Here’s a random fact: Did you know there is actually no medical reason to wear a bra?
That’s right. None. Contrary to popular belief, bras don’t improve breast health, prevent sagging, or anything else.
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) kind of bothers me.
As much as I love bras (and 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 much of (but not all of) the time. Which should be fine because no one has to wear a bra…in the same way no one has to wear corset or has to wear a girdle or has to wear to underwear. And while I understand that some may prefer their breast shape with a bra on or are more comfortable wearing a bra, for a variety of reasons (heavy breasts, nipple sensitivity, back pain, etc.), that’s not the same as saying every woman has to or should wear a bra, which is the general consensus from the society at large, including some facets of the lingerie community. And this post is focused on that social conversation regarding bra wearing.
What’s most interesting to me in this whole wear a bra/go braless conversation are the perceptions other people have about the reasons why a woman might choose to go braless. Bralessness still has a lot of social stigma attached to it; people assume a woman is doing anything from looking for sexual attention to making a political statement. Going braless is never just an innocuous thing, and the notion that a woman always has to wear a bra (and specifically in America, a molded cup bra that hides one’s nipples and natural breast shape) is really thought-provoking. And, as some of the illustrations hint at in this post really, really old-fashioned.
What do I mean? Well, we already know that for several centuries, women wore stays or corsets everyday, and these corsets were connected to and seen as a reflection of a woman’s morality. The meaning of “loose” to mean unchaste and immoral (as in “loose women”) has been around since the 15th century, and I wonder to how tightly or loosely women bound their stays. After all, if you were an upper class woman, you could afford the greater restriction of mobility that came with tightly bound stays, in contrast to lower class women who may have needed to keep their stays looser so they could work. For centuries, only a woman’s most intimate acquaintances ever saw her without her corset, and with that came the accompanying belief was that only women of ill-repute or low social standing would allow themselves to be seen uncorseted. In that way, wearing a corset became a way to advertise that you were an a moral and upright female member of the community, and so therefore worthy of the privileges therefor including admission to society, a good marriage, and the benefits of politeness, etiquette, and social largess.
Now fast forward 50 years 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 replacement for the corset, the girdle also replaced the corset’s function morally as well. Despite the comparatively liberating freedom a girdle offered, a “proper” woman still didn’t let her flesh jiggle or shake. Everything had to be tightly restrained within the elastic, mesh, and fabric of a foundation garment. Women who “broke the rules” were subject to unsympathetic criticism about both their bodies and the looseness of their morals. Does that sound 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. And if you don’t care for that particular look or you don’t just flat out don’t like bras, that’s fine. It’s not a character judgment or a bad reflection on who you are. For every woman, wearing a bra is a personal choice; it is her own decision for her own reasons…and no one else gets to judge.
One more time…if you like wearing a bra, that’s okay. And if you don’t like wearing a bra, that’s still okay. Neither option should be anymore 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. And 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. Again, if you feel your most comfortable or confident or supported with a bra, you should wear one. But that is not the same as insisting bras are a requirement or a necessity for every woman, not even for every woman who happens to share your bra size…no matter how large. And the bra wearing conversation should certainly never be used as a foundation for body snark. All bodies are fine, regardless of if those bodies wear bras or not.
In addtion, I’m 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 (the ubiquitous, “You’ll look like you’ve lost 10 pounds!” message; why is looking thinner always the goal?), or, worst of all, as a way of deciding who “deserves” public humiliation and who doesn’t (you know what I’m talking about…this whole trend of taking nonconsensual photos of braless women in public and trash-talking them on the internet). 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.”
Some of you may be thinking, “Well that’s easy for you to say…you’re small-chested! None of that applies to women with larger breasts.” Well, for one, there actually are fuller-busted women who prefer going braless, but perhaps they choose not to (or choose not to talk about it) because of the attached social stigma. Second, my point is that the rules for wearing a bra apply to all women with breasts, regardless of which end of the size spectrum they fall on. So do the rules for how your breasts should look (insert words like “appropriate,” “modest,” “well-dressed” and what have you here). The fact that women with larger busts deal with even more social stigma as a result of going braless is very relevant to this conversation, but the conversation also includes the shame attached to having visible nipples and “droopy” boobs. However, once again, just to emphasize, if you prefer to wear a bra, for whatever reason, (and because you feel better with them on is definitely a valid 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 picked up that fab Made By Niki set above). I still love bras, and I still want to talk about bras, and I’m not interested in burning bras (though, honestly, the nerd in me is very curious about the flammability of bras made from different materials). What I want to emphasize here is that it’s nice to be reminded that going without a bra is not the end of the world. The reasons we wear bras are just as much tied to cultural factors as they are to physical ones, even if the conversation is predominately focused on those physical aspects (after all, culture’s a much harder conversation to have). Furthermore, this is a reminder that if you see someone going braless and you don’t care for it? Well…is ignoring it really so hard to do? Their boobs have literally nothing to do.
One of the other reasons I wanted to talk about this whole wear a bra/go braless thing is because we don’t see very many “normal” breasts anymore, and by normal, I mean breasts 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 issue here is that we’ve gotten so used to push-up bras and t-shirt bras and boobs manipulated via photoshop, that many of us have lost touch of what breasts look like without all that.
Our particular notion of what a woman’s bust should look like right now is just that…our particular notion. In the 1910′s it was one way, in the 1920′s another, and the in 1950′ still another. Our idea of what a woman’s breasts should look like is not a static, unchanging thing, and the fact that “bra fit” is often mentioned in the same sentence with “health” doesn’t mean these statements are beyond any kind of question or commentary. 100 years ago, people spoke about the health benefits of corsets, yet women have somehow managed to go on without them. 50 years ago, people spoke of the health benefits of girdles, yet I seem to be doing just fine without mine. Lingerie, like all elements of women’s dress, is tied to fashion, and fashion – its looks and trends – change over time.
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, great. And if you’re a woman who prefers to go braless (whether all the time or occasionally), that’s still great. Regardless, unlike what the ads of yesterday and today would have you believe, you don’t have a figure problem. You’ve just got a set of boobs.