Today, with great reluctance, I choose to go there, to talk about bras. This is not an easy thing, as the Third Wave feminist who is wary of being identified as a “bra burner” brings up the thing that no one wants to talk about all my life. As a recent piece in The New Yorker explored, we were all just assumed that we would wear bras when we reached a certain age as part of our social contract: You go out in public? You wear a bra! My 11-year-old daughter tells me that she is the only one in her class who does not wear some kind of breast restraint device on a daily basis. If I were not on self-imposed feminist restriction from commenting on her physique, I would tell you that they are all, to my eyes, in the strictly bra-optional phase of development. If that even is a phase.
This is the thing that no one wants to talk about until this year. For some reason, bralessness has become a fashionista trend, with Rihanna, Kendall Jenner, and countless off-duty models and fast fashion houses championing this look (I’m looking at you, The Sartorialist and Everlane).
There is even a small and contested field of science that debates the relative merits of bra vs no-bra. And here is at least one thing worth considering. I remember back in the day when I was breastfeeding and commenting on the unwieldiness of the whole operation, my brother-in-law, the biologist/reproductive endocrinologist, commented that humans are the only mammals who have enlarged breasts even when they are NOT breastfeeding. Why would this be? It must be because the enlarged breast is considered an attaction to the male partner, and so the breasts get larger at puberty and stay that way though all of adulthood, an invitation to cancer. In other words, I came to wonder decades later, Is the male gaze killing me?
My history: to the outward eye, my breasts are fine, maybe ideal. I’ve always worn about a 32D, making my breasts substantial for a smallish-medium frame. But this is actually the Breast Cancer Danger Zone. Breasts like mine contain relatively little fat and are dense with breast tissue, meaning that on a mammogram everything lights up, yielding little useful data for the technologist and radiologist looking for signs of abnormality. On my recent Race for the Cure walk I enjoyed comparing notes with an older, larger woman who bragged that her radiologist just loves her mammograms because the fat deposits help divide everything so neatly. “It may be true, but I wanted to punch him!”
[Edited to add: The New York Times and others might tell you you can lower your cancer risk by reducing alcohol and smoking and increasing exercise, but who is there to tell you that high-density breasts are in themselves a cancer risk? Or that being a woman or man with breast tissue is a cancer risk? You are. Tell your friends.]
All my life I have searched for the bra that allowed me to move about as freely as possible in the world, to do my job and live my life in comfort. I have gone to the stores with the fitters that women whisper about, I have bought the expensive brands, I have been measured and re-measured. In addition to wanting breasts that “behave” by displaying the appropriate shape, size, bounce, placement, malleability, I have the additional challenge of ever-changing eczema and dermatitis that results in rough pink and brown patches on my breasts, under the bra band and under the straps. Some of these red, rough patches were ignored by me and later actually revealed themselves to be evidence of lymphatic breast cancer that looked atypical and were dismissed by even my wonderful breast surgeon. So you see, bras and breasts are not neutral things, they have implications for my health and survival, and possibly for yours and for all our daughters’.
On my most recent visit to the surgeon, she took a good hard look at all of the patchy, irritated skin on and around my breasts and she could not figure out what to biopsy. It all looked potentially normal and potentially cancerous at the same time. This is what even the best bra will do to you. I went over all the skin with her and tried to pick out some suspicious spots to biopsy. [spoiler: all came back as ‘normal’ eczema] I’ve read the articles, I’ve done the fittings, I’ve spent the ungodly amounts of money on getting the right bras from the right purveyors. It is time to ask the question, who are we moulding our bodies to please? And at what cost?