Let me preface by saying that I am a feminist who almost always wears a bra – on days like today when I don’t, it’s only because I’ve done nothing but lay in bed and watch Netflix. (Jeff Who Lives At Home = best Jason Segal Movie ever!) The farthest I’ve gone today is into the kitchen to make a bagel and cream cheese, but I wouldn’t dream of walking even one block without one. I certainly would never go to class or work without a bra!
But why do I feel like I need a bra? Are there any scientific facts supporting my breasts, or is it there to hold up society’s view of what a woman should look like?
To answer this question, I did some research to find out more about the history of the bra:
Since the earliest recorded history, there is evidence of women using a variety of materials to fashion garments that would support or cover their breasts. For large breasted women like myself, I imagine these were developed out of a need for comfort while working – I once tried mopping my floor bra-less, and besides being distracting, it was super uncomfortable. Nursing mothers, whose breasts are heavy with milk, would also have benefited from the reinforcement of a bra.
Until this point, bras were making total sense to me, but around the 1600’s, things start to get a little weird – it’s at this moment in history that bras changed from being a necessary device for comfort and support to a garment associated with social status and the idealized female form.
I am, of course, speaking about the creation of the corset, a device designed to help women achieve that “perfect” shape – tiny tummy, hourglass hips, and full, plump, upward breasts. If this is sounding like an easy way to look thin, don’t get too excited yet. Women who wore corsets did inevitably lose weight, but only because their stomach was constricted and could hold very little food. This lack of nutrients combined with the lack of oxygen that resulted from a crushed rib cage left women weak, easily tired, and susceptible to fainting spells.
So why didn’t they stop wearing it? Couldn’t they feel the harm it was doing?The answer is yes – duh. They knew firsthand how sucky it was to wear a corset all day. However, not only did it provide them with the body that society said they should have, it showed society that they were wealthy enough to afford to look this way. The corset was a status symbol, one that belonged primarily to the 4 w’s – wealthy, white, Western women. For lower class women, a simple tank top or slip, often referred to as a “shift” was the only undergarment they could afford.
(It is somewhat of a side note, but I have to note that the strict inaccessibility of these upper class women juxtaposed with the loose and accessible breasts of the lower class/household servants/minority women of color did contribute to a much higher rate of rape in these demographics. In Victorian society, where sex before marriage would “ruin” a woman, I imagine that a corset also provided a feeling protection against wandering male attention.)
Bras as we know them emerged onto the scene around 1900, but they were not seen on a large-scale until post WW2, when metal shortages encouraged the end of the corset. The idea of cup sizes, as well as circular stitching to increase breast roundness, was developed in the 1930’s – since then there have been a plethora of bra styles and designs. Not surprisingly, bras were over a billion dollar industry for the U.S. in 2012, NOT counting online sales.
There has been a lot of talk in the last decade about whether or not bras are a causal factor of breast cancer, as well as if bras work against breast ptosis, AKA sagging. In both of these cases the answer is NO. Bras have been found to neither ward off cancer or help slow ptosis, which unfortunately ladies, is a natural sign of aging. The bra companies insistence that daily wearing a bra will “stimulate blood flow” or “train your chest muscles” is a LIE. Even John Dixley, former CEO of Playtex agreed: “We have no medical evidence that wearing a bra could prevent sagging, because the breast itself is not a muscle – keeping it toned is an impossibility.” Well said Sir.
What is most disturbing to me is the idea of “training bras,” developed by the bra industry in the 1950’s. Popular literature of the time encouraged mothers to “get daughters into bras early before their breasts began to sag.” Although there is substantial medical evidence AGAINST this fact, adolescents today still wear training bras – I know I did. I was excited about growing breasts and wanted a bra way earlier than I needed one, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with a young girl excited about womanhood wearing one, though they certainly don’t NEED to. Also disturbing is how much money women spend on bras – what I own from Victoria’s Secret is one of the more substantial investments I have made during my college years, probably rivaling the cost of my laptop. My best friend has so many that I have often joked that she should take out an insurance policy.
The bottom line to all of this is that the idea that developing young girls and grown women NEED bras is wrong. I have many bras that are comfortable, efficient, and make me feel sexy, but I have others that make me feel like I am slowly dying in the clutches of a boa constrictor. Likewise, there are times in my life when I would feel super uncomfortable without a bra (IE class presentation, can you imagine?), and others, like today, when I would feel just as uncomfortable in one.
When it comes to bras, wearing one or not wearing one should be left to women’s choice, like all matters concerning women’s bodies. While the ideals behind bras are part of a culture that has been imposed on women, the necessary functions of them also exist. In writing this blog, and all of my imposed culture series, I hope to encourage women to think about WHY they do the things that they do, to understand the historical significance, and to make informed decisions that are all their own, never imposed.