Skip to main content

Do powerful women need to tame their unsightly bulges?

By Orit Avishai, Special to CNN
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Fri June 8, 2012
Adele wore four pairs of Spanx to the 2012 Grammys. She had to take off two pairs before her performance. Adele wore four pairs of Spanx to the 2012 Grammys. She had to take off two pairs before her performance.
HIDE CAPTION
Is this progress?
Is this progress?
Is this progress?
Is this progress?
Is this progress?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British pop star Adele wore four pairs of Spanx at the Grammys
  • Orit Avishai: Girdle-like garments were symbols of oppressive beauty standards
  • She says embracing shapewear gives women an impoverished sense of empowerment
  • Avishai: We can blame ourselves for supporting the very object that constrains us

Editor's note: Orit Avishai is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University. She is the author of "Managing the Lactating Body: The Breast-Feeding Project and Privileged Motherhood."

(CNN) -- Adele, who won big at the 2012 Grammys, once told Karl Lagerfeld off when he said that she was talented and pretty but a little too fat. Maybe his words got to her.

The British pop star made news this week when she admitted to wearing four pairs of Spanx under a dress that wowed the audiences at the Grammys. Apparently, this was an improvement over her original dress that featured a built-in corset and in which she passed out when she tried it on.

Spanx is a line of undergarments that offers solutions for women of all sizes and shapes. You can target bulging stomachs, jiggling upper arms, aging breasts and any other body part that may need some enhancement. No longer an item of fantasy play or a secret amongst plus-sized women, Spanx products have become prized accessories flaunted by the Kardashians, Oprah and suburban moms.

Spanx's selling point is that it helps smart, successful women of all ages to build their confidence by, well, looking good. But playing with fire might be a more adequate metaphor when we consider that less than half a century ago, women denounced Spanx-like garments as symbols of oppressive beauty standards.

Orit Avishai
Orit Avishai

When women got rid of girdles and garter belts en masse in the 1960s, they didn't only reject restricting undergarments. (And restrict they did; it's hard to ride a bike, perform surgery or even breathe, as Adele learned, when your midsection is squeezed tight).

They also rejected a society in which women were underemployed, underpaid and underappreciated. Throwing away girdles and curlers seemed like the dawn of a new era. Women got jobs, demanded equal pay and learned to be as tough as their male peers.

Spanx founder makes billionaires list
Spanx slips owner into billionaire club

Fifty years later, the girdle-like Spanx is back thanks to Sara Blakely, a brilliant woman who built a multimillion empire. Blakely used $5,000 to start a brand that defines its category, shapewear. She owns 100% of a company that turns a handsome profit. She is the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world. She would be a darling of the women's movement if her innovation wasn't antithetical to everything else it stood for.

The twist is that Spanx prides itself on empowering women.

The tagline for its In-Power panties that promise to whittle your waist, firm your figure and amp up your look is "powerful women wear powerful panties."

The company's catalog proclaims: "Tame your tummy and create an hourglass silhouette with Super Higher Power, our new comfortable yet powerful high-waisted hosiery shaper.... Now, you've got the power!"

Translation: Powerful women tame unsightly bulges.

Say bye-bye to bad body image talk

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The protesters who descended upon Atlantic City in 1968 to picket the Miss America pageant weren't clamoring for more comfortable girdles. They wanted to change the rules of the game, telling women that their power lay in their heads, not in their bras and panties.

What the 1968 protesters fought for still matters today. Despite huge progress, our society is not a post-feminist era. Women earn less than 80 cents to a man's dollar, hold about 17% of the seats in Congress and represent 3.6% of Fortune-500 CEOs.

Of course, women aren't marched to their lingerie drawers at gunpoint. They choose to spend $250 million a year on Spanx products alone. Some would argue they make a wise choice. While beauty standards have changed, women are still rewarded for boosting their appearance. Better-looking women are more likely to be hired and promoted than those who are less attractive.

But when women think that they can have both their Spanx and their paychecks, they miss the big picture.

The culture that gave us Spanx holds us to impossible standards of beauty that even the sveltest women cannot meet (just think of all the Hollywood stars who are always trying to slim down). And it provides us with an impoverished sense of empowerment.

Sadly, even women running for the highest office are not immune. Like the beautiful actresses who go the extra mile to put on their best appearance on the red carpet, politicians are as attuned to perceptions.

Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton all upped their wardrobe ante when they stepped into the national spotlight. Ending up on People's worst-dressed list could be as embarrassing for a politician as for a starlet.

Of course, we can't blame Spanx or Blakely for any of this. All of us are to blame.

With our dollars, we support the very object that constrains us. When we wear shapewear, we buy into messages that equate women's power and abilities to the size and shape of their silhouettes. Little wonder that a woman of Adele's caliber felt the pressure, too.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Orit Avishai.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 4:08 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI helped pave the way to WWII. That backfire changed how the global community lays blame for war crimes today: on individuals, not nations
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT