Bra Politics


Recently, 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, 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 five years, and this gal was quite literally the ONLY woman 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? No. Is this likely to change anytime soon? Not unless there are some truly drastic shifts in human culture.

Perhaps the ultimate act of balance would be to create an equivalent garment for men, and promote the expectation that all men search for, purchase, and wear it. Any suggestions?*

Image via The Mary Sue.

*I’m kidding. Mostly.

  • Susan In Boston

    How about a cheek enhancer–the bra that you sit on?

    • Lyahdan

      Needed to weigh in on this one as someone in the range of D who for years wore no bras other than sports bras when dancing (because yeah, support is needed then).

      Now, I still own mostly sports bras and a couple of other soft squishy ones specifically to wear with styles that just require a bra in order for things to fit right. I made the choice on those particular clothing pieces that I liked them enough to keep some bras in stock for them. But there are a ton of outfits I like just fine without one since I really don’t care about matching a particular silhouette. I’m not tall. I’m not balanced. I kind of enjoy the fact that the illusions of clothing mean that some days I play with those things and some days I don’t.

      That said, I’m currently doing more sewing for myself, and planning to make dressforms both with and without bra. I want to see if there are particular tricks to making a pattern look good (i.e. fit) without a bra when they’re so obviously designed with a bra-wearing figure in mind. If anyone’s spotted any such tips or advice, I’d be interested in seeing them.

  • Cynthia

    AFAIK, a lot of guys feel this way about ties. They are constricting and uncomfortable for a lot of people and not really necessary for anything but conforming to a certain look, but that look is absolutely required for advancement in many fields (even universities once you hit a certain level). They get loosened immediately or removed when you come home. Blah, blah, etc.

    I personally feel more comfortable physically in a bra than without, at least now that I’ve finally figured out how to get my proper size and whatnot.

    • Olivia

      Except that there are a LOT of men who do jobs that don’t require ties, but EVERY woman is expected to wear a bra EVERY time she leaves her house.

      • Litenarata

        Other than sports bras, I never wear one. I wore a bra for a little while (no idea how long) when I first started “needing” one, and then at some point I stopped. Most of time I do wear a tank top under most clothes, either a plain one-layer one or one with a second liner/shelf thing as an extra layer. The boobs aren’t big and don’t sag (yet!) and bras are just so uncomfortable I can’t stand wearing them. Having the tight elastic strap around my body drove me nuts. I have no idea how obvious it is, or isn’t, that I’m never wearing one. Nobody’s mentioned it and I’ve never asked.

        But I still feel weird if I go out in something like a thin t-shirt and nothing under it, and so I very rarely do. I just don’t want to deal with the stares or people wondering what’s wrong with me, especially if I end up going inside someplace cold, because then it’s really obvious that there’s nothing under that t-shirt!

        It’s sad how people react when women with larger breasts run around braless, and it’s obvious. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just uncommon. I wish MORE women would go braless so it would become NORMAL!

    • Tragic Sandwich

      IMO, ties are a better parallel for pantyhose. Yet not really, because I’ve never met a man who was willing to make that trade.

    • Heather

      A bra that fits well shouldn’t be constricting or uncomfortable, though. I don’t find that mine are now that I’ve figured out proper sizing and also which kinds of bras are best for me, though I did feel that way when I was wearing improperly sized ones. I will point out that I’m lucky in that I’m small enough to go without underwire and not have support issues and my size is pretty easy to find. Still, my bras, to me, are more comfortable than the outerwear that’s required to look professional. Especially formal pants or hose.

      • Antoinette

        I wouldn’t generalize to say “a bra that fits well shouldn’t be constricting or uncomfortable.” It’s a nice goal for many people, especially in smaller cup sizes, but when I was a 36JJ, even the best fitting bra was both constricting (its main job in fact) and uncomfortable.

    • katherine

      Ties don’t constrict. The feeling of constriction comes if you are wearing an improperly fitting shirt or a shirt with a collar that is too small. Uncomfortable I can’t help you with.

  • Lauren

    Hmm, an interesting debate. I for one am quite lucky to have breasts with which I can do a number of things – I can push them up with what is affectionately referred to a “Super Bra” in our household, or I can wear a standard, supportive bra. I can, and do, go braless in summer – but I am lucky enough to have breasts that will largely support themselves, for now at least! For me, bras only ever been a convenience – a way to feel sexy (to myself as much as to anyone else), a way to hide prominent nipples on a cold day (mainly only because of the looks you get otherwise), or support for exercise. Going without is as easy and common for me as wearing one.

