IN DEFENSE OF QUOTIDIAN HOETRY
As a child of the 1980s, I believed that acquiring French cut lingerie was integral to becoming an adult woman and while I saw legions of lace-clad video vixens sporting the stuff on MTV, I had no idea how to pronounce this category of nearly non-existent clothing. Lingerie was a vexatious word, one I was shy to say aloud not because of what it signified but because I didn’t want to mispronounce anything. I liked words too much. I respected them. I didn’t want to ruin them with my mouth.
My mother brought me along during weekend bra and underwear buying excursions and I would park myself beneath the LINGERIE sign that someone had suspended from Gottschalk’s department store ceiling with fish wire. It was as if the sign itself was wearing lingerie, a pair of G-strings, and I had no idea that the word was French, just as I had no idea that déjà vu was too. In my head, I sorted out the phonics, pronouncing lingerie with a hard G akin to the G’s in gargle, giddy up, and gargantuan. My imagination mangled the three-syllable word, sounding it out as lean-grrr-eye. I knew and understood the word linger and I pondered what lingered about lingerie. Linger meant to hang around, to sort of lurk, and I lingered by a rack of red teddies, rubbing my feet together as my mother sought ropa interior in her size. I wondered if lingerie ever lingeried. Was it also a verb?
I shared these linguistic concerns with nobody. They remained ultra-private. Still, lingerie haunted my thoughts. Some of these thoughts were queer tween fantasies and while paging through the J.C. Penney catalog’s lingerie section, I noticed I felt…funny. In my private parts. I looked up from the catalog to see the singer Apollonia on TV. Dressed in a black bustier and elbow length gloves, she beckoned to me, making me feel doubly warm, as if I’d drunk the milk Mom sometimes prepared for my brother, sister, and me at bedtime. I was savvy enough not to tell anybody about my lingerie-inspired tingling. Those sensations lingered, stoking both euphoria and paranoia.
I never heard either of my parents say lingerie. The words most commonly used in our Mexican-American home to denote intimate apparel were calzones or chonies, which, on occasion, I referred to as choners. “Get your calzones off the floor or they’ll wind up in LA BASURA!” was a regular household refrain and abandoned drawers aren’t unique to any culture. I have visited homes inhabited by all sorts of folks and spied calzones tirados. Chonies on the floor are one of only a few universal truths.
In 1989, I saw chonies in an exciting new light. Madonna’s Express Yourself video debuted on MTV and in it, she wore lingerie differently. While the women in hair metal videos seemed to wear skimpy costumes for the benefit of male musicians, Madonna seemed to be wearing lingerie for the benefit of…Madonna! This difference fascinated me and her combination of lingerie with menswear BLEW MY TWELVE-YEAR-OLD MIND. I brainstormed how I might raid both of my parents’ closets to express myself and one summer day, as I lazed in front the TV, watching music videos con mi prima hermana, Express Yourself came on. I sprinted to my parents’ bedroom and quickly assembled a pair of chelsea boots, dark slacks, and the gaudiest underwire bra my mother owned. I stuffed its cups with socks, creating ginormous humps, and because neither of my parents owned a monocle, I improvised, completing the look with a gold chain from which a medallion of La Virgen de Guadalupe swung.
I begged for a bikini, was told hell no, and got to work making clandestine ones. I built them using scraps of any material that I thought might make an interesting top or bottom. I crafted my favorite trashkini from scotch tape and the local newspaper.
I ran back into the living, jumped on the couch, and danced, grabbing my crotch, expressing myself, lip syncing to the remainder of the song. My cousin howled and cheered for my slutty genderqueer performance. Later on, this same prima encouraged the creation of my earliest lingerie. Because my parents were of the our-daughter-shall-be-modest-as-fuck-persuasion, they prohibited me from getting my hands on the closest thing to sexy lingerie being marketed to adolescent girls at the time: the string bikini. I begged for one, was told hell no, and got to work making clandestine bikinis. I built them using scraps of any material that I thought might make an interesting top or bottom. I crafted my favorite trashkini from scotch tape and the local newspaper. Another was made from wallpaper samples and knitting yarn. I was like the proverbial magpie, snatching anything I thought I could use to spruce up my “nest.” And the nest between my legs had indeed sprouted.
Poet Elaine Kahn recently tweeted that the only thing she’s done right this year is get into lingerie. I sympathize with Kahn’s poetics. It took a pandemic to reignite the early joy I took in lingerie and this is not an unelaborated erotic statement per se. Too often, men believe that those of us who wear lingerie do so for their gaze and I won’t deny having worn lingerie for dudes who happened to be lovers. More importantly is that when I acquire lingerie, I have someone else’s gaze in mind: MINE. Choosing to wear lingerie is an undeniably autoerotic experience.
Sometimes, it sucks to be a body. Other times, it’s fun. Lingerie is one of those gifts that makes being a body fun. Putting it on is to swaddle yourself in ribbons, bows and straps that speak on your behalf. They assert, “Bitch, I’M the gift, a gift to MYSALF.”
The pandemic, which I’ve been calling the pantufla, the pan dulce, and the panqueque, has been an ideal time to indulge a passion for lingerie. Most of us are experiencing some form of isolation and for many of us, the solitude has been extreme. Some of us have spent nearly nine months getting to know ourselves ridiculously well. Pandemic isolation has limited our ability to be sensually intimate, forcing us to engage in reflexive love. Getting into lingerie is one of way doing that. It’s also a way of adding hoetry and drama to day-to-day existence.
Lingerie is most thrilling when it goes unseen by anyone but its wearer, when the wearer becomes provocateur and voyeur rolled into one. I typically wear tomboyish clothes and underneath them, I’m someone else. I revel in being the only one who knows what glamorous femme minimalism lurks beneath my coveralls. Wearing lingerie masked by a dudely façade makes me strut down the street as if Little Richard’s The Girl Can’t Help It were blaring and such moments prompt me to cherish the memory of Ed Wood. The schlocky filmmaker fought in Word War II wearing women’s lingerie under his uniform.
When I describe how much joy lingerie brings me, I’m not necessarily speaking in terms of capitalist consumption. The most happiness that lingerie ever delivered came during my DIY trashkini crafting sessions. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was making punk facsimiles, pieces of Dada art that looked like costumes extras might have worn in John Waters’s trashstravaganza Desperate Living.
I’ve contemplated the reasons why my parents were so adamantly opposed to my acquisition of a string bikini. Black feminist Audre Lorde illuminates several reasons. In a paper titled “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Lorde wrote that the “erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire.” My parents likely thought that they were protecting me from myself, that by suppressing my developing queer eroticism they might strengthen my ability to successfully move through this patriarchal world. The repression didn’t empower. It did the opposite which is why I must leave this essay, park myself in front of the TV, and settle in to crochet a thousand happy thongs.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.