Last year, PhDork and I talked about the feminist implications of panties (and the wearing thereof). Today, it’s time for a feminist pow-wow about that other undergarment most of us wear…the bra.
One of the most enduring labels attached to feminists is “bra-burners.” According to legend, hordes of Second Wave feminists burned their thickly padded 1950s style bras as a protest of the constraints and hyperfeminity that the Patriarchy required. It didn’t actually happen; at the 1968 Miss America pageant where this allegedly occurred, women only threw them into trashcans (along with other dreadfully uncomfortable undergarments like girdles and pantyhose). But the image of women burning bras is irresistible to anti-feminists looking for proof that we’re all hysterical reactionaries. When people ask me if, as a feminist, I’ve burned my bras, I always say “No, but the only people who think bra-burning is ridiculous are people who’ve never worn one.”
I detest the feeling of elastic and underwire clasped around my ribcage all day. Years of wearing them has caused the skin just under my bust to darken and thicken—if you look closely, I actually have permanent light-brown stripe there. The first thing I do when I get home is take off my bra. So does fellow-bra-hater SarahMC. Sarah and I joke about how this habit leads to bras being tossed wherever—when company comes over, we have to make sure our runaway bras have all been corralled. Joins us as we talk about bras and what they mean for feminism and body image—with bonus pictures our bras in their natural habitat:
SarahMC: There are currently three bras lying on top of my dresser which is right in the middle of the living room. Bras everywhere except on my person.
BeckySharper: This morning, I had a dude come over to give me an estimate on replacing my windows. I was running around like crazy trying to locate and remove bras so he wouldn’t stumble on one by mistake!
Do you remember when you got your first bra? I was so into the idea of getting one, because it was this symbol of womanhood. My older sister was a C cup in junior high, so I was super-anxious to catch up (which, over 20 years later, has still not happened). What I ultimately got were two little triangles with a bit of elastic. It was mostly for show, but it made me feel grown-up. Wearing a bra was one of those rites of passage that now I look back and go “Ugh, why was I so looking forward to that?” (See also: menstruation.)
SarahMC: I don’t remember my first bra. I do remember my grandmother pointing at my breasts and giggling—and maybe pinching me?—when I began developing. That made me feel ashamed.
BeckySharper: That reminds me of the scene in Sixteen Candles where Sam’s grandma embarrasses her by saying to her grandpa “Oh Fred, she’s getting her boobies! And their so perky!” Ugh. Welcome to the world of your boobs as public property! Folks, won’t you comment on my boobs?
SarahMC: I never ever wear a bra if I’m just hanging around the house, just walking the dog, or going somewhere in the wintertime where I will be wearing a couple layers. I wear a bra to work because I don’t like the feeling of most fabrics besides cotton rubbing against my nipples. But the second I walk in the door to my apartment the bra comes off.
BeckySharper: Me too. With the exception of sports bras, I only wear them to keep my nipples from poking through my clothes. And I never, ever wear one at home or if I’m out and about in layers.
SarahMC: I feel lucky that I don’t “need” to wear a bra for comfort, as I know a lot of women do.
SarahMC: The thing I don’t like about my breasts–or the way they look/feel without a bra–is the sort of triangle shape they make. They aren’t pert and rounded like they are when they’re sitting in bra cups (which is true for most women, of course). I do feel self-conscious about that. The other day it got above 65 degrees for the first time in a long time so I wore a thin long-sleeved t-shirt to walk the dogs around the neighborhood. No bra, of course. And I was aware of the jiggling little triangles under my shirt for the first time. But I’m not willing to sacrifice comfort to avoid whatever stares might come my way.
BeckySharper: Yeah, not wearing a bra gets you stares because it’s seen as provocative or unfeminine. The Patriarchy wants you women to keep all your bits covered up. Except when you should display them for its enjoyment!
For those of us whose breasts are not perfect as defined by the Patriarchy—big, round, gravity-defying stripper tits—bras exist to “fix” that. Yours are triangular and jiggly, so you’re supposed to wear bras that make them look round and gravity-defying. Mine are small and kind of hard and wide-set, so the bras I’m supposed to wear are the ones that make them look bigger and softer by smushing them upwards with lots of padding. No matter how your breasts look naturally, there’s a bra out there for every one of us that’s supposed to make our breasts look closer to the ideal.
And if you don’t wear one, your breasts hang and sway and bounce and that’s perceived as slovenly or loose.
SarahMC: There is a cultural disgust about jiggling female flesh (unless the jiggling tits are supported by a bra and attached to a woman with an otherwise “good” figure.)
BeckySharper: That’s true about the jiggle. Boobs aren’t supposed to jiggle anymore. I wonder if I can blame porn for that? Porn stars all have those pneumatically inflated, gravity-defying boobs and it seems like those are now the idealized norm. If you look at porn stars or nude models in the 70s and 80s, they mostly had jiggly natural boobs in different shapes and sizes.
SarahMC: I think we can blame porn for a lot of things, Becky.
BeckySharper: True. Okay, I’m going to blame the current vogue for giant bubble-tits on porn, and therefore the current mania for padded lift-and-separate bras that are supposed to give us that look. In the meantime, as I write this, I’m free-boobing it on the couch in a t-shirt.
Do you fellow bra-burners have love-hate relationship with your bra? Or a hate-hate relationship? Tell us in the comments!