  • June

    I know a lot of women struggle with feeling bound to a bra or that it’s restricting and for those women they absolutely should feel free to wear what they want (although, i think it’s a really valid point that modern day clothing isn’t particularly constructed for going braless).

    That being said, I actually feel much MORE liberated in a well-fitting bra because of how large my breasts are. When I’m braless I get back pain and would not be able to do sports in the same capacity that I can with a bra (I wear a 32K in UK sizes, I think that’s about a 32O in US sizes?). So for me, I would be significantly hampered by going braless and bras have actually being a stepping stone in terms of equalizing the playing field between myself and men. Actually, because of that I see bra fitting (as in getting women into their correct size, not what most US stores would put women into) as a feminist issue- especially for large breasted women. Sure, part of it is about appearance but for me it’s a lot more about mobility, strength and freedom to physically move in ways I could not braless. I also would add that there is a hygiene aspect because I’m a nursing mom and wearing a bra can allow me to use nursing pads to protect my clothing.

  • K-Line

    This is a great post Sal! I respect your desire to work with your client on her terms – and I’m impressed that she has such body confidence. Shouldn’t we all emulate that… Mind you, I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that clothes expect foundation garments. I don’t think that being fitted for bras (if one doesn’t have an aversion to them, and this woman was wearing bras before you met her – just badly fitting ones) is a sign that a woman needs to modify her body to be more attractive. I see bras as a body adornment that brings more beauty to the beauty that is already there. It’s like tattoos – to use an analogy I know you will relate to. Just tattoos you take off at the end of the day!

    • Marla

      Just to nitpick, it didn’t sound like they were ill-fitting per see, just that they didn’t lift and contort her breasts to the correct position.

    • Erika

      That comment about clothes expecting foundation garments hits the nail on the head. If you’ve ever tried on vintage clothing (pre 1960s), women were expected to wear a corset and/or girdle as well as the brassiere in the shape of the day. No hope whatsoever of squeezing into a wasted dress or shirt without them!!!

  • une femme

    I’m with Cynthia in that going without a bra is just downright uncomfortable so I’m always in one (except when I sleep). I also think that for busty women, the support helps our posture.

  • Rose

    Your client wanted to look more polished and professional and you offered up your advice. Both goals -polished and professional- are laden with stylistic assumptions and you did what you were supposed to in advising her towards that look. Had she been a woman in another culture a more supportive bra might not have been a step on that path and you might have advised her to do something else. She was free to reject your advice.

  • peaceandcats

    You are so honest, well-informed, empathetic, self-aware, and gracious. This post is such an accurate commentary and is one of many of yours that keep this second-wave feminist revved up for the future. Thank you!

    • Rebekah o’ Jaunty Dame


  • Vildy

    I used to have very high, very wide diameter flattish breasts and spent years going braless except when I wanted some modesty coverage to be respectful. Then, at 38 I became pregnant and suddenly my breasts popped out and immediately fell down. The baby is now 26 and I hate bras. I still miss going braless and do at home or under jackets and coats for errands. One thing I do think about lately is the changing silhouette. I spent most of my youth watching black and white films with glamorous stars in bias satins and silks whose bosoms were what I’ll call low slung. I’d like this and I’m thinking about changing my bra sizing to promote that effect. It’d be a lot more comfortable and natural to me. I was looking at some photos of the model Grethe Kaspersen and I noted that in some of them she did indeed appear to have her breasts carried at a level below that of the guideline I have often seen of having the bosom at the midpoint between shoulder and elbow.

    • Chelsea

      I totally agree on being happy to see more natural, unencumbered breast shapes in old movies. It’s strange that it’s so rare to see women’s nipples in our society, or breasts that aren’t molded into an unnatural high and round shape.

      • Vildy

        I started wearing the no-bra bras in the late 60′s. They often had an underwire but the cups were not seamed and were made of jersey. Therefore you got a rounded shape. When I went into a lingerie store back home on vacation, the manager brought me a bra, that I tried on, in what she said was a more “natural” shape. It was stitched in concentric circles and gave me conical, pointy breasts. I was horrified. :D I didn’t buy it, it seemed almost indecent to me at 18. Now, however, I see plenty of websites devoted to vintage clothing where there is a full discussion of the effects of the vintage underwear.

