Strip that down

Erica Zendell
May 20, 2018 · 7 min read

If you have heard from me lately (and by lately, I mean since I returned from Peru just over two months ago), you know that my life has been somewhat theatrical in nature, especially in matters regarding love and romance. Both out of respect for the parties involved and out of fear that the status quo could unexpectedly implode, ending as quickly as it began, I won’t be sharing any stories in this post. If you’re interested, get me on the phone to talk. It’s been a mindblowing time for you to live vicariously through me and — I pray — not witness my complete and utter self-destruction.

One of the things that has come up in these interactions over the last two months is a fascination with my body. Maybe I was doing something wrong in the past, but I don’t think I’ve met more men who liked my curly hair or my gigantic ass or my body in general until now. Where have you been hiding all these years, gentlemen?

Many traditional women’s magazines (think Cosmo and Glamour) will tell you that it’s all about how you look that attracts men. Because I dress more like a tech industry scrub than I ever used to for work and have worn more sweatpants more frequently in the last few months than I have in the last decade, I beg to differ. It’s all about confidence.

While I am exceptionally more confident about the way I look now than I have been in a long time (thanks, jiu-jitsu), the truth is that confidence is highly inconsistent. More often than not, I am really uncomfortable in my own skin. I won’t use this post to tell you how deeply that discomfort goes, because it is a subject for another longer piece of writing. It’s likely to go in a different publication or the book I intend to complete before the end of this year.

Anyway, my relationship with my body came up pretty prominently in a therapy session a few weeks ago, and partly on a whim, I told my therapist that I would plan a day trip to Portland over the subsequent weekend. When I make a commitment to hanging out with someone or doing something, unless there’s an extenuating circumstance or I’m severely overbooked, I consistently follow through on it. Because I didn’t want to come in for a therapy session two weeks later and say “No, I decided not to go,” after making the promise that I would, in fact, go to Maine, I booked the tickets shortly after I got to the office that Wednesday.

By Saturday night, it seemed unlikely that I would follow through with the trip, and I was prepared to eat the cost of the bus tickets. I’d had an exhausting week that should have been spent drinking tequila on Cinco de Mayo but concluded with oral surgery, and by midnight, I was watching “13 Reasons Why,” filling my stitched-up mouth with applesauce, and crying about the fact that I’d not been sleeping enough (even as I stayed up even later) or taking very good care of myself in the last two months since the return from Latin America.

By 1AM, the thought of waking up to get on a bus that left in 7 hours was eminently unappealing, but by 8AM, I had successfully hauled my ass to South Station and boarded a bus to Portland. I napped nearly the full two hours and awoke to the sight of grey skies pine trees and the feel of light mist on my face. This was weather that would normally bring me down but today had me feeling strangely invigorated. It was one of those moments where I felt, “I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now.”

For the first time in recent memory, I spent the day exactly as I wanted to spend it — alone in a barely-familiar city, putting significant-enough distance between me and the dirty dishes and laundry and boys and Boston for a couple of hours. I would have loved a few more hours there but I had dinner with a friend planned for when I got back. Still, it was just enough time away to reset.

I walked the half hour from the bus station into downtown, making a few fun stops along the way: Hot Suppa for brunch, at the recommendation of a coworker (and one of the few Southern places I’ve ever been able to dine gluten-freely, cornbread and all). Speckled Ax for expensive coffee and an inspiring, minimal writing space. Pinecone and Chickadee for the Mother’s Day and Wedding cards I need to write in advance of next weekend. Most importantly, a store called Aristelle. A lingerie store, of all things.

This isn’t the piece where I come clean and unpack every terrible thought I’ve ever had about my body and the origin stories associated with it. This is the one where I end up spending a ton of money at a store on bras and underwear.

I’d been planning to buy new underwear for a while — one of my designers at work and I have a burgeoning tradition of going to American Eagle for our check-in meetings, and discussed going to the Aerie section for bra shopping at some point for a future 1x1. Anyway, like buying jeans or buying bathing suits, underwear-buying is the kind of thing that can wreck your self-esteem if you encounter one or more of the following: bad product selection, bad store associates, bad sizing or sizing that otherwise makes you feel bigger than you were expecting, bad lighting in the fitting room, bad mirrors in the fitting room, and bad mood, in general.

I wasn’t feeling my most beautiful on Sunday, dressed in a heavily-pilling MIT Sloan fleece and my top from the night before. My mouth was still tender from surgery, my hair was askew, and I was feeling heavy and bloated from the previous week of eating poorly. Everything suggested that going into a bra and underwear store was going to be a terrible idea and that the most self-loathing part of me was going to have a field day picking myself apart when I stripped down in the dressing room.

And yet, I spent my final hour before heading back to Boston in a fucking lingerie store.

I’ve spent the last few years of my career working in tech and retail, and and I have to say that even as Amazon tries to rule the world and my paycheck comes from building AI-driven and profitability-optimized retail software as a service, there is something Amazon-proof and SaaS-proof about small businesses with wise proprietors who know how to merchandise and connect with customers.

The two women in the store did for me what I believe a machine will not be able to do — at least not for a few more years: Build trust. Cultivate confidence. Help you find the thing that makes you feel look and feel your best. Above all, sell you without making you feel like you’re being sold.

As I took off my fleece, sweater, and shirt, I was afraid of what I was going to see when I pulled on the first bra that the associate had picked for me. My gaze tenuously traveled upward in the mirror from my feet to my knees to my hips. As I dared to look above my waist, I waited to see the impact of a week of fatigue, overtraining, and overeating all over my torso and preparing myself cruel internal chatter that, without fail, drives me mad and drives me to tears.

I caught a look at myself in the mirror. Sure, I wasn’t looking as great as I did about three months ago for my February competition. Sure, I didn’t feel as beautiful as a bunch of these guys I’d been out with had told me in the last two months. But I didn’t hate the way I looked. For a brief moment, wearing next to nothing, there was nothing about myself I wanted to change and I felt comfortable in my own skin.

I mean, you’d hope you’d feel fucking magical when you choose to spend over $100 on a single bra. My better financial judgment asked, “Do you really need to spend that much on a piece of underwear?” My better emotional judgment asked, “Wouldn’t you say the way you feel right now about yourself is priceless and worth holding onto and wearing ad mortem?”

And so I boarded the bus back to Boston having spent a significant amount of money on underwear that made me feel like a goddamn queen.

There’s the set I’ll wear to a music festival few Saturdays from now that makes me feel like I’m a free spirit at Coachella even though I’m an East Coast stick at Boston Calling with the halter cut, crossed back, and floral print.

There’s the set that is essentially the formalwear of underwear that made me feel like Cinderella putting her foot in the glass slipper, nude and gold with small pearl accents.

There’s the set in classic black lace that can unassumingly make its way beneath a dress at work and reveal itself to a lucky date after the stroke of 5PM (though if I’m being honest, it’s more likely 9PM because that’s realistically when I’m showered and done with training on any given weekday).

I also left with a great, inexpensive dress for my friend’s wedding and a rouge romper because it’s summer and why the fuck not.

If I’m going to treat my body well and walk with more that occasional confidence, I’ve got to dress for the occasion, both in garments that others can see and garments they can’t. More often than not, I am the only person seeing this underwear, but it’s worth calling out that the person seeing it who matters the most is myself.

As of yesterday, my best course of treatment for killing a body image problem is this: in the absurd and otherwise out-of-context lyrics of Liam Payne, whose song I can’t get out of my head, to “strip that down.”

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