How great would it be not to have to wear a bra?
For some the answer may not come easily. Bras’ most noble purpose is to support breasts against gravity’s cruel, saggy effect, and to redistribute the bosom’s weight so that women’s backs don’t have to do all the work. And that’s just for women of average proportions. Some well-endowed women would find exercise like running most uncomfortable without a foundation garment.
But women use bras for other reasons too. Some use them to look smaller, others to look larger. Some wear padded bras to conceal the state of their nipples.
In fact, brassieres figure prominently in women’s ever-changing wardrobes. Their varying shapes (compare the pointy “bullet bras” of the 1950′s to today’s round cups) have been dictated by fashion trends. The same goes for how visible bras should be. Not long ago it would have been ever so gauche for any part of one’s bra to show through one’s clothes — then came the trend of wearing dark bras under light tops. As sports bras evolved it became okay to wear just the bra with nothing on top of it.
Not that bras need to be seen to achieve the effect many women seek: dramatic cleavage. The Wonderbra’s raison d’etre, cleavage seems to be pushed higher with every new season of Victoria’s Secret designs.
There is more to bras than meets the eye, including a political tradition of tossing them for a cause. Feminists dropped theirs into a trash can outside of the 1968 Miss America pageant because they were considered a tool of oppression. (Note: They did not burn them. Just get that falsehood right out of your head.) At the end of last month French women threw bras in the air graduation-cap style in a mass demonstration to raise awareness about breast cancer.
Despite their many and varied uses, bras are not universally loved. It can be hard to find one that looks right with a particular sweater or low-cut dress. During the summer bras are just one more layer of clothing to collect sweat. They are also an expense, and washing them is a pain. (“Hand wash”??? Please. Into the washing machine they go.)
So — how great would it be not to have to wear a bra? The question is more urgent in the face of a brand new study finding that bras do not prevent back pain or saggy boobs. To the contrary, they cause them. Lead researcher Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon said “medically, physiologically, anatomically, the breast does not benefit from being deprived of gravity. Instead, it languishes with a bra.” Rouillon calls bras a “false necessity.” So much for brassieres’ noble purposes.
Does that mean women can take these things off already?
Not necessarily. Rouillon cautions that his study was limited to women aged 18-35. “It would be dangerous to advise all women to stop wearing their [bras] as the women involved were not a representative sample of the population.” I’m not sure what danger he has in mind — riots? Landfills overflowing with lingerie?
Anyway, if Rouillon’s findings are correct, what could be dangerous is to advise girls under 18 that they should wear bras. The French study suggests that girls “would soon become dependent [on a foundation garment] as the supporting muscle structure would degrade.” Rouillon conceives of the bra as a crutch: continual use can make boob muscles lazy.
The disadvantages of lazy boob muscles are more compelling than one might think. Consider this: Rouillon and his team found that women who stopped wearing bras saw their nipples lift seven millimeters a year. And their breasts got firmer. And their stretch marks faded.
Turns out those muscles could do more for one’s bosom than the greatest bra on earth.
I still see one drawback to quitting the bra habit: women’s nipples would play a much bigger role in their lives than they ever had before, and not in a good way. Fashion has an ambivalent relationship with the female nipple. There was a firestorm when actress Anne Hathaway wore a gown to the Oscars with darts that made it look like her nipples were poking the fabric — or maybe her nipples really were poking the fabric, I don’t know. Here, you be the judge.
Either way, it’s hard to take the sturm und drang that followed seriously, given how often celebrities go out braless (scroll down to the slideshow under the Anne Hathaway story) and the high percentage of clothing store mannequins whose nipples are standing at attention.
Given the newly discovered health and cosmetic drawbacks to wearing bras, I’m hoping the world will settle down about the poking. After all, it’s acceptable in polite society for men to have bulges in the front of their pants — of course they do, they’re storing things in there, important things that are attached to their bodies. Well, women’s bodies have some protrusions too. Alert nipples are a normal, natural, well-photographed phenomenon. Nothing new to see here.
In short, women should not be expected to sag and get stretch marks and lazy muscles and back pains just to protect everyone around them from the knowledge that they have nipples. Everybody knows.
And it would be so great not to have to wear a bra.