When I was 20, I had a friend who I would sleep with. He had an idea of how women were supposed to be sexy: shaved cunts, expensive lingerie, long, silky hair, white skin, and I had an idea that I was sexual but not sexy.
He moved to Missouri, and I decided to take a cross-country road trip to his parents’ house- the one with the mounted heads of beasts, and Bibles in every room. I worked my coffeehouse job and saved my tips to take the trip. It involved cars, trains, Cortland, KS, a farm depot and some fudge, because I didn’t want to meet his parents empty-handed and Black. Before I got on the train, I took 12 of the dollars I had squirreled away for the Amtrak portion of the trip, and went to the thrift shop where I found Blue, the blue nightie, and Eunice, the black one.
In the Village Discount, there were color-coded discount tags, fluorescent lights, and older, curled over brown women. The underwear section, always on the perimeter, was mostly beige. As I picked through, I thought of which big-breasted woman with sagging skin and boisterous laugh might have made oatmeal in this bra, or that enormous pair of briefs. I didn’t have the hips or boobs for Eunice, but Blue, the color of the cerulean crayon in brand new crayon form, wouldn’t slouch. Eunice is black, and black is sexy, right? I could see myself growing into it.
My mom knows a lot about me. She saw my first thong in the last load of laundry I ever let her do for me. She taught me a lot. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about how I learned to flirt, how I learned to wear lingerie, how I learned the femme part of me. My mother didn’t teach me to show my cleavage, or to hide it. She taught me to tape my nipples to keep men from staring. She didn’t teach me how to invite. Girlfriends did: the woman I gave Blue to wore it for me, let it peek out of the sweater she wore to meet me after our first break-up.
In an English basement style café, she quizzed me on the first book I ever gave her; it was important that I remember- Letters to a Young Poet. I complimented her green wool 70s coat, her yellow sweater and the triangle of Blue just below her cleavage, teasing that she would come to a peace talk and tempt. Seeing Blue on her, I didn’t want to feel the slick of the fabric as I slipped it over my shoulders, or the first cold jolt on my belly when I put the chemise on myself. Instead, I wanted to feel it drape from her to me, the combination of the cool fabric and her hot skin. She had a shrine to femininity in her bedroom: earrings on a ribbon, hats on a hat rack, a vanity with glitter and lipstick. She’d invested a lot of money in her duvet and mattress pad, the pillows, the Egyptian cotton sheets. There was erotica on the windowsill alongside the incense and candles, oils, dried flowers and tarot. I can still remember the contrast of her skin against the blue, the blue against the duvet’s burgundy- the waiting.
Maybe it’s a queer girl thing, but I am one of many women who went to college and shortly thereafter shaved her head. I remember being 19 and spending the summer in Brooklyn. I lived with my mom on the bottom floor of a three-flat in Fort Greene. The landlords who lived upstairs had a $100,000 garden in the backyard, and our back door opened onto it. I spent the days and nights smoking, haunting the house wearing white slips all day and reading The Red Tent and Fall on your Knees. That was the summer I took scissors to my locs, and placed them in a bag. Maybe I was trying to reinvent myself, trying to assert myself as a woman. My mom used the clippers to even it out. The next day, my brother took me to his barbershop to have them shape it. I was so nervous sitting there in that all-male room, so lost in choosing how to shape the kitchen. I’d never had my hair done in a salon, only once had I had my hair done professionally. What would make it feminine? What would make me look too hard? In the end, I took a standard taper. I guess I was still learning to choose.
As for the woman, when I met her I was playing pool in a bar, wearing brown Doc Martens, a tight white tank top, and baggy pants. I never wore lingerie for her, I guess because I was closer to the butch end of the spectrum then, though nowhere near the far end. I suppose I thought more in terms of a gender binary, rather than of gender’s fluidity. I’m still a little butchy, and to some extent I’m a woman less attached to signifying.
Up until that point, I’d only worn lingerie for the boy. In his parents’ house I was assigned his room, while he was assigned the couch. We ignored the rule, discreetly. He ran his fingers over my recently faded hair and in a lover’s whisper said, “Don’t ever shave your head again.” Then, without lingering, he removed Blue. It was all very anti-climactic. For me. Even on the Amtrak ride back to Chicago, where I watched the corn pass by, things felt stagnant, flat. I did, anyway.
Lingerie is about desire, concealing. It’s about protection, sanitation, heft. It’s about what lies beneath, just out of reach. It’s about the taking off and putting on of things. Like navigating any construct, lingerie and our hair are about control.
How to wear it?
The idea of secondhand lingerie turns the stomach a bit. Most would rather buy new everything, make everything they have theirs first, theirs only. There are those who are interested in the old, who find mystery in 1940s bustiers and 1920s suspenders. Then there are the people who must shop at the thrift store. I was one of them once, briefly. There are the mothers who have to furnish their homes, dress their kids, buy birthday presents, and stretch a dollar.
Think of the industry of purchased hair, wigs, extensions. While putting on someone’s underwear is different, it isn’t a far cry from putting on someone’s cut hair. In each instance, we’re trying to be attractive, to be alluring. Hair is sensual, too. Consider the tickle of hair against your belly. To cut or braid a love’s hair is a show of affection. It’s a sign of self-care to shapeshift that way, to do maintenance on one’s eyebrows. It’s a dual sign of self-respect to shave a bikini line, or to choose to wear your curls freely.
