Never would I have been thinking about girdles if it hadn’t been that my cousin Ruth’s obituary made a point about them, and another cousin (male) said he didn’t know why the girdle business had to be in her obit.
Ruth was our leader, the eldest (and smallest) of sixteen first cousins. She died just before Thanksgiving last year — but not until she saw Trump defeated. And that was important because Ruth, a political science major at Pembroke, was one person you could talk to forever about politics, politicians, policies and scandals. And psychopathology — professionally she’d been a clinical social worker, a psychotherapist.
You could talk to Ruth about everything.
For many reasons, I am more than profoundly saddened that she’s not around to talk to: I am pissed off. Because I’d never known about the girdle thing until March 7, 2021 and I want to go through every second of what she did and why, with her. Personally. And laugh. Her great laugh.
But I’m left here on my own to explain why it was fine and appropriately Ruth to mention girdles in her obit, and why the girdle was a signal to our generation of teenagers: you have become women, and this is a grim warning of your future.
Girdles were not for the benefit of women; they were because of men.
For women — I’m going to call us new girdle victims age 16 or so, girls — there were two choices. First, the Girdle.
Those things were made out of steel-enforced thick rubber. I probably made up the “steel-enforced” thing but the thick rubber part? True.
Before I take you inside the girdle, look at the outside: do you notice how these pictured girdles — which are far less encompassing than the ones which went way up your waist to the bottom of your breasts (classically constricted and shaped with wires) and extended down your thighs — pinch at the waists? Although those photos were airbrushed, you can still see the shadow of stomach fold above the tops of the girdles. This is because the girdles squeezed us so tightly, even those of us girls who did not have any excess flesh looked as if we did.
Now look at the bottom of the girdle. You will notice they were open to the air. That is, they were not panties as well as constrictors. I do not recall whether we were supposed to wear panties under the girdles or not. And you see those little tabs hanging down? They were stocking hooks. There were no pantyhose back then, not that I remember.
If I have failed to emphasize how drastically unpleasantly uncomfortable these things were, well…
Now, what were they for? I’ll quote one of my friends at the time, a pro-girdle one: “They stop you from jiggling. You have to wear them so you won’t jiggle.” Because the jiggle was all about boys. If you did have a tummy or an fleshy ass — and what ass isn’t fleshy? — you did not want your tummy or ass to jiggle because boys.
So the girdle was a de-sexualizer. An anti-attraction garment, as well as a total pain in the butt to wear. It was a screaming strait-jacket for our mid-sections.
But the girdle also conveyed a contradictory message: it was an S&M garment, M for us, S for teenage boys’ imaginations. After all, there was nothing covering the crotch.
It was horrid.
In the late ’50s, girls lucked out, sort of. We got to wear the panty girdle. Which was a girdle, usually sporting those dangling stocking tabs but with a crotch.
The girdle was utterly purposeless, unless you consider restricting the movements, choices and air intake a dire necessity to keep women under control.
Which Ruth figured out earlier than most of her contemporaries. Now, she could have simply stopped wearing girdles and said nothing. But she didn’t. She announced her opposition to the ridiculous monstrosity called a girdle. And threw the girdles out.
Ruth is a hero, and a radical.
And a couple of days late for International Women’s Day, I salute her.