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Eugene Weekly : Views : 04.28.05

Gotcha Covered

Cutesy bows insult my no-nonsense behind.

BY SALLY SHEKLOW

Alert, alert. Last pair of underwear. My oldest pair of underpants signals from the back of the top drawer: laundry time!

These vintage undies — red, 1980s no-fly men's hip-huggers — are my last ditch option before I absolutely have to do a load of wash. I can still fit into these old back-ups, even though I've rounded out below the belt and long ago graduated to big women's cotton high-tops. Undaunted by my rotundity, these supple, well-used standbys will tide me over whenever I'm in need. And you can rest assured the elastic will never give out on these babies — they were made for men. They're the Humvee of undergarments.

Clothing from the women's department tends to be weaker, flimsier, more likely to fall apart. You know, feminine. The lace, ruffles, and cutesy bows insult my no-nonsense behind. I'd had it with the sexist underwear double standard.

As a rough and tumble kind of college gal, I was frustrated with the fragile and delicate undergarments allotted to women. Then I got wise. Men's stuff was better. More functional, more durable, more empowering. If women could become astronauts, surely we could move beyond the ladies' intimates department.

One inspired day 20 years ago, I mustered my shopping gumption and infiltrated the men's clothing section of Montgomery Ward. I felt the entire women's liberation movement surge forward as I boldly went where no woman had gone before. I was conquering another frontier, another bastion of male-only space.

Walking into menswear I crossed a monumental threshold. Like in fourth grade when the girls dared me to run into the boys' bathroom. Not one girl in our school had ever set foot beyond the ominous BOYS sign. I'd braved the haunted house at Susie Weisman's Halloween party, how bad could a bathroom be? I set my jaw, threw open the door, and marched inside. OK, the urinals were bizarre. And it smelled of mothballs and stale pee. But I lived to tell about all I saw in there (no actual boys, phew!), and I was not, as predicted, infected with incurable cooties. Surviving the boys' bathroom set me on a lifelong course of challenging the no girls allowed rule. Everyone should have equal access to everything.

The men's department carried that same charge of defiance and trepidation. I was now entering the forbidden zone. Across the border (no Minutemen militia, thank goodness), I found racks of hardy overalls, sweatpants, jackets — all built tough and made to last. Out of the dainty into the durable. Nothing cute. Everything hefty. What a thrill. My aorta throbbed. And nobody could keep me from shopping there. Ha ha!

When my pulse stopped pounding, I checked out the boxer shorts, alien garments foreign to my girl-on-girl world. They were baggy and had that vulnerable opening. My crotch prefers a snug, protective undergarment, making men's cotton low-riders a more suitable choice. I liked the ones that came three-to-a-pack in reasonable, non-pastel colors — black, navy, and red. I could get all three for the price of one pair of girlie fancy pants. I felt like a total revolutionary buying them, even though the cashier made no fuss at all over my one-woman rebellion.

But my singular act combined with rebellious acts of women all over the country who began to protest being limited to flimsy panties until it became a movement and the movement created change. Now underwear companies make Jockey for Her and Hains Her Way and Fruit of the Loom's Just My Size — well-built women's drawers. We can buy our sturdy knickers in the women's department, thanks to each person who's had the nerve to take a risk, defy the norm, and assert their rights.

My faded pair of red undies remind me that the strong survive. I took a risk, ventured beyond a world that didn't honor my basic needs and I'm glad I did. Once I stepped out I've never looked back — except on laundry day.

Writer Sally Sheklow does her wash in Eugene. To enroll in Sally's "Ignite Your Courageous Spirit" playshop April 23, e-mail her at sally@wymprov.com