So I haven’t worn a bra for about 18 months now: I’ve never needed one for support and just got out of the habit while in Paris. This was when I decided to stop shaving, so I thought I’d get rid of another unnecessary dependency while I was at it. Thus far neither decision has posed much of a problem, partly because I’m a student and so have the luxury of not having to conform to social norms of appearance, but also because being abroad for a year meant I missed out on summer: both my hairy pits and braless breasts have been hidden away under jumpers and long sleeves. No more.
Now, I’m not really bothered what anyone thinks of my hair, though I must admit to wondering whether people are talking about me as I stretch out in the library. But the breast thing is more difficult: walking down the street braless in just a vest top, knowing that the outline of my breasts can be seen fairly clearly makes me quite paranoid, particularly since my first braless outing at a wedding was met with the comment ‘Look at the puppies on that’ as I walked past a table of drunken revellers, resulting in much upset, a tearful argument and an apology which may or may not have been sincere.
Despite the fact that they are a major and visible part of the bodies of millions of people in this country, breasts are taboo. Sexualised to the point at which breast feeding in public is viewed by many as offensive and disgusting, while the photoshopped boobs on lads mags covers are highly visible in shops across the land, breasts are a sign of sexual availability, the outline of a nipple a sign of sexual excitement, viewed by some as an invitation to instigate sexual activity. In order to avoid giving out these signals, many of us wear padded cups over our breasts, moulding them into an often unnatural, smooth shape, an inoffensive, and much less sexual, rigid mound under our clothes.
When you stop and think about it, the bra, far from being a sign of womanliness and femininity, could be said to alienate woman from her feminine body and breasts, which are defined by external judgement: braless, they are too openly sexual for the public’s gaze (or not sexual enough: god spare us the hideous sagging boobs) , covered up they must be standardised and pushed up to meet the exacting demands of patriarchal femininity.
I do recognise that some women do genuinely need bras for support, particularly those with bigger breasts and those who play sport. But in many cases I think the wearing of a bra is simply to enable us to fit into a patriarchal society that has an age long fear of the female body, either claiming parts of it as its own and defining and controlling them to its own ends (breasts, womb) or portraying it as disgusting and, again, in need of control (body hair).
I recently tried to buy a bra, as I work with kids and think going braless is probably inappropriate in summer: I have to fit in. My god was it stressful. I tried on dozens and dozens, none of which fitted properly, all of which deformed my breasts into an unnatural shape, and I went stomping from shop to shop in an ever increasing rage. Eventually I found a crop top type bra in M&S which, mercifully, allows my breasts to stay their natural shape while covering the evol offensive nipples, but I really dislike the feeling of being bandaged up. I know I could go and get one specially fitted or made, but why should I have to spend so much money just to conform to a social norm that brings me no benefit whatsoever?
I know some – many – people will think that I’m fighting a pointless and unwinnable battle by braving the world braless, but learning to accept and be comfortable in my female body in its natural state has done wonders for my confidence and self belief*. I really do believe that the concerted assault by the media and beauty industry on our bodies, appearance and identity is one of the biggest challenges Western women face in our continued fight for liberation. After all, if we’re constantly at war with our own bodies, how can we possibly fight for freedom from sexism, violence and discrimination?
While we’re on the subject, I recently came across The Normal Breasts Gallery, which aims to show women the huge variety of natural breast shapes and sizes in an effort to counteract the standardised images of breasts in the media. If, like me, you’ve never seen many other women’s breasts, this really is amazing!
*This is not to say that I think women who are quite happy in their bras lack self confidence, but it explains the importance I personally place on this issue in the context of feminism.