politics bras breasts

A while back, I worked with a client who didn’t own a bra. OK, to be fair, she owned several soft, relatively shapeless sports bras, none of which gave her breasts any support or shape. Her goal for the consult was to look more polished and professional for upcoming speaking gigs and press appearances, and when I saw how her clothes looked minus brassieres I knew this had to change. With some gentle nudging, she agreed to be fitted by a lingerie expert.

I left the consult feeling triumphant, and when we went on a personal shopping excursion a week later I could see a marked difference in her silhouette. As she tried on new clothes, she looked taller, more balanced, more like that hourglass shape that so many women strive for.

But thinking back, I realized how utterly hypocritical my thinking had been. I’ve been doing one-on-one style consults for more than six years, and this gal was one of a select few I’ve worked with who loved her body. Totally and completely. She had some fairly traditional figure flattery priorities, but there was nothing she wanted to downplay, mask, or hide and she was fabulously confident in her figure. She’d been doing just fine in her sports bras until I came along. To be fair, she agreed that traditional bras were something she should explore and potentially invest in, and she actually texted me after her fitting because she was so excited to finally have “grown-up lady bras.” She agreed that the change furthered her goal of looking more professional, and I never twisted her arm. But I did force her into conforming to a social dressing standard she’d shunned successfully for ages.

I also thought back to my reactions as we worked through the consult. Seeing relatively support-free breasts underneath clingy knits and form-fitting dresses struck me as “messy.” That’s the word that resonated: Messy. And how screwed-up is THAT?!? Braless breasts are breasts in their natural state. There’s nothing “messy” about them. Nothing that needs fixing or tidying. And yet, there I was eager to tidy up my client’s lovely figure.

In the end, I foisted some of the blame onto the clothes themselves. It’s certainly true that we’ve been socially conditioned to expect breasts to be lifted, supported, high, and facing forward. It’s also true that style experts and laypeople alike feel free to criticize women whose breasts don’t behave in these ways, regardless of figure, size, personal preferences, or circumstances. But clothing designers are reinforcing it all. My client’s clothes – especially her garments with defined bodices – expected her breasts to be inside a bra. They were designed to work with a body that included breasts, but those breasts needed to be lifted, supported, high, and facing forward. No question. And when that expectation wasn’t met, the clothes failed to look their best. And so did my client.

Hopefully, most of you know that early feminists didn’t run around torching their bras throughout the 1960s and 70s. But bras have been cited as instruments of oppression again and again because women in nearly all Western cultures are expected to wear them any time they’re seen in public. And because there is no equivalent figure-moulding garment that men are required to don. And for countless other reasons linked to discomfort, sex and sexuality, the patriarchy, and other forces too numerous and varied to list here. Breasts are controversial, but bras are downright political.

This is not me coming out against bras. I am fortunate enough to wear an easy-to-find size, to have both of my breasts, and to be able to afford investing in quality bras. So I like them. I prefer my own figure when I’m wearing a bra, and know that the bras I have can transform my figure and silhouette. I also have sensitive breasts that change throughout my cycle, so there are times when it’s incredibly painful to go WITHOUT a bra.

And beyond myself, I have worked with and spoken to countless women who feel that bras make them look and – more importantly – feel better about their bodies. Much of that stems from social conditioning, it’s true, but I believe that dressing is a social act and that we enter into social agreements when we dress and go out in public. Some of those social agreements are insidious and harmful, some are relatively innocuous. And it helps to know which ones are doing what and why. But if we are to move about in public as clothed bodies, we must conform to some extent if we expect to be respected and accepted by our peers. Unless you are a celebrity who has been taped into a backless gown, you, as a woman, are expected to wear a bra in public. By other people and by the folks who have designed your clothes. You can certainly push back on that expectation – as my client did – and doing so can start conversations and promote awareness of the political nature of bras. Unquestionably, that has value. But you will find certain doors closed and certain opportunities unavailable to you. Is this fair? Not remotely. Is this likely to change anytime soon? Not unless there are some truly drastic shifts in human culture and gender politics.

I know that some of you loathe bras, and others are lingerie devotees. How do you feel about going braless in public? Do you feel like your clothes fit differently with or without a bra? Can anyone think of an equivalent garment-wearing expectation for men? Specifically one that will make people look askance at them if they push back on it?

Image via The Mary Sue.

This is a revised and refreshed post from the archive.

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