This piece originally appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, a place for real and unreal stories from around the world.
It's a given. One of the most unnecessarily awkward conversations you will have in your life takes place between the ages of 12 and 16. This sweat-inducing, one-way talk will occur on an unassuming afternoon or early evening. You will have just cleaned your plate of that last liver slab and have but one question on your mind: Where does Mom keep the extra minty toothpaste?
But approximately 0.03 seconds after you've excused yourself from the table, Dad will clear his throat and start fidgeting with his sleeves. Mom will motion toward Dad. That's when your father, normally a harmless, likable fellow, will say, "Your mother and I want to talk to you." Did they know you lied about finishing your chemistry homework? No. But they do know you've been wildly misinformed about The Birds & the Bees -- and they're about to bash every sex myth you ever learned in the schoolyard.
After Mom and Dad's polite, clinical explanations, you will flee to your room, ashamed yet still curious. There are two questions they failed to answer: 1) What the hell is a pastie? and 2) What the hell is a merkin?
Yet these are not questions any sane person asks his mother or father. These questions are best asked of bored, slightly perverted magazine writers. Thus, though it has been many a year since your bar mitzvah or quinceañera, you will at long last learn the truth about pasties and merkins.
Pasties are adhesive nipple covers often used in burlesque dancing, stripping and other forms of sensual or erotic entertainment. They popped up in the 1920s to prevent dancers from breaking anti-toplessness laws. Generally speaking, pasties are just large enough to cover the breast's areola. Like any article of clothing, pasties come in various styles, depending upon the designer's preference. Sometimes pasties have tassels. Sometimes they have sequins. Sometimes they have tassels AND sequins. Somewhere out there floating in the universe are pasties with googly-eyes and fishtails. Pasties are, after all, primarily tricks of the showgirl trade.
Pasties do have a place offstage, though. Women of all kinds of 'reputations' wear pasties under backless dresses and even T-shirts (especially sheer ones). Think of them as nipple shades. These tamer versions of pasties usually come in neutral colors like white or beige. Like a Band-Aid, you simply remove the layer of waxy paper on the back to reveal a thin layer of adhesive. Then you place the adhesive over your nipple and gently press the front side of the pastie. An instant later, bye-bye headlights! There's also such thing as pastie glue, though it's less appealing to the Average Jane. It's meant more often for higher-end, decorative pasties.
Anyone can buy pasties -- and they don't need to prove they're 18, either. Bland ones are available at most any place that sells bras, whether a department store or a lingerie boutique. Flashier ones are less readily available, though hardly rare finds. Many artists and designers sell pasties on their Etsy.com sites, for instance.
Etsy is an online compendium of precious boutiques from around the world. Most vendors display goods they handmade themselves. Fashion accessories, especially in the 'alternative' vein, definitely dominate. Pasties, then, run rampant.
As of Sept. 18, 2011, Etsy vendor Hexotica of Melbourne, Australia was toting cheery cupcake pasties in pink satin and lace. These foam "dessert boobies," as she described them, featured pink satin ribbon 'frosting' and a lace/sequin 'cup.' Hexotica advertised that she offers a white version, as well as customizations. A tiny sampling of other Etsy vendors selling pasties include Goth Fox Designs, Estro Jenn's Designs and VOLAC Designs. An Etsy search for the term 'pasties' on Sept. 24, 2011 revealed 1,462 results!
So now you have a little background on what the hoot pasties are. But what about what's down below?
Merkins are pubic wigs that were originally employed by prostitutes and other promiscuous folks to conceal signs of STDs. Whether you had sores, rashes, or bald spots, your lover never had to know -- as long as you got busy in the dark or with the presence of a few petticoats. Merkins have graced genitalia since at least the early 1600s. In the 1700s, merkins were often as ornate as head wigs, with ribbon, cloth flowers and other Rococo-like details.
Don't assume merkins are relics of the past, however. Now certain screen stars use them to escape the good girl's no-no of full-frontal nudity or to give a character's appearance more historical accuracy.
For an example of the latter case, take Kate Winslet in The Reader. Since the story takes place in 1958, Winslet could not have gotten away with showing her more modern grooming. Landing strips and Brazilian waxes, though common in the Generation X/Y world, barely existed in bygone days.
Merkins, with their old-timey kitchsy reputation, can also bring humor to a movie scene. Take, for example, Heidi Klum's huge, red, fluffy merkin in Blow Dry. In Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantamo Bay, several extras wore snow cone-esque merkins in red, white and blue.
Merkins, given the West's current obsession with hair removal, don't have the same razzle-dazzle appeal of pasties. More often they're seen as funny, not sexy. That's why if you search for merkins on Etsy.com, only a couple dozen items appear. None of them are actual merkins, either. They're just novelty items poking fun at merkins. Nonetheless, certain sex shops, especially ones specializing in LGBTQ merchandise, do carry merkins. Some drag queens, for instance, like to wear merkins in order to cover their male genitalia.
Since certain regions still prevent strippers from dancing completely nude, they may wear merkins over flesh-colored panties to indulge customers. If the regional laws disallow toplessness, strippers likely wear pasties, too. As long as customers don't look too closely, they won't notice what UrbanDictionary.com calls "a toupee for the pubic area" and "nipple patches."
Imagine -- merkins and pasties working in harmony both in the distant past and not-so-far future. It's a beautiful but strange planet we inhabit.
Illustration by Rachel Jones.