We live in a world in which wearing a bra is a given. You hit puberty, someone takes you to get your first bra.
I understand why my not wearing a bra would be considered questionable. I don’t not wear a bra specifically as a show of feminist activism or to piss off the patriarchy, but I will say that the feminist within me is revved up about constantly being judged for it.
When I was in seventh grade, I hated the way my first real bra from Victoria’s Secret — a chunky thing with tan straps — looked slinking out of my tops. I used to feel like I was just waiting or that moment of freedom, that gasp of fresh air, when I finally returned home and could peel the thing off from under my shirt.
So, at a certain point, I stopped caring and never wore a bra again. If it didn’t feel good, why wear it?
My chest was a modest C in high school, but I honestly just felt better in my clothes and skin without the restraints of bra straps and underwire. Now, in college, I go to class in sweats half the time and haven’t owned a bra in years. I’m still the same type-A, perfectionist girl who’s good with parents and teachers — just bra-less. Nevertheless, people always seem to be making assumptions about why I’ve made this stylistic choice.
Other times, when people ask why I have so little regard for bras and my now D cup chest being exposed at all times, there is a lingering whiff of judgement; there’s an underlying tone that questions my womanly integrity and wants to label me as a slut.
Historically, the womanly figure was regarded as a sort of siren-esque temptation in which women only served to distract and corrupt righteous men. Kristen Houghton noted for the Huffington Post how breasts have, more often than not, been either hyper-sexualized or regarded as sinful and dirty. Historically art has greatly accentuated and sexually appraised curvaceous, feminine bodies and ample breasts. Houghton points out how, in the nineteenth century, society shifted back to its prior, more biblical views of shame and discomfort towards female nakedness.
Today, however, it seems as though a woman’s body (namely her breasts) are always compartmentalized into one of these two views. Why is there no middle ground of indifference?
This is not to say that breasts don’t have their rightful place in sexual attraction, but the ways in which this sexualization follows a woman outside of the bedroom teaches her to be embarrassed and ashamed of her assets. This attitude also creates environments in which women’s intelligence and abilities are undermined by her physical appearance. UK professor and author Sarah Churchwell calls this the “Monroe Syndrome.” A phenomenon in which a woman’s identity in the workplace and the merits of her career tend to be overshadowed by their level of sex appeal. Named for Marilyn Monroe, whose reputation and work was always contextualized based on her physical appearance.
Churchwell also notes that while male biographers, even men who identified as gay, consistently discussed and applauded Monroe’s implicit sex appeal, female biographers seemed to “condescend her from a great height”, patronize, and even pity her. Again, here we see the two polar plains on which women’s bodies are judged: either through sexual appeal or on the basis of condescension and disgust.
Even as my body has grown into womanhood along with — well, me — I haven’t felt particularly different or more vulnerable by not wearing a bra. There is no deeply rooted, anti-patriarchy-fueled reasoning behind this decision — I simply just don’t feel like it.
I am not offended by a culture that normalizes and romanticizes bra-wearing, nor do I judge or think less of the millions of women who wear bras to feel more comfortable (or even sexier) in their skin. I am, however, offended by others’ need to assert the reasons why my not wearing one offends them.
Their feelings about my body are superficially fueled: I haven’t demonstrated any inappropriate actions or spoken of anything disrespectful, and there isn’t some glaring character flaw that I have that causes them to glare and be distracted by the outline of my breasts in a T-shirt. It is the idea of my physical body, staring them in the face, that makes them wholly unsettled and unable to think of me as anything more than this body that I live in. Because of my lack of coverage and obvious ignorance to their discomfort, I am no longer seen as a dignified adult with class, manners, or self respect. Even if I’m wearing seemingly appropriate or “conservative” clothes with no cleavage bared, the mere outline of my breasts are enough to marginalize who I am and categorize me as distasteful.
Most people close to me don’t even notice it at this point. To them, I am just as I always am. Meanwhile, others have implied that those who don’t know me personally may get the wrong first impression and assume that I am unprofessional or inappropriate. I would argue that maybe they shouldn’t have been focusing on my chest in the first place.
I’d like to note that yes, I recognize that others are completely entitled to feeling uncomfortable by being exposed to a young woman’s more intimate body parts. It’s no surprise that centuries of breast coverage and the sexualization of women’s chests have wired us to gawk and grow unsettled by these regions being exposed. Further, my future employers, older family members, friends’ parents, and other people who I may address more formally are all folks that I would always choose to dress more conservatively in front of as a sign of respect and self-preservation. I would never go into a job interview or to dinner with my boyfriend’s parents with my nipples staring daggers at everyone in the room. Because yes — I am also capable of recognizing that these are settings in which their comfort matters just a little more than mine.
This all being said, is it not time to redefine how we, as a society, view women’s breasts?
For the time being, I can respect others’ boundaries in more formal settings and cover myself up to avoid any distractions or discomfort. On the other hand, why should my not wearing a bra automatically connote a lack of class or self respect? Am I less qualified for a job, less capable of making sound and mature decisions, or less intelligent for having this particular body part outlined under my clothing? Does my choice to not wear a bra mean that I am a “slut”? That I am concertedly making this choice to feed into my own sexualization and attract male or female attention? Social narratives and norms would argue so.
I am not trying to impose how I feel on anyone else; everyone is entitled to dress and wear clothing in a way that makes them feel safe and comfortable in their skin. For me, I won’t be wearing bras simply because I don’t feel like it. To me, a boob is a boob. An areola is an areola. It is a region of my body that I don’t feel like dropping hundreds of dollars on to uncomfortably cover up.
To those who love to buy new bras and feel more confident in a sexy lingerie set, who wear bras to help with back pain or need extra breast support, or those who wear bras because they feel better in their clothes with one — I salute you.
And for those who are uncomfortable with my choice, I would suggest you keep your eyes away from my chest and look me in the face when we encounter each other. If someone wants to judge my intelligence, my choices, or my level of self respect based on my appearance or this choice to not wear a bra, then I’m not sure they even have the capacity to judge me fairly as a person to begin with.
Photo via Giphy.com