Why are bras a thing? And what are they doing to our bodies?

Yvonne Kiely

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Clothes are very practical things. We wear them to keep warm, dry, cool, and perhaps because walking around naked is not a norm we are brought up with (nudists on the other hand see things differently). Clothes are also a fashion statement, if you so choose. Take this understanding about clothes and apply it to specific items. Jeans…jumpers…shoes…underwear…bras – wait. Bras. These are interesting. What is the practical reasoning behind wearing one? And do they still function as a fashion statement if you’re wearing them under everything else? We are brought up with the understanding that we need to wear one under our clothes all the time – or at least when we are out with other people. It’s time to challenge the bra rule.

Questioning bras
Questioning bras – photo credit: Yvonne Kiely

First, some brassière history…

Up until the 1900s women had been wearing corsets to achieve the perfect female shape. These covered the torso, and pushed breasts upward with pressure from a wire cage. The purpose was purely aesthetic, because women’s bodies were subject to notions of acceptable beauty and modesty. Today, people still wear corsets for their aesthetic value but usually as symbols of sex and desire.

Histories of the bra date its modern design to 1910 or 1914, depending on what you read. The important thing is that one woman decided that things needed to change – her name was Mary Phelps Jacobs. She made it with handkerchiefs which tied around her neck like a bikini. Jacobs invented the bra, which we may or may not be so thankful for.

The bra really took off in the 1930s with the introduction of cup sizes. Then Canada gave us the Wonderbra in the 60s, and finally we had the birth of Victoria’s Secret in the 70s providing a lingerie-only service. Interestingly the idea came about when one man, Roy Raymond, felt awkward buying for his wife in regular department stores.

1953 Ad. Photo credit: Classic Film
1953 Ad. Photo credit: Classic Film (flickr)

Now, bras are a hugely profitable product and have integrated themselves into annual holidays and special occasions; Valentine’s Day, Christmas, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and they are generally accepted as’the norm’.

1962 ad. Photo Credit: Classic Film
1962 ad. Photo Credit: Classic Film (flickr)

Still, the question remains: do we actually need them? The reality of the bras existence has more to do with society and gender norms than comfort or practicality.

Experimenting with ‘the norm’…

Towards the end of February I decided not to wear a bra. For seven days I went to college, did my shopping and went about town as usual. Results: it was 100% more comfortable than wearing one. My back felt great at the end of the day, I didn’t have to rearrange myself during a lecture, and my boobs just felt good. The psychological effects were far more interesting. On the one hand I felt lighter, more free and relaxed. It felt like I was overcoming an insecurity that I never really knew existed – like breaking a taboo and being more like myself.

On the other hand, every now and then I felt moments of a different kind of insecurity. I became aware that my bralessness was very clear, as were the nipples through my top. My own nipples made me feel insecure. Years of wearing a bra had alienated myself from them, with the underlying belief of society that they are too sexual and people will stare at them.

Bra ad by Mia. Photo credit: Willy Feng
Bra ad by Mia. Photo credit: Willy Feng (flickr)

We are aware of the fact that women’s breasts are highly sexualised, in the media and in regular life. The idea that breasts should be covered up and we should be insecure about our nipples poking through our tops is a gendered norm. It is based on nothing practical, or rational. Women’s bodies have been continually regulated throughout history based on the ideas of the dominant and powerful. Traditionally, it has been men who are the big political decision makers, the CEOs, the Board of Directors and leaders in the public realm.

The rules, norms, and laws that disproportionately affect one gender in society are inevitably shaped by this power structure, their values, attitudes, and ideas of ‘acceptable sexuality’. In capitalist, western society women have been socialised from a young age into wearing certain clothes sometimes clothes that physically restrict their bodies. These are a very strong but subtle reminder of the lack of bodily autonomy women possess, and the shame that should be associated with their bodies.

A much more pronounced example of this is the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. This is a written, explicit rule based on morals and ethics, that tells everyone in the country what women cannot do with their bodies. Men’s bodies don’t feature as a talking point in the constitution. In fact, women are still told that their place is in the home.

In a nutshell: bras exist to impose and normalise gender differences, gender values, and gender specific body shaming.

Restroom at Berkley. Photo credit: Aaron Muszalski
Restroom at Berkley. Photo credit: Aaron Muszalski (flickr)

That’s not to say that some women do not benefit from bras. Playing sports may require you to wear a bra and certainly make exercise easier, and some women with large breasts may need the support. So these are positive aspects. But can we justify the existence of bras below a C cup?

Are there any physical effects of wearing a bra?

A poorly fitted bra is very likely to cause back pain. As can a well fitted bra, depending on the person. While leaving red marks, women can also experience discomfort and back problems. Sally Weale writes for The Guardian about a study carried out on women with breast cycts:

Professor Robert Mansel, of the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, and Simon Cawthorn, consultant surgeon at Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital, carried out a six-month trial to see if wearing a bra influenced breast pain.

They asked 100 pre-menopausal women to go without a bra for three months then return to wearing one for another three months and record the differences. On average, the number of pain-free days went up by 7% when the women stopped wearing bras.

Buying a well fitting bra isn’t as easy as buying a well fitting pair of trousers or shoes. High street shops only sell specific sizes that are most commonly bought, for example 32A, 32B, 34B, 36C etc – those multiples of two’s. They do not sell the ‘in between sizes’ of 30B, 30C. If you want these ones, you need to go to a lingerie shop and fork out at least three times as much money for a bra that actually fits. Even if you can find your size, evidence suggests that the majority of women who wear a bra are not wearing the correct size anyway. This can lead to long term issues with posture and chronic back pain.

Am I an Apparel?. Photo credit: Toban B (flickr)
Am I an Apparel?. Photo credit: Toban B (flickr)

There’s a myth that cancer is linked to wearing a bra. On an episode of Disptaches on Channel 4 which investigated bras, the link between cancer and bras was dispelled, with no substantial evidence to back up the claim that wearing one will increase your risk of developing cancer.

No need to burn your bra

It really comes down to personal choice. There are a couple side-effects of wearing a bra that doesn’t fit, and then there are the wider societal influences on gender and sexuality.

Bras are pretty, and can certainly spice up any hour of the day. There’s no need to go on a bra burning rampage if you don’t like them. Don’t wear them, and embrace the nipple. And maybe remind people that it’s rude to stare.

Slut walk 2012. Photo credit: Studio5Graphics (flickr)
Slut walk 2012. Photo credit: Studio5Graphics (flickr)

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Yvonne Kiely

If it's sexuality or music, I'm your woman. If it's holding an axe and filling you with a sense of dread, then you're probably in a Stephen King novel.