I was at a wedding last weekend--yes, another one! But a Quaker one this time, which was actually quite nice, as you mostly sit in silence and either contemplate divine light and how happy you are for the couple or, if you are vaguely sacrilegious and also flighty of brain (as I am), how happy you are for them and whatever else happens to comes to mind, which in my case on this particular day was breasts. My own breasts; I'm not quite that tactless. And I had a reason for focusing my inner thoughts on them, because I had just that very morning had my very first ever positive bra experience.
This sounds trivial, perhaps, but it's not. Like many if not most female-bodied people (and not a few male-bodied people, I'd guess), I have basically always had a contentious relationship with my own breasts. My mother raised me to be terribly, terribly polite, which means that I like to open doors for people and treat others respectfully, but unfortunately I also took politeness to mean that the topic of bodies and especially their decoration was somehow uncouth, too vulgar to actually pay attention to or, god forbid, discuss. (I think perhaps I was influenced by the large amount of nineteenth-century "nice girl" literature I read when I was younger, because this didn't start until I was about six and discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder; don't even get me started on the possible side effects of the concept of "seen and not heard.") When I was very young this wasn't much of an issue; I wasn't old enough to really argue for makeup even if I'd wanted it, and I think there's a tendency among adults to consider the vast majority of little girls "cute" no matter how they are dressed simply by virtue of their size and femaleness so clothing wasn't too difficult to deal with. The most urgent attention my body needed was the occasional band-aid because I was rather clumsy and spent a lot of time on roller skates. But then, inevitably (and very, very slowly) I hit my mid-teens and breasts, periods, hips, all the hallmarks of female adolescence, took me by surprise and turned my body into something I was both fascinated by and terrified to discuss.
Consequently, my first bra shopping adventure, at roughly the age of thirteen, was absolutely mortifying; I didn't want my mother to see me even partially naked, forcing her to peek at me over the doors of dressing rooms while I wrapped my arms around me and avoided her eyes. Also, I didn't actually have any breasts to speak of (I'm fairly sure we were just acting on principle), meaning that essentially I was trying on a series of tank tops, but I insisted that I wanted lace and she insisted on absolutely no padding whatsoever and basically between the two of us we made it absolutely impossible to find anything that matched all of our criteria and the search took hours and multiple stores and frayed nerves and oh my GOD I just wanted something pretty to make me feel better about being flat as a freaking board. What I ended up with was a tank-style bralet with extremely scratchy lace around the bottom that did nothing for either my self-esteem or my lack of burgeoning bosom. And so it began.
I don't think that part of the story is particularly unusual. The thing is, it never really got any better. I've always had small breasts, and finding bras that fit my personal desires as well as my anatomy has generally been very difficult. My criteria: no underwire, no padding, a smooth fit over the actual breast, a wide enough band around my chest. That's it. Sounds easy, doesn't it? A bra that fits and doesn't blow my breasts up by two sizes--large enough that I suspect I'd probably run into things--shouldn't be some sort of undergarment holy grail, always enticing me but never quite revealing itself, but that's more or less exactly what it is. I spent years and years searching department store lingerie sections, looking for the one or two bras which I thought might work but which inevitably had flaps of loose material over my nipples or itched or gave me a uniboob or were just ugly as sin, and when I occasionally found one that fit I wore it until it was so stretched out of shape that it didn't even resemble a piece of clothing anymore. I have a vivid memory of either a journal entry or a letter to my high school boyfriend wherein I ranted about how the lack of bras in my size made me feel like my female-ness was being negated, like my breasts were being rejected by the lingerie department. I stopped thinking about it too much because why the hell would I, but internally I cursed my body, my tiny breasts that were too small to actually shop for, and I approached bra shopping with equal measures of resentment and anger.
I am frequently retrospectively shocked by how willing I am to place blame on myself instead of on outside sources. Because really, it's not my breasts' fault that there were no bras for them; they are guiltless. The fault lies in the marketing industry, which promote the standard of an "average" size that many women do not fit into; the lingerie industry, which responds by making smaller-sized bras with extra padding and reducing styles for larger-sized bras (as well as charging vastly more for them); the world at large, which places breasts front and center in our visual imagery but refuses to actually discuss them in any sort of practical way. One of the biggest realizations I had during my Good Bra Experience was that I actually didn't know how to put on a bra. I've been wearing bras for nearly fifteen years, and nobody ever told me that there is, in fact, a right way to go about putting one on. (In case you were wondering: fasten the hooks behind your back (fastening in front and pulling around warps the band), slip your arms through the straps, lean forward slightly and reach into first one cup and then the other, pulling your breasts slightly up and inward, then grab the top of each cup and jiggle it so that your breast settles into the cup but is also supported and lifted correctly. There are other methods if you have larger breasts but I don't know them; I suggest looking them up, though.) Maybe some of those department store bras would have fit better if anybody had ever bothered to actually talk to me about breasts and bras and how they work together. God forbid.
