I lay blindfolded on a mattress on a hot day, wearing nothing but a thong. It’s not what you think. I am alone. This is research.
The thong is blue with red flowers, stretchy, sinewy. It covers my whole pubic triangle, but I don’t trust it. It’s too thin—the fabric is viscous; the tag says viscose. I am strictly a bikinis or briefs girl. However, I read an article recently where a woman wears a thong every day for a week, and she writes about how she learned all of these beautiful insights about herself, about feminism, and I feel strangely jealous. I read about somatic poetry; how it can change your process. The idea is to focus on sensation and describe the experience. I want to try it. I will write somatic poetry about underwear, particularly thongs because they are vastly different than my usual attire. I care for function where panties are concerned.
I put it on under a pair of jeans. Will it feel like I have on a sexy secret under there? I don’t think of the word “sexy” in conjunction with myself often, and I question the notion of what it means. I came of age as a feminist in the late 90s and eschewed with particular moral superiority what sex appeal meant. I did not want to be sexy—I wanted to be erudite. I learned later that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. I question whether underwear has anything to do with sex appeal. I doubt it.
Recently, I attended an exercise class for women called “Tone and Tease.” An action we were directed to do was jump up out of a chair and shout, “I’m sexy!” It felt strange and upsetting. I wasn’t bothered by yelling, “I’m sexy.” I have shouted far stupider things into the ether, but the idea that my sex appeal should coincide with my self-esteem is troubling. How is it that people who create empowerment exercise workshops think that my self-esteem, as a woman in her mid-thirties, must be lacking? I attended this because I like to dance, not because I lack appeal. Sure, I feel terrible sometimes, but that is not why I am here. The other women giggle nervously as though they possess a communal secret. I look down into my lap because I have an urge to begin a discussion about why my perception of my sex appeal is also supposed to coincide with empowerment, but I am not in charge here.
Back in my room, I examine the thong in the mirror. I like how it looks with an open button-down shirt. I feel exposed, but exposure is not always a bad thing. I go about my day with the thong under my pants. I say, “Good morning,” but what I mean is, “Do these underpants make me look different?”
I have my usual afternoon snack—fruit and Greek yogurt—and wonder if the thong will change my microbiome in some fundamental way and if the yogurt helps or harms that transition.
I wear the black ones to my Sunday afternoon exercise class to see what happens. The black ones look good. There is a shape that they make against my buttocks, like a letter M. Because I have already spent a day wearing these, I am confident that they aren’t going to bring about any arresting revelations.
I wear leggings and sneakers, thinking slyly that no one knows about my thong. I try to think of it as a fun little secret. I want to tell the other women in the class, but that isn’t the kind of information that one shares with casual acquaintances. I think more people wear them than I realize, and if I tell someone that I am wearing one as an experiment, she will say, “Thongs are all I wear,” and I will be accidentally making fun of her. Or I will ask her inappropriately personal questions about how long they last, and does she wash them in the washing machine, and do they chafe her labia? She might think that I am an exhibitionist and wonder why anyone would ever just start talking about their underwear in a public place. They’re supposed to stay under, after all.
I make it through the warm-up, but then the heat my body releases expands the fabric. The law of thermal expansion is in my pants, taunting me. The triangle of fabric soaks up the sweat pouring in. The front twists into a rope. I am going to have rug burn on my labia because I wanted to write poetry about underwear. How can I possibly explain to anyone that I wasn’t properly initiated into the cult of womanhood, and I wanted to study what it had to teach me about gender? These are the questions I ponder as I squat, push up, jump jack.
There’s a minute-long break. I hide behind a curtain and try to fix it, but my efforts fail. I lunge, hop, squat, but all I can think about is how this underwear is making the experience much harder. The next break, I go into the bathroom, pull down my leggings, and fix the thong. It doesn’t stay put.
I do what is expected: I suffer in silence. I move through the discomfort. I tell no one; I am the one who wanted to do this experiment. I feel like a fool. I don’t think I know anything new, either. I don’t think I’ve learned anything, other than the cult of woman’s underwear is like everything else we inherited from the Victorians. The panty line mustn’t show, because underwear is secret. Sex appeal is important, but mustn’t be vulgar. The lines we walk grow thinner and more tenuous. We suffer and believe that it was our decision, and then hate ourselves for it. I can’t disconnect the typical discomfort that women feel, the shouting of the words “I’m sexy,” and the thong attacking my labia.