First, let us define our terms: When women talk about our bras, we are really talking about our boobs, and about enduring the fraught experience that is having to have a Boob Management System. Every woman has one, and it’s carefully honed over a lifetime. And let me tell you: Having boobs is as wonderful as you’d think, but lugging them around 24/7 is horrible to a degree you can’t comprehend.
You see, we can’t just walk around with our boobs exactly as they were issued to us; we gotta hoist those things into something society deems respectable. It’s a delicate balance between aesthetics and propriety, and it’s not only a problem for women with big boobs versus women with small ones. Hoisting them up too much is a problem (cleavage!); not hoisting them enough or at all is a problem (flopping! nipples!). It’s “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” when it comes to owning boobs.
Of course, you, a man, wouldn’t likely understand this intuitively. If you have thought about bras at all, you probably just think they’re sexy. They are: They turn two mounds of fat into something ridiculously lusty. Most of your energy has likely been devoted to getting a bra off a woman. Learning to unhook with one hand (or your teeth, apparently) in the dark without an immense amount of fumbling is a mainstay of heterosexual teenage boy sexual development.
You probably also think of them primarily as lingerie and associate them sexual awakenings and other assorted sexiness: you caught a glimpse of bra straps peeking out of a shirt; you detected their lace outline underneath a blouse. And nowadays, bras are hiding everywhere in plain sight: The recent addition of the athleisure bralette, replete with a million back straps worn under barely-there tank tops for the express purpose of being seen, has basically turned bras into outerwear.
Not to burst your bra cup, but this amount of bra knowledge is basically only the CliffsNotes. That’s okay: I will illuminate the Mighty Bra Struggle for you, and turn you into a true bra ally.
A friend told me her husband, a fully grown man she’s been with for years, recently saw the price tag on a new bra ($60) she bought and was “aghast.” He had no idea how much they cost. Bras are not cheap. Yes, you can find them for $5 somewhere, I’m sure, but it’s not going to be a good bra that lasts or fits well. Many bras that are well made and actually do the job will easily set you back anywhere from $30 to $60 a pop (some are closer to or over $100), and we need more than one.
Bras are supposed to offer comfortable support, but bras that are ill-fitting — that dig into our flesh, cut into our ribcages, smoosh our boobs together and hoist them in gravitationally defying ways that fuck with our backs and necks — are actually painful. (And, honestly, most bras are ill-fitting—more on that in a moment.)
This is why taking a bra off at the end of the day with a sigh of relief is something akin to orgasm.
It Is a Lifelong Journey to Find One That Fits
Finding a bra that fits is harder than solving the JFK assassination. There are easily dozens of types, from the sports bra to the corset to the plunge to the bullet to the push-up to the T-shirt bra. They have varying levels of padding, support, push, separation and lift. There are bras for wearing under blouses, and bras for backless numbers. There are bras that make your boobs look like you are 25, and bras that make you look 85.
Bras are bewildering to fit. They are measured by two things, cup and band, which make bra fitting sound simple. After all, the letter is the cup size (not the same as your breast size, but the size relative to the band size); the number is the band that goes around your ribcage. Sounds like it should be easy to figure out, but it’s not. Did you know some 80 percent of women wear the wrong bra size? Do you have any idea the sort of considerations women go through to find a bra that fits? Have you ever heard phrases like “center gore” or “scoop and swoop” or “quad boob”? Did you know that breasts naturally and normally change throughout the month due to the menstrual cycle, not to mention due to weight loss or gain and aging, making it even more impossible to find one good bra that fits all the time?
Also, women feel social pressure to be a certain bra size. Yes, it’s true. I grew up when 36C was the “most popular size” so every woman wanted to be a 36C. (Possibly because we’re told 36–24–36 is the most ideal body measurement for a woman). But this led to a huge number of women wearing the wrong size bra because they just wanted to be the size everyone considered most desirable. How messed up is that?
