Sara Klimek

In 1914, socialite and inventor Mary Phelps Jacobs tied two handkerchiefs together with a pink bow - little did she know the design she created and soon patented would generate a market earning nearly $16 billion annually worldwide.  While Jacobs may have been given the credit for designing what contemporary bras may look like, the concept of a bra—short for ‘brassiere’—had existed for centuries.  Paintings from 14th century Europe demonstrate that women wore supportive bandeau-like tops during sports.  In the 16th century, French women started wearing corsets made from whale bone to get a cone-shaped midsection and perkier breasts.  The late 19th century saw a shift to contemporary girdles, which distorted women’s bodies into more of an S-shape.  It wasn’t until 1896 that the corset became two pieces and developed into what the modern bra looks like.


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The design of the bra has changed to fit the beauty standards of its respective time period.  In the 1920s, flappers wore bandeau-like bras to have a more masculine appearance, while World War II-era ‘torpedo’ bras were advertised to provide more support for female factory workers.  Now, lingerie companies like Victoria’s Secret have provided numerous designs (e.g. razorback, strapless, push-up) to market the bra as a necessity from adolescence onward.

Like many women, I remember when I went to a local department store to purchase my first ‘training bra.’  At 11, it was embarrassing to walk into a Macy’s and dart around to find the perfect bra without having anyone notice.  Bras were more than a taboo topic of conversation among my friend group: they were a societal necessity.

The bras that I grew up wearing were not comfortable; underwire poked out, the seams ripped, and I would pop out of almost every bra that I bought.  I was chastised by my friends into thinking that I was the chosen one for having DD cups.  Whenever I wore a tank top, I received disapproval from people who could see my bra strap poking out of my shirt.  There was a secretive undertone about the bra: advertisers convince us that we need to wear bras, but also keep them away from the public eye.  Similar to the way that society has conditioned women to be hesitant to discuss periods, sex, and their bodies, women’s breasts are seen as something that should be kept hidden, except when sex is involved.

The easy solution to my early bra-wearing problems would be theoretically simple: just don’t wear a bra.  But, when the majority of American females choose to wear bras, it was difficult for me to stand tall against the crowd.  In particular, women with larger breasts or dress sizes that deviate from single-digits may find that bras aren’t really ‘made’ for larger women.  Once you pass a certain size threshold, you will see sexy patterns and bold colors fade into nudes and black.  Finding a bra you feel comfortable in is difficult, but larger women may find that going braless may come with more scrutiny than wearing something that doesn’t fit.

I, like many of my adolescent peers, was obsessed with Victoria’s Secret once I passed a size B cup.  The models looked like literal angels on stage at the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show.  I remember walking into Victoria’s Secret like it was a candy store filled with artistic designs and sexy pieces.  I tried on corsets, lacy bras with names that I couldn’t pronounce, and robes just like the angels wore on the runway.  While many of my friends struggled to fit in an A cup, I was already pushing the Cs.  I felt comfortable with my breast size; it was one of the only things that I thought was perfect about myself.

Victoria’s Secret lost its allure when I entered the D stage.  The bras became less and less fitting as more of my skin flaps popped out of the corners.  The straps dug into my skin, leaving painful marks and sore spots.  When I asked the fitting attendants for my size, they gave me the same number every single time and assured me that this was ‘how a bra is supposed to fit.’  When I went to summer camp, I was instructed to turn towards the wall while I was changing my shirt, because apparently no one in my cabin felt comfortable with exposed breasts—nor their own bodies.

Much to the disapproval of my parents, I stopped wearing bras regularly during my senior year of high school.  It wasn’t just skipping the bra for a prom dress with one built-in, but something more meaningful.  I liked the way my nipples rubbed against the fabric of my shirt, screaming out ‘I AM A WOMAN, I HAVE BREASTS, AND I WILL NO LONGER HIDE THEM.’  T-Shirts or dresses—I didn’t care.  If I did opt to wear a bra, it was to feel more comfortable during yoga or to feel less inhibited when I was running.  For all cosmetic purposes, I was bra-free.

College, particularly my liberal-leaning university, was an environment conducive to a braless culture.  Rarely did I see people on my way to class that were wearing a push-up bra, but rather people that wanted to let their bodies flow.  No longer did I feel the pressure to wear a bra and protect ‘innocent eyes’ from what a nipple looked like.  No longer was I trapped in the bonding cage of womanhood known as a brassiere.

For many, the #FreetheNip movement means more than just protesting Maidenform or Victoria’s Secret, but rather about the censorship of female bodies in our society.  From a young age, we are taught to tightly wrap our bodies away to avoid wandering eyes.  Nipples are seen as a symbol of sexual prowess more than an anatomical contraption to feed infants.  A few years ago, a Argentinian organization used a male model on social media to show how women should look for breast cancer, instead of using an uncensored clip of a woman.  Instagram censors women’s nipples, deeming them too provocative to be online.  Breastfeeding women are shoved into dark corners of restrooms for a completely normal biological task while young girls question why the boys on their soccer team can play without wearing shirts and they can’t.  Our culture doesn’t have a problem with breasts - we have a problem with morals.


No longer did I feel the pressure to wear a bra and protect ‘innocent eyes’ from what a nipple looked like.


While bras have had their utilitarian purposes in the past, their sexualization has created a culture where women are more willing to wear a painful and ill-fitting contraption than to let their bodies be free.  We’re uncomfortable when women deviate from the push-up or the demi because we have, for centuries, been told to morph our bodies into what other people want.  The result?  A culture that is uncomfortable the raw, physical realism of the human body.  And that’s something you can’t find in a Victoria’s Secret store.


Sara is a managing editor at bSmart and Environmental Law student at the University of Vermont.

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