I spent 2018 reading lots of books about feminism, intersectionality and race. A big shout-out to my top read of the year – The Guilty Feminist by Deborah Frances-Wright.
I also spent a bit of time wondering why the lingerie community is so white. Lots of shapes and sizes, but yeah, mainly white bodies. There are some notable high profile lingerie bloggers of colour (looking at Cora Harrington and @comicgirlsneedbras), and whilst I do not put myself in the same exalted category as them, together we form a small group who are putting ourselves out there in our underwear and saying, “look at me celebrating my minimally-clad body for myself.”
But why are there so few of us?
Throughout my childhood and young adult years, if I ever wore a dress that was the slightest bit sheer or transparent, my mother would hiss, “I can see everything through that dress! It’s indecent!” I would be forced to put on a petticoat, to protect my modesty and to avoid the public shame of admitting that I had thighs. We lived in a hot country. Sometimes my tops were thin. If my nipples were slightly visible, my mother would say, “Your nipples! It’s obscene!” And she would exhort me to put on a thick padded bra. All her bras were padded, and it wasn’t just because she had tiny boobs. The padding was to pad out the shame of having female nipples. I’m sure this resonates with a lot of women, but let’s be honest – female emancipation has made slower progress in Asian, Middle-Eastern and African lands. Feminism has dealt with this issue throughout the 20th century, but in some parts of the globe, it only scratched the surface and even in the 21st century, girls have to stay modest, because our value lies in our unavailability as sexual objects. Having your body on show in any way can only be seen in one way – as an advertisement of your ripeness for plucking. You can either be a virtuous woman or a slutty woman. Be a good girl, otherwise anything bad that happens to you will be your own damn fault. It is the long-entrenched, patriarchal way of controlling women. This line of thinking is universal and crosses all cultures, but Western women (i.e. white) have been at the vanguard of pushing back and reclaiming their bodies for themselves. If there are brown-skinned lingerie lovers hiding their bodies, it’s possible that their upbringing gave them the signals and messages that their body was a taboo subject. I only managed to overcome my self-consciousness after 40 years when I intentionally decided to break free from any constraints set by society, my family, or my culture. If this is just my story, then another explanation for why lingerie blogging is so white is…..
Oof – you may think that’s a bit harsh. It’s hard to find blatant, direct racism in the fashion industry these days. After all, the brands all want your money and they will use models of colour if they think it is going to pay forward into bigger sales. But can you remember how many lingerie brand campaigns feature women of colour? Of brands who have gone beyond one token brown-skinned woman in each ad campaign, I can only think of Savage X Fenty. Of the lingerie brands I’m familiar with, Edge of Beyond, Something Wicked and Judy Chen Lingerie are the handful that are run by women of colour. I accept that many lingerie brands are small and they often only have one or two models they use each season for campaigns. But survey the vast lingerie industry, including designers, makers, retailers, bloggers, influencers and models, and you will see very few brown faces. Women of colour still buy the lingerie and wear it, but do they feel confident showing off their lingerie and their bodies online? Perhaps they have bigger battles to fight and other fish to fry. But visibility matters, and we have to ask ourselves whether the lingerie blogging community lacks women of colour because it is sending out unintentional messages that certain shades and sizes do not fit into the club. When everyone in the club looks a bit like you, it’s easy to join the club and make yourself feel at home. If you’re the only one or one of a few, it takes a certain amount of courage to push yourself into the club, unless someone reaches out for your hand and welcomes you in.
I feel a responsibility to reach out and say explicitly that I want to see more diverse standards of beauty and body-confidence in the lingerie community. I don’t feel particularly oppressed and marginalised by my race and gender, partly because I have quite a lot of privilege myself in other ways. Working as I do in the corporate and legal world, I’m now used to being the only woman, the only Chinese person or the only Chinese woman, in many spaces. I’ve built up reserves of confidence to deal with being “the other” and I now use it to my advantage. But I always reflect on how different I might have been as a young woman if I had seen more role models who looked like me. I might have gained my sexual confidence and self-worth a lot earlier. As Reni Eddo-Lodge (author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race) says, if we want to change things we need to find spaces in which we hold power, and use that power to press for change. This month, I am taking over the admin of the @lingerie_of_the_month Instagram feed. This little community account is one I’d like to say is a truly unique space for lingerie lovers. I don’t hold much power in any space but I do have a small platform on Instagram in which I can throw a spotlight on the intersections of gender, race and lingerie. To all the women and people of colour out there, I say: You are welcome here.