Body Politics with Cora Harrington
Cora Harrington loves lingerie—and the complex feminist questions surrounding it. On today’s show, the founder of The Lingerie Addict talks about building a business out of a lingerie blog, questioning norms about gender and bodies, and why a $20 bra probably exploits women workers.
We loved hearing about Cora’s journey from nonprofit worker with a side-hustle blog to running a beloved—and deeply thoughtful—business about lingerie and writing the most inclusive book about lingerie out there: In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie.
From America’s “puritanical” ideas about butts and nipples to how to write about bodies and lingerie in a gender-neutral and body-neutral way to how underpaid garment workers are part of our long history of devaluing women’s labor, this conversation is about so much more than satin and lace.
Bodies that are coded as women, or coded as more feminine, are seen as inherently transgressive, and are seen as something that needs to be covered up or censored or hidden… You’re not allowed to talk about your body or see your body or reference your body in public.
—Cora Harrington, founder of The Lingerie Addict and author of In Intimate Detail
On the agenda:
- Why Google won’t serve Cora’s site ads—too titillating!—and why should all be concerned about the Tumblr “female-presenting nipples” ban: “this is the kind of censorship that only grows over time. It doesn’t shrink.”
- How to take the value judgments out of writing about bodies: “No matter what body you’re in, it’s fine. Let’s get you in beautiful underpinnings.”
- How women’s labor is devalued—and what it truly takes to turn lace and tulle into “this three-dimensional structural support that can hold up pounds of flesh for hours at a time.”
Also in this episode: being mistaken for a booth babe, realizing you gotta take something off your plate, and setting intentions over a bowl of queso.
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher Today’s episode is brought to you by Harvest, the best time-tracking and project-planning tool for freelancers and companies large and small. Send invoices, manage tasks and team members, and more. Check it out today at getharvest.com/strongfeelings to get 50% off your first month. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings. [intro music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey everyone, I’m Sara.
Katel LeDu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together. And, Katel, it is so great to see you… again! [KL laughs] Honestly, I have seen you more than anyone lately, including probably my husband. [KL laughs]
KL Yeah! We’ve been spending a lot of time together. We were out until 10:30 last night—
SWB So late.
KL It’s so late! And then… I came over to your house less than 12 hours later to record this. [KL laughs]
SWB I know, I know. I feel like I was just waking back up.
KL Yeah. [laughs]
SWB So, yeah. We were at this event last night here in Philly. We were celebrating the launch of our first episode of the year and we were also kind of doing this educational thing explaining what we’ve learned in a year of podcasting and trying to encourage more people to podcast, which was pretty fun! But I know, Katel, you were really nervous before we had the event. How are you feeling now?
KL I know, I was. I feel… I feel really good! I woke up yesterday feeling a little nervous and I just wanted to make sure I had time to practice our talk and just that I felt really ready. And I did get to do that. And then I met up with you at a spot we really like near the venue just to kind of touch base. And we got a margarita and some queso, which was really nice. And as we were paying the bill, you were like, “let’s set an intention.” [laughs] I remember laughing about it, we both kind of giggled. But it was actually really lovely and I loved that you did that.
SWB Yeah, I mean I was definitely joking not joking. [KL laughs] I did literally pull the bowl of queso [laughs] between us as—
KL As like a centre point? [laughs]
SWB As a centre point for our energy? Yeah. [both laugh] But for me, I felt like we were running around and running around doing a lot, trying to manage all of the various balls in the air—
SWB And then show up—rushing out of the door to show up at this event. And I think we just needed a moment of like, “okay, put all of that away. We are doing an event now.” And we’re going to go into it mind cleared. And I needed that! And I needed that queso also.
KL Yeah, [laughs] I definitely did. I’m very glad neither one of us spilled any on ourselves. But yeah, I ended up having so much fun doing the actual talk! It was great.
SWB I did too! And I think people really enjoyed it because we did the fuck yeah of the week with the audience at the end—
SWB —and I love doing that where you get other people to give you their fuck yeahs. We did like fuck yeah for the year. And it’s hard to explain how amazing it is to hear people tell you what they’re excited about, but it’s really great. And when you do it in a big group, something that I’ve noticed after having done it a couple times is that everybody really roots for that! Everybody is cheering you on! [KL laughs]
KL I know! It was great.
SWB The energy is so fantastic. So, I just loved closing out the evening with that. It makes me want to close out everything I do [KL laughs] with having some people celebrate things! [laughs]
KL You should start doing that at dinner parties. [laughs]
SWB Yeah, business meetings! “What’s your fuck yeah?” [both laugh] But on the other hand, I will say this. I’m tired today. I feel like we’ve been pushing pretty hard to get everything ready to go for this new season. And doing all of this extra stuff where we’re like, “okay, we’re going to write some articles and try to get the podcast featured in other publications.” And that means writing a lot of emails where you’re reaching out— [KL laughs]
KL Asking for…
SWB—just checking in.
SWB Yeah, and asking people to promote the show, asking people for help. And I find that stuff really hard. It takes a lot of mental energy to psych myself up to send an email that’s like, “would you help us promote our show?”
KL Yeah, absolutely.
SWB I feel embarrassed to do it. It dredges up all these really bad feelings. And I think that that’s part of the reason that I’m feeling so exhausted is that kind of stuff. It’s not just the task, but all of that emotional ramp up.
SWB And it’s not just the podcast, it’s also just that we have been hitting it hard so far in 2019.
