in Jockey For Her.

The next time the subject of lingerie came up, I was in my mid-20s and engaged to my college sweetheart. Although we both worked in the fashion industry in Toronto, it was my well-intentioned girlfriends who opened Pandora’s silk-lined box by throwing me a lingerie shower. Even in the feminist, shoulder-padded era of the eighties, it was in bad taste to buy lingerie for oneself. Others made those choices, leaving me with an eclectic selection that went from edible to extinguishable. Comfort – and my opinion – was irrelevant, giving way to winks and a chorus of “it won’t stay on long enough to matter!” (Matter to whom?) Despite the spirited, Champagne-enhanced atmosphere, I once again felt overwhelmed by a perceived failing to feel something I didn’t – for a sexuality I didn’t know and a sensuality I had yet to discover. Desperate not to disappoint, I complied with the fake-it-till-you-make-it manifesto and hoped for the best. Primped and pimped, I trotted off on my honeymoon like a good bride with a trousseau of lacy, racy lingerie and never wore any of it again. Ever.

A year later, in 1990, my husband and I moved to France. Looking for adventure, we had daringly flipped a coin (heads Paris, tails San Francisco) and moved to the City of Light. With sufficient language skills, my husband promptly found employment within the European office of Polo Ralph Lauren while I tripped over my r’s. Walking home after one particularly embarrassing interview, I stopped in front of a boutique called Lingerie Annabelle and gazed at the gorgeous window display saturated in silk and colour. I shifted uneasily. Everything was so beautiful in Paris, both on the surface and underneath it all, while my own undergarments by now had washed out to the same sad, neglected grey hue. Curious, I pushed open the door and met Madame Annabelle herself.

“With or without lace?” she asked, a question nobody had ever asked me.

“Without?” I guessed.

She selected an ivory satin bra and accompanied me into the changing room where she gently adjusted here and there, following the contours of my body.

I looked at myself in the mirror. Not only was I standing taller, with my back straighter and breasts lifted and looking fuller, there was something else: I wasn’t scared, I was excited. My body tingled with delight and confidence and the corners of my mouth stretched to a broad grin. Madame Annabelle observed knowingly. Without making any changes to my body, I had fundamentally changed how I perceived myself. I had found a connection – a oneness – with my mind and body, and in that stillness I discovered an unexpected and vital beauty. Mine.

I wanted to feel like this every day.

My lingerie awakening began then and has evolved along with the harmony I began finding with my body. Over the years I have learned to understand that part of my complex relationship with lingerie comes from the industry’s choice of the language it uses, which is tailored to promote a solution to a problem. That’s the mantra of any business model: Tell them what they want to hear and sell them what they need. Want to be sexy? Wear this. Want bigger breasts? Here you go. Breasts too big? No problem. Back fat? Egads, we have just what you need! The communication strategy literally banks on our self-doubt.

Sometimes it is even more nuanced. When brands and retailers are at a loss, they resort to words such as “comfort” and “fit,” with the latter reminding you that you don’t know your own bra size and suggesting that fit is so complicated you require professional help.

The promise of comfort and fit isn’t a luxury, it’s a prerequisite. So is an aesthetic. Stripped of any beauty or sensuality, the ubiquitous T-shirt bra is another example of drinking too much problem-solution Kool-Aid. How many T-shirts will you actually wear with it? Push this even further and ask yourself who in particular decreed that it was really bad to show your nipple?

This is where I learned that I have a choice and a voice. Have you ever settled for “good enough?” No bra should ever be described as “good enough.” It must fulfill a higher purpose than simply utilitarian. If the bra you are wearing isn’t at least an 11 out of 10, take it off – because you were a 10 before you put it on.

Imagine if someone showed you how to feel instead of told you what to feel? What if you were extended an invitation to experience that sense of wonder and something greater than oneself? That’s the art and essence of lingerie and its language has the power to change our perception of ourselves – forever. Neither French nor English, the language of lingerie is not reserved for any particular group. It is as universal as it is individual, and easy to learn. It just takes some time and practice until you are completely at ease.

Lingerie doesn’t need an ulterior – or inferior – motive. That day chez Madame Annabelle was the first time I realized that being is the only thing I need to do in my lingerie.

Kathryn Kemp-Griffin lives in Saclas, France.

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