By Europe & Me‘s MythBuster
It’s confession time. I’ll be honest, when my office opened after the height of the lockdown, I was rather relieved: seeing colleagues, stepping out of my house, having a physical work-life divide and therefore balance — these are all causes for celebration. What was really difficult though was having to start putting on bras again.
I remember experiencing this following a period of unemployment: finally finding a job came with a shed of nostalgia at the free life my boobs had been living in those days of despairing job hunt. Similarly, a friend of mine recently shared her disappointment about getting her long and luscious hair cut: it no longer hid her boobs so she found herself having to wear bras at work —a big first in her case. Somehow, stepping into the world of professionals remains for me tied to having to put the boobs cage back on for the sake of common decency.
In all seriousness, beyond the moaning and hardships of small boob girls with pointy nipples, there is something to be said about bras. A lot to be said even, and E&M‘s mythbuster is taking this challenge on and busting some common myths of the bra.
#Myth 1: Life was better off before the invention of bras
Alright, that one is not a common myth, just my personal assumption. But I’m sure others have thought this before so let’s unpack this, shall we?
First off, bras were invented relatively recently. A certain French lady called Herminie Cadolle got sick of wearing stifling corsets — as all women must have been — and invented a two-part corset in 1889. Her invention was much more functional and (crucially) allowed breathing. She actually called her invention bien-être, which means wellbeing! In comparison to corsets which served the primary purpose of tightening the waist as much as possible to valorise hips and boobs, I’m sure the name was well deserved.
A few years later, the New Yorker Mary Phelps patented the first bra as we know it. She made it by sewing two handkerchiefs and some ribbons together. And why you ask? She wanted to dance and be able to move comfortably in her ball gown without the pain inflicted by corsets. Fair enough.
In a happy turn of events following centuries of corset dictatorship, it turns out women played a strong role in inventing and designing some of the bras. In the 1930s, at least half of bra patents were by women – which is quite a lot compared to other industries at the time. Now that we’ve put things in perspective, let’s keep going.
#Myth 2: Everyone understands bra sizes
Consultations with a non-representative sample of all my friends show that many do not know their bra size (including yours truly).
A little bit of research also shows that bra sizes have fluctuated over the course of history. Beyond tailor-made bras, the original two sizes of the first bra slowly evolved towards Small to Large sizes until the introduction of cup sizes in the 1930s. These were far from today’s supposedly accurate sizes. Interestingly, cup sizes, as they are today, were officially introduced in 1975 in the European Common Market. Apparently, some British women were very confused by their introduction, “handed down from the antiseptic Common Market headquarters in Brussels”. Brushing aside the fact that priorities in the British public discourse remain straight at all times, it is worth pointing that bra sizes are not the same across the board. Like with any other clothes design, each brand has their own fitting system.
More seriously, though, have you always had the same bra size? If so, it is probably wrong. Unsurprisingly bodies change and evolve over time – and so do boobs (I mean they can literally evolve on a weekly to daily basis but that’s another topic). It is important to consider because wearing the wrong bra size may potentially lead to muscle pains, back tensions and other things far from the essential wellbeing Herminie thought a bra should bring. So, when buying a bra, take your time, try it on if you can, don’t hesitate to return it if it doesn’t fit and ask for advice. There’s no shame in not knowing your size.
#Myth 3: Bras cause breast cancer
I won’t venture into medical advice here; as my speciality is myth busting not medical care. However, I will point out that this myth dates back to 1995 when a book called dressed to Kill made that claim.
It turns out that their study had not been reviewed by medical experts and did not take into account other known factors of breast cancer. Several health institutions have stressed the lack of evidence for this claim and a 2014 study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre found that no aspect of wearing a bra was associated with breast cancer. If you’re interested in finding out more, this comes from an article busting myths about breast cancer.
#Myth 4: Bras are an embodiment of the patriarchal control over women’s bodies
Well, that is a tough one and I’m still making up my mind on it really.
As with all of us experiencing with fashion, bras have had ups and downs: periods they’d rather forget, rebellious periods and periods threading the line of sexiness obsession. But in all of these evolutions and throughout the bra history, I see women creating, designing, innovating and putting themselves first.
The 1920s flapper trend saw the emergence of bras used to flatten the breasts’ curves at a time when looking boyish was all the craze. On the other hand, the 1950s cone bras, solely designed with aesthetics in mind, allowed boobs to appear larger and pointier to fit to the glamour style of the times. If you don’t know what I mean, I’m sure Madonna will refresh your mind. And that’s an excellent example of re-appropriating a design and infusing it with a high dose of feminine power.
As mentioned before, the first bras were invented by women for women and with comfort and freedom of movement in mind. Interestingly, this is also the case of the sports bra, invented in 1975 because running with bras was so damn uncomfortable. Yet, it was then was seen as a feminist step towards getting rid of the torture devices that were bras.
And when you think about it, who in their right mind would invent conic bras for pleasure? And who thought push-ups would be an excellent idea, really just what I was missing this whole time? It is probably fair to say that, while women may have been more prominent in the bra industry compared to other industries, we’ve come a long way since the first bra design and I doubt comfort, practicality and self-care have always been a priority since… Displaying and sexualising a body part that men tend to be obsessed with on the other hand likely came into the picture. Shocking.
Whether we’re only slowly opening the carcan of boob oppression or reinventing ways of empowering women, the jury is still out. Either way, I think this is heading towards positive change. And the rising number of brands launching with the sole purpose of creating comfortable, practical, pretty and all-round satisfying underwear is making me hopeful about those remerging bra days. I won’t lie though, the real change will come about when pointy nipples are allowed into the meeting room.
This article was originally published in Europe & Me (E&M), with which A Tribe Of Women (ATOW) collaborates.