KL Mhm! [laughs]
SWB We had our beach weekend.
KL We did.
SWB Which sounds like a vacation, [KL laughs] but it was actually 48 hours holed up in a random condo working on workshop curriculum and business pitches. So, it was a lot!
KL Yeah and it’s the middle of winter, so we’re not laying beach side. But we did get some beach vibes! I really liked that we took time to take some walks along the beach and that was actually really nice. And I find it’s very helpful to have a change of scenery when I need to think through something and think about something differently or just find some inspiration, so that was great.
SWB Yeah, nothing says inspiration like the Jersey Shore. [KL laughs] Okay, so we did get a lot done, even though that airbnb had straight up the loudest people upstairs I have ever heard in my entire life. I swear there was like six dogs [KL laughs] and a pick up basketball game and a seven year old’s birthday party all happening at the same time!
KL Oh my gosh. If I had been there trying to relax near the ocean getting a nice getaway in, I would have been so bummed out. I mean, it was still kind of a big bummer, but we made it. I feel like we can kind of handle anything now! [SWB laughs]
SWB Yeah! I feel like it’s been a really great start to the year. But I also started thinking this past week like, “okay, how am I going to pace myself knowing I want to keep working on the podcast, knowing that me and you want to do more workshops and things like that together, and then also knowing that I’ve got this whole other consulting business I’ve got to keep alive. And like… are there things I need to start thinking about letting go of? Is there something I should be taking off my plate?”
KL Yeah. You know how I was really overwhelmed this week and you were like, “okay, let’s look at what we actually need to do. Let’s figure this out.” And then we knocked a bunch of stuff off the list and I was like, “okay, this actually feels really doable now.” What if you let me help you do that too? I really like prioritizing and reprioritizing because sometimes just that act of pausing to kind of look at what’s in front of you can just be so helpful.
SWB Yeah okay, I promise I will let you do that, [KL laughs] but first we definitely have to finish this episode.
KL Okay, fine.
SWB We are already recording it, [KL laughs] so it’s probably a priority! So, who are we talking to today? *
KL So, today we are talking to none other than Cora Harrington! She is the founder of The Lingerie Addict, which we both obviously love a lot. And it’s a blog about yes, lingerie. And she also just wrote a book about lingerie. And she’s actually also been facing the kinds of challenges we are talking a lot about—what do you do when your side hustle gets bigger, and how do you rebalance the load when you need to?
SWB Yeah, that was really helpful to hear. The other thing is that this interview is just fascinating because she’s not just talking about lingerie as this pretty and fun thing, but she brings this real depth to it and kind of rejects the idea that lingerie is just a fluffy or a shallow pursuit, and she looks at it from so many different angles.
KL Yeah, in fact even calling her a lingerie blog felt really minimizing. She talks about lingerie in a way that’s fun, but she actually also goes really deep into a lot of stuff. She’ll describe a gorgeous, silk robe, but also talk about the garment workers who made it. And she doesn’t just talk about lingerie styles or fits, she also surfaces how people feel about what they wear under their clothes—how those feelings are tied to shame or body image issues. And it’s so much deeper.
SWB Yeah, I thought it was really interesting to hear sort of a feminist take on lingerie, to look at lingerie through sort of an intersectional lens. So, there’s so much in there I can’t wait for everybody to hear. And I feel like what we’re kind of getting at is the way that almost anything that women spend their time on, anything feminized starts being painted as not very important. You know how novels that are written by women are often written off as “small stories?” Like a woman writing about her life is this little, domestic thing, but a man writing about his life is an important work about the human condition.
SWB Even if the story is mostly him binge-drinking his way through his twenties or whatever, right?
SWB You’re like, “it’s not that great.” You know the other day, for example, I was reading this article about women who report on motherhood. And they were saying that they often felt like their work was being treated as sort of like these little mommy pieces, their stories would get rejected because editors would say things like, “I don’t know who this is relevant to except for moms.” And it’s like first off, not only are there a shit ton of moms in the world, [both laugh] also moms make a huge amount of decisions in a lot of homes. So, from an advertising perspective, moms are an important audience. And then also like…maybe motherhood is a critical topic for humans to understand?
SWB Maybe just maybe this isn’t something that should only be seen and understood and thought about by other moms. But yeah, I just feel like we see it over and over. Things that mostly women do end up being written off, underestimated. And then, of course, systemically underpaid and all of the rest of it too.
KL Uhh yeah. Have I [laughs] told you about my time spent as a book booth girl at tech events?
SWB Ooh, booth babe! [KL laughs]
KL It’s really amazing what people will think of and say to you when you’re a woman running a sponsor table.
KL They absolutely do not assume that you’re the CEO of the sponsor company. I’ve had many men come up to the table, rustle through the books and grab one, and start looking through them, and without even acknowledging me, ask where they can find out more about the books.
SWB Should I get you a big pin that says “CEO” on it that you can wear? [both laugh]
KL Please? That would be great. I mean, clearly I must just be slinging these books and know nothing about the product—much less run the company.
SWB And I mean, maybe they think it’s a bigger company and obviously the person who runs the company isn’t there at the event, but I think that the assumption underlying all of it is just that you couldn’t possibly know anything about this, right?
SWB You’re just there to run a cash register or smile and look pretty.
SWB Well, that’s something I really love about running this podcast because we don’t deal with any of that bullshit.