Nowadays, there are online companies that claim to take the guesswork out of fitting, and more places offer bra customization on site, but it’s more expensive. And with ordering via the mail, you’re just doing trial and error with postage and weeks in between. Our boobs can’t wait that long.
No One “Needs” a Bra
In spite of the widespread perception that bras help our boobs in some way, they really don’t. They definitely help shape them and lift them, but that’s purely aesthetic, and yes, female athletes need a sports bra to hold the boobs in place during movement. But there’s no medical benefit to the bra, and the idea that it prevents sagging is pure myth. We wouldn’t stop aging if we could be carried in a chair, so putting our boobs on a shelf won’t stop the effects of gravity nor time.
Weirdly, it’s not wearing a bra that’s better for our boobs, at least according to some limited research. Women who stop wearing bras altogether are said to experience improved breast shape, better circulation, and less sagging, because their chest muscles have to actually work to keep those suckers afloat. That’s right: Wearing a bra makes a woman’s chest muscles super lazy. (This is not to suggest that women who feel bras help with back pain or breast support shouldn’t wear them.)
But Women “Have” to Wear Them
The societal pressure to keep ’em jailed is strong. Not wearing a bra at all is, in many ways, worse than wearing one the wrong way. In a personal history at The New Yorker about what it’s like to go braless as a triple DDD, Hillary Brenhouse explores the bouncy ups and downs of what it’s like to let the boobs go free (answer: strange, freeing, radical). She cites a slew of videos on YouTube devoted to going braless, and explains what happened when she chose to stop wearing a bra. Brenhouse writes:
No one would describe my abundant, flopping bosom as fashionable. No one says, “You’re so lucky that you don’t have to wear a bra,” which is something I’ve weirdly been leveling at small-breasted women my entire adult life. The people who contemplate my chest, and there are many, generally come to the conclusion that I’m a hippie or an angry feminist or both; I might as well have burned the bras, not slid them gently into a drawer. And they don’t mind. In fact, it seems to bring them some relief to have reaffirmed that this other way isn’t available to them or anyone they know, because it’s for irate bohemian ladies. Of course, there are also the men and women who express their displeasure outright, and the unique category of my despairing mother, who considers herself to be living in the seventh circle of my impropriety.
Not Wearing a Bra Is Dangerous, Though
We don’t trust a woman who isn’t wearing a bra, who hasn’t gotten the message to rope ’em in and stand them at attention. Brenhouse wonders what, exactly our issue is:
Is the problem that the bosomy braless woman — breasts swaying, nipples pointed — is too sexy? Or is it that she isn’t sexy enough — that, without propping, her breasts are egregiously unround, wilted, differently sized? I suspect that she isn’t the right kind of sexy, which is to say that she isn’t contained. She isn’t fighting desperately against gravity. She would appear to be a critical consumer. Part of being the right kind of sexy lies in wanting to be the right kind of sexy, and in buying things to make it so.
She’s right, but the non-bosomy woman gets no smaller amount of guff. People ask them why they wear bras at all when they don’t “have” to, or alternatively, write into etiquette columns about office culture asking what on earth they can do about a coworker who is nipples-out at work because she’s gone braless. When to nip, and when not to nip, is still highly debated as of press time, though the general rule seems to be (unfairly) for women to pad the nips at the office. (And yes, to free the nipple elsewhere).
Do Not Pop the Bra Strap
Whatever you do, don’t pop the strap. I know, it seems hilarious and all. But for a grown woman, it’s often a terrible reminder of her first embarrassing experience with low-simmering harassment, something that happened in middle school on a school bus, a foreshadowing of what will usually continue the rest of her life in increasingly worse forms.
Now that you know what’s up with bras, try to resist fetishizing them too much. Also, don’t read this and go mansplain to a woman you know that she doesn’t have to wear a bra, because it’s actually better for her not to. To bra or not to bra, to nip or not to nip, is her choice. It’s personal; it’s aesthetic; it’s physical.
Just remember that bras, for women, come loaded with much more than fun bags. The least you can do is tread cautiously, and when appropriate, offer nothing more than, ahem, support.