Still, when I shop in thrift stores, the lingerie section is the most curious. There are girdles, bras, panties (sorted by color and size), nighties- really, whatever part-functional, part-sexual item a lady needs, she can find it there. There is something about that that makes me satisfied, like poor women are sexy, too. Classy sexy, like mom sexy. Broke women of all sizes and backgrounds take long baths, put on their favorite feel good lotion, shave their armpits, legs, bikini lines, or landing strips, then slip into something that makes them feel like their skin is silk. They do this routine, too, this suiting up for the day, or for the night, and I love it. It’s beautiful. I’m fascinated by the dressing rooms themselves: our bathrooms, our bedrooms, the curtained stalls in stores. All of this hiding, shaping, and shaving, all to show it off.
Probably another reason for this disgust with wearing a stranger’s clothes is the issue of purity. There is an accepted truth that most people only have one true love or one sexual partner for the entirety of their lives, but that simply isn’t true, at least not for the people I’ve met in my life. People are discreet, some more than others, but TV and bar culture and Texts from Last Night, college health centers and the OB/GYN’s office forms tell us that people have more than one partner, and to that extent we’re all shared. That can be read as used, as sloppy seconds, as secondhand. But we’re not soiled, and each of those independent encounters is unique. So much of what is sexy has to do with what is secret. Maybe that secrecy allows us to believe that whatever we do is also singular.
We’re not tainted, but yes, we share ourselves, and hopefully with people who respect and care for us. For some that’s just one person, for some more than that. Some folks marry and claim mutual dominion, some don’t. Maybe that’s the reason some are made uncomfortable by shared intimates- we want to erase any trace of some old lover’s hand, every trace of an intimate knowledge to which we don’t have access and can’t recreate. That isn’t to say that there’s no limit. There’s a point in which the word slut comes into play, but I’m anti-slut shaming, and I don’t think that early 20s experimentation or polyamory for grown folks who know how to communicate is weird, or even extreme phenomena. Because of this, I didn’t think twice about sharing what are ultimately just articles of clothing.
It is like this with hair. How many times have you checked your hair before you left the bathroom? Do your bangs fall just so? Think of what it means to be able to grow out your hair and donate it to someone else, or what it means to have your hair rejected. Me, my hair is natural. I’ve never worn weave, but my sisters and cousins have, do, are concerned with Black hair, Black hair magazines and fashion; sharing beauty secrets, sharing clothes, ideas, tips, makes women a part of a tribe. White women put on purchased ponytails. It isn’t an issue of artifice; it’s an issue of allure. Even the process of washing someone’s hair, a lover’s, is one gentle and romantic, like Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet.
There are only two types of hair we talk about: head hair and sex hair. I’ve been mostly disinterested in changing either since puberty. In seventh grade, I shaved my legs for a total of one week. A girl at school taught me how. Then my mother laughed at me and told me that Black girls don’t do that, but I could if I wanted. Then my razor broke. I could have bought a new one, but I didn’t. I have very little hair in my armpits. I’ve never shaved them, fearing as I do an insatiable itch. The hair on my head has taken few forms: first braids (natural) like little Black girls do (multi-colored barrettes and all), then dreadlocks by seven, because I loved Jumping Jack Whoopi that much. Short Afro for a year in college, then back to locks because once you know who you are, it’s best to grow into it.
Let’s define sex hair as leg hair and pubic hair. Let’s define sex hair as back hair and chest hair. Let’s define sex hair as the bristles in the armpit, which scrape the tongue. Let’s define sex hair as the raised hair on the back of the neck and arms. Horripilation. It’s all the hair that betrays a stirring; it’s all the hair that we try to grab when we’re falling.
Let’s define head hair as the clue (she’s probably gay, maybe one of those intellectual Blacks, maybe Black power, maybe Rasta), the part that makes me the girl the other girls want to play with, or not. It’s the part that makes strangers touch me in gas stations. It’s the part by which other women judge. It’s the part that gets under armpits, that hides my face or frames it. It’s the part that tells which class, which race, which sex, which gender. It does a lot of work.
How to wear it?
Confession: I bought and wore underwear from the thrift store. Explanation: they were not the kind of underwear that touches pubic hair directly. Excuse: for many years I made under $15,000. That counts as poor. Confession: I wore those nighties back when I felt young and coltish, gangly and awkward, but determined to be sexy. I wore those nighties in the day; in the summer when it was so hot that anything else would make my skin itch or send me into a heat-induced lethargy. Snitch: I loaned the black one to my roommate when her boyfriend’s birthday came around. She fucked in it. I’m sure because I heard them. I don’t feel gross about this. She asked for it. I always wanted a sister. Who teaches us how to wear these things? To style them? To shave? To flaunt? The boys we want to want us, even when we know they don’t. The girls we want to love, who scare us. Our sisters? The rebellious parts of us that say, “You can have me when I want you.”
Maya Marshall is a Cave Canem fellow andan alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at the University of South Carolina. She is a Poetry Editor at Muzzle Magazine and a Poetry Reader forYemassee. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in Fjords, RHINO,Blackberry, and other publications.