My Life in Bras
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In the Judy Blume classics I read while growing up in the eighties, getting your first training bra is an eagerly anticipated rite of passage into the buxom ranks of womanhood. But like many things in my adolescence, this event didnít go exactly as planned. I just couldn't get used to the damn thing. All of a sudden, I was forced to contend with straps and hooks and shirred elastic in places where I was certain nature had never intended them to go. The chafing of fabric around my ribs was maddening -- an unbearable discomfort. Inevitably, by my second class of the day, I would end up in the girls' room, taking off that miserable bra and stuffing it in my backpack to hide it until I got home. For the rest of the day, I'd carry my books strategically to conceal my unbound bosom.

It was only the fear of social ridicule that finally inured me to the wearing of a brassiere. In seventh grade, cute blonde David Schaeffer asked my girlhood chum Robyn Reynolds why I didn't wear a bra. Despite my carefully placed math books, the boys had noticed anyway -- obviously dealing with pubescent issues of their own. So desperate to avoid being branded as "that weird braless girl" by my pre-teen peers, I learned how to wear a bra. I started off slowly, with an hour or two each day, gradually increasing my wearing time, like contact lenses. Eventually, I worked up to the full Eighteen Hours.

  
 
But fate is not without a perverse sense of humor. During my senior year in college, the parent company of a large regional department store was recruiting on campus for its buyer training program. At the company's information session, the stylish recruiters spun the tale of the fast-paced, glamorous world of retail: high starting salaries with exponential annual increases and fabulous perks like employee discounts, freebie merchandise, and trips to fashion shows. It was every twenty-two-year-old woman's dream job. I had visions of drinking champagne with Calvin Klein while flying on the Concorde to the spring fashion shows in Paris. When they offered me the position of Assistant Buyer, I couldn't refuse. As luck would have it, the department I was assigned to was Foundations -- not of the brick-and-mortar variety, but Lycra and under-wire. Ironically, my fabulous new livelihood was to be centered on my old nemesis -- bras. Although bras and I had gotten off on the wrong foot, so to speak, I resolved to make up for a bad start by building an underwear retail empire. I dreamed of being a lingerie fashion maven, before I actually started my job. Working in the bra buying office quickly taught me the realities of a career in retail:

  1. In retail math, an exponential raise = 2.5%;

  2. Although buyers do see fashion shows, they are held at the dreary Midwestern corporate headquarters, not in Paris. No celebrities attend. Champagne and caviar are not served; rather, the menu comprises instant coffee, stale danish, and flaccid pasta salad, soaked in excessive Italian dressing;

  3. 9 to 5 actually means 8 to 7; and

  4. Shit rolls downhill.

I also learned not to expect sympathy from my colleagues. All my co-workers were fed the same utopian HR crap that I was when I was recruited. When they finally realized that they'd be working far more hours, for far less money, and probably wouldn't get to meet Heidi Klum or Justin Timberlake at some fabulous fashion soiree, all they had left was their employee discount. That's why retail is chock full of bitter, well-dressed people.

Such widespread employee malcontent makes for a unique corporate dynamic. Our office, in the catacombs of the Downtown Crossing store, was home to the sleepwear buyer, Sherry Dunn, a full-figured, hot-tempered Irishwoman who dressed in couture and swore like a truck driver, in between her homespun sayings like, "Waste not, want not," and "The Lord helps those who help themselves." Down the hall was Marcy Stanhope, our divisional merchandise manager, a stern, slim woman whose Jacksonville drawl struck fear into our hearts as if we were Boy Scouts watching Deliverance before hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Then there were the vendor representatives who visited our office daily. First was Eva from Playtex, whose gentle manner hid her ability to gauge anyone's bust size from twenty yards with ruthless accuracy. From Bellefit there was ferret-like Julie, with her mousy brown pageboy -- married to money, she kept a job solely as an outlet for her kleptomaniacal urge to steal our confidential reports. Last but not least, from Realform came the Bestmans -- Seth and Sean, a father and son team. Seth was in his late sixties, an old-school salesman, silver-tongued and charming. He wore French cuffs and pinky rings on his large, hairy hands. Sean, in his early thirties, was following his father's footsteps in the ladies' underwear business. Hardworking and earnest, Sean was so brown-eyed and wholesome, you couldn't help but like him. During my first week in the Foundations buying office, Sean took me to the Boston sales floor to introduce me to the Realform product line.

