CN clothing ads, including lingerie

I really like this ad.

Photo of a mall-outlet-store window display. Mannequins wearing clothing are to the left, under the name of the store, "Garage." The main display is a large poster depicting four teenage girls smiling and talking with one another. All four wear shorts and white sneakers, but otherwise have different styles. The leftmost girl is black. The second girl from the right is on her back, with her legs against the wall behind the four girls. The girl to her left has a hand gently draped around this girl's right leg, while the rightmost girl leans on this girl's knee.

Five years ago, I would not have known why. Five years ago, it would have pried and pulled its way into my heart, left its effusive warmth all about me, made me linger and hang and obsess. It would have prompted me to retain a copy of it, hidden, for later viewing in emotionally trying times. I would have told no one. I would have felt that strange desire I knew well but didn’t understand, not just recognition of the depicted girls’ beauty, not just an overly detailed analysis of their clothing and the aesthetic relations their bodies bore to it, but a yawning, jealous emptiness.

Today, I know that the wind in that chasm was whispering, give me your girlhood.”

It took a specific kind of image to make me feel these things. I had no such reactions to images like this one:

Window display of a Guess mall outlet store. Mannequins partially obscure the poster behind them. The poster depicts a woman in a black bra and jeans posed oddly over something, possibly a car. The photo is done in black-and-white that makes her look like she needs a shower, and her hair is artfully mussed.

Or this one:

A Victoria's Secret ad depicting an apparently-nude woman holding a perfume bottle in front of her chest. Hair, elbows, and the edge of the photo conceal her nipples, but the outline of her breasts is visible.

And images like this one would bring out the aesthetically fascinated aspect, with me poring over every inch of the depicted woman, memorizing her shapes and curves, and analyzing each strand of her clothing to understand how it fits and how it might feel, but not the deep yearning that made images like the first one so meaningful:

A woman in a knit halter-style bikini top with lacy accents, ample cleavage, and thin straps. She carries a brown blanket or jacket. Her expression is the standard vacant photo-shoot expression, mouth slightly open.

I found little to relate to in the way my straight male friends, in my younger days, would talk about images like these. The Victoria’s Secret and Guess ads would have had them salivating, but the Garage ad would have passed by them like so much empty wall, or garnered no more than a salacious shock-humor quip. So too would this Old Navy ad have meant nothing to them and everything to me:

An Old Navy ad depicting three smiling girls. The one on the left wears a yellow dress and has pulled up her shoulders in apparent embarrassment. The middle girl wears a top and shorts, and leans on the rightmost girl, who is younger than the others, black, and wearing a dress. All three are smiling.

They’re beaming and laughing and she’s raising her shoulders in a hint of shyness and they’re touching each other with that light, physical affection that is so utterly foreign to men in my cultures and so natural for women, and it makes my heart ache.

I can see now that the vacant pouts and carefully-posed non-action of those ads provided me with little more than momentary titillation because they weren’t for me. The clothing was for women, and I’m currently wearing a bra I purchased at Victoria’s Secret, but the ads are aimed as much at straight men as at anyone else. VS doesn’t just sell underwear, but a fantasy of glamorous, scantily-clad, sexually available femininity, and has burned itself into the Anglophone world’s collective psyche by presenting that fantasy in terms that straight men recognize. I did not see myself in these ads, the way I did ads like the Garage ad above, because I wasn’t meant to—no one is. When Victoria’s Secret wants women to see ourselves in its advertisements, those advertisements look like this:

Two women, smiling and laughing. They are in their underwear, with the woman on the left having her back to the viewer. Their postures and expressions indicate delight and familiarity.

This is a key question in advertising, and art in general: who is it for?

This ad depicts a lady who could easily have inspired the same jealous visions in me, but she doesn’t:

Express Men ad depicting a man in a gray suit with a woman in a black patterned dress leaning off of his shoulder.

