I took my son to rent his tux for his senior prom the other day. The process, helped along by a calm, expert saleswoman, was so much less fraught with tension than shopping for a prom dress with his sister was. For one thing, we didn’t once have to consider panty lines.
I recently listened as three bright, beautiful young women who work in my office compared their experiences with a product called Spanx, which is a sort of elasticized bodysuit you wear under your clothes so your panty lines won’t show. My only prior experience with Spanx had been when Marcy insisted on having a pair to wear beneath her prom gown. They reminded me of the girdles my mom used to wear under her dresses; they looked odd and oppressive and uncomfortable in the same way.
When I was Jake’s age, the expression “panty line” hadn’t been invented. Sometimes, I’m sure, we wore clothing and you could tell we had underwear on beneath it. I’m especially sure of this because thong underwear also hadn’t yet been invented. Our underwear was big and made of cotton and white.
I’m sure there’s a social scientist somewhere who’s gone back and traced when, exactly, in our culture it became imperative that a woman look as though she doesn’t have underwear on. (I’m not even going to touch the actual public non-wearing of underwear as practiced by the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, but I will say this: I don’t want them riding in my Honda.) It would be interesting to see if this trend’s development parallels that of undergoing surgery in order to have vast, inflated breasts. When I was Jake’s age, interestingly, it was considered horribly embarrassing if a girl’s bra strap slipped and showed in public. Now, I don’t think bras are even considered undergarments; some part of them seems to be showing more often than not.
I feel sorry for young women today, who seem to have been convinced by somebody — Oprah, I suspect; she’s a Spanx fan — that it’s vital for them to devote time, money and attention to making certain no one knows they have on underwear. I actually find it reassuring to know that the people around me are wearing underpants. And I wish my sisters would be a little less concerned with their panties and a little more concerned with what’s in between the lines.
SANDY HINGSTON is a Philly Mag senior editor.