It is exceedingly likely that I would have lived on in ignorance, bitter and jaded and lacking in pretty underwear, if not for my friend Mugsie. Mugsie wants to take Victoria's Secret down, to make beautiful and functional and flattering bras and corsets and (hopefully, eventually) binders for the people of the world, to spread the gospel of lingerie via a feminist consciousness. (Check out her website here.) She wants your body to be happy, and she wants you to look good. Mugsie is doing her senior thesis on bras and breasts and feminism, and it was from talking to her that I discovered that my complaints are typical of many smaller-breasted women, that the industry regulates visible breast size, that many female-bodied people, when you really talk to them, don't know much about bras at all, often to our own detriment. I learned, most importantly, that it is not my fault that I had a hard time finding bras, and even though I would never have admitted that that was what I had been feeling, subconsciously or not, hearing it said was a huge relief.
She's been telling me for months that none of my bras fit correctly, and finally this past weekend we arranged to meet up at a specialty lingerie store so that I could be professionally fitted and purchase a decent bra for myself. In preparation for the trip I read the bra sections of The Lingerie Handbook, learning about sizing and care and styles and all sorts of other useful information, and as the shopping expedition approached I felt something suspiciously like excitement flutter in my chest. (Ahem.) When we got to the store I was whisked away to a dressing room by a smiling salesperson; I admitted immediately that I had never been fitted before and voiced my suspicion--based on some preliminary home measurements--that I was a 32AA, but after about two seconds with a tape measure she smiled at me and proclaimed me a 32B, or even a 30C, singing out "No double A's for you!" in a joyful voice as she pushed through the curtains. What? I was shocked, but as she brought me bra after bra (this is after the "how to put a bra on" lecture) I had to admit she was right.
She seemed so happy for me, this salesperson, to be helping me discover the world of bras, that I was oddly filled with simultaneous joy at being in the hands of somebody who cared about my body and who wanted good things for me and my breasts and anger that this was not an experience I'd ever had before. My bra experiences had been filled with shame and frustration and resentment and demeaning salespeople who didn't even seem to comprehend what I was looking for; I had to spend what amounts in my current life to a small fortune (especially relative to most of my clothing, which generally costs two dollars at the Village Thrift) on a bra before somebody treated me with any sort of care and respect and knowledge. Your ability to buy important clothing items that comfort and flatter your body instead of harming it should not be determined by a paycheck. We all deserve to be accorded that kind of respect, to wear clothing that fits us, to feel good about ourselves instead of belittled when we leave a store. I'm not just talking about fancy lingerie, pieces you have to spend seventy or eighty or a hundred dollars on, silks and handmade lace. And I understand that bras are complicated items and that there is a certain amount of care and expertise and hence expense that has to go into their production before they will truly support your body as they are supposed to. This isn't like a t-shirt; it would be difficult to make a good supportive bra that only cost a few dollars. I'm saying that, even if you can only spend twenty or thirty dollars on a bra (a relatively small and fairly standard amount, although I realize that for many people even this is out of reach; that's a larger issue), you shouldn't be made to feel bad about yourself while you do it.
My bra is teal. It's beautiful, and like nothing I would have ever picked out for myself before. There is an underwire. I have actual cleavage, something that has never seemed even vaguely in the realm of possibility before. I still want to get some good, supportive bras that are more like the ones I've been trying to find all of my life--I don't always want to have that much in the way of boobs, although it's nice to discover that I have the option--but I can't deny that I'm somewhat in love with this one; I feel like, with its excess and detail and uplift, this bra is some sort of reclamation, a redemptive bit of silk to make up for all those years of unflattering, ugly, and ill-fitting bras in my past. The phrase that keeps popping up is that I feel as if my body has been given to me, not because I have a fancy french bra now, but because I understand more fully that my body is not to blame for the past. I love my breasts, and now I feel like they have more reason to love me back.