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Battle of the Bulges

In Praise of the New Spanx Stores That Help Us Corral Our Moving Parts

Donna Goetz, owner of the Hope Chest (lingerie boutique) in Haverford, Pennsylvania, displays a size medium, nude, Spanx shaping mid-thigh bodysuit, August 17, 2012. The backside of the body suit tightens and shapes that area. (Elizabeth Robertson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

Donna Goetz, owner of the Hope Chest (lingerie boutique) in Haverford, Pennsylvania, displays a size medium, nude, Spanx shaping mid-thigh bodysuit, August 17, 2012. The backside of the body suit tightens and shapes that area. (Elizabeth Robertson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

I have known the wonder of the buttlet. I have witnessed the technology that is the In-Power Line Super High Shaping Sheer. My chest has been lifted to gravity-defying heights, as if each breast was finally ready to meet in the uncharted territory of my upper sternum, as if reaching up toward the heavens. My thighs have seen the glory.

I have experienced the tender, fervent embrace of a 92 percent nylon-8 percent spandex contraption wrapped around my midsection, like a sticky boy who liked me, maybe a little too much. I have reveled in this mild discomfort, and I have wondered about the cultural slogans — “Beauty is pain” — that make women revel thus, the slight suffocation that prompts the smug smile: It must be working!

I have been contained.

I have been Spanxed.

Unto us a store is born. The very first Spanx store in the country opened in Tysons Corner in McLean, Va., last month, right on the heels of Hurricane Sandy (“The Spanx must go on,” the news release read, even if, perhaps, the power was off). Just in time for us to address the endless platters of Christmas snacks that have affixed the holiday season to our rear ends.

Since the Tysons Corner debut, two more stores have appeared — one at the King of Prussia Mall in the Philadelphia exurbs, one in Paramus, N.J. If these stores do well, others will follow. And Spanx always does well. Forbes magazine estimated its 2011 revenue at $250 million and crowned the company’s founder as the youngest self-made woman on its annual list of billionaires. Time magazine named her one of its 100 most influential people of 2012.

For Spanx is — what is Spanx?

Short answer: The brand is one of dozens that specialize in corralling moving parts.

Long answer: Somewhere along the way (maybe when Oprah anointed them one of her “favorite things”?) Spanx became, like Xerox or Kleenex, the specific that stands for the generic, the Thing that stands for the thing. In industry speak, Spanx is “shapewear” or “foundational garments.” But it’s sassy shapewear. Playful, like something worn or administered in Fifty Shades of Grey. Spanx! Zing!

“They really do make my stomach look flatter, keeping the bulges in and stopping them from wobbling unattractively,” writes one Spanx reviewer on the girly site Makeupalley.com. “I’ve also noticed that thanks to the longer shape extending to mid-thigh my thighs don’t splay out as much when I sit down.”

“I was really in the mood to shop, and I really wanted to try Spanx,” writes a poster on another site. “I was feeling particularly brave today.”

This poster is a man. A cross-dressing man, joyful over his first public foray into trying on women’s undergarments. “The Spanx camisole is really comfortable,” he writes, and of the overall shopping expedition: “Best experience ever.”

It’s a touching story.

It’s a funny story.

It’s a story that suggests that purchasing Spanx gets at some very visceral notion of what it means, today, to be a woman.

Lord, this holiday season, rid me of jiggle. Make me smooth.

Fact: In America, if you can fit into a size 4 — even if you have to wriggle, squeeze, bind, paint and pray yourself into it (even if the seams strain and threaten to burst) — you are a size 4.

On a pre-Christmas Friday evening, right in the bull’s-eye of the frenetic shopping season, a line of cars waited through four changes of a traffic light before snaking into the Tysons Corner Center.

The new Spanx store is in a plum part of the mall, in the same corridor as the Apple store and the Lululemon store and the American Girl doll store, next to the L.L. Bean. This corridor appears to be dedicated to things that once existed only in catalogs, but then became culturally important and needed to spring into three-dimensional spaces. The air smells vaguely of Cinnabons.

This particular evening, two men in gray overcoats stand outside the Spanx store, trying to decide whether their wives would consider its contents to be a gift or an insult. The men do not go in.

The women who pass by appear to be drawn by the gravitational force of the Spanx. Detoured from their original destinations, they pause in front of the store as if they’d just remembered something, and that something is their wiggling thighs. They do go in.

Let’s go in, too.

Inside, the store is 1,200 square feet that combine a spa and a sleepover. It is plush, feathered and furred, with comfy chairs plopped outside a glam-looking dressing room. In front of a full-length mirror tonight, one customer — middle-age, bobbed — tugs at a sequined dress that hugs her waist and bum. She disappears behind a curtain for a moment and re-emerges again in the same dress. This time, the lumps are gone. (Spanxed!)

Near the middle, there is a poster-size portrait of Sara Blakely, the woman who invented Spanx in a folklorish origin story. In the late 1990s, she was a down-and-out communications grad living in Florida. She couldn’t get a decent job: At one point she considered auditioning to be Goofy at Disney World, but she was too short. Instead, she sold fax machines door to door. She bought a pair of white pants from Arden B that cost anywhere from $78 to $98, depending on which version of the story you hear. The pants made her butt look lumpy. She cut the feet off of a pair of pantyhose, put the pantyhose on under the pants. A light bulb went off.

In the picture in the Spanx store, Blakely, now 41, is wearing the white pants that started it all. She is blond and petite, big smile, a red backpack slung casually over her shoulder. Her butt looks amazing.

The sales clerk is pixie of a woman with a top knot and a slim sweater over slim pants, the kind of woman who seems to have no business selling slenderizing garments, except that, she confesses cheerfully, “I’m wearing Spanx.”

