Women’s Underwear Companies Are Marketing to People They Never Have Before

As an average 20-something year old female living in America, I think about underwear on 4 occasions:

  1. When choosing some to wear—which I put thought into only when I expect someone to see it.

  2. When my tampon leaks.

  3. When I need new underwear due to lack of cute, hole-free options (read: situation #1) or because of a few too many situation #2s.

  4. When I see an ad for underwear, which may entice me to buy it whether or not I’m in situation #3.

Traditionally, women’s underwear brands (I’m looking at you Victoria’s Secret) have capitalized on our thought process behind situation #1: is the cut/color/fit flattering, will he like it, will he like me when the clothes come off? “Pretty” is the common denominator, even in comfort-touting Hanes ads. Pretty patterns, pretty materials, pretty models.

Pretty equals pleasant, pleasing, desirable. Traits that I’ve been taught to embody—emphasis on “body.” The picture of pretty should encompass my hair, eyelashes, toenails, outfit, and everything in between—including, yes, the thin strips of fabric that 99.999% percent of the population won’t ever see. So, despite the fact that attempting to look like a Victoria’s Secret model—a chiffon-clad angel with perfectly smooth skin under folds of lace and an off-camera fan blowing my bombshell hair—is utterly futile, I choose my underwear based on that pipe dream.

Three brands are saying, no more.

Thinx, Naja, and Aerie are revolutionizing the women’s underwear industry by marketing to—shocker—women: women who have periods, women who know that tiny strips of fabric don’t hide cellulite, women who spend more time looking at cat memes than going to the gym to get rid of said cellulite.

Women without the caveat, “who want to impress men.”

Thinx is more about utility than pretty. According to its ads, one panty style absorbs up to 2 tampons’ worth of blood but doesn’t feel like a diaper. Thinx has even waded into gender fluid territory with its slogan: “Underwear for people with periods.” Read: people. Not specifically women. If the subtle word choice is lost on you, check out its newest campaign featuring a transgender man.

 The company’s New York City subway ads featuring split open grapefruit and eggs sans shell sparked outcry. People thought that they were too suggestive of female genitalia for public view. (Boobs left, right and center, but one photograph of an egg sends you into a tizzy? What, my fallopian tubes don’t turn you on? Well, good. Not what they were aiming for.)

Aerie hasn’t quite detached from traditional advertising the way Thinx has. There’s still a lot of conventionally pretty, smiling women with smooth skin at the forefront. But in its recent #AerieReal campaign, the company has promised to stop photoshopping its models, a move that has reportedly increased the brand’s bottom line—pun intended. It’s featuring girls with bodies that wouldn’t fit into a size two label and with diverse ethnic backgrounds, a commonality between all three underwear brands.

Previously guilty of the lie that Victoria Secret sells—our underwear is great and you will look great because you will look like this when you wear it—Aerie has a new message: our underwear is great and you will look great because you will look like YOU when you wear it. (Though, arguably, we don’t all have hair and makeup stylists and symmetrical, photogenic faces, which Aerie’s “Real Girl” models still have. Hence, my issue with Mattel’s new Barbie line. So some of the dolls are shorter and plumper. Show me one with a big nose and frizzy hair, and I’ll believe that you want to be representative of the female population. But, still, a step.)

Naja might claim the title of most socially conscious brand. Its nude underwear line has seven different shades, exploding the standard porcelain-to-peach range. (Victoria’s Secret has one shade of nude.) Beyond that, Naja employs single mothers to manufacture its products, ensuring flexible hours, health benefits, even providing books and school meals for the employees’ kids. And though the models and lacey products certainly fall under the pretty category, Naja, aiming to empower rather than objectify, has done away with the male-gaze-approved bombshell hair and suggestive poses.

Despite all its ethos, what I love most about Naja is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The “Cheeky Knickers line” has featured cat, Chihuahua, sushi and Star Wars panties.

And why not go about my day with a joke in my pants? Or a blood-blocker? After all, it’s my underwear.

And it’s just underwear. Hardly anyone’s going to see it but me.

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