KL No, it’s great. [laughs]
SWB Because we don’t have anybody on the show who is going to treat you that way. [KL laughs] We only talk to awesome people like Cora. So, let’s get to the lingerie! [short transition music plays]
Interview: Cora Harrington
SWB Cora Harrington is the founder of The Lingerie Addict, and the author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie, which came out last fall. She’s an expert at all things lingerie, and she’s got a perspective on it that I think all of you are going to really love. So, Cora, welcome to Strong Feelings.
Cora Harrington Hey! Thanks so much for having me.
SWB Well, I’m really excited to have you here. And first up, I would love if you could just tell our listeners a little bit about what The Lingerie Addict is?
CH So, The Lingerie Addict—that’s the name of my blog—it’s a resource, a site that’s dedicated to the fashion of intimate apparel. I feel like there really isn’t a lot of information that’s dedicated to intimate apparel out there. There aren’t a lot of shopping advice, there’s not a lot of guides, there’s just not a lot of information in general. And so The Lingerie Addict is all about helping to connect people with those brands and those styles and those resources that can help them to find lingerie they love.
SWB So, something that I want to ask about there is that you’ve talked about wanting to make people feel “welcome” in the world of lingerie. And I’m curious about what that means to you and why that’s something that’s important to you.
CH Well, I think lingerie can often feel very exclusionary. Like a lot of people, I was raised seeing those Victoria Secret advertisements in the mall. A lot of the lingerie advertising, a lot of the lingerie catalogs I saw, they didn’t have women who liked like me. And so there wasn’t really I feel like a conversation happening about lingerie that felt welcoming and inclusive and that centered the wearer. And as I was writing my blog, especially in those early days, and learning about lingerie, I realized that a lot of other people felt a similar sense of alienation or even felt worse. And it was just important to me that if I was going to do this site that I make it as inclusive and as welcoming as I could possibly make it.
SWB So, let’s go back to when you started The Lingerie Addict because I believe the site started in 2008, is that right?
CH Yes, yes!
SWB Wow. So, what made you want to do sort of like a side hustle project about lingerie back then and how did that get started?
CH So, I started my blog as a hobby. I was dating someone at the time and I was interested in buying something nice to wear for them. And I remember searching online for reviews, for information, for some kind of article that was like, “hey, here are the top ten x, y, zs to buy!” And I couldn’t find anything. I’m not the first lingerie blogger, there were other lingerie blogs around at the time, but most of them were focused on lookbooks or on press releases. There wasn’t really anything that I felt like was written for people that were new to intimate apparel or for people that were interested that maybe just didn’t know how to shop for it. And so I started writing reviews of things I was buying, I started writing little short blog posts of things that maybe I wanted to buy but couldn’t afford, and it turns out that there were lots of other people interested in exactly that kind of content. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I was writing about lingerie from a fashion perspective, which was really different than most of the conversations that were happening around intimate apparel at that time.
SWB Which were all basically like “did you know that 100% of women are wearing the wrong bra size,” right?
CH Yeaahhh. Yeah. [SWB laughs] Those, those. And also like “be sexy for your man!”
CH And I just—neither of those conversations is especially interesting to me. [SWB & KL laugh]
SWB Okay, so! Congratulations on being in sort of the online editorial business for more than a decade, that is amazing. What does that actually look like for you day to day?
CH So, I work from a home office because I’m the only person that works full time on my site. It can be very difficult to kind of divvy up my day, so in a given day I’ll spend time talking to advertisers or potential advertisers, I spend time looking at new look books and new collections, I may have a face to face meeting with a brand where, for example, I’m seeing a new collection in person or I’m meeting with a founder or a designer, or trying some garments on to get a sense of the fit and the sizing. I may be shooting product for our social media. We’ve done a lot more flat lays and kind of product shots, especially for Instagram this year. So, I might be doing something like that. Or I might be talking to my team of writers because I have several writers, several columnists for TLA, and we might be working on the editorial calendar and thinking about content for the next few months. Oh and then I forget, there’s always social media too. [laughs] So, there’s always a lot going on and my day usually involves a little bit of marketing, a little bit of PR, a little bit of editorial, and a little bit of social media management.
SWB Is there ever a time when you start to feel overwhelmed with all the different bits and pieces that go into running the site and the social media campaigns and working with the advertisers? How do you make sense of all those different pieces of the project and keep them from getting out of whack?
CH I do feel overwhelmed. Probably pretty often actually, especially this year. I mean, it is difficult to be wearing so many hats because advertising is one skillset, editorial is a different skillset, social media is a different skillset, and trying to keep all of that in my head and together can be really challenging. What I found has been that hiring people to help me has been very good. This year I hired a social media manager and I also hired a newsletter manager and both of them have been phenomenal. I also have a website developer, so just kind of the general day to day backup, maintenance, and updating of the site is something that I don’t have to do. And then I have a team of writers who are all really strong writers, and that’s helped a lot in making sure that TLA has regular and updated content, which as you know, is so important for a blog. I make a lot of lists, so I have like a mousepad/weekly planner that I keep on my desk. I also have a daily planner that I write in. And then I have a larger reminder calendar on a site called Basecamp. But I will say it is very hard and it is getting even harder to try and keep up with everything, so I might need some more tools [laughs] to keep it all managed next year.
SWB Well, that sounds like a function of having grown this quite a bit. Now, you started it as like a side project, you had a regular job, and now this is all you do, right?
