When I was around twelve years old, my brain was still firmly anchored in the clear waters of childhood, but the winds of puberty were blowing my body towards the foreign shores of womanhood. I had the mind and manner of a child in the body of a woman, which means that I looked odd at best, and slightly mentally retarded at worst. Braids and breasts, acne and hairy legs—that was me on the threshold of adolescence.
My mother, not sure what to do about this phenomenon that was unfolding in her midst, decided that what I needed was a girdle. But we were living in Quito at the time, and you couldn’t simply go to a store and buy a girdle. Everything had to be made by hand.
Fortunately, there lived in the old part of town, between a gilded baroque church and the market where Indian women squatted on the sidewalk, selling meat and vegetables, a corsetière. She was a middle-aged Jewish lady from somewhere in central Europe, one of the many who had fled the Nazis to South America. She looked formidable to me, with her gray hair in a bun, her sturdy lace-up shoes and that tightly corseted, moving-from-the-hips look that you never see in older women anymore.
She had me take off my skirt and, mumbling and clucking to herself in a language I didn’t understand, took my measurements. Several weeks later, the girdle was ready. It was a pink satin construction with bands of flesh-colored, rubbery fabric. It encased me from about three inches above the waist to mid-thigh, and when I tried it on I felt that I would never breathe, let alone walk again.
“It’s too tight,” I complained.
“You wish to be beautiful, yes?” the corsetière asked me. I nodded. “Then you must suffer,” she said, tugging the girdle in place and winking at my mother.
From time immemorial, garments intended to compress the female form were stiffened with whalebone, or baleen, the strong, pliable strips of keratin in a whale’s mouth that filter krill out of the water. My corsetière, being modern, had foregone baleen in favor of two narrow, flat, flexible metal shafts that ran the length of the girdle, on either side of my abdomen. They were concealed by a strip of closely stitched pink fabric, so I didn’t know they were there, though I noticed that when I peeled off the garment it resisted folding and would spring back at me, like something alive.
I was disappointed in the girdle. The corsetière had not attached garters, since my mother thought I was too young for stockings, and without stockings to help keep it in place, it tended to ride up as I climbed the tree in our backyard, or ran up the stairs. Absent stockings, the girdle’s value as an emblem of adulthood was zero, since nobody could tell I was wearing it.
The girdle also made me very, very hot. Years later, in preparation for marriage, my future mother in law gave me Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette, in which, along with instructions on table settings and “the art of tipping,” I read that a proper lady should change her girdle at least twice a day. By then it was the 1960s, and landfills across the land were overflowing with the discarded girdles of my generation, but remembering how much I’d sweated in that old girdle, I could see Amy V’s point.
Much to my relief, my first girdle did not last. Sitting in the backseat of our old Dodge one day, I bent to tie my shoelace and felt a sudden sharp stab into the soft flesh of my belly. I screamed. My mother twisted around from the front seat “What? What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. I think something bit me. Something big,” I said. Ecuador abounded in large, appalling-looking bugs, and I lived in fear of them.
My father pulled over to the side of the road and my mother got out. She unbuttoned the waistband of my skirt, pulled up my blouse, rolled down the top of my girdle and discovered the cause of the pain: one of the metal stays had broken, pierced the fabric casing, and stabbed me in the abdomen. On the way home, I had to stretch out on the back seat and lie still, because whenever I sat up the girdle would stab me all over again.
Later, my mother tried to mend the tear, but the stay kept poking through, and she finally relented and let me throw the girdle away. But in later years, whenever I underwent discomfort for the sake of looking good—burning my neck with a curling iron, say, or squeezing into too-tight jeans–I would recall the fateful words of my corsetière, “You wish to be beautiful, yes? Then you must suffer.”