Desiree, also 14, thought she was a 34A; she topped out at $20. “I don’t like a hard cup. Most bras my size have a soft cup, and I like a flexible cup. I probably own 20 bras in black or white. I don’t go for pink or orange, because you can’t wear them with white shirts.”
Leah was a year younger than Desiree, but she exceeded her in cup (34B), number of bras (30), and expense (average price of $30 at either Victoria’s Secret or Nordstrom). “A bra has to be comfortable and it has to fit well. I hate it when they’re loose — your size, but still loose. My favorite is an underwire that’s soft and silky, and my least favorite is a lacy one that itches so bad. I guess I have so many bras because I have a dog that chews up my underwires. Mom and I always have to go shopping for them.”
Down by the food court, I happened upon 18-year-old Kim, a 32A whose memories of bras and moms were not so rosy. “My mom pretty much forced me to wear a bra in seventh grade. I didn’t really need one; it was the whole ‘being a lady’ thing, and I absolutely hated it. I would try to sneak out of the house without one, and she would make me put one on. I actually cried because she made me put one on. Now I walk around the mall and I kind of try not to touch them. I don’t really know what to look for because my mom would just get them for me, and now it’s, like, ‘My gosh, they cost $28 each!’ I own about ten, but they never fit. Victoria’s Secret never has 32A. My favorite bra is pink with white little thin straps. Thick straps are annoying; they tend to fall, and you can’t wear a tank top with them.”
Neither 14-year-old Carla nor 23-year-old Jane (both 34Bs) minded wide straps, but they differed on water bras. “I don’t like them,” said Carla. “They feel weird and they don’t look real.” “I’m wearing one now,” said Jane. “They’re the best. You can’t feel it; it feels real and it’s not heavy.” Jane’s friend, 22-year-old Shelly, thought they were both wrong. “Bras are a pain in the ass, and they’re expensive. When I get home, I take it off. I don’t wear one if I’m not going out. I have one tube top that’s my love; it has one of those built-in shelf bras. If I can get away with it, I’ll wear that to work, but if I’m home, I’ll go all day without a bra. Though I probably should wear a bra because my boobs are going to start getting saggy.”
Jane disagreed. “I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s a myth.”
Shelly’s eyes went wide. “Is it?”
“Well, maybe if they’re really big. I mean, my roommate has humongous boobs — she has to wear a bra. She got a really expensive bra from Victoria’s Secret, and it saved her back. Her boobs were, like, five inches off her waist because she’s a size zero and she’s 4´11˝. Her boobs were so big that they made her look big around the waist. The bra lifted them up and showed off her tiny waist.”
As I glided down the escalator and strolled out into the mall’s parking lot, I wondered about 13-year-old Leah and her 30 $30 bras. Nine hundred smackers spent on brassieres floored me, but it shouldn’t have. The kids have been slaves to fashion and suckers for advertising since way back. I was reminded of this while perusing Uplift: The Bra in America, a scholarly, yet readable tome by Jane Farrell-Beck and Colleen Gau. The authors noted, “So potent was the adolescent market that the term ‘teens’ appeared in trade and consumer advertising as early as the 1930s.” (That was a mere 13 years after brassieres made it over the hump from being a “fashion minority” to being a mainstay in American women’s wear — a journey made possible by innovations in design and production and the attendant reduction in pricing.) Besides their (parents’) dollars, the teens — “young things who wore up-to-date bandeaux to go with their wispy garments” — also gave the industry its current terminology, truncating the more formal “brassiere” to “bra.” By 1934, a Harper’s Bazaar survey declared “bra” to be “the going expression.”
Most of the girls I spoke with seemed comfortable with their bras and even with their bodies. But something in me — perhaps some aspect of my own womanhood — picked up a faint hum of tension, and my curiosity was piqued. Bras, after all, are bound up with what they bind, intimately connected to the glands that give them their reason for being — breasts. Bras had brought me their share of anxieties and joys — or at least, there were anxieties and joys over my breasts that I had projected onto my bras. If I wore an ill-fitting bra, one that had me tugging and adjusting all day long, I found myself resenting both bra and breasts. My bra had me feeling like my breasts were problematic. I wanted to take it off, but I couldn’t — it wouldn’t be proper, I would feel self-conscious, my nipples would show. But when my breasts were wrapped in a black lacy number, there was no question that I felt more desirable. Breasts and bras were all entangled for me, and I wondered what other women had to get off their chests.
Micky, a 49-year-old speech pathologist, wears a 36B. Her linguistic studies affirmed what she already knew about the relation between breasts and American culture. “The Japanese have about 50 words for ‘penis.’ In our society, we have I don’t know how many names for breasts. Boobs, jugs, hooters, tits, a good set… Boobs are very important in our society.” And so, by extension, are the houses we provide for them.