It’s no secret that lingerie can be sexually appealing and have an effect on romantic partners, sometimes even more so than being naked. Studies have suggested that male rats may be conditioned to find female rats in tiny jackets more desirable than those without them ― leading neuroscientists to draw parallels with human arousal related to lingerie.
But a lot of lingerie-wearers like to don fancy undergarments purely for themselves, without any partner in mind. In the 2015 movie “Sleeping With Other People,” Alison Brie’s single character muses that she’ll spend “about a month’s rent” on a luxurious lingerie set to simply channel her “inner Khaleesi.”
“Lingerie and sexy underwear have been historically viewed as being for the partner’s benefit only,” psychologist Danielle Forshee told HuffPost. “But we’re in a time when women are empowering themselves, saying, ‘This is good enough just for me to wear.’ And we can wear it whenever we want for how we want to feel in that day and moment.”
Of course, not everyone is a fancy lingerie fan, and there is limited empirical research on the psychological associations with our most intimate garments. But anecdotal findings suggest many people get a mental health boost from wearing nice lingerie in everyday life, even when they aren’t sexually active.
These days, there are many options to splurge on pricy undergarments that use high-quality materials and come in pretty matching sets. Nice lingerie doesn’t have to be super lacy or overtly sexy to make its wearer feel empowered.
But why exactly would wearing nice underwear affect our mental health? Forshee and other experts break down some of the possible reasons.
Wearing nice lingerie boosts confidence.
“Wearing nice quality underwear or lingerie sets boost our confidence and self-esteem, even if no one sees it,” said Carolyn Mair, a behavioral psychologist, author of “The Psychology of Fashion” and founder of psychology.fashion. “Feeling confident can make us appear more physically attractive because we tend to stand, walk, speak and gesticulate differently.”
She noted that confidence can make the content of what we say seem more persuasive and is associated with being perceived as sexy, “which, depending on our objectives, might also boost self-esteem and enhance mental wellbeing.” Wearing lingerie can evoke feelings of femininity, sexual liberation and power.
“The idea of wearing a nice or sexy lingerie for yourself can actually have a really positive effects on our emotional state,” said consumer psychologist and Style Psychology founder Kate Nightingale.
“Our outfits are typically bound by cultural and societal norms … . Lingerie sets, on the other hand, do not have to conform to such norms because they are for our eyes only.”
– Shakaila Forbes-Bell, fashion psychologist
She pointed to the concept of “enclothed cognition,” which suggests that the traits and feelings associated with certain clothing not only affect how others perceive you but also how you perceive yourself and behave in different attire.
“If you associate confidence, strength, attractiveness or anything else with the specific lingerie, you will start feeling a bit more like that when you wear it,” Nightingale explained. “It’s not a magical pill, but you will certainly feel a bit more confident or sexy.”
It provides the freedom to express your personal identity.
“We choose clothes to protect us from the elements, to make our activities safer or to make a statement. Clothing is our second skin and an outward display of our identity,” Mair said. “Our social identity is directed toward an external world, whereas our personal identity is directed toward how we feel about ourselves.”
She noted that there aren’t many empirical studies on the psychology of underwear but pointed to one from 2006 on lingerie consumption and its relation to feminine identity.
″[They] found that women considered underwear as a powerful, affirming and challenging identity shift from boring to daring, and expressing their true identity that they weren’t able to project externally,” Mair noted.
In this sense, undergarments provide the opportunity to express inner desires and instincts, free from any concerns about judgment or interference from others.
“Our outfits are typically bound by cultural and societal norms, meaning that we don’t always have the freedom to express our specific tastes through our everyday styles,” said Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a fashion psychologist and founder of Fashion Is Psychology. “Lingerie sets, on the other hand, do not have to conform to such norms because they are for our eyes only, or for the eyes of our partners. This freedom can be therapeutic for the wearer as it allows them to wear sets in styles that are a true reflection of their creativity and personal tastes.”
It can be a form of self-care.
“A woman buying quality underwear or lingerie can be a form of self-care, and it can boost morale,” said licensed marriage and family therapist Saniyyah Mayo.
This may seem ironic, given that nice lingerie is not often the most comfortable underwear option. But the buyer may simply like the way she looks in a certain set or feel good mentally when she wears it.
“I think there’s a level of self-care and self-love that goes into buying nice underwear or lingerie ― especially when no one else might see because they are literally only doing it for themselves,” said licensed marriage and family therapist Rachel Thomasian. “Anything we do to make ourselves feel taken care of or loved can be self-care. When we take the extra step of buying nicer underwear for example, wearing them can feel like we are taking care of ourselves in a way. Whether the undies are sexy or just an upgrade in quality and feel from what you’re used to, you’re giving yourself some love by buying and also putting them on.”
Making a conscious effort to feel and look good, whether it’s with your undergarments, your eyeshadow or your socks, is a way of treating yourself.
