What is Victoria's secret?

How do you explain to your little girl that we live in a world where breasts get graded, and some of us flunk?

Published February 8, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Underwear is a popular topic in our carpool. Kids think about underwear a lot. Who wears what kind. Whose is showing. Who probably forgot to put some on. Who saw whose when they did a flip on the bars at recess. Personally, I don't think about underwear very often, usually not until I notice that I need some replacements. This happened recently, and it also happened that my 7-year-old daughter came with me to the mall where I hoped to find a simple, comfortable, inexpensive new bra.

We went to Victoria's Secret, because they were having a two-for-one sale and because Victoria is obviously someone who thinks about underwear a lot. Right away my daughter wanted to know, "What is Victoria's Secret?"

I was stumped. No answer came leaping to mind, so I shrugged my shoulders and strolled among the negligees, teddies and bedroom slippers with heels and little fluffs of pompom. We passed the bustiers and garter belts and the racks of silk and satin temptress garments. My daughter wanted to know if this was a costume store, like for Halloween.

"Yes," I told her, "it's just that -- a costume store for grown-ups."

"But you never wear this stuff, Mommy. How come?"

I told her that I mostly like white cotton. Undaunted, she wandered off and returned with an armful of slippery things.

"These are nice, Mommy. Try these on."

What the heck, I thought. We stepped into the dressing room, which was decorated in peach with gold trim. She perched on a little velvet stool, which she said looked just like the one Cinderella used to try on the glass slipper. She handed me her first choice. A red silk bra with black trim.

"This is a pretty one, Mommy," she said.

I looked at the tag. Besides being $40, it was the wrong size. "This is an A, honey. I need a B."

"You mean these get graded?"

"Not the bras," I told her. "Breasts."

"Breasts get a grade? Like spelling? And yours don't get an A, Mommy? How come?"

I took a deep breath. "Well, honey, in this particular case, it's considered better to be a B than an A. Even better to be a C. Or a D!"

She looked confused, and who could blame her? She handed me her second choice. Flimsy and flowered, but the right size. I tried it on.

"Nope," I told her. "This won't work. I need more support."

"I support you, Mommy."

"Thanks, sweetie, but I need support here. Hand me that one."

"Oh, that's pretty," she sighed. "I like the color." It was peach and had too much padding.

"Padding?" she asked. "What's that?"

I took another deep breath. "Oh, it makes breasts look bigger. Higher. Rounder."

"And that's better?" she wanted to know.

Now I was really sweating. I hadn't planned on having this conversation so soon, and certainly not in an underwear store. But there we were. I wanted to answer her questions. I wanted to be open and honest and still present the views of a properly feminist modern mom. I told her that, for starters, breasts are great. They're beautiful and great; great to own and great to share and very useful for feeding infants. But I wanted her to know that size was pretty unimportant, that size and shape were only one part of a beautiful whole. And that when breasts got confused with brains and talent and character, all sorts of pain could happen.

I finished my brief explanation, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard the taunting male voices from my seventh-grade algebra class: "Hey, you're a carpenter's dream -- flat as a board! You're a pirate's dream -- sunken chest! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!" There I was in my training bra, sitting in algebra, my face burning with confusion and shame. Pulling myself out of memory land, I quickly picked out two white cotton bras and took them to the cashier, holding tightly to my daughter's hand.

All the way home I thought about those boys from seventh grade and wondered what they're doing now. Have they turned into nice men who respect women's bodies and attend pro-choice rallies? Do they support stronger sentencing for those who rape and abuse women? Do they have 7-year-old daughters themselves and stay awake nights thinking of ways to nurture and protect them? Do they occasionally flash back to their seventh grade behavior and flinch in embarrassment?

These are hard questions, and questions I must leave unanswered for my daughter. What happens to the boys from seventh grade? Why do breasts get graded? What is Victoria's secret?

By Coleen Hubbard

Coleen Hubbard is a playwright and freelance writer. Her book series, "Dog Tales," is forthcoming from Scholastic Books in November. She lives in Denver.

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