We squeezed between the tightly packed sales racks, with Sean pointing out different garments along the way. He stopped abruptly at a tower of girdles. "This," he said reverently, "is the bread and butter of our product line." In his hands he held a pair of enormous elastic bloomers that had a six-inch high boned, corset-like structure where the waistband should have been. "This is style 5406, the Skinnees Waistnipper." I began to panic in a fit of claustrophobia at the mere thought of being constrained inside that spandex torture device. Oblivious to my horror, Sean moved on to style 6466, the Skinnees Demi-Bra Bodybriefer, which resembled an orthopedic teddy. "This style has triple control support panels at the waist and a lift demi-bra with fiberfill contour cups," Sean narrated. I turned purple as he turned the heavy beige bodysuit over and demonstrated the patented Skinnees easy-snap crotch design. At that point, I hadn't yet developed my sense of professional detachment. To me, underwear was still underwear -- unmentionables -- and to fondle it in public with a strange man was mortifying. But to Sean, the bras and panties and girdles were just merchandise -- a product with a 50% markup, the mortgage on his condo, his retirement fund, and, if all went well, perhaps a new Audi. As a result, he was determined to educate me -- so we walked the Boston sales floor, all the while getting odd looks from elderly Southie matrons, who undoubtedly were wondering why on earth that sharp-dressed man kept showing that young girl panties.

Immersion into the lingerie department, however, quickly desensitized me to further embarrassment. A large part of the Assistant Buyer's job was proofing photo layouts for run in catalogs and newspapers like the Boston Globe and Hartford Courant. Although it was perfectly acceptable to showcase a model wearing nothing more than a smile and a thong, the topography of a real woman's body was considered obscene, so one of my tasks was to make sure that no nipples or pubic hair were visible in our ads. I spent hours staring at breasts and crotches through a photographer's loupe, ensuring that no stray pubes or errant nipples escaped our corporate censure, and that the resulting image was smooth, hairless, and as culturally palatable as a Barbie doll.

Even with the buying office's vigilance, mistakes do happen. My personal favorite was when the model put her briefs on wrong -- she had the crotch on her hip. And no one noticed -- not the photographer, not the layout artists, not the buying office -- until after the photograph ran on the front page of a catalog mailed to thousands of local customers. Ironically, though nobody noticed that the poor girl had put her panties on ass-backwards, she was shipped out the door nipple and pubic hair free.

Although that particular gaffe wasn't mine, I did have plenty of my own. The frenetic pace and high stress that had initially sounded so exciting proved to be an unlivable environment for me. Whenever another retailer undercut us on a sale, it was like the Nazis had broken the line and tossed mustard gas into our foxhole, and we would have to scatter and scurry to meet them or beat them. I developed a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, fighting the urge to hide under my desk every time a crisis hit our office -- which happened daily. Having never worked anywhere else, I thought this was what all jobs were like, and I was miserable. I'd cry on my commute home in the evenings because I knew I'd have to go back the next day.

My boss, Susan, was young, ambitious, and understandably frustrated with my ineptitude. For eight months, she tried to develop me -- she tried to befriend me -- but eventually it was painfully clear that the job and I were a horrible fit. On a Friday afternoon, she called me into her office and shut the door behind me -- the international sign for bad news coming. But first, she asked if I was happy there. Too humiliated and demoralized to lie, I confessed that I wasn't. And she gave me a good piece of advice: she told me that the next time I was so unhappy in a situation, I shouldn't wait so long to change it. I told her I was leaving and taking my two weeks' vacation, effective immediately. She hugged me and wished me luck, and I left.

On my way out of the store, I stopped in the pink ladies' room on the fourth floor one last time. I looked at myself in the mirror -- in my fashionista power suit, trying so hard to be someone I wasn't. I reached up my sleeves, took off my $90 designer bra, and stuffed it in my briefcase. On that ride home, finally, I smiled.


NOTE: All names have been changed.

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