  • Anon

    Great article Sally! Also…tip of the iceberg, sadly. You could have written the same article about women’s shoes. Why are women expected to wear pointy toe high heels or paper thin ballet flats, both causing long term foot and health damage? Because it looks soooo good??? Foot binding, the modern way. We are going to be seen as equals when we hobble along behind the men, who stride ahead confidently in their comfortable supportive flat shoes?

    And don’t get me started on pants so tight they cause nerve compression and the issue of women’s bathing suits. No, things will never change because women want these thing and keep buying them. Men would never put up with what we do in the name of fashion.

    The only equivalent to a bra of course would be a sports cup worn always. Start a campaign on how messy it is to be able to see men’s bits moving around. Smoosh them down and keep them quiet. No…men would shrug and say they didn’t care.

    • http://www.missoulagrace@com Grace

      Brilliant! Think of the men getting fitted for the right “cup size!”

    • Annabeth

      ITA. I’m happier wearing a bra every day than I would be wearing heels every day. And heels do actual lasting damage to women’s knees – sometimes quite serious – whereas you’d have to have a really terrible bra to cause yourself harm. (I don’t even know how that would work, though I guess it’s somehow possible.)

      • Heather

        Agreed. Heels are the worst thing, I don’t know how people can wear them (and stand in them) for hours on end without wanting to throw them out the window.

    • jb

      so true – and funny. I do love my skinny jeans though. but I think I wear something Sally would not call a bra. excellent points.

  • Olivia

    Such a tough subject. For background, I developed early and so have been wearing a bra every time I leave the house since I was 11 yrs old (I’m 35 now). I have large, pendulous breasts (42 H) so the feeling that I cannot go in public, or even in front of people not in my immediate family, is so strong. And I hate that. I honestly feel burdened by bras. They are expensive. They are hard to find. They are uncomfortable (yes, even in the right size).

    Add to that that I’ve been breastfeeding for over 4 yrs (two kids) and they are just in the way. I can’t afford a good, supportive nursing bra so I convert a regular bra to one. But, unhooking and pulling the cup up and down wears out the bra fast and it causes it to slide around and it’s difficult to get them back in the cup…blech. I really wish I could go without.

  • Susan In Boston

    Re: clothes “expect” you to be wearing a bra. From what I’m learning in pattern making, I don’t think it would be possible to manufacture the vast amount of clothing that arrives on the (retail) rack without that expectation. Getting the bodice to fit properly involves measurements and assumptions about the location and size of various parts of the anatomy. A 36A and a 36C are going to be 36 inches in circumference, but a dress designed for an A cup will put more of those inches on the back than a dress designed for a C cup. I believe that most patterns are designed for a B cup.

    If the cup size were included with the dress or blouse size, e.g., size 12 C, it might be easier to find something that fits better.

    • Sally

      Interestingly, I’ve tried a couple of shirts that were designed with bra sizing and they fit even worse than ones with standard sizing! Which could be because of the cup/band relationship and the many ways it can play out.

    • Kristen

      Bras only do so much to make all bodies the same, though – which is why off-the-rack clothing often fits so many women so poorly even though the majority of women wear bras. Their breasts are changed in similar ways but the end result still varies quite a bit from one woman to another and even from one bra to another. If the expectation was that women weren’t wearing bras, darts and other shaping variations would simply change position/shape/size to fit a new “average.”

      And on a side note, a 36A and 36C would be the same circumference *below* the breasts, but drafting or fitting for a 36A would allow for a 37″ circumference across fullest part of the breasts, and a 36C would allow for a 40″ breast circumference. There are certainly a lot more variables than those 2 measurements alone allow for, as you’ve pointed out, and requires a lot of assumptions about the bodies these clothes will be worn on.

  • Sarah

    Count me in the “more comfortable with” camp! I’m large busted, and I’ve never understood all the jokes about taking your bra off when you get home. I always feel more comfortable with one on. I’m lucky enough that I am a fairly standard easy to find size. Maybe it’s a Big Boob Girl thing – being supported is more comfortable than lettin’ girls go an knocking yourself out!

    • Heather

      I have pretty average boobs and I still don’t mind wearing bras. I only find them uncomfortable when it’s hot or I’ve been wearing them a long period of time and they get gross and sweaty. Or, if the underwire gets bent out of shape (but I don’t really buy underwire anymore). Usually, my pants come off and get replace by PJs before my bra does.

