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As a girl, I occasionally watched my mother getting into her body armour. A petite woman, she never went anywhere important without first wriggling into a talcum powdered rubber girdle to smooth her behind and a long-line bra bristling with hooks and eyes to deal with what, in those days, was discreetly called "midriff bulge."

Today they just come right out and call it "flab," and there's an eye-popping range of semi-punitive, or miraculous, depending upon your perspective, spandex undergarments out there designed to deal with it. You can even, if you're so inclined, get a product called FLAB-u-LESS that is basically a set of spandex tubes to encase your upper arms so they won't jiggle in a long-sleeved T-shirt. (You look flabuless, darling!)

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. This column is indeed about underwear, but first I want you to read the culturally significant part, which I can boil down to this: We haven't come such a long way, baby, after all.

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This thought occurred to me the other night as I stood, desperate, in The Bay's shapewear department (or out-of-shapewear, as I more realistically call it) trying to find something that would, in time for a quickly looming family wedding, accomplish what a winter spent diligently at the gym might also have done for me had I been so disciplined: firm me up, shape me up, drop me down a size or two.

I anticipated I'd find just the famous Spanx line there - the expensive brand of body-taming underwear that's now a multimillion-dollar empire, built on the back fat of women. But I was amazed and daunted by the variety of choice. I could go high or low. (There's a cheapo Spanx line by the same company called Assets - what's with the soft-porny titles? )

And depending on which shaping device I chose, I could lift my booty, flatten my rack, redistribute my stomach, tame my thighs - you name it, they had it. I could, in fact, do everything but have liposuction right there in the dressing room.

The only downside to all this downsizing was that, well, once I got the stuff on it was not only difficult to breathe, but I feared that all the compression could lead to what might in hospital emergency rooms be called a "vascular incident."

In the loneliness of the badly lit dressing room, my epiphany took shape: During feminism's heady days, none of us really burned our bras, but we metaphorically threw on the bonfire the idea that we had to disguise our bodies in any way to make them acceptable. We became triumphantly "real," proclaiming the female body beautiful in all its imperfections. We would never truss ourselves up like our mothers just so we could look good sashaying into a party on the arm of a man.

Well, that was then, this is now, and flab happens.

Since the early days of 1970s feminism, there have been decades of body-image news, much of it dispiriting - about young girls' negative self-image, eating disorders, gruesomely bony models, the stratospheric rise of the cosmetic surgery industry, and a few women dying on operating tables because they wanted their stomach flab to just go away.

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We've turned ourselves inside out to culturally examine the cult of thinness, not quite grasping until the evidence was all around us that the really big news was that we were, through crummy eating and sedentary lifestyles, getting fatter by the decade. (My mother was all of 117 pounds.)

Now, of course, in the middle of an "obesity epidemic," there are massively out-of-shape women and men everywhere you look.

Supermarket magazine racks continue to scream diet advice, shilling for a multi-billion-dollar diet-aid industry, while women of all ages jauntily sport too-tight clothing that emphasizes their rolls.

In a stunning panoply of mixed messages, I can't figure out whether we're proud of our bodies or ashamed of them.

And while men, too, can go the shapewear route - there's a Spanx line for men featuring an undershirt that "firms the chest" with the dude-ish advertising slogan "Game On" - you can bet it's mainly women who are buying this stuff.

We buy it because it makes us look better, which makes us feel better. We buy it because we want to wear size 8 instead of size 10. We buy it because we don't want anyone to know we're flabby.

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And we buy it because we have a wedding coming up. One mother of a groom joked she will be encased in so much spandex on her son's big day that "all the fat has been pushed up to my neck, and it looks ginormous."

I ended up buying something called a Waistnipper that promised "firm control" and "360 degrees of support, slimming and smoothing."

I wore it once and the best thing I can say about it is it made me take a vow: I will go to Pilates faithfully, force myself to Aquafit at least once a week, put only skim milk in my coffee and run around the block every morning just to avoid ever putting it on again. Until, of course, there's another wedding.

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