Thursday, September 22, 2016

Letting Them Win

by Annabeth Leong

I’ll never forget the way my stomach squirmed the first time I put on a bra. It was an unbearable sensation, and all I wanted was to take the thing off again. It felt mortifying to me that my dad had “noticed” that I “needed” one now. I didn’t understand what it meant to “need” this garment.

So I avoided wearing bras. I basically didn’t wear them at all until I started going to high school, at which point my mom managed to convince me to wear one for all of freshman year. Sophomore year, I stopped a second time, and didn’t put one on again until after grad school, at which point I was so desperate to get a job that I was afraid to do anything that might give someone an excuse not to hire me. I asked my sister in law to help me buy some bras before my first interview.

Over the years I didn’t wear a bra, all sorts of people felt free to tell me that I needed one.

To me, the embarrassment and discomfort produced by a bra outweighed whatever I might go through if I didn’t put the thing on. I hated being talked to about my breasts, but that discomfort was small compared to the panic I felt about them.

This earned me a ton of detractors, who fit into several categories:

A) The modesty police: These people seemed to believe that I was forgoing a bra in order to (pick one or more) steal their boyfriends, invite people to look at my breasts, attract men generally, or engage in other forms of sluttiness. Somehow, these people believed this despite the fact that the thing I wore most commonly over my breasts was a XXL black T-shirt, which I chose specifically for its shapelessness. This is a paradox I’ve never been able to sort out. Having now gone through a femme period, I can attest that wearing a low-cut blouse and demi pushup bra, the combination of which bares me nearly down to the nipple, wins me nothing but social approval. On the other hand, my anguish over this garment I couldn’t bear to put on, a fact I attempted to hide with the giant T-shirt, somehow made people think I was out to find a boyfriend.

B) The concern trolls: These people went out of their way to explain the health problems that would likely ensue from my refusal to wear a bra. According to them, I would have back pain and my breasts would sag down to my navel before I reached forty. It is truly amazing how many random strangers over the years have worried for me about the future perkiness (or lack thereof) of my breasts. It would be one thing, I guess, if any of these people had been my doctor. However, they tended to be people like the woman working the cafeteria line at my college, strangers at department stores, and the like.

C) People out to cop a feel: There were also people who believed that the only reason I wasn’t encasing my breasts in a bra was that I must want someone (they volunteered!) to grab my breasts. These people seem to ascribe to the bodies as valuable property metaphor which causes so many problems whenever it pops up. According to them, not wearing a bra was akin to leaving my wallet on a subway bench. I was, apparently, begging for them to reach in(to my shirt) and pull out my nipples/my money. These people varied from shouting their enthusiasm for my breasts to giving uncomfortably lingering hugs to actually reaching into my shirt. They were enthusiastic supporters unless and until I made it clear that my breasts weren’t for them, at which point they became heartfelt detractors.


Highlights of the experience:

That time I joined a club and the women called each other to figure out who should be the one to talk to me about how I ought to be wearing a bra. I found out when a woman did talk to me about it, and then later, the woman I was closest to in the club confessed to me that she’d gotten phone calls about this, too.

That time I went to (an open church service at) a monastery and a woman pulled me aside to hiss, “You need to wear a bra among these men.”

That time in college when my breasts were the answer to a trivia question in a joke quiz sent to the entire school.

All the times I got picked for greeting committees, handing out awards, or really any thin excuse to have me hug a lot of people (because my breasts were a special extra reward!).


One reason this always bothered me was I really felt incapable of wearing a bra for a lot of years. I’d panic at the department store, panic when I saw a bra, panic when I tried to put one on, panic when I saw myself in the mirror wearing one. If I did wear one, when I took it off at the end of the day, I’d feel this lingering, itching cling that I couldn’t get off.

I’ve never understood exactly what was going on with all this, but it put me in a weird position. My reason for not wearing a bra wasn’t on people’s radar, they kept making weird assumptions about why I wasn’t putting one on, and the last thing I wanted to do was discuss this awkward psychological state with hostile strangers.

These days, I wonder if there are elements of gender dysphoria to this. I’ve been curious how I would feel binding my breasts, and have wondered if that might give me some relief from my constant discomfort with them. It’s hard to explain how much fear I feel about this line of thinking, though.

I do wear bras now, but I still have a hard time buying them. I went into a Victoria’s Secret with my ex-girlfriend and started panicking just standing in line with her. I think the big reason I wear them at the moment is that I’ve gotten more afraid of all the unwanted attention from strangers. Though I know it isn’t true, there’s a part of me that fears I’d be inviting even more street harassment if I went back to dressing the way that makes me comfortable.

This is nonsense, though. I’ve received unwanted attention from strangers all my life, with and without bras, dressed well or dressed badly, in any and all conditions.

However, in the case of bras, the detractors eventually won the day. I put one on in the morning because it seems like I do “need” it if I don’t want my breasts to become a topic of conversation while I’m buying a coffee.


  1. OMG, Annabeth. I'm the opposite, I learned fairly young that visible nipples (especially in cold weather, poking out a T-shirt or other top) attract too much attention, even when the actual breasts are almost too small to be noticed. So I've always felt better with a discreet piece of armor under my clothing. Now that I'm large enough, I like underwires that hold everything in place, even if I run to catch a bus. Chacune a son gout, as they say. Speaking of large things, I have a coffee-table book, lavishly illustrated, on the history of women's undergarments. This book explains that bras are no more than about a century old. Before that, women were expected to wear various other contraptions, and judged for not wearing them. Feh. Someone needs to write a book of good retorts. (If they're hitting you in the eye, you're standing too close.)

    1. I think I own that same book! Is it called Support and Seduction? It's fascinating stuff.

    2. I don't think that's the title. I will have to look it up. (I think mine was translated from French.)

    3. Hmm, interesting. It is a topic that lends itself to illustration.

  2. I went braless more or less as a political statement back in the sixties/seventies, plus I didn't need one that badly. I did wear a nursing bra with my first child, and did indeed need it while nursing, but went back to none until my second child was on the way. I've never been comfortable without one since then, a simple matter of anatomy and gravity. It's funny what kinds of things become political statements. We could have talked about "Burning our underpants" (I hate the word "panties") but generally speaking, going without underpants, AKA "Commando" style (I think), wouldn't have been obvious enough with most of us, so it wouldn't have been that much of a statement.

    1. Yeah I didn't go into this assumption, but there have definitely been people who thought I was a "bra burner."

  3. Why don't people just mind their own business? If you feel better braless, that's your choice.

    I hate wearing a bra, too. Terribly uncomfortable. For many years I rarely wore one. I actually defended my dissertation not wearing a bra, as I remember.

    Now my breasts sag too much to eschew the garment, no matter how unpleasant it feels in the 100 degree weather her. But I do miss the freedom and comfort of forgoing the brassiere.

    The funny thing is that when I was eleven, I REALLY wanted my mom to get me a bra (and I certainly had big enough breasts to justify such a purchase), but my mom refused because she said I was too young. Little did I know the misery I was asking for.

    1. "Why don't people just mind their own business?"

      That is the question, isn't it?

      Since I wrote this, I've actually been experimenting with going back to not wearing one, so maybe people didn't win after all...


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