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Boobs, bras, and baring it all

Image from CNN International

Lina AbiRafeh

The cold has set in here in New York. I’ve gone from t-shirt to turtleneck in minutes. While I reflect on those balmy t-shirt days, I’m reminded of the freedom I felt in the city all summer — sun on my face, arms exposed, and… no bra. It was blissful.

Everyone was braless, it seemed. Women of all ages and sizes seemed to simply no longer care about this particular garment. How liberating!

I feel like we’ve normalized the idea of boobs — they’re not a perversion, they’re not an anomaly. They are natural, they are beautiful, they are healthy in all their shapes and sizes, and it is OK to go braless.

At the same time, whenever I left the bubble that is New York City, I didn’t feel the same freedom. I found myself uncomfortable. Almost missing my bra.

And so I took the question to TikTok — I wanted to know what fellow TikTokers thought of my sense of freedom. Was it geographic? Was it just a passing summer thing? Was it about our changing norms? Or a (wonderful) post-COVID relic?

And in true TikTok fashion, the comments came in!

Size certainly was a factor, as these women had to say…

Mine are big. I need the support. But everyone should do what makes them happy and comfortable!

The gravitational pull is not working for me. I need to use a seat belt for the girls.

But society played a part as well…

I get bad attention from men.

I don’t care until I’m at work, only because I’ve had comments from male managers before.

Others simply enjoyed the freedom…

If I am wearing a shirt that won’t make it obvious I go without.

Been doing this for about a year and I’m never going back!

I love this! West coast sister here bringing up (or down) the left!

Sure, bras have a function. Forget social expectations for a second. Let’s focus on support. Some of us need a bra to avoid back pain. It turns out that most women are wearing the wrong bra size, leading to discomfort and pain, effectively undoing any work the bra is supposed to do. While there are not many scientific studies looking at this issue (another problem in itself), anecdotal evidence and expert opinion suggest this to be true.

I know some actively prefer a bra for aesthetic reasons, such as my small-boobed sisters who opt to wear bras for added boob. And added confidence. Or my big-boobed sisters who prefer to minimize. I fall into camp #2, having made feeble attempts to minimize the cargo for decades. I’ve since surrendered — we are stuck together, these boobs and I.

Anyway, cup size — actual, perceived, or desired — is a whole separate conversation.

So, decisions whether or not to bra rest on many factors — support, comfort, size, society, setting, occupation, fashion and so on.

There’s also been a major shift since the onset of COVID. Research into women’s present-day underwear preferences and habits has interesting results. We spend too much time in discomfort due to our undergarments, it seems. And more than half of women surveyed “can’t wait” to take their bras off at the end of the day. Almost half have started ditching their bras in the name of comfort.

For those who have preserved the tradition, 60% have made the switch to non-wired because — geez! — no one ever wanted wires poking into their chest! More women have committed to wearing the most comfortable pandemic bra possible — even when we are post-pandemic!

In the words of one woman:

COVID had a big impact where people didn’t leave the house as much and got used to comfort over style and then were like why would I go back to wearing something I find uncomfortable?

These findings really gave me a… lift. I had to keep poking around! And women didn’t… minimize their commentary. OK, enough boob puns. Here’s what they had to say:

I rarely wear bras myself but most people here would. I am often told I get away with it because I have smaller (no) boobs. I definitely feel self conscious sometimes in certain settings but for the most part I’m happy to go bra free regardless. Abroad I would sunbathe topless and don’t even pack bras on holidays but 100% depends on the country.

Many women agreed with this view. Young women, that is. There’s likely a generational gap here too, but that’s the subject of another blog!

“It depends on where you are,” many said. And this even varies from city to city in the same country. There are cities that are more open (or, boob-friendly) than others.

Another said:

Depends on how big your boobs are. Not in terms of acceptability but in terms of how comfortable you are going about the place and how you feel about your boobs flying about the place.

This meme was brought to mind then:

One woman added:

I do think I have to wear one, apart from the comfort I feel un-put together, lazy and like I can’t achieve anything in my day until I put one on! I think it’s fashionable with the Gen Z not to wear one, but I guess it all depends on your cup size and how confident you are. If you have a medium to generous cup size it’s more obvious and do people do it to grab attention or to shock? Or is that just what society has told us?

Another agreed with the societal expectations saying, “I think it’s acceptable but I think societally, if you don’t have as much boobs it’s kind of less in your face so you can get away with it.” And she added: “But that’s more what society says, not me.”

