This year, Valentina Sampaio, a transgender model, made headlines when she joined Victoria’s Secret. Sampaio broke ground as the company’s first transgender angel, but lingerie shopping isn’t always a heavenly experience.
Many trans people have trouble finding underwear that fits their body and affirms their gender identity. Underwear belongs in the closet — humans do not. Underwear is the foundation of any outfit, and many transgender people rely on fashion as a vital outlet to express themselves. In a Refinery29 article, Devin Halbal wrote about how fashion helped her embrace her gender identity:
“After much reflection, I realized that although I am biologically male, I feel happier and more like myself when I present as a woman … Fashion lends a way to choose how we want to showcase ourselves every day. It’s a means to break from gender norms — one of the only ways I can challenge how others perceive me. Fashion is the avenue through which I can change and reinvent myself — on my own terms.”
Countless people slip into their underwear every morning with no worry other than to double-check their outfit for panty lines. Many transgender women, such as Devin Halbal, don’t have the privilege of taking their underwear for granted. When a trans person shops for underwear, they are faced with a cruel choice. Will they purchase underwear that fits their hips and groin? Or will they buy a garment that doesn’t physically fit their body but makes them feel happy in their own skin?
How Underwear Can Impact a Trans Woman’s Physical Health
Wearing improperly sized underwear isn’t just uncomfortable; it can be dangerous.
Karyn Bello noticed how her transgender daughter struggled to find undergarments that fit her body. She says, “As the mother of a trans woman, I was concerned with making sure that the community had a healthier alternative to duct tape and wearing multiple pairs of underwear that were way too small.” Bello worked with her daughter to create Zhe, a small lingerie business that creates underwear for transgender shoppers. Bello explains that most fashion brands don’t consider transgender people as they design their undies. “Underwear designed for cis women have smaller gussets.” A gusset is that flap of fabric at the bottom of your underwear that covers your groin. “These gussets in underwear for cis women just aren’t wide enough to accommodate the differences in anatomy,” Bello says.
A common misconception is that most transgender individuals will pursue gender affirming surgery. However, the majority of trans people do not seek this surgery. According to the 2015 United States Transgender Survey, 12 percent of transgender women respondents had a vaginoplasty. That means that most trans women live with a penis. This anatomy can pose a challenge when a trans woman wants to wear a bodycon dress or a pair of panties.
Some transgender women “tuck” to smooth out the silhouette of their groin. Trans Hub, a transgender health advocacy organization, describes tucking as the practice of concealing your penis and scrotum between your legs to achieve a smoother appearance. On their website, Trans Hub writes, “For some people, tucking is an important part of gender affirmation and helps to relieve dysphoria … for other people it might be for specific occasions, or to suit a particular outfit or item of clothing. You might also decide that tucking isn’t for you, and that’s absolutely ok.” Some people choose to tuck because they appreciate the aesthetic, but other trans people may feel pressured to tuck their genitals tight against their body to fit into underwear that is designed for cisgender women. “The lack of trans-friendly underwear can have some more severe physical effects like developing bladder, kidney and urinary tract infections from not using the bathroom for fear of having to retuck. Rarely, trans women may even experience damage to the urethra from staying taped and tucked for many hours,” Bello says.
The most common health complications a trans person may experience from their underwear include skin irritation from wearing missized underwear and putting tape on the sensitive skin of their legs and genitals. If a transgender person wears underwear that doesn’t fit their body, they may experience wedgies and skin chafing. Too-tight or too-loose undergarments can cause you to sweat. This sweaty, warm environment inside your underwear can cultivate candida and bacteria growth, which may increase your risk of developing jock itch or an infection on your buttocks, vulva, or penis.
How Underwear Can Impact a Trans Woman’s Mental Health
Getting dressed can be an important experience in self-expression. For example, a transgender woman may feel more confident when she can wear comfortable panties instead of boxers. Why? While people of any gender can wear any style of underwear, underwear are often associated with gender expression. This dilemma inspired Fran Dunaway to co-create TomboyX, a gender-inclusive underwear company.
Dunaway says, “When you try on clothes that aren’t your style and ultimately aren’t meant for you, it eats at your self-esteem.” Underwear designed for cisgender women may have lace or satin that hug the hips. Boxers and briefs created for cisgender men feature more room in the groin and an opening in the front to expedite trips to the urinal. A woman who has a penis may find that find that these boxers or briefs technically fit her body, but wearing “men’s” underwear might trigger gender dysphoria.
The American Psychiatric Association describes gender dysphoria as the psychological distress that a person may feel when their gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.
When transgender people can find underwear designed for them, they can feel more confident. “Lingerie may seem like a frivolous way to uplift the transgender community, but undergarments are the first thing you put on your body when you get dressed. Lingerie touches the most vulnerable and intimate parts of our bodies, so to have them be affirming, is just that — affirming,” Bello says.
Dunaway agrees that gender-affirming underwear may help raise a transgender person’s confidence and positive body image: “Underwear is next to your skin, so it’s a kind of armor to go out and face the world. When you put it on and it feels like you, then you can face the world with confidence and certainty.”
Transgender women deserve better underwear, and they also deserve access to health resources. If you are in the trans community and you need access to gender-affirming underwear, bras, or binders, there are organizations that can help. As of 2021, Point of Pride continues to mail free shapewear and chest binders to transgender people who were assigned male at birth. The American Trans Resource Hub runs a free chest binder outreach program. These organizations send products on a first-come, first-serve basis. Your local and regional LGBTQ+ health organizations and Pride centers may also be able to provide support.
Author’s note: Underwear is a deeply personal topic for many people. Some trans women prefer to wear underwear that appears more like the panties marketed to cisgender women. Other trans women keep their boxers and briefs. Many trans women compromise by wearing “boyshorts” or “girly boxers.”
A trans woman is still a woman, no matter how she dresses. The author hopes to write additional reported features to highlight how transgender men and nonbinary people experience similar obstacles when they shop for undergarments.