Late one morning, in a house in Peru’s Sacred Valley, my friend Louisa
asked me why I wore a bra. We were standing in our rented kitchen,
boiling water for tea. I had on, below my T-shirt, a specialty underwire
brassiere with the adjustable straps drawn tight and two full DDD cups.
She was in a formless gray sweatshirt, with nothing underneath. “Because
I have to,” I said, laughing a little, because she’d framed it as a
choice. “My boobs are massive!” She said, “So are mine.” Then she lifted
her shirt to show me, and she was right: her breasts were huge, hovering
there like two pale buoys. I’d never noticed.

I started wearing a bra in 1997, at age twelve. It was a training bra,
really: a band of pink nylon meant to protect my very slightly raised
nipples from the fabric of my clothing. Or maybe it was meant to protect
the girl who shared my school-bus seat and wondered aloud where my bra
might be—summoning a shame I hadn’t felt since last wetting the bed—from
the faint contour of my nipples. Who could tell? I stopped wearing a bra
seventeen months ago, on a trip through South America, though in the
beginning I would occasionally have misgivings and slip on some light,
translucent underthing on the way out the door. Now I go without. The
reason is that I tried being braless, and I liked it better. It wasn’t a
political decision, except insofar as everything a woman does with her
body that isn’t letting someone else dictate what she ought to do with
it is a political decision.

The Internet tells me that, over the past couple of years, some number
of women have gone on record about doing the same. There is an entire
genre composed of YouTube videos called “Why I Don’t Wear a Bra,” in
which braless millennials list off their motives; many of them cite a
study by researchers in Besançon, France, published in 2013, which found
that ditching the brassiere can lead, in younger women, to increased
collagen production and strengthened breast tissue (i.e., more lift). I
also recently waded through dozens of articles about Kendall Jenner and
Rihanna, whose bralessness was one of last summer’s news items. These
events appear to have prompted numerous pieces of the “I went braless
for a week and here’s what happened!” variety. (Nothing. Nothing
happened.)

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 levelling 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.

The bra became widespread in America during the First World War, in part
because the metal previously used to make corsets was needed for
ammunition at that time. It’s a product like any other, sprung from a
perceived necessity, and also from an attempt to create necessity where
there is none or very little. Like so many conversations around the
things women wear and how we wear them, the one around the brassiere
tends to be about utility and personal comfort only until someone
professes that she doesn’t find the article in question useful or
comfortable. Then it turns to decorum. The common thinking is that if
the bra isn’t functional then at least it’s appropriate, and that,
really, there is no decision to be made here, especially if your breasts
are big. The same thinking dictates that, if you’re making a decision
about your person even though no such decision exists, you are, at best,
trying to make a statement, and are perhaps trying to do something much
worse.

I always wondered about the stigma associated with taking one’s bra off.
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.

The other day, I rewatched the “Seinfeld” episode in which Elaine runs
into an old high-school friend, Sue Ellen Mischke, and says to herself, “Oh, great, it’s the braless wonder. Who does she think she’s
kidding? Look at her; she’s totally outta control.” Subsequently, Elaine
buys Sue Ellen a lacey white bra, which the latter woman wears alone,
beneath an open blazer; Kramer, seeing Sue Ellen on the street, crashes
the car he’s driving and then takes her to court for the damages. In
other words, we’re at risk of being called dangerous with bras off, and
at risk of being called dangerous with bras on. But we give objects
their symbolic power. We decide whether the things we wear or leave
behind represent repression or liberation or nothing much in particular.
That nothing much in particular—those resolutions based on “no reason,”
which are really resolutions based on our preferences, our whims, and
often on our pleasure—is a feminism of quiet, everyday choosing.

I like the way most clothes feel on my bare skin: silk camisoles and
thick knit sweaters and the patterned blouses from my grandmother’s
closest. I like the way my breasts sound against my ribcage when I run
down the stairs, like someone clapping politely for a performance that
they didn’t particularly enjoy. I like how unassuming they can be when
they haven’t been hoisted to full mast and fixed there. I like the true
unbound shape of them, how they come to small points, the soft peaks of
beaten egg whites. I like carrying around their weight, just as I like
carrying around the rest of my body; I feel now, in a bra, the way I
might if I housed an uninjured arm in a sling. Certainly, I don’t miss
visiting that shop on the Upper West Side for busty women, from which I
used to emerge considerably poorer, with plainly colored bra cups deep
as cereal bowls. When I nod vigorously, my boobs nod along, in
agreement. When I wave at someone in a crowd, they wave with me. They
wiggle and they bounce and they gather puddles of sweat that stream
toward my belly button. As I move through the world, sometimes making
only the slightest of gestures, there’s always a part of me that is
dancing.

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