  • JB

    My mother only wears sports bras, even for special occasions. She does this because compressing her breasts makes her feel thinner. She’s not fat in any way – in fact, she’s tiny – and her breasts are not particularly large but she is deathly afraid of being perceived as fat. It’s ironic that she is rejecting societal pressure to wear a “grown up lady bra” but she is doing so because of the societal pressure she feels to appear thin.

    • Sally

      Wow. Talk about the other side of the coin!

  • Carolyn

    I am also fortunate enough to have ‘conventional’ size breasts and feel most comfortable when I’m wearing a bra under my clothes. Not so much for support but as an extra layer of privacy, I’ll call it. I tend to fidget a lot and my job has me moving constantly so it’s nice to know that I’ve got this protective last layer of fabric to keep my personal bits covered if my shirt shifts in a way I didn’t expect.

  • Marta

    I was stopped at a light with my 14-year-old son a couple of months ago when a woman crossed the road in front of our car. She looked to be in her 60s. She was plump, with a rounded tummy and large breasts, and she was wearing a snug T-shirt that clearly showed that she was not wearing a bra.

    My son and I watched her cross in silence, and we sat in silence even after the light changed and we drove off. Finally, my son spoke.

    “That made me really uncomfortable,” he said.

    “Me, too,” I said, “and I don’t like that I feel that way. We should let people present themselves and their bodies in any way they like.”

    He agreed. He’s all about open-mindedness and allowing people to choose whatever gender they want to dress as and to wear whatever they want. Doesn’t even need saying.

    “But,” he said, “that still made me really uncomfortable. I really didn’t want to see her breasts.”

    So bra-wearing isn’t wrapped up only in the convention of looking polished or thin. Bras can sexualize breasts — and they can desexualize them, too.

    • Jen

      Not to imply this about your son, but I’ve talked to men who like women to not wear bras, at least if they’re conventionally attractive/large breasted. I heard this mostly when I was in college, and the inebriated among us would take off their bras . . . so there may have been a feeling of “getting lucky” with bralessness, I don’t know. Recently, though, I overheard two men talking about liking it in the gym. I won’t mention what they said, but yep, it was definitely a sexuality attached to the women going braless.

      Anyway, I’ve heard larger friends who wear body conscious or tight clothing or no bras get catcalls and called names. I wonder if the men would have said anything negative if they were thin. I’m big too, and I never wear anything tight or ill fitting for that reason. It makes me uncomfortable, emotionally, wondering if I’m going to get a remark. I’m a bit modest for religious reasons anyway, but I agree that we should be able to wear what we want without offending.

      I used to wear the soft cup, no wire bras exclusively, until I started looking at pictures of myself. There was a definite lowering in pictures, so I switched to the uncomfortable but lifting wired bras. I kind of wondered whose gaze I was worried about when I made the switch. I’m relatively small for my size, so those suckers come off whenever I’m at home. And for the life of me, I’d like to find a sexy plunge style bra, but I’m always popping out of them when I try it on. Anyone know if you need a different size in those?

      • Peggy

        Ah, I think that for some women plunge bras will always do that. If I am looking for a ‘sexy’ bra I will get a balcony or push up style bra, removing the padding if necessary. Otherwise it’s my breasts which are doing the plunging!

  • BamaCarol

    I, too, developed at an early age (10) and have been a DD most of my life. I actually feel more comfortable in a bra but maybe that is because I buy bras that fit me well. I even have the underwire but it doesn’t hurt or bother me. When I first developed, my mom took me for a bra fitting and we got the best bra we could afford so it would support me well and I’ve been doing that ever since (and I am 55). I have good friends who go without as much as possible but I agree that in certain clothes it can appear less professional and ‘messy’. Of course if that doesn’t bother you then great. But since I work in a professional environment where I am expected to look put together and conservative, a bra is a must.

  • Cléo

    There’s been good coverage of this study, which I think would be a good one to consider on the topic:

    Sorry, this is a hasty comment and I am not linking the best reporting (I listened to the story in a long program on French radio, so my “best source” would probably not be very helpful to you), but I at least wanted to signal its existence.

    • Krysta

      One thing to remember is that study was done on a small number of small-breasted women. The women they studied did not represent French women as a whole, much less women from other countries. It is merely a potential jumping-off point for other studies, not one to be cited as a reason for all women to throw away their bras.

