Period Panties & Body Shame: An OCD Journey Through My Underwear Drawer

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by Ophira Edut

 

Today, a small revolution happened. And it was in my underwear drawer.

I threw out a pair of baggy, stretched-out, used-to-be-bikini but now verging on “granny panties” underwear that I bought at Gap Body literally a decade ago. They were cute in their heyday, light blue with flowers. And they’ve lived resolutely in the back of my lingerie drawer (which is tiny to begin with) since their decline in 2003. From time to time, I reach to toss them, then hesitate and turn away.

I’ve justified this OCD behavior by blaming biology: I need a couple pairs of “period panties” so I don’t mess up the expensive ones during the heavier days of my cycle. And they aren’t the only pair I’ve been hoarding since the start of the millennium.

This morning, I was getting dressed for a meeting, one that justified the donning of “good” underwear. It’s spring, so I’m in the mood for a fresh start. In fact, I bought a couple new pairs of undies at Nordstrom Rack this weekend, priced at a modest $2.97 per pair. So I finally decided to get stern with myself: the beat-up bottoms had to go.

Oddly, as I dropped them in the trash, I felt a wave of panic and fear. I knew there were a couple more pairs that deserved to go (the mint green ones with the ripped-up cotton crotch, the pink ones wearing thin in the rear). Yet, I just…couldn’t. So I sat down here to explore some obviously deeper underlying issues. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. I’m saving them for a “special occasion,” rather than treating every moment of my life as a celebration.
I grew up with grandparents who survived the Holocaust, whose well-to-do families lost all their money and social status in Europe fleeing the Nazis. Some of that survivor consciousness was passed along to me. Safe in America, my grandparents prided themselves on living modestly–no doubt a protection against the pain of losing everything. My grandpa told stories of how his mother made whale and horse meat sandwiches (which he’d quietly discard on the way to school), or how all he ate was potatoes for weeks at a stretch.

While I’m grateful to have learned moderation, I also grew up in 1970s and 80s American excess. So the commercials that interrupted The Smurfs and The Brady Bunch told me to “buy buy buy” and “eat eat eat,” but my family called me spoiled and greedy for desiring these things. I had play clothes and school clothes from mid-priced stores like JCPenney. But the outfits I REALLY wanted to wear had to be saved for a Jewish holiday that fell once a year, or for Shabbat dinner on Friday night, when we dressed up and went to my grandparents’ house (where none of my friends could see how cute I looked).

I’ve read articles by stylish, emotionally secure women who say their secret to happiness is eating on the good china every day, even if it’s macaroni and cheese. I’ve dabbled with dressing up “for no good reason.” On one of the days that I did this, I met the man who’s now my husband. It wasn’t because of my outfit, but because I was radiating self-love–by opting out of this compulsive money-food-pleasure “mishegas” (that’s Yiddish for craziness).

2. Depriving myself of pleasure makes me feel “in  control.”
Ooh. Echoes of my teenage disordered eating habits, when I felt in control by depriving myself, pushing away the rich foods I craved to get my curvy Jewish body to conform to a thinner ideal. How long could I go without binge eating? How much could I sustain a rumbling belly so I could zip up jeans a size smaller?

This was what I called willpower. And it really feels like insanity. Truly, my behavior around my underwear is irrational–I can see that. Yet, I’m holding on. Maybe that’s because…


3. These are the “safe” panties to wear when I don’t feel like being sexualized.

In college, I experienced a couple of date rapes, and though it’s been 20 years, some of the patterns are still etched into the way I shield or protect my body. Subconsciously, I want to control WHEN and HOW I’m seen as sexy, when my body is (or isn’t) available for intimacy. I’m sensitive to being seen as a sex object, rather than a whole person. Even though I’m married, I still struggle with barriers, boundaries and a slippery desire to control how others view me.

I guess I internalized some shame, a misguided belief that I somehow “allowed” the rapes to happen, even though I’m well-educated about sexual assault and intellectually know that it’s not the victim’s fault. However, it’s not something that I talk or write about much, because I assume it will make people uncomfortable, or (again) change the way they see me, which I obviously want to control. I’ve even forgiven the guys that did that, knowing now that they were also clueless 20-year-olds who, like most Americans, never learned about sexual respect, women’s rights or that a girl who wants you to find her desirable (especially in sexy underwear) doesn’t necessarily want you to take them off without her permission.

A woman I know who was sexually abused as a child told me that she used to wear seven pairs of underwear at a time as a way of psychologically protecting herself. So maybe there’s more to this than I thought.

As the mother of a 6-month-old daughter and stepmom to an 11-year-old girl, I’m even more sensitive now to how the media sexualizes girls and women. I’m reading a great book called So Sexy So Soon (recommended!) that really distinguishes being sexual (implying choice, agency, agreement) and sexualized (which is imposed upon us by outside sources). This is part of the education our world sorely needs.

4. I’m holding onto the past.
I bought these particular panties during a sexually confident time in my life, my late 20s, when I was experimental and free. More than anything, I finally felt liberated from the “baggage” of those painful post-date-rape years, when I needed tons of reassurance from boyfriends and would often cry in bed. Finally, I could have normal relationships without the past attacking me in the midst of a passionate makeout session.

Dropping my 2001 panties  in the trash was akin to saying goodbye to that empowered part of my life. Again, there’s my scarcity–the idea that I can’t make new memories, or ever feel that way again. I have a 6-month-old daughter now. I’m 38. I’m supposedly “too old” to feel THAT desirable, since I’m no longer in the bloom of the youth that our culture worships.

