Dealing with Delicates: Lingerie

“Underwear is such an emotional thing.” –  Elle Macpherson, Australian model, actress, and businesswoman

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Reasons to Invest in Lingerie
  2. The History of Lingerie
  3. Start with Vocabulary
  4. Building Your Own Lingerie Wardrobe
    • What do you have, Lily-Beth?
  5. Bras:
    • Panties:
      • Shapewear: For When You’re Not 16 Years Old Anymore
        • Slips
          • Storage
          • Accessories

          Introduction: Reasons to Invest in Lingerie

          There are several reasons to invest in lingerie, and only one of them has to do with men.

          As a practical matter, certain types of lingerie are necessary to wear certain types of clothes. A gown with a plunging neckline requires a certain bra; many pants require certain types of underwear to avoid pantylines; white dresses often require a nude slip underneath.

          Lingerie is as different and diverse as women’s clothing; likewise, it is as different and diverse as women’s bodies. Although no one seems to tell young girls this, a large percentage of women have breasts that are sized slightly differently. Sometimes they even out at the end of puberty, and sometimes they don’t. In addition, a lot of young girls are left to their own devices about how to size a bra altogether, or are unaware that our bodies shift and change as we age and gain and lose weight; the bra that was right for you at 18 will not be right at 25, just as the bra that was correct at 25 will likely be wrong at 35.

          And of course, in addition to all these practical, biological matters, wearing lingerie makes many women just feel good – whether or not someone will see it is often irrelevant. In fact, only when women have an eye towards a man (husband, boyfriend, or stranger) seeing their lingerie do they tend to buy things that they themselves don’t like, are uncomfortable in, or would never wear longer than they had to.

          And yet, so many women are wasting hundreds and hundreds of dollars and hours of time each year trying to please the opposite sex – being pinched, pulled, crammed into things they would rejoice at burning in a big metal trash can if all the men on the planet suddenly disappeared tomorrow. Buy things you like, that make you feel sexy, all on your lonesome – buy things that remind you, throughout the day, whether you’re filing, leading a meeting, or running to yoga from work, that you are fucking gorgeous all by yourself. Good lingerie, like good shoes, will put a (comfortable!) spring in your step.

          Do not look at lingerie as your salvation, as your way to look like Angelina Jolie, Kate Moss, or Tyra Banks. You are not those women; you are you, and you are the only woman in the world who has a body exactly like you, with your own unique gifts. Lingerie should enhance and make sexy what you already have, not squeeze and mold you into something different altogether. Like Sinbad’s old stand-up routine in which he talks about women who wear hugely padded bras – they may be sexy with clothes on, but when they come off, the first thought is a near-hysterial “YOU LIED TO ME! YOU LIIIED!”

          One of my best girlfriends, Teresa, tells an equally funny and traumatic story about buying lingerie for the first time, for one of her early boyfriends in college.

          She went to Victoria’s Secret, and bought a corset that laced up the back. Teresa was an athlete, and had spent most of her years since puberty in sports bras – she’d never even owned a bra with lace, let alone a full corset-and-stockings getup. It was red and black, and as she tells the story, she always says she felt like Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge – a little sexy, but mostly ridiculous. She had one of us girls come over and get into it the afternoon of her anniversary, where she sat in it, watching television, until her boyfriend came over; afraid to eat, afraid to pee, for fear of not being able to get the damn thing straightened back up again.

          And of course, her boyfriend was more than pleased – he was also, when it came down to The Moment, puzzled. He had no real idea what to do with it all, let alone how to get it off. And of course, neither did Teresa. So, in an effort to avoid a fumbling moment, she slipped into the bathroom, where there was a mirror, and the privacy she needed to contort herself into various positions to get it off.

          She emerged, victorious, almost a half-hour later, only to find her boyfriend had fallen asleep watching SportsCenter.

          Let this be a lesson to you: buy lingerie you like, that you are comfortable in, because you will be the one dealing with it.

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          The History of Lingerie

          If there is one, easy way to gauge where a society was morally and culturally at a certain period in time, it’s to examine women’s undergarments from that period.