And another:

Definitely in summer I wouldn’t wear a bra but then when the weather gets colder I tend to because I still get the comment (from men) “Are you cold?” and I’ve even gotten “Oh the headlights are on.”

Many still opt to wear bras. “Oh god I can’t not wear a bra!” one woman said. “I only let them free at night,” added another.

“Mine are droopy now… if I run I need to wear my own bra with two sports bras over my original bra to stop them from jiggling!” But for everyone else, she said, “free the titties!”

“I would feel comfortable going bra free,” another said, “but sometimes I like how my boobs look in a bra and the confidence I get with that.”

Wearing a bra for work was pretty standard response. In the office, most of us feel “obliged to wear one to work,” even though “I don’t need the support,” one added.

“I think it probably is the done thing to wear one to work,” another woman added. Even if minimal, like a bralette.

Another woman explained that it isn’t about the boobs but about the nipples. “Certain tops I don’t wear a bra but would put on nipple covers,” she said, recognizing that this has more to do with how society views visible nipples.

Another one echoed this:

If I’m wearing a top that doesn’t work with a bra I go braless no problem but I do kinda try make sure nips are covered I guess? I know like it’s definitely some toxic masculinity shit going on.

For the younger generation, covering nipples is less of a consideration.

Definitely a bra to work but probably depends massively on your uniform/outfit and what your job entails. Outside of that each to their own. The “nips out” is all the rage now sure!

“Yeah nips out and 90s fashion is back!” another agreed.

At the end of the day, in the words of one woman “I’ve got a few things to get off my chest… like this bra!”

Why do we wear bras anyway? Society. Support. A bit of both, perhaps? The truth is that there are many good reasons not to wear a bra, including “you just don’t feel like it.” The expectation (to bra or not to bra?!) has been placed on us since the beginning of time, with the first bras appearing as early as the 14th century.

And then there was the corset. And women literally breaking their ribs to squeeze into them. The corset has an interesting history with varying viewpoints — oppressive or empowering. Impractical and often hazardous, many regard them as a symbol of repression. Others thought they celebrated femininity. Presently corsets are incorporated into fashion trends, thanks in large part to TikTok (and maybe Madonna, for us kids of the 80s out there!).

Despite their ancient origins, bras became normalized in the early 1900s, and by the 1930s they were an essential wardrobe staple. Along with evolution of the garment came evolution of our standards and expectations. In every age and stage, we have been told what our bodies are supposed to look like. And we’ve enlarged or reduced our boobs according to the norms of the day.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the most common cosmetic procedures are breast augmentation or enlargement, breast implant removals, and breast lift. Globally, too, one of the most common surgical cosmetic procedures is breast augmentation, with over 1.6 million procedures performed in 2020.

The bra is tightly… fastened to the status of women and patriarchal views of the female body. We are expected to “cover it up” — boobs, hair, whatever. To me, any forced form of covering plays a similar role. I’m not saying we should all go topless, but what I would like is for us to have more freedom around our choices. In other words, if I am not wearing a bra under my top, shouldn’t that be up to me to decide?!

I remain opposed to any attempt to forcibly cover, restrain, restrict, deny, or hide parts of our bodies that should otherwise be natural.

There’s an ongoing conversation about this. Popular campaigns like #FreeTheNipple became a rallying cry to point out hypocritical double standards where images of female breasts are censored or removed from social media sites. Meaning, women’s bodies are perceived to be indecent and sexualized, while men’s bodies are natural.

The same argument can be seen in conversations on breastfeeding in public, one of the most natural acts. The argument here is that it makes people “uncomfortable” because breasts are sexual. I don’t have words for how archaic this line of thinking is.

Anyway, there’s much more to say about boob-politics. But back to bras.

In Papua New Guinea, where I lived for many years, the word for bra is kalabas blong susu. And the translation is poetic and perfect: prison for breasts.

That’s how I feel about bras, anyway. But if you choose to wear such a “prison” — with emphasis on the word CHOICE across every single aspect of our lives — then I’d suggest doing what I probably should have done: get a really good fitting, invest in a high quality bra, and don’t pick based on aesthetics. Admittedly, I failed across these fronts, and have since all but abandoned my pretty little prisons.

More importantly, get to know your boobs. Check regularly for lumps or abnormalities. Speaking of, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. We need to understand breast cancer — and fully fund its research. And we need to show support and solidarity for those affected by breast cancer — we all know too many people who have been affected. Donate here.

So, do we burn our bras?! Not necessarily. Bras might fuel our fire — or light our fire — but either way the choice is ours.

Read the full piece here.

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