Sociological Images has done good writing before on how when companies make gendered versions of a product, that is, one for men and one for women, they tend to assume the male version is functional but the women’s version is sexual. A friend of mine pointed out today that the women’s underwear at Target is listed as “intimates”; they were looking for underwear and felt uncomfortable with the idea that underwear has to be “intimate”: maybe they didn’t want to do anything sexual in their underwear, or maybe they just wanted functional underclothes.
“Intimates”, of course, also includes teddies and a handful of bustiers and corsets, a sort of sexy middle ground between sleepwear and underwear, clothes that are really only meant to be sexual. (In fact, the “unsexy” underwear, such as sports bras, gets relegated to the “athletic wear” section.) This doesn’t exist for men except in a few specific concepts, many of which are coded as gay, and none of which are sold at Target.
The idea that all of womens’ underwear is “intimate” leads to some practical problems– the fact that one can’t find a multipack of breathable cotton underpants in black that won’t visibly stain if your tampon or pad leaks is one of them. Another is the prevalence of “sexy” unbreathable underwear that can lead to yeast infections.
The big thing I’m thinking about here, though, is socialization, and the word “intimates” being a descriptor for all of women’s underwear sexualizes the female body; it implies that our underwear is primarily there to be titillating (presumably for men), not to, you know, cover our butts/pelvis and/or stabilize our breasts. But the word “intimate” being used for a sexualized consumer product is also a part the way we socially construct relationships; “intimate” can mean a lot of different kinds of closeness but this connects it specifically to romantic or sexual relationships.
This societal prioritization of sexual and romantic relationships, and the presumption of heterosexuality in them, can really skew our priorities It ends up looking “weird” when people choose to have their most important relationships be with friends or family members and not romantic and sexual partners. It marginalizes asexuals and aromantics. It exacerbates societal problems that already exist around friendships, especially among men.
I’m obviously not saying that Target has some hidden agenda in calling women’s underwear “intimate”, but the social narrative that defaults the word “intimacy” to “sex” is one that dismisses other kinds of intimacy, and the coding of all womens’ underwear as titillating or sexual not only makes it harder to find more functional underwear but also contributes to the sexualization and objectification of all womens’ bodies; it would never explicitly put a sign on a woman that says “this, too, is for consumption”, but it helps people come to that conclusion on their own.