      As for me, I prefer wearing a bra. My breasts are large enough that if I spend too much time unsupported, they start to hurt. My bras are generally comfy (I have off days, but that happens). I also happen to feel self-conscious if I want to go out and I’m just wearing a tank-top bra or one of my “sleeping bras” (they provide enough support that I don’t hurt, but aren’t as restrictive as my day bras for sleeping).

  • marsha calhoun

    I am always heartened by your thoughtful posts, in which you are willing to address issues that are so often overlooked. You don’t flinch from the difficulty of reconciling body acceptance (which, I suspect, exists in its pure state only in the very young and among some people with developmental disabilities, who appear to accept their physical selves completely) with the historic tendency of people, especially women, to be aware of how they appear to others and to want to present themselves most attractively. I’m not sure that reconciliation is really possible – the tension will always exist between self-acceptance regardless of how we look and having others perceive us according to some “ideal” image. Also, beauty and virtue are so often conflated that we wind up with some sort of moral obligation to consider the eyes of others upon us. I’m rambling here, but you started it with your inspiringly self-reflective essay. Thanks.

  • Liz

    Thank you for this post! My ex-husband was bought our older daughter bras before I did and is now pressuring the younger one (10 yrs old) to wear bras. I think it is personal choice and none of his business. Now my younger daughter is self-concious about her body, and let’s face it, girls get enough pressure about their bodies already!

  • Tabitha

    Being a large-breasted woman, myself, I have come to appreciate my bras more than any other garment I have ever owned. From the get go, I was fitted into bras that were correctly sized for me, and I have always been comfortable in them. I am no stranger to feminist attitudes, for example, I stopped shaving when I was seventeen, and almost three years later, I feel perfectly happy and attractive. Bras, however, I do not think I’ll ever give up. My bras give me the support I need to run up a flight of stairs without pain. I love my bras, and I would wear them whether or not they were socially acceptable.

    • Heather

      I think proper fit is really key. When I started developing I was fitted into bras that weren’t the right size for me and they were HELL to wear. I got fitted for the correct size in undergrad, and suddenly it was like: whoa. Bras are comfortable?

  • Nebraskim

    Interesting commentary. I have often joked that my breasts are too small to be decorative and since I never had kids, they were never even functional. I, too, relied for years on sports bras because they were easy to wear, comfortable for me, and I could find ones that sort of fit. (In fact, on weekends or non-work days, I usually do wear sports bras.) Most fashion bra cups are too big for me, with the tops of the cups never filling out and having extra fabric that shows under tops as wrinkles, etc. I do notice that when I wear clothing that expects a fashion bra, vs. a sports bra, it does fit better. I have never been able to wear wrap tops or dresses because there is an expectation of the garment that something will fill up the extra slack.

    I do think, Sal, that because the client asked for your opinion and help in upping her look, that your advice to be fitted for bras was a good one. She was free to reject it, but she didn’t, and in fact, was happy with the outcome.

    Thanks for being the kind of person who thinks deeply about this type of question. I think it makes your consultations more value-added and not just all about the clothing. The introspection is valuable because it causes the client to think about her needs and motives.

  • irene laura
  • Cate

    I was always a tall and chubby kid, so I developed pretty early. My right breast has always been significantly larger than my left, to the point that when I was in sixth and seventh grades I put balled up socks in my left bra cup and tightened the right strap as far as I could to try to achieve symmetry. When I got to high school my mom bought me a mastectomy prosthetic, the largest size sold, and I haven’t left the house without it since (I’m 28 and the one I’m wearing now is my fourth). Bras with underwire and molded cups help me get the look I want, but as a teenager I used to dread having to explain my “chicken cutlet” to a man someday. When, eventually, the time came, my first boyfriend was totally unfazed (and so have been all of his successors). I still wear it because I prefer to look symmetrical, especially when I’m wearing tailored shirts, or t-shirts or blouses with graphics or prints. The prosthetic and my smaller breast don’t add up to weigh as much as my larger breast, so when I wear a strapless bra with strapless tops or dresses, I get some drooping. I try to avoid that by avoiding strapless situations altogether. I’ve thought about someday having my large breast reduced and having them both lifted a bit so that I can wear whatever I want, but I can think of so many other things I’d rather spend that money on that it’s not a priority. I can live with it. And I’m not shy anymore about who knows it’s there.