Yet, what’s behind feeling desirable in that Madison Avenue kind of way? It involves giving my power away to a sex partner, or a damn pair of panties. In truth, I could just put on the new ones I bought and rekindle that confident spark simply because I’m adorning my body—my body at 38—instead of living in the past.

But it will take something. It will take some conscious inner dialogue, some reckoning with the mean voices in my head (A Course in Miracles calls them “attack thoughts”) that speak up first. It will take adjusting my eyes and my mind to embrace my reflection, rather than comparing it to the idealized image in my head. It’s not easy, ans sometimes, it takes everything I’ve got to talk back.

5. I need perks.
I’m an overachiever, like most people who have any kind of body image issues. So I guess I can work with that trait. Never underestimate the power of a reward system for us accomplishment-driven types. I can gift myself for tossing the old undies.  I will replace each one with a new pair. (I mean seriously, they’re three bucks.)

6. I need support.
I did a course in 2010 called Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts, which was a fascinating, sometimes challenging foray into reclaiming that “divine feminine” in us all. The 250 participants and I were called Sister Goddesses, and the community was incredibly nurturing and supportive. One of our assignments was to revamp our underwear drawers, chucking out anything that didn’t make us feel like goddesses incarnate.

I cheated.

In an attempt to have my cake and eat it too, I asked my friend Margaret Shrum, a.k.a. The Lingerie Goddess (www.thelingeriegoddess.com) to take me shopping at a beautiful store called Journelle. I was pregnant. In typical martyr-woman mode, I could justify splurging on a couple pretty bras and panties while my body was being inhabited by someone else, too. Do it for “them” but not for myself. (Sorry. I just have to pause and say I kind of hate the word “panties.” Substitution suggestions welcomed.)

Having Margaret in the dressing room with me was uncomfortable for a minute, but then, it felt so supportive. I found myself turning her into an amateur therapist as I confessed how hard it was for me to “indulge” like this. She got it in a big way; apparently, I wasn’t alone.

In three weeks, I’m being taken on a “pleasure date” by Pamela Madsen, author of Shameless: How I Ditched the Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure…and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner. I opened up to Pamela about my struggles, and she generously offered to help me have another breakthrough here. I’ll write about it and report!

I realize I’m talking openly about things that women have been taught to be ashamed of: Menstruation. Sexual abuse. Leaks and stains and spills and vaginal fluids. Icky, icky things we have to hide, pretending that our lady parts are waxed and clean and ready for their close-up in a glossy “gentleman’s” magazine.

I guess I need some new strategies for feeling sexually empowered. My ratty underwear has served as armor, but what’s the battle I’m fighting? Turns out, it’s not just against society, but against my own body, too. It’s the women’s war to define sexuality on our own terms–somehow–in a world that sexualizes us, and values us based on the “currency” of how desirable we are to others. In the long run, it’s put a damper on my experience of feeling connected to my body.

So, I’m bravely heading to my dresser to say a farewell to the mint green and pink pairs now. I will honor and thank them for their protection and let them know that they’ll be missed. Then, I’m going to have some fun (imagine that!) replacing them with a well-deserved upgrade.

Related content:

A Place for Me: Art, Porn, Feminism, and Race

Sex, My Body and Giving it Up

The Naked Clam and Other Preposterous Pubic Hair Problems

 

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Comments

  1. Ashley-Michelle says:

    I love Rachel’s suggestion! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get to the place where menstruating wasn’t a shameful experience, but something to be embraced? I realize that, for a lot of women, “that time of the month” is not the time most feel like wearing pretty knickers. I understand that there are strong physical and emotional reactions that go hand in hand with that, but what if at least part of that is because that’s the cultural response we’re expected to give? Like, “This is what makes you female and therefore, weak, so despise it.” It would be great to confront that shame and permanently dismantle it.

    I also think many women have employed their underwear as an armor to fit different cultural attitudes in addition to protecting them against uninvited reduction to sex object. In my case, I’m thinking of when I was a cross-carrying Baptist (so, when I was about 12) and felt too old for cartoons adorning my backside, and too determined to be a good Christian girl to allow colors or prints. It was my defense against the accusations that because I was a woman determined to go to college, I was obviously damned (keep in mind, I’m from Kansas, and I said “Baptist”).

    In hindsight, I picked up those ideas from folks who were threatened by my blooming self-awareness, including an innate knowledge that I would defy their expectations. It’s interesting to me that what covers our feminine parts can be subject to the same scrutiny and discrimination–the target of shame, and ultimately, liberation.

  2. Thank you!

  3. Now there’s a great idea, Rachel. I’ll take that on! Ophira

  4. How about ‘knickers’ instead of ‘panties’…! I would like to give another point of view as to periods here…how about wearing your most beautiful underwear during menstruation? Keeping pretty knickers aside for menstruation, instead of old worn out ones, in order to honour your sacred femininity? loving your “Leaks and stains and spills and vaginal fluids” nothing to be ashamed of in being a Woman!!!…sending my love and compassion to you and your unfolding…xx

  5. SG Pearl says:

    Hi Goddess… I found this blog post and it spoke to me in so many ways. Thank you for sharing. And for being your gorgeous, brave, honest self. xoxox

  6. Wow I thought I was the only one who had period panties. Good luck on replacing them.

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