Shira Wheeler, founder of the lingerie brand Oddo, believes that getting to the heart of female health and sexuality starts in the underwear drawer. “Your underwear is the most important garment you can put on your body in terms of your overall health,” she says. “There’s an active biological environment right there, on our bodies, that needs care and respect. The vagina is a self-cleaning, anatomical powerhouse that has to function properly in order to stay healthy." "That leopard-print thong you bought at the mall needs to go!” she insists, laughing. Wheeler, 32, a successful designer and brand strategist who’s worked at some of NYC’s biggest advertising firms (and who is also the kind of doe-eyed, lion-hearted woman who greets you at her home with tea and strawberries and a cat for your lap), is passionate about getting back to basics when it comes to women’s health and sexuality. That’s why she founded Oddo, a brand of 100% cotton underwear that launched earlier this year on Kickstarter; the project is still seeking backers through Sunday, April 17. The panties she designed are manufactured in New York City, come in two styles and a range of neutral colours, cost $35 each, and feel soft as silk, courtesy of high-quality, breathable Japanese cotton. But this is about more than just manufacturing your favorite new undies, says Wheeler. The primary goal of her company, she insists, is to “take a secretive and sometimes awkward conversation about our bodies and sex and re-frame it to reflect a proud, natural, and connected acceptance of sexuality and health.” This is what makes Oddo no ordinary lingerie brand. For starters, its board of directors includes a sex therapist, a midwife, and a gynecologist. And each order comes with a glossy, bedside-table-friendly illustrated manual filled with tips, information, and inspiration about sex and sexual health. The first topic? Female pleasure (with a partner in mind). Never has such an intimate garment been designed so intimately. “You can’t talk about that area without talking about sexuality. It’s traditionally been taboo and uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t be,” says Wheeler. In order to truly explain why she feels the way she does about underwear, Wheeler says, it makes sense to talk publicly, for the first time, about what happened to her as a teen.
Her story goes like this: New Jersey, New Year’s Eve, 1999. Four teenagers. Two boys, two girls, cruising through the suburbs. Snow-stripped saplings flying by in rows on the flanks of the highway. Bottles of smuggled booze glugged merrily in the backseat. One of the girls is 15-year-old Shira Wheeler. At a house, the girls pair off with the guys, then briefly retreat to the bathroom. Shira asks her more-experienced friend if she should lose her virginity to the boy she’s with. “Well,” says the friend. “You’re drunk, so it’ll hurt less.” Shira has sex with the boy. And then she passes out. Hours later, half conscious, she is suddenly aware that someone is on top of her. But, she realizes, through a fog, it’s not the guy from before. It’s the one who was with her friend. Beneath him, she finds it hard to speak. It feels like everything is happening outside of her body. She vaguely remembers saying “condom” over and over. The next Monday, says Wheeler, “My entire high school knew by first period.” The boys had told everyone — except, in their version, what had happened was a wild orgy. “It’s hard to describe how ashamed I felt.” Some of her friends stopped talking to her, she recalls. One girl pulled her aside, looked her straight in the eyes, and asked, “Is it true?” Wheeler didn’t have the words to explain, so she simply said yes. Later, she told a friend what had actually happened. “Shira, that’s not right,” he had insisted. “That’s rape.” “It was the first time I had heard that word,” she says now. For Wheeler, 16 years later, coming to terms with her ordeal has meant looking at the bigger picture. Now she’s channelling her energy into creating a business that starts a conversation about women’s health and sexuality. “I know what happened to me was completely wrong. But I also don’t see the situation as black-and-white,” Wheeler says. “I see the whole context — the world we live in. Back then, we had never even heard the word ‘consent’. And what little we learned [about sexuality] in health class didn’t talk about women. I think about those lessons that taught me about wet dreams and male ejaculation. And the magazines I read about ‘how to give the perfect blow job.’ But I had no information on how to discover my own pleasure! All of this, combined with what I experienced, has led to me feeling so strongly that we have to change the way we behave as a culture, so that this type of thing doesn’t happen anymore.”
In the initial stages of founding Oddo, Wheeler says, she frequently flashed back to the mindset of her 15-year-old self. “I definitely thought a bunch about the horny little teen me!” she says. “I was smart, relatively well-liked, came from a loving, supportive, progressive family. I wasn’t at all ‘prudish.’ But still, sex was this great unknown — this mysterious milestone in life that held so much weight and power. There were, and still are, all of these mixed messages: that it’s dangerous and forbidden, but at the same time everything in the media was and still is hyper-sexualized.” Wheeler says these memories are what inspired Oddo’s approach. “I want to provide women with access to a ton of resources that don’t judge them — that promote open conversation without pushing anyone one way or the other,” she says. That said, if there’s one thing she does want to push, it’s changing the perception that sexy and comfortable are qualities that can’t exist in the same garment. One doesn’t negate the other, she insists. Health can and should be part of that equation as well. And when women see their choice of underwear as explicitly linked to their health and, in turn, their sexuality, choosing and buying it becomes so much more than a chore, Wheeler says. Plus, she believes in the simple but profound difference that a comfortable pair of panties can make in a woman’s life. “One of the things I like most about our underwear is that it pretty much feels like you’ve got nothing on,” she says. “And I think that’s kind of the point.” “I’m comfortable and healthy, and I feel beautiful. I’m not just Shira the wife. Or the career woman. And certainly not the 15-year-old girl cowering in shame at school. [These panties] make me feel like a healthy, sexual woman.” She pauses for a moment. “That’s it: They make me feel like a woman."