She’s not the point of this ad. This ad is for the men’s side of Express, and she is a piece of the message the male model is telling the viewer: shop here, and you, too can have a lady this lovely hanging on your arm. The women’s side of Express, conversely, features this vision of sunny, stylish elegance who would have left pre-transition Alyssa confused and obsessed:

Express ad depicting a confident, beautiful woman in a white layered dress with a purple floral pattern leaning on a wall. She wears black high-heeled strappy sandals.

I always come back to the group ads, though, especially the ones aimed at girls at about the age I was when the wrongness first arrived. The girls are warm, cheerful, kind, engaged with one another, and delighted at each other’s company. There might be a hint of embarrassment, but there is never fear. They are not guarding themselves against insult or betrayal, they are not hiding big pieces of themselves to be welcome in this crowd, and they are not terrified of missing a cue or overstepping a bound or saying something weird that grinds the conversation to a halt. They are not merely cute and well-dressed and, to my adolescent eyes, attractive, but they are at ease and comfortable and happy. None of these four, or the three in the Old Navy ad, feels like they are being tolerated rather than welcomed, none of them is dissociated into an anxious oblivion, none of them looks in the mirror and sees a stranger looking back. None of them are starved for touch that doesn’t feel like extortion or danger. None of them are afraid to let the others know how they feel with a lean, a hand, or a hug.

None of them spent most of their lives sublimating who they wanted to be into the image of a teenage girl putting her arm around another teenage girl’s leg in nonchalant affection, never sure if they wanted more to be the holder…or the held.

Even now, after it’s become hilariously clear that what I wanted was to be both, these ads bring me a deep smile. In them, I vicariously update my own youth, feeling warmth and ease that I was ever too mentally unbalanced and too off-putting to claim. In them, I trade out what should never have been for what will never be, and hope that future girls will know these joys firsthand.

I hope ads like this never go out of style.


3 thoughts on “Adspirational

  1. 1

    Oh, yes, I love that first picture (I’ve seen it somewhat larger.) It’s what I long for — that kind of connection with other women, the easy intimacy and casual physical contact — and it’s at least part of my motivation to transition. I think I’d like the other picture you liked (the one with the three girls) if it were large enough for me to actually see.

    Sex in advertising turns me off, actually. Part of it is that it invariably objectifies the women in it (and I’ve always identified with women, long before it occurred to me that I might be in any sense female), but part of it is that I’m simply not comfortable with sex except in private, with people I feel safe with. My therapist says I’m demisexual, though I might simply be a kind of asexual — the kind that doesn’t mind sex, but is actually only attracted to the emotional closeness and cuddling.

    1. 1.1

      I do consider myself lesbian — I’m very attracted to women and not at all to men. And I do enjoy sex, at least when I feel safe (which I did not in my marriage.)

      But when I see pictures like the “sexy” ones above, they don’t make me think sex. They don’t look like any of the women I’ve made love with. I recognize that they’re performing a stereotyped behavior that our society says is associated with “sex” and is supposed to make you aroused (if you’re male, at least), but to me they just look weird. Or like they’re making some unspecified but uncomfortable demand on the viewers. To me, the ultimate in sexyness is a warm welcoming look that says, “come here, I’m glad to see you.”

      Maybe “real men” are turned on by those poses. If so, it’s yet another way in which I was no good at being a man. (And, to be honest, didn’t want to be.)

  2. 2

    Straight cis woman here, but I can somewhat relate to what you are saying. I had what I thought at the time was the burden of attending an all-girls Catholic high school. (It turned out to be one of the great blessings of that period of my life, for many reasons.) But one of the things about it was the level of comfort we teen girls had with each other’s bodies. In a Catholic girl’s school, nobody is going to admit to being anything other than cis and straight, sure. Yet there was a closeness, a comfortableness, that I’ve never experienced since. Those group ads take me back to that time and place.

    Our culture encourages an adversarial approach to other women, at least if you’re straight. It normalizes the notion of belonging to some man, and achieving that feat through competition with other women. Images of women belonging to no one but themselves, and enjoying each other’s company, is uplifting and defies this toxic narrative.

Comments are closed.