I’ve always hated bras, but it wasn’t until I had kids that I really zeroed in on my hatred.
As a pregnant person, anything remotely tight caused me discomfort, and as a nursing person, bras were simply in the way. Underwire nursing bras had stupid bulky clips and dug into an area of my body that was constantly fluctuating in size and sensitivity according to milk production. Sleep bras worked, but only in public and only as a place to hold nursing pads that catch leaking milk. Otherwise, I was leaking through T-shirts bra-free and happy.
At 38, I’ve come to view my breasts as primarily utilitarian. They’ve fed three babies, suffered through dozens of clogged milk ducts, two bouts of mastitis, and been squeezed and tugged and scratched by careless, proprietary infant hands. My breasts have worked hard, and now deserve to live their lives unencumbered by elastic or wire. I like to imagine it’s my way of celebrating the gritty difficulties of motherhood, which, in America, are compounded by societal pressure to attain impossible maternal ideals while also being utterly unsupported by our health care system and employment model.
At the very least, I have the power to allow my breasts a little comfort. So pre-pandemic, as someone with small breasts who works from home, I was braless at all times except for work meetings or dinners out.
The pandemic hasn’t changed my bra habits as much as it’s simply changed the ratio of “caring” and “not caring” how I look. In the Before Times, I found myself in public situations where I “cared” maybe about 40 percent of the time, so I wore a bralette 40 percent of the time, which I promptly flung off as soon I returned home. Now though, I “care” about 1 percent of the time, so my bra usage reflects that. I went braless once to the grocery store recently and experienced a strange feeling of both vulnerability and bravado. Like, I dare you to give me some sort of nasty or lecherous look but also please don’t look at my little floppy breasts. As much as I hate to admit it, not wearing a bra felt like more emotional and mental work. So, when I took my 1-year-old for his wellness exam last week, I wore a bra despite being mad about it.
As a small-breasted woman, philosophizing about whether to wear a bra is a luxury many women with larger breasts don’t have. In a completely unscientific and informal poll of 150 women, at least half of those women told me they preferred wearing bras for comfort, and many of them bristled at the ongoing social chatter about embracing bralessness, which features photos of always thin, usually smallish breasted women flouting free-ranging breasts and (importantly) looking beautiful while doing it.
Lorraine Smith, co-founder of the Underpinnings Museum, dedicated to lingerie, says that “those who need more support and older women are expressing that continuing to wear a bra (even just for video calls and when going outside for walks) helps them feel a little more ‘normal’ during a very strange time.”
Smith notes that bralettes and wireless bras have both been embraced during the pandemic, and suspects that more and more companies will continue to create bralettes for all shapes and sizes. There’s also a discrepancy of price to consider, since small-breasted women can typically find a cheap bra or bralette in their size that will meet their needs, while larger-breasted women face a significant financial cost of finding well-made, comfortable bras in their sizes.
Some women prefer bras to going braless because of sensory issues. Olga Mecking, a writer based in the Netherlands, says “a bra makes me notice my body less and it also hurts without so I keep wearing one. I find it more comfortable than without, and it provides some ‘boundaries’ to my body.” Sweat was another reason for sticking with bras, as was “flopping,” “jiggling,” “bouncing.”
When I do choose to wear a bra, it often has more to do with wanting to move safely in the world. Several women I spoke to for this piece referred to their bras as “shields” from unwanted ogling eyes. Smith wonders what will happen after lockdown, “once street harassment returns to its pre-pandemic levels.”
Susanna Cordner, head of archives at the London College of Fashion, says that to dismiss bras as simply tools of patriarchy or “unnecessary social constructs” is to “ignore the experience of bodies different from your own. While for some, a bra might feel incumbent, and indeed be unnecessary, for others it supports, shields and even, in some cases, alleviates pain and discomfort.”
Cordner likens it to the corset, which was actually both loved and hated by 19th century women, much like the bra. “While some argued they were a repressive and restrictive tool, others claimed that the corset leveled their breathing, supported their back and bust, and carried the weight of their heavy layers of skirts,” she says.
Our culture is notoriously quick to both condemn and celebrate women’s bodies and how women choose to clothe those bodies. We favor binaries, strict codes of right and wrong, slutty and classy, rather than nuance and individual autonomy. And perhaps that’s why there are so many conversations right now about the fate of the bra post-pandemic.
But the bra, which to some is an unnecessary afterthought, is for others a critical component of bodily, emotional and mental well-being. To assume bras are all one thing or all another is just as dismissive as assuming the same about the women who wear them, says Cordner.
“A successful social trend around underwear would be to allow people to make their own choices, to go with or without, based on the needs of their individual body and to have a market that caters for everyone.”