For decades, women and underwear technicians have been striving to eliminate the visible panty line – the unsightly reminders that we are wearing underwear; how much better to make it look as if we aren’t. French knickers, seamless shorts, hotpants, thongs or g-strings (though these have given us the above-the-jeans-waistband VPL,) are all designed to smooth away any evidence of pants, because really, who wants to have to think about what other people have going on under their clothes?
Well we do, actually. The Women’s Networking Zone at the Global Village of the Vienna International AIDS Conference opened on Sunday with a ceremonial hoisting of our ‘Visible Panty Line’ – a washing line of women’s underwear donated by partners and friends of the WNZ, in a celebration of womanhood.
Why? I hear you ask. The idea emerged from a confluence of several semi-concurrent moments in a vast sea of conversations between the coordinators of the zone. First came the motif for the zone, a take on Vienna’s famous ‘Hundertwasserhaus,’ (re-)designed by Sud-Tirolese artist, Mirjam Scweigkofler. The multicoloured house incorporates Women-, HIV-, and Rights-related symbols (the three prongs of the WNZ) in its many windows; scales of justice, a lipstick kiss, a red ribbon, a female gender symbol, a dove of peace, a globe, a heart, and a cheeky little washing line featuring a thong, a bra and a somewhat larger – or shall we say more comfortable? – pair of pants. Next, Alice hosted a poetry and music festival at her home in Devon, and there appeared, in the place of bunting, ‘panting’: a line of colourful pants, bras and swimming costumes. It chimed with the washing line of our graphic, and the idea of having some ‘panting’ in our Networking Zone gained momentum. An email entitled ‘Visibility: panting line’ clinched the deal, and the WNZ’s Visible Panty Line was born.
Underwear of every description and to fit every woman was sought. No pants would be too big, too comfy, too sexy or too impossibly small to be allocated a peg on the line; no bra too sporty, lacy, or unnecessary. There would be prizes for the largest, those with least working elastic left, etc. It would be an opportunity to bestow a final outing on that favourite bra that’s never really fitted properly; say a guilt-free farewell to those belly-warmers your mum gave you for Christmas; hold up your hold-ups (for a week!); get rid of the collection of thongs your best friend gives you each birthday even though you’ve told her a million times that actually, you hate thongs, it’s like wearing knives.
In Vienna underwear arrived by the bag-load. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Visible Panty Line that adorns the WNZ today is a good deal more Carrie Bradshaw than Bridget Jones. But as well as being beautiful, colourful, sexy and funny, the VPL irreverently speaks to a number of different feminist concepts and ideas, that are pertinent to the principles and aims of the Women’s Networking Zone; the reclaiming of femininity; openness about and celebration of our sexuality; subversion of domestic realm and the public/private, personal/political dichotomies; body image; issues around sexual violence and rape; the legitimacy of sex work.
There is also a universality about the need for women to wear underwear for our physical comfort and well-being, but at the same time the VPL highlights some of our differences – the fact that we come in a lot of different shapes and sizes – and reminds us that ‘one size fits all’ programming (or underwear manufacture) doesn’t and can’t work for women. And as well as being a plain necessity, our underwear – especially here in the West – can also be an undreamt of luxury. Yesterday a visitor to the Zone asked me if she could have a piece of the underwear. It got me thinking about the cost of a beautiful bra, but also the cost of basic necessities like tampons and pads. For some women, tampons are simply not available. For many young women starting their periods, the whole issue of menstruation remains taboo, shameful and frightening, and something they are left to deal with in secret and without adequate resources.
The Women’s Networking Zone aims to provide a space where no conversation is taboo, and where the mundane and seemingly ‘small’ details of women’s lives – including drudgery and bodily functions – can be given a platform, so that the linkages between these realities, and policy and programming, can be made. Today we join the Human Rights March through the city of Vienna under the banner of our Visible Panty Line in the hope that it will aid us in making linkages, as we continue to speak to one another through the loops of a pink bra strap.