Shoulder pads make women into linebackers and linebackers into tanks.
Shoulder pads could double as codpieces or bra-pumper-uppers in a pinch, but usually don’t.
In the 1980’s shoulder pads were key: many of my memories of moving from girls’ clothes into women’s involve them. The jackets of course had them – big meaty ones – but then also the V-neck cotton sweaters, dresses, and coats. It became possible to wear two or three layers of shoulder pads on top of one another, like some upper-body Pea Princess bracing against the pain of the world through her foamy, foamy armor.
The pads folded in half along their vertical axes and were covered with slippery polyester material. It was easy to get them bunched up in weird ways, even when only one layer was involved in that day’s outfit. Pads of any kind share this property: the ones inside swimsuits and cheap bras; the ones I wore between my legs until the Gospel of Tampon came to save me from misaligned adhesive and innocent pubic hairs ripped out before their time. Pads depend on some static notion of the body, improved. Don’t move so much! We are addressing your flaws, lacks, and leaks. Be still. We know what is best for you.
I had a fuchsia mohair coat with a huge black plaid pattern early in high school – it was obnoxious and I loved it. The lining was silky raspberry-colored stuff and the shoulder pads were legend. I have distinct memories of wearing it at debate tournaments, paired with a striped gold lamé skirt my aunt had made for me, and some kind of giant hot-glue-gunned bow in my hair. I needed all that to enter into the high-speed bouts of verbal sparring that were four-man cross-ex debate. I needed them for a field where smart girls were encouraged to enter, but not to win. If I looked flamboyant enough, maybe I could tell myself the visual assault was what cost my partner and I the match, and not the many ways our gender disqualified us from being taken seriously. If I’d showed up straight, and still lost despite getting it all right, my heart would have broken. Fight for a crappy plastic trophy in ridiculous shoulder pads and lose – you can write the whole thing off as a nerd’s game you were never really in. Fight in earnest and lose, when you know the judges and odds were always stacked against you – and real pain will find you.
There are no shoulder pads in my clothes anymore. No room for them, really. In this climate, with the number of layers required for survival rising daily, everything needs to be streamlined to fit together. Which are the under-sweaters, and which the over? Which are the under-coats? I tromped through this morning’s slush and rainfall in two pairs of pants, two sweaters, and two jackets. And this is only the beginning. Till at least May, I will need layer upon layer of unpadded clothing to keep me safe.
Besides the climate-related reasons for going padless, I also feel something shifting around the kinds of pain I expose myself to and the ways I respond to it. Today, you’d not find me at a South Georgia debate tournament, barking away the weekend on a sporadic diet of cheese dip, NoDoz, and Diet Coke. You’d not find me trying to argue some kid into submission over proper US policy in Central America, or sitting through a bleary-eyed ceremony were neither winning nor losing offer relief. There are places I won’t go these days, and South Georgia high school debate tournament are some of them, even though the grownups are supposed to come back and serve as judges.
Then there’s an unpadded way of being with pain. Last night I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the film about Freddie Mercury and Queen. I went because something about Freddie Mercury’s embodied joy and sexuality interested me – because in his unpadded Live Aid performance, his body told me something of my own potential. And, oh my goodness, I cried. There was a choice point: hold the tears in check or melt into them. I melted, and they rolled down my cheeks to soak the inside of my collar. Some deep nonverbal grief arose – for how hard it is to be human, for how hard it is to live one’s truth and stay connected to others, for courage in the face of the death sentence we all carry, but seldom account for. I cried a bucket of tears in the movie, then more in the car, and still more at home. I took the precaution of surrounding myself with fur: my fake fur bolero, my real dogs, my newly-acquired old mink cape. Some unpadded sobs came wanting voice and I gave them voice, till they subsided and I noticed I was hungry, empty, and free. Sobs, then avocado and fake chicken nuggets. That was the unpadded order of things.
Still there are some forms of padding that feel non-optional. Nipples are forbidden, so padding in the bra. Straightforward female wrath is forbidden, so carefully couched, nonviolently communicated requests. Drop the first, and your chest becomes an outlaw state. Drop the second, and the relationships you hold most dear feel in danger of rupture. What have I done? Nipples out, wrath out, is there a place for me in this world? Maybe, maybe not. Freddie Mercury’s nipples were pretty much out, and there was a big place for him in this world, until AIDS cut his life short.
This week I took a daily-practice photograph of myself in my Suit with the zips undone to my waist. My nipples aren’t showing, and yet, it’s pretty unpadded, in a way that many men wouldn’t think twice about, with regards to their own bodies. Bare-chested at the beach, at the picnic, while running. Why not? Natural. Duh. But for a woman, bare-chested in the USA in 2018 Means Something. It didn’t in France in 1978, when I was a child, but here and now it does. I am the Madonna of 108 Eyes, breasts unpadded, Suit unpadded, unsure of where this places me within the cosmology of my connections. Will Facebook take this down? Will my friends wish I’d kept a little more padding on, or think I have finally gone too far? Risk, padding. Risk, padding. So it goes. I warm my being at the fires of nakedness, getting as close as I dare, without going up in flames.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.