First Person
Bringing Up the Rear
by Jean Spencer
August 8, 2007

They're back!!! Girdles, those infamous weapons of mass reduction have returned to the fashion scene. Don't be misled by cutesy names like "tummy tamer", and "bun booster". A girdle by any other name is... well, you know. These instruments of torture should be outlawed.

I was lured into the girdle game in 1936 at the age of twelve, with the promise of a hand-me-down dress.

It was the dress my cousin Merla wore for her piano recital a year earlier. Pale pink lace over silk. Puffed sleeves, peter pan collar, and a full flared skirt. The waist was cinched with a white satin sash. A frothy dream of a dress, something Judy Garland or Deanna Durbin would wear.

That dream came true for me when Aunt Geraldine brought the dress to my mother. "Merla won't wear this anymore, says it's too babyish. I thought maybe Jeanie would like to have it."

"It's lovely." said my mother. "Try it on, Jeanie. See if it fits."

Elated, I slipped into the dress, thanked God and Aunt Geraldine profusely, and danced across the room.

"Stand still," said Aunt Geraldine. She smoothed the collar, puffed the sleeves, and tugged at the skirt. "Now turn around slowly." She stepped back, tilted her head from side to side and turned to my mother. "She needs a girdle."

Girdle! The word startled me. It was like ice water being thrown in my face. A girdle was the last thing in the world I wanted.

My mother nodded. "A lot of girls your age wear girdles. Mrs. Holmes told me that Elizabeth wears one."

I wasn't surprised. Miss goody-goody, prim and proper Elizabeth was probably born wearing a girdle. Still, wearing a girdle meant I'd have a beautiful, cotton-candy pink dress for my very own. I decided it was worth it. I also hoped it would keep my brother from calling me "rumble seat."

My first girdle was made of flesh-colored cotton brocade. It wrapped around me and fastened with a dozen hooks and eyes along one side. A tiny pink, silk rosebud marked the center of the top edge. This flower lined up with my navel to insure that all the garters dangled in the right spots on my legs.

I had no idea that I had reached the point of no return, that once inside the gates of Girdledom, there was no turning back.

I learned that I could no longer chase my brother to deliver a well-deserved swat. My hips were immobilized. Normal running was impossible. I had to take short, staccato, tiptoe steps, otherwise known as "running like a girl." My eating habits changed drastically. A girdle squeezing my stomach meant smaller portions of food. No more second helpings of mashed potatoes and gravy.

Of course, girdles never stay where they belong. They require constant adjustment. I learned to look ahead for an open door, a piano, or a large potted plant where I could hide, quickly adjust the thing, and continue on my way.

I looked forward to gym class. Gym uniforms were ugly, but a welcome respite from what we genteel teenage girls referred to as our "hinder binders."

After WWII, with the advent of new fabrics and products, girdles went through many changes and improvements. .Zippers or elastic inserts replaced hook and eye fasteners. Some girdles came with long legs. Some had high waists which were held up with metal stays. There were new elasticized fabrics in shades of pink, blue, white, and Oh—My—God BLACK! In my quest for a garment which would foster the illusion of a 36-24-34 figure, I tried them all.

A notable failure of these abominations was the Playtex Living Girdle. It came rolled up in a shiny tube marketed with much hoopla. Made of molded latex, it had tiny holes punched over the entire surface. The holes helped the living girdle 'breathe'. It smelled faintly of talcum, but nothing could disguise its pervasive rubbery odor. Designed to fit like a second skin, it rolled on with the aid of lots of talcum powder. Later, after being peeled off, perspiration soaked talcum had to be removed from its little breathing holes. Truly, the living girdle was DOA, dead on arrival.

When slacks and pants suits became acceptable, even fashionable, wearing a girdle was almost impossible. The girdle/pants combination was not only uncomfortable, but looked most unnatural from behind, as if the pants were stuffed with a beach ball. My solution was to forego the girdle and buy pants in a larger size. Friends saw this as a moral lapse. They considered me to be a loose woman in every sense of the word.

Leaders of the women's movement urged us to burn our bras as a gesture of freedom and equality. I decided it was time to make a real statement. I tossed my girdle into the flames.

Today, even Barbie, the icon of femininity, is looking more realistic as fashions are designed to flatter the normal, natural figure. So c'mon, let's all give up the girdle. Let the hips fall where they may. The world will be a better place.

Of corset it will.

About the author:
I'm 83 years old.
I just returned in 2004 from serving two and a half years as a Peace Corps Volunteers in Thailand.
I'm a widow with 7 children.
I grew up as the eldest of nine children in a Norwegian family in a small town in Northern Wisconsin.
Most of my working career was spent as an educator and a Health Care Administrator.
This story is part of a compilation of several short stories contained in a memoir for my children.

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

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Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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