          Ad published in the New York Tribune, April 21, 1918

          The earliest representation we have of women’s undergarments are from Northern Africa: Ancient Egypt, to be specific. The use of garments meant to be worn between the naked body and your outer layer of clothes can be tracked through the Greek and Roman periods, right up to today’s Victoria’s Secret fashion shows. The women of Crete wore bodices made of bone that pushed their breasts straight out like a shelf, emphasizing their ability to give and sustain life; Medieval Europe flattened women’s breasts altogether, causing them to all but disappear from the female form.

          The 16th Century saw the advent of corsets, with women literally altering the physical shape of their body by keeping their corsets constantly and tightly laced, resulting in the hour-glass shape. This method occupied a four-century run through Europe, lasting through the 19th Century.

          Then, in the 1920s: enter the girdle. (Such an ugly word for such an advance in lingerie technology!) Instead of being structured with bone and literally strapped onto a woman’s body, the girdle was a one-piece that either zipped or worked off a hook-and-eye closure, with the intention of smoothing the lines on a woman’s body while still allowing for some movement and flexibility.

          Adjusting a corset, 1924

          Does this mean that scrubbing floors or running to catch a train suddenly became an easy task? Certainly not; but at least, for the most part, women could breathe again.The first several inventions of the “brassier” did nothing for actual breast support; they were largely concerned with form instead. Then, enter Olivia Flynn, who got it – women needed support as much as they needed movement. Although she introduced her line in the late 19th century, many women still refused to go corset-less; in the decades to follow (covering two world wars), new materials were scarce, and certainly not to be used for something as frivolous as women’s lingerie.

          Illustration from 1933 Spirella Catalogue

          My own grandmother tells her own story of stockings in 1941: she and her best girlfriend, on their way to Catholic school, had decided to assist the war effort by getting rid of their nylon stockings, even though their school expressly forbid them from having bare legs. (The other alternative, even in the sweltering Chicago summer, was wool.) On the bus each morning, my grandmother and her friend would powder their legs, making it look, at quick glance, like they were wearing nylons – they even drew the “seam” up the back of their legs with an eyebrow pencil. This worked brilliantly, of course, until one morning Sister Mary Catherine got on the same bus, and witnessed them with their skirts hiked halfway to heaven, trying to straighten a smudged “seam.”

          1941 patent diagram for alterations to Israel Pilot's "Wonderbra"

          So then, the Wonderbra appears on the scene. Women began to see the appeal of wearing bras and panties separately; breast shapes begin to lean towards the conical. The 1960s bring us slightly more sexy designs; the 1980s usher in the sports bra. And yet, still, in the futuristic-sounding year of 2010, finding a bra that simply fits can be an overwhelming proposition.

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          Start with Vocabulary

          Simply Googling “lingerie” brings up pages of stores trying to sell you things before you ever hit on a page of vocabulary. Yet, vocabulary is where you simply must start – otherwise, how will you know what you want or need?

          Wikipedia does a pretty good listing of terms (click on each for a more detailed explanation) here. And yet, Wikipedia doesn’t exactly tell you which of these you can ignore because they are ridiculous (crotch-less full-length cat suit bodystocking, anyone?) and which ones you should pay attention to, because they are useful.

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          Building Your Own Lingerie Wardrobe

          Say you’re starting at the bottom, building your lingerie wardrobe from the ground up. Here’s a good example of what’s in my drawers:

