WELCOME TO BRA WEEK! This week and next, the Autostraddle writers and some special guests will be giving you the scoop on over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders and otherwise-inclined chest-covering situations — fashion, history, feelings and so much more.
Here’s a random fact: Did you know there is actually no common medical reason to wear a bra?
That’s right. None. Contrary to popular belief, bras don’t improve breast health, prevent breast sagging, or anything else. Quite simply, there is no agreed upon health benefit to wearing bras that applies to every single woman.
I know it probably seems a bit strange for me to be saying this. After all, I am a lingerie blogger so I should be Team Bra 24/7, right? But I’ve been thinking about the whole bra/no-bra thing for awhile, and some of the language we have around bras (and the women who don’t wear bras) really bothers me.
As much as I love bras (and, as you’ve probably guessed, I really love them), even I don’t wear one everyday. I wore a bra more often when my nipples were pierced, but since I’ve taken the piercings out, I’ve gone back to wearing a bra — a lot of (but not all of) the time. Which is fine because no one should feel obligated to wear a bra, in the same way no one should feel obligated to wear a corset or obligated wear a girdle or obligated to wear any underwear at all for that matter.
While I understand that some people may prefer their breast shape with a bra or are more comfortable wearing a bra (for a variety of reasons — heavy breasts, nipple sensitivity, back pain, etc.), that’s a completely different thing from the notion of compulsory bra wearing — saying every woman has to or should wear a bra. Unfortunately, that latter sentiment (you must wear a bra at all times!) is the general consensus from the society at large, including many facets of the lingerie community. And this article focuses on that social conversation regarding bra wearing.
What’s most interesting to me in about this whole bra/braless conversation is the ideas other people have why a woman might choose to go braless. Bralessness still has a ton of social stigma attached to it. People rarely attribute bralessness to comfort or personal preference; instead, it’s seen as a plea for sexual attention, a political statement, or even a lack of self-care. Why can’t bralessness ever just be an innocent, innocuous choice? Why are women made to feel that they always have to wear a bra (and, if we’re in the United Staes, a molded bra which hides your nipples)? It’s a thought-provoking question, and, as some of the illustrations hint at below, the idea that women’s bodies just aren’t good enough on their own is really old-fashioned.
What do I mean? Well, we already know that for several centuries, women wore stays or corsets almost everyday. A woman’s underpinnings were seen as connected to and a reflection of a her morality. I’ve often wondered if the phrase “loose woman” (as in, an “unchaste” or “immoral” woman) has its etymology in corset wearing. After all, the term has been around since the 15th century. Wealthy women could afford the greater restriction of mobility that came with more tightly bound stays. That contrasts to lower class and less affluent women who needed their stays looser to perform hard physical labor.
Not surprisingly, upper class women were also seen as “more” moral and worthy of protection than their poorer counterparts. For centuries, only a woman’s most intimate acquaintances ever saw her without her corset. If one went without a corset (or if the corset was visible), this was a sign of “ill-breeding,” and that woman might be assumed to be an actress, prostitute, or some other lady of ill-repute. In that way, wearing a corset, albeit within the strict rules of society, became a way to advertise that you were a morally upstanding female member of the community and so eligible for the privileges thereof, including admission to “good” society, a beneficial marriage, and the relative perks of politeness, etiquette, and being “treated like a lady.”
Now let’s fast forward 50 years or so later. By now the bra has been invented (in 1890, 1910, or the 16th century depending on who you read) and so has the girdle. Originally seen as a more comfortable and flexible substitute for the corset, the girdle also replaced the corset’s function as a moral boundary as well. Despite the comparative freedom a girdle offered, a “proper” woman still didn’t let her flesh jiggle or shake unencumbered. Everything had to be tightly restrained within the elastic, mesh, and straps of a foundation garment. Women who “broke the rules” were subject to unsympathetic criticism about both the shape of their bodies and the looseness of their morals. Sounds familiar.
So how is all that relevant today?
Well, despite our current beauty ideal for a soft, rounded, featureless cup shape (hello there, molded t-shirt bras), it’s important to remember that it’s just today’s beauty ideal. There’s no health study and certainly no moral judgment that should give it added weight. If you don’t care for that particular look or you don’t just flat out don’t like bras, that’s fine. It shouldn’t be a character judgment and it’s certainly not a “bad” reflection on who you are. It’s just a personal preference. In the same vein, for every woman, wearing a bra is a personal choice. It is her own decision for her own reasons, and no one else should get to judge.
Often, when I write articles like this, people just read the title and just right ahead to the assumption that I hate bras. But I don’t. However, it’s worth mentioning one more time — if you like wearing a bra, that’s cool. And if you don’t like wearing a bra, that’s still cool. Neither option is any more offensive or troublesome or immoral than wearing or not wearing a sweater.
