One of the first “pandemic life changes” for women I read about last year was the concept of “binning our bras”. From the very first moment that we all started working from home, I read article after piece after tweet extolling the joys of a bra-free existence. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, I found cartoons shouting about the relief of ditching the breast scaffolding.
It wasn’t just my news feed, either. TikTok users (I don’t number among them because I’m over 30) began doing “no bra challenge” dances. A YouGov poll revealed that a fifth of British women began to wear bras less often in lockdown, and a staggering 34% of us ditched them completely. Thirty-four percent! That’s a whole lot of as-nature-intended.
I’ll be honest here: I’ve never understood the popular trope that dictates that we women always feel immeasurably better at the end of a long day when we finally slip out of our miserably constrictive underwires and let our boobs hang where they naturally want to. I hate that feeling, personally.
I don’t have big breasts, by the way — after breastfeeding 3 babies for a cumulative total of about 5 years, they’re redundant, shriveled little teabag-like protuberances that sit obediently in my bra cups, a pair of shivery blobs of bao bun dough waiting to rise — but I’ve got enough to feel them swing horribly if they’re unsupported. And that’s simply not a sensation I’ve ever enjoyed.
I felt perplexed, at first, by the statistics on lockdown bra abandonment. I knew what I was supposed to think. I knew I was supposed to believe the bra is an instrument of torture, invented by men to ensure our discomfort in the pursuit of their aesthetic preferences. I knew that legend has it that feminists in the 1960s burned their bras to symbolize freedom from patriarchal tyranny, and nothing symbolizes it quite so effectively.
I’ve just never quite understood why freedom from patriarchal tyranny had to involve that horrible skin-stretching ache that accompanies any kind of running, or any significant movement at all, without a bra on.
So — slightly concerned that my natural physical discomfort in a bra-less state might be borne of my internalized misogyny and a secret, shameful desire not to allow my bosom to look anything other than pert and ready for some kind of possibly sexual action — I did a bit of research. And I learned some things.
Bras were not invented by men
Hooray! They were not, in fact, designed as sex props. The first example of a modern-day bra (cups, straps, and all) was patented by a woman named Mary Phelps Jacob on 3rd November 1914. She’d invented the garment using handkerchiefs and ribbon when preparing to go for a dance — I like to think she wanted to dance wildly and knew it would cause discomfort to allow her boobs to fly freely while she did so, although she claimed it was because her restrictive corset was visible through her dress — and when she submitted the patent, she was clear that it could be worn “even by persons engaged in violent exercise such as tennis”. She had invented not just a bra, but a sports bra.
Although Phelps Jacob’s is the first patent of a design roughly like the ones we have today, you only have to look at ancient Greek statues or Roman artwork to see that women have sought to corral and contain their breasts for as long as we’ve been able to record the effort. And it’s not hard to imagine why. (Horseback riding, for example, would be torture without some kind of breast support, surely?).
I have no doubt that some of the more diaphanous, serving-suggestion types of lacy and push-up bras were designed if not by men, then with the male gaze in mind. But the bra as a concept — a garment to keep breasts in one place while we get on with activities such as sport or just, you know, living — no. They were always a practical invention, by women for women.
“Bra burning” was not a thing
In 2018, Robin Morgan — a woman who was involved in the famous 1968 Miss America pageant protests — lamented the fact that what had gone down in history was not the truth of what their protest had been about, but the idea that women, en masse, had set fire to their bras as a symbol of freedom from male domination.
What actually happened was that protestors set up a “Freedom Trash Can”, a symbolic bin into which women were invited to throw away things that oppressed them. Into the Freedom Trash Can went high heels, mops, lipsticks…and just one bra. It wasn’t on fire, either.
I remember one young woman took off her bra. She eased it out from under her shirt and threw it in to great cheers. — Robin Morgan
The bra, however, was what made the headlines. Somehow the phrase “bra-burning feminists” entered the lexicon, when all the female protestors had ever wanted was for the world to see that they were tired of “making coffee, but not policy”. In fact, Morgan says now that she’s frustrated by the way that the idea of bra-burning trivialized their serious message, although it certainly brought the concept of feminism to a wider audience. A mixed blessing.
Avoiding a bra might do actual harm
While I personally find it less comfortable to be bra-free than to wear a decent bra all day, I do accept that some women — those with bigger breasts than mine, maybe, or perhaps with perter breasts that feel less, well, “hang-down-ish” is the only way I can describe the sensation — find it far more comfortable to go without artificial breast support. Of course, they do. Why else did so many ditch them straightaway when we no longer had offices to go to?
I’m reassured, though, by the idea that my love of a bra might actually be a helpful thing, physically. I mean, I already knew that keeping my breasts from jumping about when I’m running is a necessary act of injury prevention and I’d never do sports without a good sports bra. But even day-to-day, wearing a supportive bra-type garment is good for our posture, our circulation, and the health of our back and neck muscles.
Breasts, even little sad ones like mine, are quite heavy. Supporting that weight without any assistance is tiring for neck muscles. It can cause shoulders to round and backs to curve unhealthily forwards. And that’s before the fact that unsupported breasts will sag, causing permanent changes to the shape of the muscles underneath them. Whether or not you care about the height of your bust, this can cause discomfort — up to and including headaches.
I was always going to carry on wearing a daily bra. It’s a far more comfortable choice for me, and I’ve never felt the urge to whip it off at the end of a long day, so I suspect that particular burst of blissful freedom will never be a sensation I’ll get to experience. However, at least now I’ve read more about it I’ll carry on wearing my bra in the knowledge that I’m not unwittingly upholding a toxic patriarchal structure.
Just my boobs.
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