          • 1 black lace chemise by Lindsey Roscoe for Farr West; doubles as a nightgown and dress slip, ($82 from Nordstrom’s). (Farr West is not kidding when they say “Luxury Lingerie for Life” – they are the practicality of your mother’s slips with better shape and style)
          • 1 ivory nightgown and robe set from Jones New York ($138, Macy’s).
          • 1 ivory long Ralph Lauren bathrobe (aprox $110, Neiman Marcus).
          • A half-dozen jewel-colored lace camisoles collected from Ann Taylor Loft and J. Crew, with the intent of wearing under thin sweaters or with pajamas. (Never underestimate the sex appeal of a woman in only a sapphire or plum-colored lace camisole and matching lace-waisted thong panties).
          • 2 sets of color flannel-and-silk pajamas from Lord & Taylor
          • 1 SPANX® smoothing full slip in nude ($72, Nordstrom’s). I can’t say enough good things about the SPANX® line – view the full line at Nordstrom’s here.
          • 1 half-dozen of Gap Body’s Girlshorts underwear ($6.50-$14.99)
          • 1 half-dozen of Victoria Secret’s Boyshorts underwear in fun prints (5 for $25)
          • 1 Gap Body t-shirt bra in nude, 1 Gap “Favorite Ultimate Uplift” bra in black
          • 1 dozen Victoria’s Secret lace-waisted cotton thongs, with adequate nude and black (5 for $25)

          Now, this is a small but fully functional lingerie wardrobe for a professional woman – namely, me. But what about you?

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          Bras: Measuring

          Yes, you need to measure your bra size. No, you can not eye-ball it, because most women have no idea what a well-fit bra is supposed to look like. 80% of women wear the incorrect bra size; you can not be trusted.

          Most lingerie stores have sweet salesladies who will do this for you, but some of us are just a tad persnickey about who touches our dainty lady bits, and so here are some common ways to measure at home.

          Measure your Band Size (Your Underbust)

          Band sizes come in numbers, while cup sizes come in letters. Start by putting on the bra that feels most comfortable to you, and then run a tape measure around your torso, just underneath your breasts. Make sure your arms are down, the tape measure is horizontal (parallel to the floor), and you’ve exhaled and are not puffing up your chest.

          What’s the number? If it’s an odd number, go up to the next even number. (For example, if it’s 33 inches, go up to a 34 to get your band size.) If it’s already an even number (say you land squarely on 36 inches), this could very well be your band size, but you may also have to go up two inches (38) to get the most comfortable fit.

          Get the Cup Size Right (Your Overbust)

          This is where the majority of women make their biggest mistake: cup sizes are measured relative to the band, and so when women decide to go down or up in the band size, they try to keep the same cup size. This results in cups that are too small or too large.

          Your cup size can be measured by running a tape measure around the fullest part of your bust while naked or while wearing a thin, non-padded bra. This time, you’ll be measuring more across your nipples instead of under your breasts.

          If this number is the same as your band size (ex: 34 inches under your breasts and 34 inches across the nipples), then you’re sitting firmly in an A cup. If the measurement across your nipples is up to an inch larger (ex: 34 inches under your breasts but 35 inches across the nipples), you’re likely sitting in a B cup. Two inches larger, a C. And so on.

          Use the chart below to help you navigate easily:

          Difference Cup size
          Same size A
          Up to one inch B
          Up to two inches C
          Up to three inches D
          Up to four inches DD
          Up to five inches E
          Up to six inches F
          Up to seven inches FF
          Up to eight inches G

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          Bras: Quantity

          I’ve seen some articles that will recommend that women have as many as sixteen to twenty bras in their wardrobe – really, this is not necessary. You’re probably going to want, at minimum, a beige and a black bra for varying colors of wardrobe.

          Aside from that, you may also want some more specialized bras – strapless, backless, low-cut, or push-up, depending on what clothes you wear often. If you have a few dresses with a low or plunging neckline, consider a demi-cup or even a u-plunge bra. Have backless formal dress? Try a u-plunge backless bra. Love boat-neck sweaters? Tell the saleslady you want wide-step straps. Trust me – if clothing manufacturers make it, a bra exists for it.

          But look, at the end of the day, you just want enough bras to wear 2-3 times a week. You can wear the same bra again without washing (assuming there’s not a lot of perspiration happening), but you should alternate every day or every two days, as bras elastic and fabric stretches – you want to give them a chance to regain their shape.

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          Caring for Bras:

          Look, bras are not shampoo. You can not wash, rinse, and repeat. Throwing your bras in the washer and dryer once a week is hard on them – it makes the fabric shrink, distorts the clasps, and warps the underwire and padding. With the exception of your sports bras, don’t do it.