CH That’s right. At the time that I decided to go full time I was working at non profits and I noticed that my blog was bringing in about the same amount of money as my day job. And I felt like maybe I had taken my nonprofit career as far as I could at that time without going back to school and getting a degree or some kind of certification. And because of the work I did, I was also starting to become a bit burnt out on the trauma. And I also felt like maybe there was a moment here because fashion blogging was becoming more and more popular, people were talking about bloggers a lot more, that maybe there was a moment to turn The Lingerie Addict into something. And I wasn’t sure how long that moment would last or if it would come around again if I waited. And I feel really lucky and really fortunate to have been able to just kind of jump in with both feet into making The Lingerie Addict my full time career and really turning it into what it is today.
SWB What was that moment that made you realize this is something that you wanted to try doing full time? How did you get the courage to?
CH Well, one of the things was definitely the revenue part. I mean, when I started my blog, I didn’t even know blogs could make money. So, my site was up for a couple of years before I even added in analytics and thought about things like Google AdSense. But definitely when it started bringing in revenue, I was like “perhaps there’s something here.” And when I realized that there wasn’t—even at that time—there wasn’t anyone doing what I was doing. I think for a long time I was waiting maybe for someone else to come up with another lingerie focused site or another lingerie blog or lingerie magazine. And when that didn’t happen, I wondered “okay, well maybe I can be that person to bring the perspective I want to see on the industry on intimate apparel to other people.” And then we just kind of hit a critical mass, largely because of social media in terms of getting a lot of followers, a lot of interest, a lot of new readers. We got on Twitter pretty early, Tumblr pretty early, Facebook Pages pretty early, and also Pinterest. Pinterest was also very good for us at the time. And so that just brought in a lot of new people, a lot of new interest. And I didn’t want to feel five or ten or maybe fifteen years later, I didn’t want to wonder, “well, what if maybe I had tried this thing. What if it could have been life changing and I just didn’t?” And so that was I think also some of the impotence as well. I didn’t want to look back and wish that I had done something different.
SWB I love that so much. That concept of looking back and saying like, “will I have regretted this if I don’t try it?” So, I read that Google AdWords treats your site as adult content?
SWB Can we talk about that a little bit? Because you talked a little bit about making money off of the site and sort of getting to this place where it was sustaining for you. And Google AdWords is obviously a huge amount of online revenue. It’s made Google a very rich company and you’re getting cut off from that, so what’s going on there?
CH So it’s Google AdSense I don’t have access to, I’ve never tried Google AdWords. And essentially Google has said, “because we visited your site and we saw something that perhaps was titillating to one of our viewers—we think we might have seen a shadow of a breast or something—[laughs & SWB laughs] that means your site is pornographic and it’s adult and therefore, we cannot let you use our ad tools. And that was really upsetting! Because there’s not just the money part [laughs] but there’s also just the sense of being shunned or banned or blacklisted. And that was really distressing, because it got me thinking about how conversations about bodies that are kind of coded as women or coded as more feminine are seen as inherently transgressive. And are seen as something that needs to be covered up or censored or hidden. And I think a lot about how those attitudes we have towards what Tumblr refers to as “female-presenting nipples”—there’s kind of the immediate impact in that you can’t see a nipple or what have you, but there’s also I think a larger impact because there’s this attention on or attached sense of shame, sense of censor. This sense that you’re not allowed to talk about your body or see your body or reference your body in public. And so there’s this whole underlying conversation that really says something about our values and our ideals and our morals and our sense of what bodies should look like, or what public-facing bodies should look like, especially in America. And the more I think about it, the more distressing it is. So yeah, we can’t use Google AdSense. It’s also very difficult to advertise on platforms like Facebook for the same reasons. I deleted my Tumblr before this ban came out, but I was also blacklisted on Tumblr for the same reason. I’m buried in Pinterest. So, it’s a really distressing time. And I think it’s also important to keep in mind that as much as my business is affected, that there are other businesses and other workers—for example, sex workers, people who are in more sexualized industries are even more affected by I am—who are being cut off from things like bank accounts. This is something we should all be concerned about because this is the kind of censorship that only grows over time. It doesn’t shrink. And that even though the targets now are seen as quote-unquote “acceptable” targets—sex workers, people who work in what I call sex-adjacent industries like mine in lingerie—we’re seen as acceptable targets. But kind of that sense or that scope is going to expand and I think this is a much bigger issue than people are acknowledging.
KL Yeah and I know we’ve been talking about how we want to talk a lot more about that kind of stuff, so it’s so, so great that you talked about that.
CH Yeah, I just have a lot of feelings, especially, too, about how America’s kind of exporting our puritanical values and our sensibilities about women’s bodies, our feminine-presenting bodies, our identifying bodies, abroad. Because not everyone shares our viewpoints on nipples and on bottom cleavage. [laughs] But because Facebook is headquartered here and Google is headquartered here and Twitter is headquartered here and PayPal is headquartered here—because all of these platforms have their start here and they’re based here—we’re exporting those values around the world.
CH And I think that is very much a problem.
SWB Yeah, absolutely. I mean, coming out of the tech industry, we’ve talked about some of these issues from our professional background before too. And yeah, the idea that Silicon Valley’s version of technology is the dominant and right one has a lot of problems it turns out. And I love though hearing that despite all of that, which is a bunch of bullshit, [CH laughs] you’ve produced something that people really care about and that people love and people read. And I know not only did you get to turn that into your full time job, have you built it into this big online thing, you had a book come out last year too!