Her name is Thao. I tell Thao I am writing an article and need to experience Spanx. Thao brings me a Bra-La-Mode and then a Bra-llelujah. She brings me an open-bust bustier and a pair of Skinny Britches thigh-shapers.

Skinny Britches are the lightest form of support Spanx offers. Thao asks if I’m comfortable — my comfort is the most important thing, she assures me again and again — and if I want to try something from the Slimplicity line, which qualifies as Super Slimming. I do. Next she asks me if I want to try something from the Slim Cognito line, which qualifies as Super Duper Slimming. I do not. I have been slimmed enough.

It’s a very communal shopping experience in here. We are all in this together, for our cellulite is the rueful secret we all share.

As I leave, a woman walks in, a youngish woman in sporty clothes that say she’s just come from yoga or Spinning. In one of those “Which fruit represents your body type?” quizzes, the woman would come out as “Apple.” The soothing saleswomen greet her. Is she looking for anything in particular?

“Hi,” the Apple woman says. “I need help.”

∎ 

Help. Help us, Spanx.

No one ever went broke overestimating the heartfelt panic that the average woman feels about her body. If a genie appeared and granted three wishes of physical improvement to this average woman, she would rattle off “tummy pooch” and “butt droop” and then spend an afternoon convincing the genie that “saddlebags” and “wide-load hips” should actually count as just one wish, parts A and B.

In Fat History, a 300-page exploration of exactly what it sounds like, author Peter Stearns dedicates about three pages to the era when pudge and paunch were considered good things, and the rest of the book to the 150-ish years for which they have not.

There have been changes in how we deal with the panic, of course. In the 19th century, when women were corseted into fainting hourglasses, the constriction was centralized around the center: Though waists were meant to be tiny, everything else was allowed to bulge. Pillowy hips, billowing thighs — none of this was a problem for the full-skirted fashion of the day. But when the 1920s roared in, skirts got narrow, and it suddenly became possible to see flesh move beneath fabric.

“Jiggling of the flapper fringe — yay!” says Jill Fields, the author of An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie and Sexuality. “But jiggling of the flesh? No!”

Jiggle. The loathing of jiggle is what we’re really talking about here, isn’t it? A transition from the soft, pearly, dimpled skin that was valued in the early part of the 20th century to the hard, sinewy, firm skin that is valued now.Everything must be firm. Nothing must shake. We’ll accept curvaceous figures if they look like Christina Hendricks, but even Christina Hendricks must not have cellulite or publicly show it if she does.

There was a time when jiggle was considered sexy. Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter once wrote an ode to jiggle in that newspaper. He praised “quiver.” He praised “undulation,” “elasticity” and “gravity.” He praised “occasional pools of limpid viscosity,” and he recalled a youth spent swivel-necking just to catch a glimpse of anything that moved. (Angry readers wrote letters after the article came out. They said his ode was gross.) In any case, we used to want to cover up jiggle because jiggle was considered too tantalizing. But now it is considered too icky. “Basically, ‘modern beauty standards’ are about smoothness,” says Tomima Edmark. “Smoothness and fantasy.”

Edmark is the chief executive of HerRoom.com, an undergarment outlet. She also runs a pantyline-watch blog and is something of a cultural zeitgeist predictor: In the early 1990s, she invented the Topsy Tail, a hairstyling tool much coveted by the tween set for its ability to turn ponytails inside out. Edmark has spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what females do and do not want:

“They want to be smooth,” she says. “They don’t want back fat. They don’t want a muffin top. They don’t want sausage legs. They want to lose two inches or more, just by stepping into a band of Spandex. And really, that’s impossible.”

Fact: Beyonce was correct. It is extremely possible that America is not ready for this jelly.

Sara Blakely calls on the phone from Spanx headquarters. She has the warm, upbeat voice that would seem to be required for selling a product like she sells. She’s just come back from a publicity tour that included a Good Morning America stint, and before we talked, she was wrangling her young son into a nap. She is immediately likable — the friendly Mom Executive Officer type who really seems to have it all (with just a little help from Spanx).

It’s a Tuesday. On Tuesdays, at the Spanx headquarters down in Atlanta, the staff (143 employees, 21 of them men) celebrates success with “Testimonial Tuesdays” — sharing real-life letters from real-life women who have been touched by Spanx.

Blakely has a few testimonials fresh in her mind. Like the woman who sent a picture of herself breaking into her armoire with a hammer. The drawer was jammed, she said, and she didn’t want to go to a job interview without her Spanx. “Women are very emotional about our brand,” Blakely says. “The word I hear most often is ‘confidence.’ Or ‘I feel like my better self.’ ”

Sometimes people tell her that Spanx are like their Wonder Woman costumes. Like they are covering themselves in spandex to steel themselves against the world.

Which is perhaps the answer to Spanx’s success: Spanx reflects modern womanhood, because modern women are supposed to be Wonder Woman.

Blakely is a hands-on executive. She, too, is emotional about the brand. Beauty should not be pain, she says. “I don’t subscribe to that decades-long theory.”

Take the long view (the decades-long view): How will historians see Spanx? As a more high-tech girdle? As an instrument of liberation? As a quaint testament to a bygone era in which jiggle was considered unappealing? In the future, will we embrace cellulite? Will we finally accept the body composition that 80 to 90 percent of the female population naturally possesses?

Will we view the shapewear binge of the early 21st century as a sad commentary on our endless struggle for perfection, butting up against our impatience, our overbooked lives, our desperate search for the perfect shortcut (or at least the perfect short-cut thigh slimmer)?

Take the short view: As 2013 dawns, and women around the country shift uncomfortably in their straining clothes, their trousers packed tight with endless candy canes and cornbread stuffing, will we buy bigger pants?

Or will we buy tighter Spanx?