Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why we're so grossed out by scungy old underpants

I have a whole section in Out of Shape about the history and pop culture of underwear – both men's and women's.

Aside from its practical comforts, underwear has a cultural purpose. It tames and transforms the unruly body into a socially cohesive figure – a body that’s appropriate to present to the world. Our culture has endowed physical heroism and worldly success with aesthetic qualities of smoothness and solidity. Think about the smooth, stylised shape of Oscar, the little gold man on the Academy Award statuette, or those gilded action figures that garnish school sports trophies. It’s no accident that superheroes wear ‘undies on the outside’, since we imagine these characters as beings whose enhanced bodies let them behave in the ordinary world with astounding, superhuman success.

Underwear aims to control and contain the naked human body so that it becomes inconspicuous and docile, and doesn’t call attention to itself through the textures of its hair and skin, its quiverings and bulgings as we breathe and move. All the different underwear silhouettes in different eras share the same invulnerable smoothness. In the right underwear, we can feel invincible – ready to take on the world.

I did so much more research on underwear than appears in the book, and so I wrote a feature last year for Junkee about our squeamishness surrounding worn-out underpants. It's as much about the history of cleanliness and modesty as about the garments themselves.

Last weekend, I did a load of laundry that will keep me in underpants for about six weeks. As I was folding the clean undies to put away, I wondered — as I always do at this point in the laundry cycle — if I should throw some of them out.

It is maybe a good idea to throw undies away when they have holes, crotch stains, transparent fabric, fabric gone shapeless and baggy, faded colours, whites gone grey or yellow, and elastic fraying, detaching or losing its elasticity. Some of these are practical concerns. Worn-out undies aren’t pleasant to wear — we’ve all known the bunchy discomfort as an old, saggy pair of underpants scrunches over the horizon of your butt-cheeks.

But mostly, old underpants gross us out for cultural reasons of hygiene or moral propriety. And that’s what I want to investigate.

Head to Junkee to read the rest.