CH Yeah! So, the name of it is In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. It’s published by Ten Speed Press here in the States and by Harper Collins in the UK. And it’s essentially a guide to this wonderful and expansive world of lingerie. I remember when I first became interested in intimate apparel, feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the terminology and all the types and all the styles. And there’s so much to know about fabric and how things are made and how to take care of it. And it’s completely different than what most of us wear day to day. Intimate apparel is still very much its own world. I mean, is it part of the larger fashion industry? Yes. But there’s so much that is unique and specific to lingerie that is completely opaque to you if you’re not a die hard lingerie enthusiast or someone who works in the industry. And I think that kind of barrier to entry where even if you are interested or intrigued, you feel, “oh my gosh, there are hundreds of new words I need to learn and this is… oh my god, I can’t do it!” I wanted to just get all of that in a book that made lingerie more accessible and more inviting that helped people to feel like, “okay, there is space for me in this world, there is somebody who wants to see me here, who wants me to enjoy and have beautiful lingerie. And that’s really is what my book is all about. There’s a lot of introductory level information because I don’t want to assume what people know. So, it covers everything from what is a bra and the basics of bra fit and different types of bras all the way to somewhat more advanced topics like what is a corset and how do you buy custom lingerie and how do you buy vintage lingerie? That kind of no matter where you are on your lingerie journey, whether you’re at the very beginning and everything is new to you or maybe you’re a little more advanced and you want to indulge in something special, there’s something in there for you.
KL I love this book. Sara actually bought it for me after I said I wanted fancy undies at a certain point, but I had no idea where to start. And I love it so much, it’s such a beautiful book. And I have had those exact reactions reading it. I was like, “okay, I know this, I had no idea about this” and I feel like I’m actually getting an education, so I really appreciate it. Was it difficult going from running the blog to creating a full book out of the stuff that you were working on? How did you approach that?
CH Well, I didn’t want my book to be just a regurgitation of things that were on the blog for of a lot of reasons. One is because just the way that I write has changed over the years, so even if I was pulling from all the information on the blog, the way that I would talk about it now would be different because I’m different. But I also wanted the book to be something that stood alone on its own where even people who didn’t know me or knew nothing about The Lingerie Addict would still get something out of the book. So, the book took basically a full year to write. I spent all last year writing it. And there was kind of a lot of negotiation internally with me in terms of like “okay, what do I need to make sure is here? What would be too complicated or too complex that I want to leave out?” So, it was very much a sense of “okay, how do I take out of the mission and the ethos and the spirit of the blog and repackage that into this standalone project that is going to be around for decades?” Because even if I shut down my blog tomorrow, my book is still going to be out there. How do I put that into something that will really stand the test of time if you ran across this book fifteen years from now in a library that it would still feel relevant to you?
SWB Yes, you know I think one of the things I really noticed is that it also has these gorgeous illustrations, which totally contribute to that timeless feel.
CH It was really important to me to not have photos in the book. And I feel so lucky. So, the illustrator is someone who I encountered on Tumblr years ago and I explicitly said is who I want to illustrate my book. And my publisher was fine with it and Sandy—that’s my illustrator’s name—she said yes. But I wanted illustrations for two main reasons. One was for the timelessness factor; I feel like photographs date a book. But I also wanted it as part of that mission of feeling more accessible and more inclusive. When you’re taking photos and you’re using models, people without even realizing it are going to compare themselves to a model. They’re going to think about “oh okay, well she’s wearing this, so I can’t wear it” or “okay, that looks nice on her, but it’s not going to look nice on me.” And I think a lot of people do this just subconsciously without even really being aware that’s what’s happening in their minds. And I wanted people as they were flipping through An Intimate Detail and perhaps encountering a lot of these styles and a lot of these terms for the first time to not think about lingerie like that. I wanted people to just be able to say, “oh okay, here’s something. Here’s a new style, here’s something I like” and just take it for what it was without having to compare themselves to someone in a photograph.
SWB Yeah, so speaking of making it inclusive, another thing that I really loved about it is that we noticed that the book uses gender-neutral language, which is—
SWB —not something people would usually expect for a book about lingerie! So, can you tell us how you decided to write that way?
CH Yeah! So, I didn’t want to assume that everyone reading my book was a woman. There are lots of people that are genderqueer, that are non-binary, that are transitioning or maybe unsure about their gender identity. And I wanted them to feel like this book was for them too. And I also wanted to show that it’s not impossible, and not difficult, [laughs] to write in gender-neutral language. Because I think sometimes when you talk about writing in gender-neutral language or not making assumptions about people’s gender, people are like, “oh my god, it’s an impossible task! I couldn’t possibly, it’s going to sound so weird!” But it doesn’t, actually. [laughs] It just sounds like… talking. And so that was why I wanted to do that, so that really everybody who was interested in lingerie could feel like this book could have something for them or that this book could be relevant to them, without having to deal with like, gender dysmorphia or gender dysphoria while reading it and encountering pronouns that weren’t their own, but also I think just as evidence that it can be done and that it doesn’t have to be difficult.