    I worked in a plus size clothing retail store for almost five years, and we sold lots of bras. At first, the bras we sold were cheaply made and very uncomfortable, and when women asked me about them I told them honestly that none of our employees bought bras at our store, even though they were cheaper than the competition to begin with and we got 40-55% off. After a couple of years, though, we changed vendors and the bras that we started to sell were so comfortable that I bought them in every color, and even got my 64-year-old mother to switch from soft-cup jersey knit bras (not sports bras, she still wears those for working out) to the ones my store carried (all with underwire, many with lace details that are very soft). All of the managers and sales associates now have to attend yearly meetings about how to measure women for bras. The results are amazing. I had women cry in the fitting rooms, and their husbands come back with tears in their eyes to thank me, once I got them into supportive, comfortable, pretty bras. I used to whip my “chicken cutlet” out to show women whose breasts were asymmetrical like mine that they didn’t have to hate their breasts. My co-workers used to ask me for it, and if the store was too busy for me to leave the cash register or my zone, I would sometimes pull it out and toss it.

    Yes, we’re conforming to a standard–a standard that was made without us (plus size women) in mind because we don’t FIT. It’s sad, but if we want to be taken seriously, even by each other (I heard some nasty, catty talk in my years at the mall), we have to wear bras. I draw the line at Spanx–I won’t wear a garment it if it doesn’t flatter the rest of my natural shape, which is curvy with occasional lumps, unless it’s a bridesmaid dress and I have no choice. Fashions change, though, so who knows what shape we’ll have to mold our chests into next? At least bras aren’t pointy anymore! It could be worse.

  • George

    My wife and I were discussing your article and I just wanted to point out that men do have a comparable article of clothing that has different cup sizes, different styles from plain Jane to erotic and like breasts are equally sensitive. It’s called a jock strap and you can see the many variations here It’s our version of Victoria’s Secret. Kidding, mostly

  • Litapita

    Men would wear peho’s, of course :) I recommend you to check out the book “Egalia’s daughters” by Gerd Brantenberg. This is a satirical (and fun) book about what might happen if society was turned upside down, genderwise. Written in the 70′s, but well worth a revisit, I think:

  • Laurel

    I hate bras. But due to self-conciousness about my breast shape and size (or lack thereof) religiously wore bras until recently…

    I am small chested and mainly wore bras to have an “acceptable” shape and hide the nips. No bra fit right. Every bra my “size” is covered in horrendous padding designed to squash the girls together to look like I have cleavage. (Or it’s in the 12 year old girls section and the way too small for my adult frame.) Not only did I feel like a boob-fraud, but I was miserably uncomfortable. I have a large rib cage, around 36″ at least. And I can hardly rock an A cup. Sport bras: same story.

    At 22 I developed a benign breast lump. I was diagnosed with fibrocystic breasts. The lump was right under where that horrendous underwire dug in at the outside of my chest. I didn’t want to have surgery…and it slowly got bigger. Several years ago I switched to all non-wire bras. A little better but still not that great. At least the lump wasn’t as irritated.

    This is why I really started questioning this whole bra thing. I read the French study (linked to in one of the posts above) about going braless and questioning whether breasts need support. (GASP! I know.) And then I did some more reading on this site and other sources. Breast tissue is passively drained through the lymph system. Movement is needed for this to occur. I think that all the bra wearing contributed to developing a lump.

    I finally said no more bras 2 months ago. I wear a camisole and tuck in those little trianlge liners from a swimsuit if I’m worried about the nips. I can breathe easier, have less back pain (yes, bras made my back ache), and less breast soreness. I can actually BREATHE during my workout. I still wear some light support when running. ( I realize this isn’t an option for some.) And my lump is much smaller.

    I’m not saying this is what all women should do. But I wish more women would really think if they are choosing it, or if it’s because they feel the need to fit in. I’ve grown really sick of all the things women are “supposed” to do to be acceptable. Breasts are designed to feed babies. Everything else is secondary. I wish more women would question this.

    • alice

      I can SO relate to this. I have very small breasts and only wore bras for the reasons you mentioned. Since my breasts don’t require any support, I was annoyed that I had to be subjected to bras mostly to cover my nipples. Several months ago I found these things on amazon called nippies (reusable adhesive pads that you stick over the nipples) and I haven’t worn a bra since. I love these things so much and am a million times more comfortable. I do put on a sports bra for exercise, but that’s all. I guess the “downside” is that my breasts appear smaller under clothes, but they feel so much better that it’s irrelevant. (Although the nippies are expensive, I’ve worn them practically every day for the last 3 months and they are still very sticky, highly recommend)

  • Heather

    As I’ve read this, she wasn’t going braless, but wearing sports bras. Sports bras would provide a different shape then conventional bras or going braless. they are typically thick materials with thick seams which makes them very conspicuous under garments.
    I also read this as being less about being a bra/no bra question because of this.