          In a perfect world, you’d hand wash them daily. (The only, single time I’ve ever managed to do this is on a summer back-packing trip through Europe; panties and bras got washed again and again in hotel sinks, train station bathrooms, and once outside with a garden hose.)

          1. Handwash them if you have some time on your hands; if not, wash them on the delicate cycle in the washing machine, with cool or cold water. This helps the elastic snap back into place.
            • What constitutes a “delicate” or “gentle” cycle? This is the cycle with only 3-5 minutes of washing time, low spin intensity, and the most gentle agitation.
          2. Leave the back clasps hooked – I once had a room mate who just tossed her bras in our up-right washing machine right off her body, and within fifteen minutes there was an unnatural whipping, clanging racket coming from the machine. And then, of course, she was always shocked that her underwire had twisted within the fabric or her straps were irreparably contorted. Leaving the clasps hooked keeps the shape.
          3. If you need to wash them with other items (underwear, pajamas, and t-shirts are a good choice; heavier items, like jeans, are a no-no), put them in a lingerie bag to separate them. Beware that racy red lace bra – things in colors like that may bleed; you’ll want to wash it with similar (not white!) colors.
          4. Don’t ever put them in the dryer – just don’t do it. Seriously. Pull them from the washing machine, make sure the back is still clasped, give the cups a once-over for any straightening or remolding necessary, and then hang or lay flat to dry.
          5. Once they’re dry, fold them and store them, flat, in a drawer. All through college, I tossed my bras together in a single, chunky drawer, and I paid the price. Clasps were always snagging on lace, elastic straps became entangled, and I could never find what I wanted when I needed it. Now I store them in one of the wide, flat drawers of my dresser.

          But what if you’re actually planning on going bra-less, you’re just concerned about – well – the nipple problem? I can’t say enough good things about HerLook – they make the perfect solutions to those little in-between issues. For nipples, try their LowBeams ($10 for 5 pairs) – adhesives that are cut to form against your breast. You’ll never frantically try to arrange band-aids again. Speaking of HerLook, I have fixed more than one fallen hem and slippery strap with HerLook’s Matchsticks ($10 for a book); the adhesive is strong enough to stay on through a night of sweaty dancing, has never damaged my clothing, and the book is small enough to throw in my purse. Plus, they come in perforated pages, so it’s easy to rip one off and hand to a friend in need.

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          Panties: Fitting

          Victoria’s Secret has a pretty great guide at explaining the different types of panties, and what they cover. Personally, I’m an old maid – I’ve been married for years now, and I am past the point of showing off my thong above my jeans, or having v-strap underwear that cuts into my ever-growing thighs. When in doubt, take a handful of underwear back to the dressing room and try it on over your existing panties. Remember, different styles and brands are going to fit differently, no matter what the store’s “size chart” says.

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          Panties: Quantity

          I feel differently about bras than I do about panties. You can almost never have too many panties; they’re significantly less expensive to buy than bras, and you never know when a pair or two will go missing – either flipped behind the dryer on accident, left at a boyfriend’s apartment, etc.

          Start with the “everyday.” How dedicated are you to your laundry? If you do it once a week, have at least seven pairs of “everyday”panties on hand. If you really don’t get to laundry more than twice a month, have fourteen pairs of “everyday” panties on hand.

          What does “everyday” mean? Comfortable and non-binding. Briefs, boyshorts, or bikinis are all acceptable; we’ll visit the thongs in a minute.

          I love black panties, because I can pair them with my regular black bra and be both matching and slim; they also make great panties to wear on one’s period, because they don’t show stains.

          Now that the every-day  panties are out of the way, let’s talk about the more specialized types.

          Assuming you care about panty-lines, every woman should have an amount of thong or g-string underwear directly related to the needs of her wardrobe. I have a lot, because I wear a great deal of dresses and trousers to work. Personally, I prefer the lace-waisted thongs to the g-strings; I’m not as toned as I used to be, and they don’t cut into the softer area of my hips as g-strings may.

