Back a few years, a new craze swept the country. Well, perhaps “swept” is the wrong word. “Holding the country together” is more like it. I’m talking about that piece of body engineering our mothers wore back in the 1950s, known as the girdle, except girdle is such an ugly word. It’s now referred to as Spanx — that revamped contraption designed to camouflage what already exists.

I was first introduced to this atrocity when I went to buy a pair of pantyhose.

"You don’t want pantyhose," the salesgirl told me. "What you want is Spanx with attached pantyhose that secures the parts of your body that are running amok."

"My body is running amok?"

"Absolutely," she said. "I’ll show you."

With that, she twirled me around. I looked in the three-way mirror. It had been a while since I got a posterior view, and I had to admit that while it held a certain mystique, some of that mystique was definitely askew.

"Isn’t that normal?" I asked. "I mean, isn’t a butt supposed to have a life of its own? It enables us to sit down."

"You’re in denial," she said. "I’m going to bring you a sample so you can see for yourself how Spanx performs miracles."

She returned a few minutes later with a strange and rather ominous-looking gizmo that resembled a straight jacket for the lower half of the anatomy.

"Here," she said, dangling it between two fingers as though it were an animal carcass, "slip into this and you’ll see what I’m talking about."

Let me just say, that while Spanx might be many things, it is not something one "slips into." It is so much more than that. It can, if utilized properly, provide a one-woman personal training session.

It was at that moment that my mind wandered back to a scene I had hoped was permanently obliterated from my mind: my mother’s girdle, and the endless days I watched her pour her body into one. I didn’t even know what that girdle was. Lying in her dresser drawer, it resembled a strange prehistoric beast with garters, bones and hooks. These bones were the equivalent of men’s collar stays designed to make this abysmal experience even more provocatively enhancing. It also produced welts the size of silver dollars, a small price to pay for body maintenance.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized what this really was: a garment that could turn my mother’s body into a svelte and shapely vision of loveliness. That is, if “loveliness” could be defined as round, firm and fully packed, with emphasis on "firm." As I sat on the edge of mom’s bed, watching her perform the girdle maneuver, I was awed. She stepped carefully into it, shimmied around the room until she had finally managed to pull this ghastly eyesore past her knees and onto the hip region. She handled this with great dexterity and lots of heavy breathing. "Are you all right?" I asked, concerned that she was about to pass out.

"I’m fine," she assured, hyperventilating. "It’s almost on."

With one mighty shove, she finessed the girdle up over her hips — stretched, pulled and positioned it into place. Then, she emitted the sigh of a woman who had accomplished one of life’s greatest feats. When it was all over, she lit a cigarette and fell back onto the bed, exhausted.

"Why do you need a girdle?" I asked, afraid she might have inflicted actual bodily harm.

"It makes everything fit better," she said, sliding herself into a form-fitting sheath skirt and admiring herself in the mirror. "Look how it enhances the figure. No lumps or bumps."

But the truth was, my mother’s figure was non-existent. In fact, it was totally flat. It was hidden inside the girdle, so that if you accidentally bumped into her, you could be physically maimed by the hard shell that concealed everything, including her flesh. And I, a mere adolescent, having witnessed this horrific scene, was traumatized for life.

Now, many years later, I stood in a dressing room with Spanx in my hand, recalling with dread those faraway memories of my mother and the girdle fiasco. The salesgirl hovered over me, asking if I needed assistance.

"No," I said, banishing her from the cubicle. "I prefer doing my body shaping alone."

And so, for the next ten minutes, I pulled, gyrated, huffed and puffed, just as my mother had done years ago, except in this case, there was one glitch: the attached pantyhose I first needed to get into before I could even make it to the Spanx, a physical impossibility unless you are a contortionist.

After another ten minutes, the salesgirl returned, asking how I was doing.

"It’s not exactly what I had in mind," I told her. "I was starting to experience shortness of breath, so I quit."

"Spanx doesn’t appeal to everyone," she said. "Perhaps, I can interest you in our miracle, push-up, fiber-filled, guaranteed-to-increase-your-cup-size by leaps and bounds, bra."

"My cups already runneth over," I lied.

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer. She can be reached at joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com.