SWB I like that a lot. I used to edit a magazine and I will admit to you that years ago, years ago now, but for a long time—too long—I was really uncomfortable with going to the singular “they.” And I needed people to kind of push me on it. I didn’t like it, it just sounded wrong. And I realize now that that was a very bad reason, the idea that it sounded “wrong” was just me being stuck in my ways and uncomfortable with change. So, thank you for pushing on that. And also, thank you for including in the book an appendix for trans and non-binary people, plus-sized people, and people with disabilities, because that’s something that I don’t think people also would expect in a lingerie book. And so I’m curious why you did that and also how did you build a knowledge base to be able to provide that to more diverse people and a broader range of people who might be interested in lingerie?
CH Well, when I was thinking about writing a book about lingerie that was going to be inclusive and what that would look like, to me that had to be about more than just plus sizes or more than just full bust. It had to be as inclusive as I could possibly make it, within the brief I was given. And so just from the very beginning, from the proposal I sent and my earliest conversations with my editor, I knew that I wanted to have sections in the book that were specifically for people who don’t usually see information relevant to their lives or their bodies in conversations about lingerie. And for me that looks like remembering that some people are disabled, and some people have fibromyalgia, and some people are transitioning, and some people are menopausal, and some people have breast augmentation, and some people have had mastectomies. There are people in my life where those things are parts of their lives. So, if I’m writing a book, I want the people that I know and that I love to feel like this book is also for them. And I also feel like this is a part of normalizing those things. Having a section on how to buy a binder in a book from a top-five publisher that’s in a bookstore like Barnes & Noble sitting on a shelf is a part of normalizing these conversations and a part of normalizing these garments and not just kind of keeping them tucked away on like niche blogs or niche sites. Just being like, “no, no, there are people in this world walking around that you know probably [laughs] who are wearing binders, or who are transitioning, who have had breast augmentation.” And it’s normal. This is a part of our life. I just wanted my book to fully encompass the world that I know.
SWB I love that. Was that hard to do? Was it hard to feel like you had enough expertise across all of those different areas to cover them effectively?
CH Well, I feel like I built up [laughs] some knowledge over the last ten years. But I was also very careful to stay within my knowledge base. I do think it’s important that if people are looking to you for guidance or for expertise or for authority to kind of stay within what you know. So, I didn’t want to tip over into giving medical advice or tip over into offering advice that I wasn’t confident might work for people. So, for the segments in my book, the recommendations or advice is based on conversations I’ve had with people, on things I’ve learned just from being around the industry for the last decade. But I’ve also been deliberately very careful to not overreach my own expertise because that’s when I think you get into offering harmful recommendations, harmful suggestions.
SWB I really liked talking about this whole side of things, this side of complicating the way we think about bodies and the way we think about lingerie and who it’s for. And it made me think that just recently—maybe a little bit before we were scheduling this interview—we did a listener survey and we asked people questions about what kinds of sponsors or advertisers would they appreciate on the show and what do they hope they never hear. And we had a couple people say sort of like, “please don’t have bra ads on the show, women are so inundated with this crap constantly.” [CH laughs] Oftentimes messages about how there’s something wrong with your body. And I felt a little conflicted. Like gosh, I don’t want our listeners to obsess over their bodies even more after listening to our show, but also like… we wear bras and underwear! Do you ever find it challenging to think about the responsibility you might say of talking about lingerie and bodies in a way that makes people feel sort of better about theirs instead of worse about theirs?
CH Well, I try to make sure the way we talk about bodies is as neutrally as possible, which means not using body-shaming language, which has been our policy for a long time. Or more recently, to also make sure we’re not tipping into the side of like basically implying that everyone has to be beautiful or that your body is only worthwhile if it’s beautiful, which I feel like is kind of the flip side to that. I don’t believe that the answer to decades of terrible marketing is to essentially reinforce this idea that beauty should be the primary goal for women or for feminine-presenting people. And so I try to make our discussion of bodies and breasts and genitals as value-neutral as possible. And the idea that no matter what body you’re in, it’s fine. Let’s get you in beautiful underpinnings. And for me, that’s what works because then there’s not judgement on either side. I don’t know if that approach will work for everybody, but I feel like in terms of what feels right and good for me right now, it’s trying to make the landscape and the talk about the actual body as neutral as I can.
KL I love that and it makes me think about how sometimes there’s a perception that lingerie is about objectification or that it’s just for your partner and not necessarily for you or it’s for something else. And therefore enjoying it or caring about it isn’t feminist. How do you feel about that? How do you answer criticism like that?
CH I don’t think any item of clothing is or isn’t feminist because it’s clothing—it’s an inanimate object. [all laugh] So we can’t—it doesn’t make sense to me. I feel like it’s a very superficial level of feminism, a very superficial discussion of feminism, if your conversation about what feminism is or what it looks like in modern-day society centers around whether somebody is wearing a bra or a corset. I feel like that’s not even like 101 level, that’s like sub-101 level. [all laugh] You really need to perhaps think of it more, read a bit more, meditate on the topic a bit more. I do think we should have conversations about how, for example, the locus of control for women’s bodies has moved from external shaping garments like the corset or girdles to internal means of control through, like, diet and exercise. To me, that is a feminist conversation, how beauty standards have shifted from external means of control to internal means of control. But that’s very different from saying, “oh corsets aren’t feminist.” To me, that conversation doesn’t exist.
