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The bra carries the perfect irony – there are tons of rules and so many fights about it, and yet we’ve got to hide it.
When I buy outfits, I always wonder, ‘do I have the right bra for this top?’. The answer to this question depends on whether or not the bras I have would show through.
Many a top have been left behind in trial rooms because they lack the ability to perfectly disguise my bra. It’s as though a bra is an assault to the senses, a devastating sight and so, it must be perfectly concealed. I would call it an art except no one gets any joy from it, the artist is forced to expend far too much effort and honestly, the closest thing you get to a reward is even more stress.
One may ask, what’s the big deal? Is it that tragic that you didn’t get to buy some clothes? Well no, it isn’t. But it is a big deal when your character is judged on the basis of what is essentially a pair of pads, straps and hooks. It is a big deal when your self worth is based on whether or not your breasts sag. And it definitely is a big deal when the health risks that come with wearing bras are never discussed and are practically unknown.
The pandemic has led many people to important realisations- modernity has by no means led people to trust science, as revealed by the startling numbers of anti-maskers, and that life without bras has been a silver lining in a world of dark and virus ridden skies.
As much as I miss college life and hanging out with my friends, I oddly feel free at home. I have barely worn a bra and I cannot imagine having to wear one as much as I used to.
The bra has an interesting history.
Art of the 14th century depicts female athletes wearing bras, or a proto version of what we know. In fact, historians speculate that the use of specialised garments to cover or restrain breasts had begun even before pictorial depictions of the 1300s. The 16th century saw the arrival of the corset, which is worn to both cinch the waist and modify the appearance of breasts, though of course some may use the word ‘support’.
The arrival of what resembles contemporary bras was a rejection of the corset. Beyond medical concerns about the impact of corsets on lungs, a clothing reform movement strongly advocated for women’s release from corsets, which would symbolise general emancipation for women. However, it was only after the Second World War that women across classes, in the West, started to wear bras.
India has a less linear relationship with the bra. While women of the 14th century wrap their breasts with garments, caste norms guided who was allowed to cover their chest. But it wasn’t until colonial rule, and the entrance of Victorian morality, that the overwhelming anxiety about sin came to control what women wear. Breasts came to be objectified as subjects of propriety. It was only in the 1940s and 1950s that the bra became a staple in Indian closets.
The phrase ‘Free the Nipple’ gains traction in pop culture every few years and social media gets engulfed in a debate about whether women should wear bras or go unrestrained. But what does research have to say?
When I read about a 15 year long French study on the need for bras, everything I thought I knew about something so basic to me went right out the window. As it turns out, wearing bras eventually lead breasts to sag in the long run. On the other hand, medical research has linked breast cancer to breast pain and so, a good fitting bra can help.
However several studies have found that most women don’t wear the right bra for their breasts. Many wear ill-fitting bras almost constantly, especially if there are men in their households, and simply bear the pain. Essentially, there is no urgent medical need to wear a bra. We love the euphoric feeling of taking off our bras and flinging them away. Then why do we deal with discomfort, pain and anxiety?
We do it because we have been taught that it is right. Hypersexualisation of our bodies is so ingrained in cultures across the world, even in ‘modern’ spaces (Instagram has specifically banned women’s nipples, while men can post their bodies however they want to). The bra is the pinnacle of control and restraint. Men have nipples that show through their shirts all the time. Men get breast cancer too. They get a nice comfy vest, which isn’t even socially enforced. How often has a man been told, ‘Psst…I can see your banyan, sharam nahi aati?’(aren’t you ashamed). And when women love the bra they wear and show it off online, that too is a problem – to post pictures wearing lingerie or even have a hint of it show are apparently invitations to sexual harassment.
I can go on and on about the injustices of underwear. And yet, to go against the grain is scary. I call myself a feminist but to be honest, the fear of going braless is so pervasive. My mother, who introduced me to feminism, is still conservative about my bra showing through and asks me to not wear low cut tops. I don’t blame her – I too am hesitant to test the waters when it comes to choosing for myself.
I won’t sit here and say, ‘Let’s ditch ‘em’. For one, they’re very expensive. Secondly, many women prefer wearing bras when doing high intensity work or even for aesthetics. To be honest, bras make me feel safe. I know that because I’m a woman, many eyes will be on me -judgemental or perverse.
As a feminist, the bra symbolises the struggle of knowing that some things I do are socially ordered but still doing them. Over time, I try to push myself a little more (pasties can be a great alternative sometimes). But part of being a feminist is knowing the realities of the lives of women, especially in my country. There are genuine constraints and dangers to ‘freeing the nipple’. To be fearful of our families’ or societal reactions is not to be weak.
I believe in agency, to wear the bra you want and when you want. To choose comfort, whatever that means for the individual woman. To have access to information before choosing for yourself. While external judgements will continue, I want women to stop shaming themselves and to be empathetic towards themselves. We aren’t bad women for wearing a bra, nor are we bad women for going braless. As for me, I will keep working on learning how to choose.
Image Source: Sora Shimazaki on pexels
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