  • Shaye

    It’s funny, because bras were originally intended to free women from the tyranny of the corset.

    While I won’t say that the olden times were a bastion of freedom for women, it’s not as though the idea that women’s breasts should be supported is new, unlike some of the specific body-image issues we have today. Women have been shutting it down for centuries, probably because at some point a woman with large, unperky breasts had to run somewhere and thought, “Dang, that hurt, there’s gotta be a better way.”

    To turn it into “MUST WEAR BRA AT ALL TIMES NO MATTER WHAT” is surely problematic, but unlike so many BS body image strictures today, bras actually have a purpose for many of us.

  • lanalouwho

    I understand the political connotations in this post, but as a 32DD, I am pro-bra. I absolutely need the support and improved posture that comes with a quality well-fit bra. It makes me look and feel better, both physically and socially.

  • susan

    When you consider that most bras contain formaldehyde and other chemicals, it can really make you think about wearing them! I struggle to find healthy materials for bras. I wonder how many cases of breast cancer are caused by wearing these toxic garments.

  • Margo

    Let’s bring back the cod piece for men!! or is that codpiece!!!!
    As a member of the bra-burning generation, I can agree that we rarely burned bras, it was the idea that counted. I like a nice bra, well fitted, comfortable. I like a sports bra. I don’t like to be told that I have to wear one.

  • Ida

    My man would most likely prefer I don’t wear a bra – quicker access to The Goods.

  • Maggie Snarkface

    My only style consult was with a small framed and small chested woman who refused to wear a bra. We found some little comfortable bralettes for her. Kind of like a short cami.

    Personally, being a 38DDD, and working in an office, I don’t have this option. If I didn’t wear a bra, I would probably lose my job. I hate bras. I can never find one that is comfortable for an extended period of time. I know the support should come from the band, but if the band is too tight (or the right tightness), I feel like its squeezing the life out of me. My straps are constantly falling down, but if I tighten them, then they hurt my shoulders. I’m one of those women that comes home and immediately removes their bra. I wish there was another way, but I’ve just accepted that this is life for a woman. However, I wouldn’t trade it because while men’s clothes are generally comfortable, they are incredibly boring, IMO.

  • sarah

    once upon a time, men did wear corsets (see: the Dandies of the 18th C.) and high heels, too (17th Century)! Somehow, I don’t think we’re going to convince them to bring these looks back…

  • S

    I think it’s a personal choice. My mom doesn’t wear a bra except on rare formal occassions. She has a very small chest and has found every bra she’s tried incredibly uncomfortable, so she wears a tank underneath her clothes instead. I think part of it is that she is averse to most fabrics touching her skin, so she wears very loose clothing. Even bras with too large of bands are too constricting for her.
    I myself have a larger chest and find bras supportive and helpful, but I don’t think they are mandatory for everyone.

  • C. Richelle

    There can never be enough things said and written about the issue of bras. You bring up some very important points, and along those lines has been my struggle. It is considered necessary to wear a bra, or face ridicule, discrimination, or in my case discomfort and pain. Never do you hear about the emotional stress that comes with this. I am currently a 38G (give or take depending on brand). If nothing else it is costly to find a bra that fits. It is not something you can commonly find at retailers. When I do, they easily can run $75 EACH. How is that fair when a good portion of women can get similar quality for $20 at a store like Target? Its not something that one can really thrift for either. I have to make extreme sacrifices, just so I can afford to do what is demanded of me. Men… do not. Show me the equality in this?

  • Marie

    And then there is the issue of underwire bras being connected with breast cancer, because they impede drainage of the lymphatic system that leads to toxins collecting in the breast tissue. I try to go braless as often as possible, but I’m quite conscious of it then and don’t want anyone to notice…
    The best fitting/best feeling bra I ever tried on was of the pointy vintage shape. I didn’t buy it because I felt to exposed and took the modern rounded foam cup instead even though it wasn’t as comfortable. I just don’t want to draw attention to my breasts and have to think what other people (esp men) think of them…

  • J

    I so very much hate bras. I hate the way they feel and I hate buying them. Good Bras are expensive. Unfortunately, I do wear one when I am out or at work otherwise I would look horrible in my clothes and I am pretty sure my employer would have a fit if I showed up boobs a kimbo. Its too bad that bras are a social norm but they are so unless society changes that norm we are stuck with the burden.

