"Open it," Theresa said as she handed me my Christmas gift, "but don't freak out when you see the box."
This could have meant a lot of things. My friend Theresa loves to surprise people with unique and sometimes expensive gifts. There was no telling what she had done to make my Christmas present a special one.
I peeled the wrapping paper off the square box to reveal the unmistakable pink packaging that comes from only one store — a place where I never shop — Victoria's Secret.
This was a critical moment. I didn't want to hurt my girlfriend's feelings when she clearly was excited to present a gift she had chosen just for me.
Secretly I prayed she was only recycling the box.
"Oh my goodness," I said faintly. "What could this be?"
I hesitated before opening the top, looking left and right to see who was sitting near us in the restaurant where we had met for our annual gift exchange. Underneath the pink tissue paper was a black satin kimono and a generous gift card. "Feel free to take this back and get whatever you want."
"Wow," I said. "This is quite the gift."
Sensing my unease, Theresa unleashed a friendly lecture she obviously had rehearsed in advance.
"I know you — you're too practical," she said. "You would never go to Victoria's Secret to buy something frilly or feminine. But you're going away soon on a vacation with your husband, and I think you should have a little something in your suitcase that makes you feel beautiful. So just get over the embarrassment and get yourself to the mall."
Girlfriends don't mince words.
I thanked Theresa and promised to enjoy the process of indulging myself. Then I went home and hid the box in my closet.
A week later, I put the Victoria's Secret gift box on the kitchen counter next to my purse as I organized myself for an afternoon of errands. "Victoria's Secret?" my daughter asked, shooting me a raised-eyebrow look.
I explained the gift to Katie, who recoiled at the thought of her mother shopping for lingerie. "I think you should get pajamas," she said. "And they'd better be flannel, missy."
Victoria's Secret doesn't sell flannel. In fact, as anyone knows who has ever walked past the chain store's display windows, it doesn't sell much that could be labeled "pajamas." Nevertheless, I was armed with an item to exchange and a gift card from my friend, along with her niggling to buy something sophisticated and special.
I trudged through the snow in the mall parking lot, clutching the pink box and steeling myself against the inevitable embarrassment I was about to experience. "Where is Theresa when I need her?" I thought. This was an errand I probably shouldn't have tackled on my own.
There are three things you notice when you step inside a Victoria's Secret store: First, the apparel is not intended for adult women. It's meant for girls who still love the color of cotton candy. Second, other than the billboard-sized posters of voluptuous models, there are no women in the store older than 20; and third, no one shops alone. They shop with their boyfriends.
I wandered around display tables, absorbing the techno beat of the music while avoiding eye contact with the dozens of teen boys holding purses and shopping bags and offering advice and opinions to their partners. How did all these teenagers get so comfortable buying bras and nighties?
Call me conservative — heck, call me repressed — but the atmosphere in Victoria's Secret was surreal.
It's one thing to read news stories about the hypersexualization of today's young people. It's another thing to watch a generation of tweens and teens stand in long lines to buy flimsy leopard-print fabrics emblazoned with the word "Pink."
Then again, there are no secrets for Victoria and her customers. Just the message — loud and clear — that being "hot, young and sexy" is all that really matters.
Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of "The Perfect World Inside My Minivan — One Mom's Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia," a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www. marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. firstname.lastname@example.org.