I starting thinking about this today because I realized a lot of the conversations I hear about bras are less about how they make the wearer feel and more about how they make the wearer look, particularly to others. Words like, “flattering,” “correct,” and “proper,” are often thrown around without any consideration or commentary on the implied meaning behind those words. And let’s be clear, whether you’re wearing a bra for fashion or for support, if it helps you feel like the most comfortable, confident, and courageous women you can be, that’s a great thing. Keep on wearing your bras. But the point is, personal preferences matter.
One should never insist that bras are a requirement for every woman. Even if a woman is fuller-busted or happens to share your bra size, that doesn’t mean bras are a necessity for her. And, of course, it’s always a problem when the conversation on bras and bra wearing turns into thinly-disguised body snark. All bodies are fine, regardless of if those bodies wear bras and conform to our notions of beauty or not. The culture of picking apart and shaming women for not wearing a bra needs to stop.
I’m also really not okay with framing bras as the cure for sagging breasts (breasts sag eventually; it’s what they do), as a form of instant liposuction (“You’ll look like you’ve lost 10 pounds!”; why should looking thinner be every woman’s goal?), as a way of putting down non-Western women and non-Western beauty standards (everyone who has ever used an old issue of National Geographic to make a point about bras), or as a way of deciding who “deserves” public abuse and humiliation (posting photos of women for the sole purpose of trash-talking them, something I’ve seen even in so-called woman-friendly or body positive communities).
Honestly, it’s all part of the same silly ball of wax women have been dealing with for hundreds of years, “Good women do this. Bad women do that — and the bad women deserve to be punished.”
No doubt, some of you reading this may be thinking, “Well that’s easy for you to say, you’re small-chested! None of this applies to women with larger breasts.” But that misses the point.
One, there are fuller-busted women who prefer going braless. They’re just not as visible or as vocal because we live in a very bra-centric culture and because bralessness has an attached social stigma. Two, the rules for bra-wearing apply to all women with breasts, regardless of which end of the size spectrum they fall on. Even if a smaller-busted woman doesn’t “need” a bra for comfort’s sake or what have you, she’s often encouraged to wear one anyway (often a push-up bra) because her breasts are still seen as inferior and sub-standard. The fact that women with larger busts deal with a different kind of social stigma as a result of going braless is very relevant to this conversation, but the topic applies to all women with breasts, including those who are shamed for having large nipples, assymetric breasts, or ptotic (sagging) breasts. The point is, no matter what kind of breasts you have, it’s always an issue to go without a bra.
However, just to emphasize, if you prefer wearing a bra, for whatever reason, that’s great.
As you’ve probably noticed, this article isn’t about vilifying bras or starting a no-bra revolution (if it were, I wouldn’t bought that fab Made By Niki pictured above). I still love bras, and I still want to talk about bras. And while the nerd in me is very curious about the flammability of bras, it should be obvious this article isn’t about “bra-burning” either. Instead, I want to emphasize that going without a bra is not the end of the world and it’s nice to be reminded of that.
The reasons we wear bras are just as much tied to cultural factors as they are to physical ones. It’s just that people often find a conversation on the social issues behind why we do what we do a lot harder than giving a flat medical reason for why we do what we do. Furthermore, this is just a friendly reminder that if you see someone going braless and don’t care for it? Well, is ignoring it really so hard to do? Their breasts literally have nothing to do with you.
One of the other reasons I wanted to have this wear a bra/go braless conversation is because we don’t see very many “normal” breasts anymore. And by normal, I mean how breasts look without a bra. I get emails from readers all the time who think their breasts are the wrong shape or the wrong size or the wrong symmetry when their bosom is really, truly, perfectly average. The only problem here is that we’ve gotten so used to seeing women in bras all the time, that many of us have lost touch of what breasts look like without underwires and contour cups and support slings and all that good stuff.
To sum it all up, our particular notion of what a woman’s bust should look like is just that — our particular notion. In the 1910s it was one way, in the 1920s another, and the in 1950s still another. Our idea of what a woman’s breasts should look like is not a static, unchanging, “objective” thing. And the fact that “bra fit” is often mentioned in the same sentence with “health” or “medicine” doesn’t mean bras are beyond any sort of question or commentary. Centuries ago, people spoke about the health benefits of corsets, yet women have somehow managed to do fine without them. Lingerie, like all elements of women’s dress, is tied to fashion, and fashion — both its looks and trends – changes over time and in response to social norms of beauty.
Every woman’s breasts are different, even if they don’t fit the mold(ed cup). If you’re a woman who prefers to wear a bra, that’s awesome. And if you’re a woman who prefers to go braless (whether all the time or occasionally), that’s also awesome. Regardless, unlike what the ads of yesteryear or even today would have you believe, you don’t have a “figure problem.” You’ve just got breasts, and they’re fine as is.
Header by Rory Midhani