CH And I also think if we’re going to have conversations about feminism and clothing, we need to also discuss how bras, for example, [laughs] are seen as a required item of clothing for people to wear. To me, even if we were going to begin this talk about our underwear and how it relates to how women are perceived or to feminist ideologies, I feel that conversation needs to start with the things that are seen as required and not things that are seen as optional. So, for me, a conversation that’s far more interesting is how we censor and castigate women who we perceive as wearing poorly fitting bras. There are all these photos on the internet that show women who are in bras that don’t appear to be very comfortable or that don’t appear to be very well-made, and people are mocking their bust shape. That’s the kind of conversation [laughs] if we’re going to talk about feminist underwear that we should have. Or how our clothing is made with the assumption that our breasts are in a certain position or that they’re a certain shape. Or how most people aren’t aware that bras don’t keep your breasts from sagging, for example. There’s just so much more—if we’re going to really have this conversation—to talk about than “corsets aren’t feminist” or “loving lingerie isn’t feminist.” That shouldn’t even register I feel like on the radar.
KL Yeah. And you touched on something in there, which also feels so important, which is how lingerie is made and how people underestimate the level of handiwork that goes into—
CH Right! To me, that’s a feminist conversation.
KL Yeah, exactly—into designing it and creating it. How does that piece sort of fit into it?
CH Well, I think about how we devalue things that are made primarily by women or used primarily by women. And I feel like lingerie and intimate apparel is a great example of that. We kind of devalue the importance of intimate apparel in fashion conversations because it’s something that’s one, hidden, and also, two, primarily worn by women. And we devalue the labor and knowledge that goes into its design and construction because again, mostly worn by women, but also mostly made and designed by women. And this is something that I see a lot of from Silicon Valley companies that truly rubs me the wrong way. There’s been an erasure of the women who have not only invented intimate apparel and invented the most important or the most major strides in intimate apparel, and instead they’re just tooting this kind of false feminist philosophy, which completely erases their contributions. For example, we don’t know—or we don’t usually learn—that the first inventors of the bra, whether you want to say that it was first invented here or first invented in France or first invented in 1886, they were all women. Which makes sense, because why would a dude need to invent a bra?! [all laugh] We don’t talk about how the inventor of the underwire, which I think is one of the most game-changing inventions in fashion history, was invented by a woman. She’s not even credited in her own obituary with inventing the underwire. Her name was Helene Pons. I mean, we couldn’t—our bra technology today would not work without the underwire, and no one knows her name!
CH That’s astounding to me. She’s given no credit.
KL Thank you for saying it!
CH Like the New York Times did her obituary—she died a while back—and there’s no mention of it.
CH So for me, when I see this kind of devaluation, this depreciation, see this connected to this larger devaluation, depreciation of things that are related to women and women’s work. And I often see conversations specifically around “well, no bra should cost more than $20.” And I’m like, “well, how did you arrive at this conclusion? Do you not think people who make your clothes deserve to be well compensated? And often it’s the same people who will talk about how we need to raise the minimum wage or how they’re very passionate about fair labor and fair wages, except when it comes to the people who make their clothes. And that kind of reflects the kind of cost evaluation we have about women’s work often—because we’re talking about the garment industry—the work of women of color. And the work of poor women of color. And so to me, all of these conversations, all of these things, are connected in these really deep ways that you can’t just get at with a few trite throwaway, off-the-cuff phrases [laughs] about capitalism or fast fashion or cheap clothes. These things are really deep and are really complicated. But I wish people took this area of fashion more seriously, and especially the expertise of the people making these garments more seriously. Because I can tell you that a bolt of lace—taking it from like a little bit of lace and a little bit of tulle and turning it into this three-dimensional structural support that can hold up pounds of flesh for hours at a time? That does not just happen accidentally. [all laugh] Somebody has to come in and engineer and design and precisely sew down to the millimeter this garment. And we just take it for granted. And I wish we didn’t. And so a lot of what I do now, especially this year is about helping people to understand what they’re looking at. Because I don’t think it’s the fault of those people, they just really don’t understand what they’re seeing. They don’t know how to read a bra, they’re not aware that all their bras are handmade, that every seam you see on a bra someone sat at a sewing machine and stitched it together. And so I want to help people to understand what it is they’re seeing and what it is they’re looking at, so we can create these garments even more.
SWB Yes! And I think it’s so tied into what you described earlier around how so many of us feel a lot of alienation and shame because of the ways that bras have been sold to us and the ways that women’s clothing has been policed. And so it’s really hard to feel like you understand this industry because it’s almost like you’re encouraged not to. So, I’m really curious—we’re just about out of time—but if you’re somebody listening who is not very comfortable buying lingerie, feels that weird sense of shame for caring about it, or feels alienated when they try to go in and look at nicer stuff, how would you encourage them to move forward? What advice would you give the to let go of all of that?
