“Duct tape—that’s what I used to tape up my arms,” recalls Rose Hansdenberg, 49, a mother of four in Columbia, Md. “I made sure every outfit and piece of clothing hid my arms.” Surprisingly, Hansdenberg is slender. At five foot ten, she’s a size four with DD cups. “It’s not about fat,” she adds. “I’ve had bingo wings since I was a teenager. In my 20s, they were the reason I wasn’t in my sister-in-law’s wedding party, because I had to wear a dress with spaghetti straps. When I waved, my arms waved back.”
Hansdenberg put down the duct tape this fall in favour of a new product on the market. Flabuless is a support garment for the upper arms. It launched in the U.S. in October and Rachael Ray has already gushed about it on her television show. An appearance on Oprah appears imminent.
Since Hollywood director Nora Ephron broke the taboo about neck wattle—writing a book about it in which she talks about hiding it in turtlenecks—the stage is set to obsess about another body issue: arm wattle. It’s always been a cross to bear for Shelley Tillman, 29, who met Hansdenberg at a focus group for Flabuless in Columbia, where designer Lee Ann Stevenson created the new line of shapewear. “I had written off the top half of my body,” says Tillman, a dog sitter who underwent gastric bypass surgery two years ago, dropping from 220 lb. to 175 lb. “I had to attract attention away from my arms and try to play up my neckline. Now I have more flexibility. We all want our arms to look like Madonna’s, but how realistic is that?”
While it would be nice to have pipes like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 or Angela Bassett, our skins’ elasticity is a non-renewable resource. Even skinny arms can jiggle. With Flabuless, arms get the same kind of comfortable lift that breasts, thighs, tummies and bums get from Spanx. “What’s next? Ankles and knees?” asks Marc Lafrance, an assistant professor of sociology at Concordia University. “We’re rapidly running out of body parts to colonize and modify. The Spanx and Flabuless phenomena are symptoms of our mounting cultural anxiety around body image. I’m just afraid that we’re vilifying older bodies, especially menopausal and post-menopausal females.”
Well, if that’s true, women are in on it. Spanx alone did US$350 million in retail sales in 2008 and there are more than a dozen thriving competitors in the shapewear industry. Barbara Paikin, the Canadian distributor of Spanx, sells to over 1,000 boutiques across the country. Her company, Only Accessories, has a hotline to handle the orders for over 100 Spanx products, including the famous Power Panties, bodysuits and camisoles.
Perceiving a hole in the shapewear market, Flabuless founder Stevenson targeted her efforts north of the midriff, on upper arms. “I was planning my wedding in 2005 and each of my bridesmaids had a different body type, but they all had arm issues,” recalls Stevenson, 30, who comes from a family of fitness-focused women who cannot curb their arm wattle. “Then I gave birth to my son in 2007 and met so many women who complained about gaining weight on their upper arms. Shapewear is for women who don’t have the time or inclination to spend two hours at the gym every day.”
With prices starting at US$35, Flabuless is a lot cheaper than laser-enhanced liposuction or full brachioplasty surgery, which costs over $4,000 and leaves unsightly scars. Stylists are overjoyed. “About 80 per cent of our clients complain about their arms,” reports Caroline Alexander, a stylist at Ludique, a busy Montreal fashion consulting company. “We’re not the underwear police, but we encourage self-conscious clients to try shapewear. We’re elated if Flabuless means clients don’t have to worry about batwings under cashmere sweaters and jersey dresses.”
Stylist Michael Schaeble, a panellist on Naked Fashion, is more cautious. Surfing flabulessu.com from his flat in London, he likens them to post-op bandages, calling them “hideous black arm girdles.” They’re “the fashion equivalent of mittens on a string,” declares Schaeble. “I’m all for anything that gives you some structure, but they aren’t stylish enough to work as a shrug yet. And do they only come in black and nude? For shame!” Right on cue, Flabuless is set to launch new colours and fancier shrugs to be worn over strapless dresses.
Now, if only someone would get working on those knee girdles.