          I have no less than six dark pair (black, sapphire blue, mauve, royal purple, etc) for darker winter dresses, and no less than six light pair for lighter summer clothes (nude, beige, pale yellow, lavender, etc). At the very least, every woman should have one nude or beige thong for white pants or a white dress – there is absolutely no substitute.

          Just remember to evaluate your wardrobe: a college student who wears predominantly t-shirts and jeans is going to need something entirely different from a professional woman who wears mostly dresses or a stay-at-home mom who wears slacks and sweaters.

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          Caring for Panties

          Read the instructions before you buy them. There is nothing worse than getting home with a fabulous new pair of panties and realizing that, yes, they really are dry clean only.

          I stick mainly to plain cotton panties for this reason: they can be easily washed at home, and they let my skin breathe, which decreases the chance of urinary tract infections. Still, wash them in cold water, no matter what the fabric.

          If you have complicated panties – panties with lots of ruffles, lace, or mesh – that easily collect lint when you wash them with other items, try adding a cup of white, distilled vinegar (alongside your normal mild detergent). Put them in a mesh lingerie bag before throwing them in the washer. These two things should keep them lint free.

          And, yes, the experts say you can’t put delicate panties in a dryer either. Look, your Hanes from Wal-Mart? Put them in the dryer. Yes, it’s going to make the elastic crap out over time, but honestly – your time is valuable. Have some delicate, designer panties? Gently squeeze the excess water out with your hands (do not wring!), and then hang them or lay them flat on a towel to dry.

          Removing blood-stains from panties:

          If you’re genuinely concerned about blood stains from menstruation, then whip those panties off as soon as you’re able and toss them into cold water. Wet the stain thoroughly first, then add a mild dishwashing detergent directly to the edges of the stain. (The edges begin to dry and set first.) I rub my stained edges together – there are varying degrees of talk about this, from “yes, rub the damn edges together!” to “never! it damages the delicate fabric!”

          To that, I say, “Hey, how about not wearing your $300 french panties when you’re on the rag?”

          If the stain looks like it’s going to be troublesome, soak them in cold water and dish detergent overnight and rinse again in the morning. And remember: once those puppies go in the dryer, whatever is left of that stain is going to burn into the fabric, so get them as clean as you can before that.

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          Shapewear: For When You’re Not 16 Years Old Anymore

          Most of us never appreciate how beautiful we are from the age of 16 to 18. Sure, you were concentrating on the face that your face was oily, or you were ten pounds heavier than the magazines said you should be – but most of us look at those photographs of our youth (sixteen, leaning against the refrigerator, or eighteen, laughing outside our first car, or twenty, with our face resting on our hand at the local coffee shop) and go “Who in the hell was that girl?” followed by the realization that we will never look that thin, that young, or that good without makeup ever again.

          And this is where shapewear comes in.

          Shapewear is not the same as your grandmother’s slips – we’ll get to that in a minute. Shapewear is serious; it means business; it does not fuck around, even a little bit. You may have worn some shapewear to your prom or your wedding; as you get older, it becomes an indispensable part of your wardrobe.

          Now, maybe some of you who are reading this have a perfectly flat stomach or curvaceous, smooth thighs. Maybe you are just as happy prancing around the gym locker room naked as you are your living room.

          This section is not for you – go get a cup of coffee. Those of us with love-handles need to talk.

          I’ve never worn anything but SPANX – I’m sure there are other great products out there that work, but I found what I liked right off the bat and stuck with it. It’s a little pricey, but the selection is wide and the quality is high.

          If you get those awkward, unnatural-looking bulges around your butt, hips, and tummy area, I love the Hide & Sleek full slip. This is great for those somewhat clingy, thin, or form-fitting dresses. Its sister, the Strapless full slip, works wonders too. They also have a slenderizing little half-slip that I love.

          Or, maybe you’re not looking for a slip at all – maybe you’re looking for something more panty-hose like, or something shorter. In that case, the power panties or the Hide & Sleek girl short. Looking to slim down your torso? They make great slimming camis and tanks.

          Maybe, though, you don’t have the problem of holding-stuff-in; maybe you just want some slightly smoother lines, and a little looser wear. In that case, HerLook is totally for you. Their tights never cut off your circulation; their “commando” fabric is expensive but usually worth it to own at least one or two pieces. They make thongs, v-neck lace camis, and more.

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          Why do you need a slip? Several reasons:

          • It keeps wool dresses and other harsher fabrics from being itchy
          • It makes your dress fabric largely opaque, so that people can not see through it
          • It keeps your dress hanging smoothly without snagging on a bra or underwear
          • It helps protect your clothes from sweat
          • It adds warmth

          A full slip is like a dress, hanging from your shoulders by thin straps, down to the fashionable length of today’s skirts. A half-slip fits more like a skirt, sitting at your waist and falling down to your thighs or knees.

          Generally, when you say a “slip,” it doesn’t give you shape the way shapewear does, although some shapewear garments are designed like slips with more staying power.

          Slips can be plain or sexy; some you can wear a bra with, while others are their own bra.

          I love  Farr West’s slips; I own their full lace trim slip in black and use it at least 2-3 times a week. Hanky Panky’s Silky Skin collection also has some wonderful slips. Elle Macpherson also has a gorgeous intimates line. Phoebe Carlyle of London makes some achingly beautiful (and pricing) half and full slips.

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          My lingerie chest is part of a three-piece 1930s vintage bedroom set that was given to me as an engagement present by my husband. It has two deep and wide drawers that I keep folded pajamas in, two narrow and deep drawers that I throw rolled panties into, and two wide and shallow draws that I store my bras, camis, and shapewear in. Robes, nightgowns, and slips are hanging in the closet.

          Most searches for “lingerie storage” will bring up lingerie chests, which are tall, narrow chests with shallow drawers. This is because the majority of lingerie you have – panties, bras, etc – are meant to be folded or lie flat. More delicate things (complicated nighties, that extra-fancy chemise) are meant to hang, preferably on padded hangers.

          Container Store has some delightful little silk drawer organizers ranging from $15-$20. These are nice because you can pop them out of your drawers for easy cleaning, re-arranging, etc.

          When you travel, take your lingerie along in a lingerie bag. I like carrying a lingerie bag because it keeps my lingerie separate from the rest of my clothing, otherwise I end up stuffing it in any nook or crevice I can find in my suitcase and then wailing that I can not find my one nude thong.

          Phoebe Carlyle of London makes some adorable ones, and I love Lapin Vilardi’s Tuileries Luxe Silk Lingerie Bag because it’s beautiful and also, has pockets. If you can run a sewing machine, you can also make a simple drawstring bag a la Carrie Sommer’s precious designs.

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          I believe I’ve mentioned them twice already, but HerLook has everything from double-sided fashion tape to nipple covers to take-out breast enhancers. These are my stocking-stuffers of choice for female friends.

          As far as laundry goes, I love The Laundress’ Delicate Wash, which is non-toxic, biodegradable, and allergen-free ($19 for 16 oz, or $20 for 8 individual packets to toss in your purse or suitcase); it can be used for machine or handwashing. I also love Caldrea’s Laundry Detergent in Basil Blue Sage ($16 for 64 oz).

          If you’re particularly feminine, as I am, or hell, just like things to smell nice, scented drawer liners are a quick and easy way to feel lovely every time you open your underwear drawer. Female-run Soap & Paper Factory appears to make some wonderful ones on recycled paper, although they seem woefully out of stock at this moment. And of course, there’s always Crabtree & Evelyn, and Gina Rose Atelier.

          If you like sachets and can sew, Martha Stewart has a nice, tidy little article on making heart-shaped ones filled with lavender. Don’t sew? Grab a pack of those little organza bags sold at craft stores and fill with your favorite potpourri.

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          One Response to “Dealing with Delicates: Lingerie”
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          1. […] exactly your wedding registry, but worth talking about. I’ve already written extensively on lingerie in general, but I don’t honestly see why a bride-to-be can’t have a separate registry for […]

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