  • Judy Anne

    I’m 55. I went bra-less for a few years in the late 70′s. It was the Thing To Do in my part of the world at the time. In those days I was a 32 B cup. I have to say that overall, I really didn’t feel less sexualized or less fake going braless. I suppose that is why all of us college girls from the seventies gave it up. In certain situations it definitely felt more sexualized and vulnerable to be braless. Part of the time I was on a college campus or in a college town, part of the time out in less “enlightened” parts of the country. It’s so complicated. It involves social norms, your own attitude, what clothes are on top of the bra or bralessness. Either can be fine or not-fine depending on the details. Like I say, we seventies girls for the most part gave up on it, I think for good reasons. We also gave up on make-up for a while, but then we found out we kind of liked a little of it, done right. Do I want to look like a Real Housewife of Wherever? No, that is taking it too far in the other direction. The attitude, the details, are more important than getting rid of bras and make up.

  • Moniqa

    Finally found my right bra size and immediately rage-quit them altogether because I can’t afford that nonsense. (And my chronic upper back pain immediately cleared up.) I can barely afford properly supportive sports bras, much less the abominations of regular underwire bras for daily wear. Fortunately so far, the office is cold enough that I always wear a sweater or jacket over my clothes, but I dread the thought of future job-hunting and trying to dress around my breasts. I love my body, but these sure are inconvenient to just about everything.

  • Cas

    Love this article Sally.

    Its my party and I won’t wear a bra if I don’t want to!

    Sorry could not help myself. I love that there is so much positive and personal interesting discussion in the comments. With all things like bras (heels, make up, thongs…) that we’re “suppose” to wear as women to be presentable I like the idea of being mindful and practicing continuing self reflection. Asking oneself questions like…why do I wear this? Do I like it? Does it add or take away? Does it make me happy? You can enjoy something and critical of it at the same time.

    Also I just started re-watching the L-word (show time series) and a lot of the characters do not wear bras regularly. I was loving it!

  • Aoibhe

    Sal, I don’t for one minute believe you were doing this woman a body image dis-service.

    I fall into the category of having breasts that are not a regular size, they are tiny, AA or even less. I don’t really care about it, it’s the shape I am. I happen to love my body regardless, I am a very petite athlete and my body is capable of so much more than most people, I’m proud of that, even if it does give me a body that looks a little different than most people’s.

    But, the “problem” with having a muscley, flat chested body is that clothing is not made for women who have an unconventional body type (ok, what is conventional?). I tend to look like a clothes hangar and clothing that beautifully hugs my girlfriend’s curves, hang from my shoulders like a shapeless rag. I go bra-less most of the time, or I wear a sports bra, but sometimes, like when wearing a very structured suit or dress creating a nice silhouette really completes the outfit, Wearing the right kind of foundation garments helps me “fill” the parts of a garment that I otherwise lake the body for.

  • Thursday

    Cora started a great conversation about the bra vs. braless debate over at The Lingerie Addict:

    And I do agree, that there is immense social pressure for women to never go braless in public, and I do think this pressure increases with cup size. Going braless should really not be so taboo, but for myself, I am so used to wearing a bra that going about my daily business without one is uncomfortable.

  • Antoinette

    I read this post with interest because I am just starting a new relationship to bras and my breasts. I have been extremely large breasted since puberty and up until a few weeks ago, I was wearing a JJ cup. I wore a bras anytime I left the house, could only buy bras by mail-order, and have so many lists of clothing styles I avoid because of how poorly they worked on me.

    However, in October I had a breast reduction and am now a C cup. I’ve been wearing sports bras 24/7 since the surgery but was just cleared this morning by my surgeon to wear whatever I want as long as it’s comfortable.

    I’m very suddenly someone who could buy bras in a regular store, or go braless if I wanted since everything is still very high and perky. It’s a big adjustment and I’m trying to feel out how I want to dress my new torso, in both under and outer wear.

  • bear

    Bring back the cod piece for men!

  • Sian Jones

    That’s not entirely true…..the actor from Mad Men, the good looking hot one, has recently been here in the British press for going commando in his trousers because the outline of his penis can be seen clearly through the material and he is very well endowed. Underwear companies have even offered to “clothe” him in their undergarments. However he appears to do this often and is happy in his skin and the way he looks but to the rest of us it is a bit “rude” that his bits are not hidden from view.

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