“Are you only searching for pleasure, or is every woman a new land, whose secrets you want to discover?” — Sabina, The Unbearable Lightness of Being(1988)
Shortly after uttering these words, Sabina will climb on top of a mirror that has been placed on the floor, peeling back her silk robe to reveal a black lace braletteand high-cut black pantiesin what is arguably one of the sexiest scenes in 20th century film. As a young woman—and a budding feminist—watching this scene, I was struck with not how Sabina looked (or how Tomáš looked at her), but how in control she was.
Everything about her ran counter to the narrative that I had been given on how to be a woman: she was no “madonna” certainly, but not a “whore” either. She didn’t depend on anyone, but she wasn’t sad or lonely, either. Sabina was sexy without pandering to a masculine ideal of what that was. She wore her lingerie with a bowler hat.
Shortly after I saw The Unbearable Lightness of Being for the first time I started buying my own underwear. My high school best friend and I would skip class a couple days a week and go to the mall. The early aughts were the heyday of the thong. Christina Aguilera built a career off of oversized newsboy caps and thongs sticking out of her low-riders. Sisqo wrote a song about it. In rural Northern California, I discovered that although my lack of hips or a butt did me no favors with bikini briefs, when I put on a thong I never had to think about it.
Even in my tiny Northern California town second wave feminism was a thing, and being sexy for your own sake was an acceptable norm at my school. One girl I knew was a straight-A student with a full scholarship to UCLA and would regularly brag about how many pairs of underwear she owned (it was somewhere around 50). Although I was embarrassed that my parents might see my purchases, I came out of Victoria’s Secret with something in lace or satin every week for a while.
Being a woman in 2016 means a lot of things. We have the unprecedented ability to choose who we are and how we live, but we also face just as much sexual harassment than ever before, and our reproductive rights are more in danger now than they have been for the last 20 years. A woman today can be smart, sexy, and ambitious. She can have a rewarding career, a happy marriage, and children (although not, as we’ve seen, without some consequences) and she can wear lingerie without being labeled a “whore.”
What would Sabina make of this time? Would she revel in the available options, or would she still retreat to the backwoods of America to paint and live as she wished? Would she say that we are better off now than the Czech Republic in the ‘80s? Or would she find the sheer quantity of cost/benefit analysis that goes into contemporary women’s lives frustrating?
As an adult, the illicit thrill of shopping for lingerie has faded. What hasn’t faded is the joy of putting on nice underthings and knowing that it is entirely for me. If a lover looks at me the way Tomáš looked at Sabina, that’s fine—nice even. But if I go through the entire day with a lace bodysuit underneath my button-up and trousers only to take if off at the end of the day, that’s even better. Now, I just need a bowler.
Written by Amy Marie Slocum
And wearing Siobhan Barrett lingerie: