Diversity Is More Than a Bra Size: What It’s Like to Be a Lesbian in the Lingerie Industry

Today’s guest post is by one of my favorite new bloggers – The Lingerie Lesbian. The Lingerie Lesbian is a 23-year-old recent college graduate who works in PR in ‘real’ life and spends the rest of her time thinking about knickers. She blogs about lingerie and sexuality over at TheLingerieLesbian.com. You can also see what she’s up to on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr and if you have any pressing questions, you can email her at lingerielesbian@gmail.com.

Ellen von Unwerth for Chantal Thomass F/W 2012

The funny thing about being a lesbian in the lingerie industry is that it feels like a paradox: I see versions of myself everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It’s undeniable that female homoeroticism plays a part in so many lingerie editorials, both implicitly and explicitly, that it’s not difficult for me to find photographs featuring both luxury lingerie and women in sexually charged situations with other women. What are missing are voices to match these images or the acknowledgement that these images are not merely fantasies, but could reflect a reality, my reality.

This is an issue that exists everywhere, not only in lingerie and not only in fashion. But in fashion, this complete lack of a queer female perspective can seem even odder than it might in other areas considering the way so much of fashion is tinged with sexuality.

This recent shoot with Rihanna and Kate Moss for V Magazine is a perfect example of how the fashion industry views lesbianism—it’s about titillating the viewer, not about representing same-sex desire in a way that seems valid, relevant, or anything more than an act. And that lingerie plays a part in illustrating that this is a sexual situation means that in many ways it is the lingerie that is used as a kind of shorthand to create intimacy between the two women, even as they don’t even look at one another. All I can see is that my sexuality is frivolous—that it can be put on and taken off as easily as a piece of lingerie.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with showing off the sexy side of a same sex relationship—with lingerie, sex and intimacy are so often part of the equation. But when all you see are women as vibrant as mannequins, posing together “provocatively” the objectification of same-sex attraction cannot be ignored.

The lingerie industry is no worse (often better) than others—everyone I have interacted with has been nice and welcoming. So nice that usually when I point out places where there is particularly exclusionary language, they’ll apologize or change it. But it’s hard when I feel repeatedly forgotten– every time I’m the one who has to raise my hand and say, “But, but, not all women are wearing lingerie for male partners!” or “You can’t assume that women want male attention!” And each time I see the phrase “girlfriend” meaning a close female friend I remember that of course no one would confuse that person with your lover because the default is always “straight.”

And then, of course, lingerie-clad women posing together provocatively do have a presumed audience: men. This editorial in GQ is the epitome of what’s wrong with many “lesbian” lingerie editorials. Lesbian sexuality is a joke (the accompanying headline is: “Alison Brie and Gillian Jacobs Did This Lesbian Scene for Us”), it’s entertainment and it’s coerced for the pleasure of the (explicitly male) viewer.

It doesn’t feel great to feel like you’re either invisible or some sort of sex object. Visibility was the main reason I choose to go by “The Lingerie Lesbian”—it’s nice to have some place where I don’t have to explain that I don’t have a boyfriend, I have a girlfriend, and I’m more than happy about that. I may get a lot of porn searches that end up at my site, but I’m okay with that—if someone reads my blog and realizes I’m a real person, not a mythical creature, than I’m doing something right.

And my sexual identity is relevant to how I look at the world and the way I think about lingerie. Everywhere you look, lingerie, gender and sexuality are tied together and flow into each other. What you are wearing, how you want it to make you feel and who you want to share it with—these things are all part of understanding, appreciating and talking about lingerie.

I often appreciate Ellen von Unwerth’s photography because even as she portrays women in lingerie, often in homoerotic situations, they seem more engaged with each other than with an unseen viewer (like in the photo above). But she can also fall into the cliché of using lesbian implications as mere titillation. Sexuality (just like lingerie) can be playful—the joy of playing infuses her better imagery and sets it apart from the stiff, mannequin-like expressions of her photo below and both the GQ and V editorials. They have a strange lack of animation that just seems to emphasize how unnatural these “lesbian” scenes are.

Ellen von Unwerth for Chantal Thomass 2005

There are so many things I love about lingerie: the gorgeous details, beautiful fabrics, sexy shapes and inventive concepts. And there are so many ways in which wearing and discussing lingerie allows me to be very much myself. But I hope soon my life and loves will stop being a joke or an afterthought or an exhibition, but an expected, acknowledged part of the experiences of people. I’m very much an optimist; just in the last year or so things have improved—even lingerie retailers that used to be addressed specifically to men have recently embraced gender neutral language.

I see those homoerotic scenes of women in lingerie and I sometimes imagine that they are trapped in a box of soundproof glass so that no matter how hard they might try to speak, they are silent. Even as you may be able to see them as images of same-sex desire, they cannot be examples of any sort of identity.

While even an image of lesbianism is in some ways a step forward (and one I wish I could see more often), it’s not real until the viewer can imagine their voices and lives, not just as understand them as actors/singers/models who are being “provocative” and setting themselves up to be objects of desire, rather than desiring subjects in their own right. In an editorial that actually respected lesbian desire, the figures should be able to say (even simply with their bodies), “This is who I am. This is what I want. This is how I feel.”

Ellen von Unwerth for VS Magazine S/S 2012

For the creators of these images, lesbianism, like lingerie, is a temporary costume, and in the fashion world, it rarely gets treated as anything else. That’s why I couldn’t be just another lingerie blogger or lingerie lover—by saying, “This is who I am,” I am reminding everyone that I (and the myriad others like me) exist. I’m not interested in being silenced or being ignored.

[Note: this piece was inspired by The Lingerie Addict’s post “Diversity Is More Than a Bra Size: What It’s Like to Be a Woman of Color in the Lingerie Industry.”]

Cora

Cora

Founder and Chief Editor of The Lingerie Addict. I started TLA in small studio apartment in 2008. Since then, my little site has become the leading lingerie blog in the world, and it's been featured in Entrepreneur, Forbes, CNN, Time, Today, and Fox News. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that every woman deserves gorgeous underpinnings that help her feel comfortable and confident. Body snark free zone since 2012.

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47 Comments

  1. Julia
    14/11/12 at 3:02

    I LOVE this post – as another lesbian who is seriously into beautiful lingerie. It’s all so true.

    • 14/11/12 at 10:52

      I’m so glad you liked my post and it’s great to find other people out there who know exactly what I’m talking about. Thanks so much!

  2. Thursday
    14/11/12 at 4:40

    Great post! This kind of use of female intimacy as performance for the male gaze is so ubiquitous, and I find it really off-putting. I see a similar effect at times with labels that are trying to tap into a BDSM aesthetic, where the act or pose is purely a performance for the (implicitly male) observer. It completely dismisses the multidimensional reality of those who live and love the range of expressions encompassed by BDSM. I’m sure we’re going to see even more of it thanks to the Fifty shades of shit phenomenon…

    Anyway, that’s a bit of an aside. I loved this thoughtful, articulate and honest article. I hope you can lead the way for change by making “lingerie lesbians” visible.

    • 14/11/12 at 10:59

      Thank you! I know what you mean about the faux-BDSM aesthetic that doesn’t even try to get into the mindset of the individuals who would actually be participating. Fashion + fashion photography can sometimes be derided for having no depth, but that’s only because some photographers (even/particularly famous ones) are lazy about researching or learning about anything outside of their comfort zone (i.e. girl, semi-dressed, lying provocatively, with accessories that may include handcuffs or other girl).

  3. Laura a.k.a Lola Haze
    14/11/12 at 10:10

    Thank you so much for writing this! Ever since I met you (Lingerie Lesbian) I’ve been interested to know your take on homoerotic lingerie photos (and how this spills over into the male-aimed porn industry). It’s true that so many images and verbiage in the industry are presented with the assumption of a straight audience–and I can imagine this feeling exclusionary. It’s great to have your voice in the industry.

  4. Maggie
    14/11/12 at 10:21

    Brilliant and much needed post! I am a regular reader of the Lingerie Lesbian and found it so refreshing the first time I came across it! The faux lesbian poses and scenarios used by lingerie companies drive me nuts, when it’s made so obvious that the women are purely ‘putting on a show’ for a male audience. AP’s video ‘The Initiate’ is a good example of this!

  5. 14/11/12 at 10:54

    STANDING OVATION! Thanks for paving the path….

  6. Another standing ovation here! I love this article for so many reasons, but chiefly that it addresses the downplay of female gay sexuality as something used to entertain and provoke rather than a way of life for so many women. Your perspective is invaluable to the community, and I hope more people read this article and take note. Fantastic post!

  7. Hazel Frox
    14/11/12 at 12:48

    I find your article very interesting and would ask you to consider how members of the Trans community feel about the representation we receive from society in general. We to appreciate lingerie and women’s cloths in general, for all the same reasons you have outlined but we have no representation at all. We are treated as a source of ridicule or an object of hate by most and a cheep laugh by the media.From where I stand I would like to be in your shoes —- and lingerie!

    • 15/11/12 at 22:28

      Hi Hazel– I totally agree that the trans* community is incredibly marginalized in mainstream society (and even sometimes within the LGBT community). I am not really ready to speak from that perspective, as I am cisgender myself, but I know that Treacle would love to have someone ready to write about that on the blog.

  8. 14/11/12 at 13:30

    Agreed. Faux-lesbianism in advertising is so lame. As a consumer, it really makes me disinclined to shop with the brand exploiting these themes. Lesbians are people, not plastic mannequins to be posed for your entertainment. And even going beyond sexual preference, I am generally not a big fan of overt sexuality in lingerie ads or editorials. I feel like we all know lingerie is inherently sexy, we don’t need to further objectify the models by painting a sexually explicit tableau. It’s just very clumsy and suggests a very limited artistic vocabulary.

    • 15/11/12 at 22:31

      I’m not so sure that I’m entirely on the same page– I definitely think that overt sexuality can have a place in editorial. The problem is, the entire genre seems predicated on the same set of tropes, typically defining women as passive objects and men as the actors in the scenario, whether in the scene or viewing it. Sexual imagery doesn’t have to be a tacky way out– but I absolutely agree that if you’re going to making a bad sexually explicit tableau, you had better not make it at all.

  9. 14/11/12 at 16:16

    This is so wonderful, and I think that Caro provides such an amazing perspective and source of wisdom to the lingerie community.

  10. 14/11/12 at 16:17

    Great article. As a lingerie design student who is interested in exploring gender/sexuality within my designs, I will absolutely start following your blog. More articles like this please!

    • 15/11/12 at 22:36

      I’m so glad you like exploring this topic! I’ve definitely talked about this a little bit on my blog (thelingerielesbian.com), but I can definitely put more out there if people are interested! Definitely email me (lingerielesbian@gmail.com) if you are looking for resources or if you know any good books (besides “An Intimate Affair” by Jill Fields)– I’m always looking to learn more.

  11. Annmarie
    14/11/12 at 16:39

    Good to read you in here and thanks for addressing a very important topic. Lingerie, gender and sexuality are all related issues that I also deal with almost on a daily basis, and although coming from a different background and associated with different experiences they can still be extremely challenging.

    You are certainly right to point that lesbianism has been exploited over the years, and is now often depicted and encouraged to suit (mostly) straight male fantasies. Just try to show a male gay scene in any ad campaign other than maybe some “hot chat line” of some sort, and the scandal will surely follow. And I’m afraid that a lingerie ad campaign depicting a man/transgender wearing the feminine goodies will be rejected by both genders. But that’s a totally different issue. Or… is it?

  12. 14/11/12 at 19:13

    you have spoken so eloquently about this. I hate the fake lesbian titillation for men. Another thing that comes out of these discussions about sexual and ethnic identity is the fact that most women wear for themselves – not for anyone else. so there is also an inherent assumption that straight women are dressing for men – when they are most definitely not! Lingerie is particularly significant because it is worn against the skin and can literally change the way you feel – does it conform to or move around the body – like a satin slip? does it constrain and re-shape? Are you the only one that knows you are wearing a red bra to a business meeting? It is so often about empowerment. This empowerment is for all women; it knows no ethnic bias, no sexual limitations…I am an intimate apparel and swimwear designer who teaches design and patternmaking/construction at university and I have to correct a lot of assumptions with my students – in the end they design and make amazing lingerie that carries no baggage.

    • 15/11/12 at 22:42

      I’m so glad to hear that you are teaching your students about more than just the physical aspects of design– the experience is definitely a hug part of design as well & thinking fully about the consumer and the different ways intimate apparel functions is so important.

  13. 14/11/12 at 19:59

    You KNOW i’m 100% in agreement with this article.

  14. 14/11/12 at 20:58

    Fantastic. I couldn’t agree more with everything you just said.

  15. Camille
    14/11/12 at 21:01

    I found this post to be very enlightening. I always saw “provocative” ads with women and rolled my eyes at the way they trivialized sexuality for male attention. I never thought about how those depictions affect lesbians and how they could be better. As a woman of color, I really like the perspective on this blog and I am glad someone is out there providing a voice for LGBT people interested in lingerie.

  16. 14/11/12 at 21:19

    I think some of us who love Lingerie have shied away from some of the better images because we didn’t know how they would come across and didn’t want to mix in the ‘faux-lesbianism’. When I still had my blog, there were some images I – or my wife – thought were great, but being a straight male married to a straight woman, I wondered if I could really judge what would strike some people as ‘exploitation’ ir ‘offensive to Lesbians’ vs ‘art or just ‘beautiful’. If it had been a blog about sexual images, well that’s easier to classify, though I doubt any easier to walk the art/images that offend line if you don’t know it first-hand.

    I do like most of Ellen von Unwerth’s images. I’d say she’s a lot better a judge than most – certainly than I am.

    I still remember something either in a tweet or the LL blog post or maybe a comment on TLA where someone talked about missing the point about some Lesbians being just as attracted to Lingerie for the same exact reasons as a straight man or woman, and I thought, ‘well, yes and..?’

    And then it dawned on me that I guess not everyone sees that, so that explains why this article is a good food for thought. Hopefully I didn’t make this too convoluted.

  17. Taryn
    14/11/12 at 22:41

    Thank you for posting this. As a woman who IDs as a lesbian/dyke, it’s always confusing and upsetting when I see some of my favourite brands making choices which exclude or erase or simply ignore what it means to be a woman who loves women. I find it especially frustrating because if it weren’t for the openness of queerness today and the brave warriors who do battle with sexual oppression every day, ads like the ones you’ve used as examples wouldn’t even exist let alone be considered “successful marketing” to some people. But they are and that’s because of the queer history which has slowly begun to open spaces for us to squeeze into. And it’s frustrating when people take advantage of those spaces for personal profit.
    Anyway, thank you.

    • 15/11/12 at 22:44

      Thank you so much for sharing! I’m so glad there are others out there who have exactly the same frustrations. The irony of growing acceptance of homosexual imagery being used against gays is definitely NOT lost on me.

  18. John
    15/11/12 at 8:24

    You should see this amazing fashion editorial directed by french heritage awarded Franck Glenisson,it talks about lesbians,love,war and Paris and it’s very different :
    http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=auto&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.photographie.com%2Farchive%2Fpublication%2F106022

  19. 15/11/12 at 9:09

    An intelligent, considered interesting post. As a huge proponent of lingerie to make you feel good first and foremost there is no different whether you are straight, gay etc. I agree that much of the imagery you describe is to titialate or even caricature lesbians. I am not sure when lingerie photography will ever represent the everywoman. The realm of fantasy seems to keep concepts that the mainstream may feel uncomfortable with more acceptable.

    • 15/11/12 at 22:50

      I completely agree that there is a disconnect between editorial photography and the “everywoman” as the real of fantasy rules. The truth is, I definitely don’t think that’s bad, out of context. Where I have a problem is in the are of WHOSE fantasy is being considered and portrayed– is it a straight woman’s fantasy? is it a straight man’s? Is it a lesbian’s? If I saw the fantasies of all of those people used in equal abundance, I would have much less of a problem. Instead, we see that it is men who are continually pandered to and considered, even when dealing with something as intimate as lingerie. There are definitely lingerie images that represent my own fantasies (usually ones where the figure is lounging, looking relaxed and reading a book, etc.) but that is not the type of lingerie imagery that we are constantly bombarded with.

  20. Kiyo
    26/11/12 at 23:13

    I really appreciated this article because it was both well-written and appealed to my interests. But I have to wonder, am I the only one who thought, in all seriousness, that GQ stood for, “GenderQueer” before I found out that it stood for, “Gentlemen’s Quarterly?” I felt so clueless after finding that out. D:

  21. k8
    13/12/12 at 8:42

    Great piece! I had a similar feeling of uneasiness at one of those sex toy tupperware parties a while back. I self identify as bi, and the whole shtick of the sex toy lady who hosted said party was extremely heteronormative–”use this one with your guy,” “you guy will think this is really hot,” etc. It made me SO uncomfortable. I know the lingerie industry isn’t the sex toy industry, but there are some overlaps and all.

  22. Danielle
    17/02/13 at 20:09

    well said.. thank you for sharing your viewpoints.

  23. 21/08/13 at 13:15

    I love this. I’m straight, but so many of my best friends from college came out after graduation. (We all went to a little, conservative, Christian college.)

    I just truly hate how men view lesbianism. It’s like you’re either a brute who doesn’t wear lingerie or you’re just doing it for male pleasure. It irritates the shit out of us straight women, but I’m sure not nearly to the extent that it affects and angers you.

    Thanks for your honesty .

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