“It takes time and effort to buy and put on a nicer set of lingerie, so treating yourself affirms your self-worth.” Forshee said. “You’re showing yourself that you’re worth the time and effort.”
It’s important to note, however, that nice underwear isn’t as important for everyone, and we don’t need to be swept away into treating ourselves to expensive products beyond our means.
“Other basic self-needs, such as food, shelter and social support, need to be satisfied first,” Mair said. “Also, if a person is not mentally healthy, it would take more than nice underwear to help improve their mental health.”
Purchasing quality lingerie may trigger the brain’s reward system, but those good feelings are generally short-lived and make us feel the need to buy more and more, noted Kati Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist and host of the “Ask Kati Anything” podcast.
“Research actually supports purchasing experiences over items to promote more long-term positive effects,” she said. “When we invest in a trip or event, our reward center is triggered longer, we can think back on that experience and get all the good feelings again and again.”
Morton emphasized that self-care is also about things that don’t cost any money, like drinking enough water, making time for loved ones, setting and upholding boundaries or standing up for ourselves at work.
It can offer an escape.
Sometimes it’s enjoyable to play around with our style, experiment with new looks we never considered or even cosplay as a completely different person. This approach can also apply to more private garments, like our underwear.
“Wearing outlandish clothing that is a far departure from our norm can provide us with a sense of escapism. Therefore, for those who typically wear basic undergarments, wearing high-quality lingerie can double as a form of self-care as it will allow them the freedom to escape the humdrum realities of everyday life,” Forbes-Bell said.
“Because no one sees it without our consent, we can feel unlimited to imagine ourselves the way we want to be,” added fashion psychologist Marleen Beevers. “We act as the protagonist of our (life)play ― nobody around to break the spell!”
You get a sense of control.
Wearing high-quality lingerie under your clothes can also create a sense of power and control.
“People used to dress up, go outside and get external validation from ‘Oh, you look nice!’ or ‘Love those shoes!’ But now there’s none of that, so they have to pivot and really dress for themselves, look for that internal validation.”
– Dawnn Karen, founder of Fashion Psychology Institute
“I haven’t seen any studies looking at this, but I suspect the good feeling we have from wearing nice underwear is that it answers the ‘what it…?’ question,” Mair suggested. “What if I have an accident? What if I meet the perfect stranger? Being prepared for the unknown is taking control. A lack of control is known to be one of the biggest stressors.”
Forshee echoed this, noting that many women choose to wear nicer lingerie for social occasions so that they look the way they want to underneath their clothes in case they have a sexual encounter later.
“When they’re going to a party or on a date, there’s a sense of wanting to be prepared just in case something happens,” she said.
For Fashion Psychology Institute founder and Fashion Institute of Technology professor Dawnn Karen, it’s also about reasserting control amid the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity of wearing a mask to promote health and safety.
“If you feel like you’re being told what to put on your body when you go outside, remember you can feel always free and in control with your lingerie ― that’s just for you,” she said.
It replaces external validation with internal validation.
Feeling good about what you’re wearing, even when it’s not visible, allows you to feel validation internally rather than seeking it from others.
Karen noted that before the pandemic, people were accustomed to getting compliments or comments on their outfits from the people around them as they went about their lives in public. Spending so much time inside and keeping a distance from others in the COVID-19 era has removed a lot of that.
“People used to dress up, go outside and get external validation from ‘Oh, you look nice!’ or ‘Love those shoes!’” she explained. “But now there’s none of that, so they have to pivot and really dress for themselves, look for that internal validation.”
As we gradually return to pre-pandemic norms, like getting dressed to go out in public and interact with others more frequently, we can continue to turn inward for validation. And when it comes to clothing, that may involve the garments that aren’t on display.
“I purchased lingerie as part of self-care during the pandemic when we weren’t having a lot of human interactions, and I recommended it to my clients,” Karen said. “People may stay in their pajamas for days on end, but they will change their underwear. I believe that women can wear lingerie for themselves, not for someone else.”
You may feel inspired to dress nicely on the outside, too.
For some women, wearing a base layer of expensive or high-quality lingerie inspires them to put effort into their visible clothing, too, which can boost confidence further.
“Dressing up can improve your mood,” Karen said. “It’s part of what I call ‘mood enhancement dress theory’ ― you can optimize or elevate your mood when you’re feeling anxious or down or undesirable by dressing up. And wearing nice lingerie may motivate you to wear something a step above sweats to further optimize your mood.”
She believes many people will benefit from putting more effort into their outfits as they return to public life.
“Because we were in loungewear for a year, I think we’re going to go back to that Great Gatsby era when people dress up for every little thing we do, to go to places where we didn’t care to dress up before,” Karen said. “Mood really matters, so I tell people to do a self check-in, determine how they feel, and dress to illustrate that or to enhance it. Right now, mood enhancement dress can be especially beneficial.”