One therapist recounts sessions that empowered women through their relationship to their undies.
I don't work in the fashion industry, nor do I sell underwear. I'm a psychotherapist helping people to deal with various psychological issues.
In my practice I often notice a curious synchronicity with similar themes emerging at the same time with different patients. Recently I had a surprising "underwear week."
Here are three very different stories involving women and their underwear. In each case, exploring their relationship to their intimate garments gave me precious insight into their inner struggle, and moved the therapy forward.
When Helen, a 42-year old American schoolteacher, came to see me, she'd been struggling with binge-eating and compulsive dating for the most of her adult life. We had already explored her troubled relationship with her mother for some time when she suddenly realized that most of her underwear items were gifts from her mother.
Sharing this realization with me, she felt "as if she were thirteen again." Her face flashed. She hated the lacy, colorful stuff her mother adored, and every morning she struggled to find anything she'd like to wear. These "French style" garments felt uncomfortable and foreign under her clothes.
Helen could clearly remember how her mother had been grooming her all through her life — buying her clothes or bringing her to the beautician or the nutritionist. She claimed that this was her way of taking care of her only daughter. She was loudly proud to be a good mother.
But somehow, Claire felt differently about the whole mothering matter. She intuited that her mother wasn't happy with the way she was — too plain or too shy. The message hidden by this grooming was "You aren't good enough. I need to make you better."
And the lacy underwear was a tangible part of this mother's message.
When we started to work together, it had been years since Helen left her native town, and she was now living in Moscow where she was teaching English. She put as much distance between her mother and herself as she could.
But her intrusive mother was indirectly around the most intimate parts of her life, and near her body. By grooming her grown-up daughter she kept her under control, infantilizing her and using her as a self-gratifying object.
After one of our sessions, Helen decided to go shopping to finally buy herself her own "independent" underwear. It felt like an act of bravery, rebellion and growth. She was now able to separate herself from the intrusiveness of her mother.
Unexpectedly for Helen, her underwear has now become building blocks for better boundaries.
Claire, a 33-year old British musician with a chubby and smiley face, shared with me some painful details of her lonely childhood ... and giggled.
The incident that brought the underwear subject up happened during a recent holiday at her family home. Her sister-in-law was putting their common laundry to dry in the garden, and mockingly commented about Claire's XXL size underwear:
Seeing her snicker on the line, Claire felt exposed and even inadequate. It looked indeed ridiculous — a giant baby's underwear: white cotton with pink flowery prints.
Avoiding my eyes, Claire recognized that she had never been able to enter one of these high street shops, shamelessly exposing underwear in their windows. Claire simply didn't feel grown up enough.
These lacy things were for other women, those sexy creatures from the glossy magazines. She could never imagine strikingly female accessories on her own body.
She'd usually shop for it at the supermarket, hiding underwear articles under her grocery items.
After our session, Claire eventually made it to one of these shops, resolved to try some of these grown-up's items. It was sales time, and the shop was filled with excited clients, some of them males.
Claire's heart sunk. When a young sales assistant disposed in front of her some fancy bras — silky and expensively looking — she felt lost and little. These are obviously more for a night out, the sales assistant chuckled.
Claire instantly imagined herself in the middle of all these strangers naked, wearing only this bra; she blushed and wanted to sink in, to disappear.
She made it to the fitting room, but even hidden by the heavy purple curtain, she couldn't try these things on. The time she spent in this shoebox-sized room seemed an eternity. She felt so different, an elephant in a china shop.
When she finally emerged from the fitting room, Claire left the bras with the shop assistant and stormed out of the shop. She couldn't bear the feeling of shame that overwhelmed her.
Camille was French and lived in London, where she worked as an investment banker. She brought up the "underwear" subject after a business trip to Saudi Arabia.
She was often the only woman in the meetings, and like everybody else in the office, she was usually wearing dark suits. This anonymous uniform, tight on her body, denied her any sense of femininity and made her feel like a little soldier. That's exactly how she used to imagine herself at work: "'an unhappy little soldier."
Talking about the frustration her work caused her, Camille acknowledged that underneath her white shirts and dark jackets she was often wearing some pastel lace underwear.
It always gave her a feeling of confidence and power — the "little soldier" was hiding under this uniform some expensive lacy underwear. This game she played with herself was a good illustration of her inner split.
She strongly (and sometimes painfully) felt that her vulnerability wasn't accepted in her environment, so the little soldier was readily brought on stage.
Was it ever possible for these two to co-exist, to make peace? Was her current environment offering her enough space to express both parts of her personality?
We then explored in our sessions the perceived gap between her conflicting parts: the narcissistic male and the vulnerable female. This work helped Camille to evolve in her professional environment and eventually to gain a better life balance.
The bra has become a symbol beyond its primary function of supporting breasts. It's been praised as a revolutionary garment that freed women from constriction, and has been (allegedly) burnt in public as an emblem of oppression.
Culturally, when a young girl gets her first bra, it may be seen as a rite of passage and symbolic of her coming of age. Being so personal and close to our most intimate parts of the body easily gets associated with sexuality, but also with feeling of shame, as in Claire's case.
No wonder why women "bring" their underwear to therapy.
In our therapeutic work with these three women, the underwear became an anchor point — a metaphor — which allowed us to make a better meaning of their current life experience.