CH Well, I want to start by saying that it’s okay if you don’t like lingerie. Because I think sometimes people feel like because I like lingerie and I’m so passionate about it that I think everyone has to love it. And I don’t! It’s totally fine if you’re like, “this was nice, but it’s still not for me.” I’m not trying to convert people who have no interest in the topic. But if you’re someone who is curious or who maybe feels a bit fearful, it might be worth just thinking about why that is, thinking about perhaps which messages you’ve internalized. Just remember there’s nothing wrong with loving beautiful things for their own sake. There’s nothing wrong with buying beautiful things for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with buying things that fit well, that make you feel good for yourself. And I think a really beautiful, profound thing about lingerie is that it truly is an item at its heart that is for you. It’s not something that I think most people will see. You’re wearing it at home or you’re wearing it under your clothes, so it can be in so many ways the truest expression of who you are, the most honest expression of who you are. Of your identity, of who you want to be, of your fantasies, of your dreams. And I feel like thinking about lingerie maybe from that perspective, as opposed to something that someone is trying to force you into or tell you that you’re doing wrong. To me, thinking about my lingerie as connected to my identity and to my sense of personhood, my sense of self, my sense of who I want to be, is much more empowering for me than thinking about it in terms of wearing the wrong bra size or needing to be sexy for a man. So, lingerie is everything. So many people hear the word lingerie and think, “oh, it’s just sexy stuff, it’s like skimpy teddies and see-through garter belts” or whatever. But it’s everything. It’s pajamas, it’s robes, it’s caftans, it’s corsets, it’s stockings. I mean, all of it is lingerie, so don’t feel like you have to start off with pieces that feel inaccessible or inauthentic to you. You can start with whatever feels right for yourself because there really has never been a better time to become interested in this world. There has never been more designers, more brands, more access, more price points, more sizes—there has never been as much choice as we have now.
KL Uhhh, I love that so much. Thank you for saying that to everyone listening. Where can our listeners get your book and check out The Lingerie Addict?
CH Right! So, you can find my blog at thelingerieaddict.com. I’m also on Twitter @lingerie_addict and on Instagram at thelingerieaddict. And you can find my book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your local bookseller. I’m also selling signed copies on my own website if you’d like a signed and personalized copy. And if you live in the UK, you can buy it from Amazon UK or from the lingerie retailers Kiss Me Deadly, Playful Promises, or Coco de Mer.
SWB This has been so much fun, Cora, thank you.
CH Thank you for having me. [music plays with Jenn’s voice coming in over the top]
Jenn Taylor-Skinner I’m Jenn Taylor-Skinner, the host and producer of The Electorette podcast. The Electorette explores politics, social justice, civil rights, and feminism all through the lens of women. When I decided to start The Electorette, I knew that I wanted to elevate the voices of women and bring listeners deep, smart, and thoughtful conversations from groups that had been previously marginalized. The women that I interview on The Electorette are some of the most brilliant, passionate women on the planet. They are activists, politicians, academics, and authors. They’ve been on the ground helping to fight border suppression, and they’ve helped get women elected. When you listen to The Electorette, my goal is that you will always leave knowing something that you didn’t know before. Or, at the very least, think about something differently. That is my promise to my listeners. So, please subscribe to The Electorette wherever you listen to your podcasts. Or find the latest episodes at electorette.com. [spells url] And I hope to see you there! [music fades out]
SWB Hey Katel, it’s time for the fuck yeah of the week.
KL Yes, I love this part.
SWB What do you have today?
KL My fuck yeah is for the new Congress!
SWB Fuck yeah!
KL I know. I was talking to my friend Susan and she spent a month last fall
volunteering for Elissa Slotkin’s campaign running for Michigan’s 8th district, which she won. And she went down to DC just recently for the swearing-in events. And she said she got to walk the halls and she saw all this very visible diversity in the new class and she was overwhelmed with emotion about it. But she was just so overcome with excitement. It was so cool to hear her talk about that.
SWB Yeah, I’ve been feeling a little bit of it too, even from afar! And, you know, I follow friend of the show and now my state representative Elizabeth Fiedler. I follow her on Instagram and I have just loved seeing all her pictures of her getting sworn in at Harrisburg and the new crop of legislators there. She had one where it was her and a few other women who were all new to the legislator and they were apparently all sitting around chatting when they realized they had all gotten their blazers from goodwill! [both laugh]
KL I love that!
SWB Yeah, it made me so happy! And obviously everybody is talking about Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, right? And there was her adorable teenage dancing video that somehow the republicans tried to shame her about. It’s like she looks great and she’s having a good time and she’s nineteen years old, what are you talking about?
SWB Anyway, I just want to say, I love that she’s come out and is being super clear and adamant about where she stands and what she wants to do. And she’s not just going to put on a suit and pretend that things are normal in Washington because in fact, they are not normal. So, the other day she got onto 60 Minutes and called the president a racist! They asked her, “do you think he’s a racist?” And she said, “yes!”
SWB Yeah because he’s a racist.
KL Because he is.
SWB He is, but I think that oftentimes historically that’s not a thing that people would say if they’re actually in Washington—
SWB —because you start getting into this “you’ve got to make nice”—
SWB —talking around stuff. And I do really think what we need to see is people who are like, “I am not going to talk around this, I am going to call this what it is. He is a racist.” And I mean, obviously, she’s new to Congress and she’s young and who knows exactly what she’s going to accomplish. But I really, really love that there’s this new energy coming in.
KL Me too. Fuck yeah to that!
SWB Yeah! Fuck yeah to women in Congress, fuck yeah to more diversity in Congress. And also just fuck yeah to all of them giving me a little bit of life here at the start of the year! [KL laughs] Because you know 2019 is going to be a shitshow politically. Things are fucked up. And we’re going to go into another presidential election season, which obviously I’m looking forward to hopefully having a different president, but also between here and there… there is a lot that’s going to happen.
SWB And so I am so thankful we have some new voices to help us get through that.
KL Yeah. Fuck yeah!
SWB Fuck yeah.
KL Well, that’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn at Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer—an awesome Philly-based band that we love. You should check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Cora Harrington for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows. And hey—get some strong feelings delivered to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week!
SWB & KL Bye! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]