By the time I was old enough to pay attention to celebrities, Jane Russell had gone from being a movie star to selling bras on television.
Of course, I was too young to really make sense of anything she said. What on earth was a “full-figured woman”, anyway? For that matter, what was a “figure”? Did I have one? And how, for heaven’s sake, did you know when it was full? Was there a series of dashes along the side, like a Pyrex measuring cup?
Still sporting a figure that could best be described as “plywoodesque”, I really hadn’t connected with the concept of “bras” at all. All I knew was the Playtex 18-hour Bra both lifted and separated, and Jane was genuinely relieved that it did so.
I naturally assumed Jane was referring to her hair. After all, it really was quite tall. In those days, women backcombed their hair into a 'puff' that often was so round and expansive it could have housed gerbils, exercise wheel and all. And I suppose the part running across the top qualified as a 'separation', as it defined the region between the 'puff' and the bangs with the distinction of a demilitarized zone.
But this still didn't explain why she chose to talk about her hair while standing around in her underwear. Surely she could have thrown on a blouse before the cameras started rolling. It was clear the poor woman was freezing.
In the years since those days of Jane Russell and her happy Double Dees, I’ve learned a lot about just what it was she was trying to tell me back in 1973.
I remember my first “trainer”. I didn’t even realize I needed a bra, although when Cathy Day started poking all the girls from Mr. Howell’s fourth grade class in their sub-clavicle region while singing the Beneficial Life Insurance jingle (“At Beneficial,” poke, poke, “You’re good for more!” poke, poke) I discovered one day that it was a little more – irksome – than it had been even a couple of weeks earlier. Upon reporting Cathy’s song-with-visual-aids to my mother, she concluded that the solution was a bra. (I had concluded that the solution was a smack upside Cathy's head, but apparently my vote didn't count.)
Of course I couldn't see how getting a bra would solve anything. As far as I was concerned, my hair looked just fine.
Imagine my surprise when a bra turned out to be an article of clothing, one which, by the way, looked nothing like the one old Jane was modeling on TV.
“Why is it called a 'training bra'?” I wanted to know. “What are we training them to do? Balance beach balls on their noses? Recite poetry?”
“No,” my mother sighed, “we’re training you to wear one.”
This was new territory for me. Until now, I had just, you know, worn my clothes, without warming up or reading a manual or anything. Beyond figuring out that there was the same number of buttons as buttonholes, and that things worked best when they were all lined up, I had always approached the wearing of clothing with cavalier, almost reckless naiveté.
But no more. I had entered a stage of life where you actually had to be coached in order to manage your underwear properly.
To the best of my knowledge, I have never graduated from that stage.
For the better part of the last 35 years, I have maintained an adversarial relationship with my lingerie. While as a teenager I was fortunate to have a chestal region that essentially knew its place and didn’t attempt to make a break for it whenever “Copa Cabana” was played at school dances, the childbearing and subsequent child feeding years were not nearly so kind.
Until I had to go through the process of inserting 'Round Peg A' into 'Round Hole B', I never noticed that my equipment was, well, a little wall-eyed. I only achieved “cleavage” when I was laying on my side – attractive, to be sure, but not the most practical position in which to, say, grocery shop. The rest of the time “the girls” have had very different ideas of which direction was ‘forward’, the result being a profile resembling a sort of spongy fork in the road. Only my sternum seems to understand ‘straight ahead’, and sadly, it has always had a clear and unobstructed view.
Nursing bras were the worst, of course. Those silly things were essentially constructed of hidden compartments, mysterious levers, and secret panels - the haunted houses of undergarments. Given the opportunity, a well-organized nursing mother could pack a ‘lunch’ for her baby and still have enough nooks and crannies to store a five course meal for herself.
This was probably a good thing for me, since my "twins" were always unpredictable enough that heaven only knew which room either would settle into for the night. One might start out in the library, only to waken the next morning in the billiard room. And the other might announce its intention to relax in the lounge, and then without warning decide to take the underground passage to the conservatory.
That difficulty continues today. No matter what size or shape or degree of training I go for, the bra in question no more manages to corral one girl than the other is struck with a sudden wanderlust, going over the east wall or, since I turned 40, attempting to tunnel its way to freedom.
These days, the conflict seems to be one of comfort versus latitude. Left to their own devices, these girls would bust loose (as it were) and head south, stopping briefly to chat with Madame Navelle before finally homesteading somewhere around my knees. Gravity is a force that is difficult to resist, and even girls as well-trained as mine eventually accept its magnetic invitation.
This means that if I want said girls to remain close to my heart, I basically have to cinch them in with enough elastic and memory wire to hog-tie an orangutan. By the time they’re contained in my gravity-defying lingerie, I’ve lost all feeling from my armpits to my ribs. Mental hospitals could save a fortune in straight jackets just by wrapping their more enthusiastic patients in three or four of these titanium-framed undergarments.
But who can live like that all the time? Eventually, I miss having my circulatory system include my upper torso, and it turns out I’ve grown rather fond of breathing.
So that leaves me with Option B, a generous and forgiving article of underclothing which is more of a companion to my girls than a creator of boundaries. This bra prefers a laissez faire approach to management, and is far more likely to provide emotional support than physical. Like a lazy babysitter, this contraption can at best be depended upon to not actually sell its charges to wandering bands of flat-chested gypsies. Beyond that, the girls are on their own.
So, just as my husband is on a quest for the perfect cooler – a story I’ll share with you another time – I continue my quest for the perfect brassiere. A bra that keeps everyone securely orbiting above the equator without causing the extremities to drop off from lack of oxygen. One that understands the importance of providing a little encouragement and support when life gets you down, without creating unnecessary tension and a lowering of self-esteem.
In short, a bra that would do Jane Russell proud, lifting and perking and keeping busy for every minute of those 18 hours.
However, when it comes to separating, I don’t need any help from Jane or Victoria or anyone else. From these Twin Peaks, you can see the whole, wide world.