Is it time to burn the bra? Do women really need it? We take a look
Femininity is often defined by a woman’s breasts. Popular imagery portrays the breast in many forms: a voluptuous Renaissance woman in repose, an infant contentedly suckling a mother’s breast or a buxom celebrity sporting breasts with a little surgical tweaking.
Throughout the history of womankind, breasts have been a hot topic — they’re celebrated, envied, adored and sometimes mocked. They’ve even inspired creativity. Legend has it that the curved champagne flute was modelled on a famous breast: that of Queen of France, Marie Antoinette.
And, love yours or loathe them, there’s no getting around the fact that, if you have a pair, they’re yours for life.
So what does the ideal breast look like? Fashionistas all over the world will extol the virtues of the perfect pair. According to most marketing gurus, the ideal breast is round and super perky. But the reality is very different. Breasts are a bit like noses — they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from petite to bountiful, gravity-defying to droopy. Some are a little lopsided. No matter what shape or size, all breasts are normal and beautiful, just like the rest of you!
Lending a helping hand
There have been some ingenious devices designed over the years to enhance and support the bust. The Minoan women in Greek history around 2000 BCE wore garments that uplifted the breasts and left them exposed.
Going braless exercises your right to freedom of choice. In an age where personal freedoms are few, it’s liberating and deliciously empowering to have the freedom to choose.
In the Middle Ages, middle- and upper-class women wore stiff linen under the bodices of their outfits to bind and flatten the breasts. Then, in the 1800s, women were subjected to the corset: heavily boned instruments that lifted the bust up and squeezed the ribs to define the waistline. It’s no surprise that these contraptions caused numerous health issues, including restricting the organs, and affected breathing and digestion.
Mary Phelps Jacob, a New York socialite, liberated women from the corset in around 1914 after stitching together a couple of handkerchiefs and a long pink ribbon to fashion the world’s first-ever brassiere.
With World War I in full swing a few years later, and corsets no longer favoured by many, Valerie Steel, author of The Corset: A Cultural History, writes that the extra 28,000 tonnes of steel that would have gone into corsets was enough to build two battleships.
The first padded bra was introduced in the 1950s, the first sports bra came into being in the 1970s and, in the 1980s, cultural icons like Madonna introduced a bemused generation to the pointy cup or cone bra.
You’d think that was pretty hard to top but, a few short years ago, clever Slovenian manufacturers introduced the smart memory bra: when your body temperature rises, your bust gets a perky little lift. What will they think of next?
What do bras really do?
For many women, the best part of wearing a bra is the sense of relief they feel when they finally wrestle it off their body at the end of a long day. The truth is, the wrong kind of bra, or the wrong-sized bra, can indeed feel like a torturous instrument. So why do we bother wearing them, anyway?
It’s a good question, particularly when you consider the claim that wearing a bra may even be hazardous to your health. A few years ago, a French sports doctor named Jean-Denis Rouillon declared war on the bra. Bras served no purpose, he said; at worst, bras were harmful to the muscles that support the breasts, and not wearing one allowed women to develop more muscle tissue, so breasts drooped less with age.
Then there are the authors of the 1995 book Dressed to Kill, Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, who claim a link between bras and breast cancer.
Is there any truth in any of this? Are we really better off letting the girls swing free? That, it seems, depends on who you ask.
Unshackle your bosom
There’s no getting around the fact that, in summer, bras can be uncomfortable, sweaty contraptions that can poke, prod and dig into the flesh.
While many women happily whip off their bras in the privacy of their own homes, go braless in public and you open yourself to ridicule and unwanted opinion: comments like, “You’re going to have saggy boobs” or “You’re brave — I’d hate people to see my nipples.”
Going braless exercises your right to freedom of choice. In an age where personal freedoms are few, it’s liberating and deliciously empowering to have the freedom to choose. After all, it’s your body.
If you’re more a middle-ground kind of gal and would like to unshackle your boobs but still feel a little coy, you can protect your modesty with silk or silicone nipple covers, or you can tape your nipples.
Benefits of the bra
In a sea of A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H (and some double-digit cups), many women are confused when it comes to bra shopping. There are demi-cup, balconette, bandeau, contour, convertible, full cup, racer back, maternity, push-up, plunge, t-shirt, shelf, mastectomy, sports, and adhesive bras.
There are bras to minimise the bust, bras to make the bust overflow the cups that contain it, bras to support bouncing boobs during exercise, and more.
Regardless of your personal feelings on bras, wearing one does have a plus side. Ask Jene Luciani, author of The Bra Book, about the benefits of wearing a bra and she’ll tell you it will knock four kilos off your appearance and, in a microsecond, you’ll stand and sit up a whole lot straighter (because women who are braless tend to stoop to unconsciously try to cover their breasts).
Bras prevent the breasts moving up and down, and any associated discomfort. During physical exercise, breasts move in a three-dimensional sinusoidal motion, creating something called breast bounce. According to bra manufacturer Berlei, even petite 10A breasts can move up to 4cm from where they started. A 12B can bounce as much as 8cm while jogging, and a DD can move to 18cm.
A 60-minute run can lead to 10,000 breast bounces. That’s a lot of movement and stress on the body.
As for how often an unsupported breast will bounce, in periods of prolonged activity it’s staggering. According to Dr Deirdre McGhee, an APA sports physiotherapist and researcher from Breast Research Australia, a 60-minute run can lead to 10,000 breast bounces. That’s a lot of movement and stress on the body.
Then there are other reasons why wearing a bra can be of benefit. Bras lift and support the breast tissue which, for larger-busted women, can also help to prevent backache. Aesthetically, wearing a bra also gives a cleaner line to clothes and, by camouflaging the nipples, they give women more freedom to wear what they want.
As for those claims about bras leading to cancer, they are quickly and deftly nipped in the bud by Kathy Chapman, director of cancer programs at Cancer Council NSW. She says there’s no credible research showing a link between wearing (or not wearing) a bra and developing breast cancer. “There have been claims in the past that underwire bras cause breast cancer by obstructing the lymph flow; however, there is no scientific evidence to support this,” she says.
So what about the idea that not wearing a bra builds up natural muscle to prevent sagging? According to the experts, the reverse is true. Dr Paul Belt, a consultant plastic, reconstructive and cosmetic surgeon, says bras offer support — and not wearing one may lead to droopier breasts. “The more you can support the bust the better, particularly if you have large breasts,” he says.
Dr Belt adds that breasts having a lot less bounce and a lot more droop as women get older is simply a normal part of getting older. “The Coopers ligaments, fibrous bands that run through the breasts, stretch and that causes drooping of the breasts as women age,” he says. Just how much breasts will droop is influenced by several factors: “Whether you’ve had children, have breastfed, weight fluctuations, oral contraceptives, menopause — all of these things can affect the shape and volume of the breast.”
What about the old wives’ tale that advocates wearing a bra to bed to make breasts a little perkier? According to Dr Belt, “There is anecdotal and circumstantial evidence that there may be a benefit for large-busted women — lying down doesn’t have the same effect as gravity standing up, but the breasts still move, so the skin and the fibrous elements within the breast will be stretched,” says Dr Belt.
Dr Belt also advocates finding the right bra to do the job: “Bras definitely need to fit properly or you risk damaging the skin.”
Sizing it up
One of the reasons underwire sticks up and into the ribs and straps dig into the shoulders or under the bust is that most women don’t wear the right-size bra. In fact, a survey by Triumph International in 2013 that involved over 10,000 women showed a staggering 76 per cent were wearing the wrong size.
One of the reasons for this is they’d never had a bra properly fitted, with around 66 per cent of women buying bras online or in stores that don’t offer a bra fitting service.
Wearing a bra ... will knock four kilos off your appearance and, in a microsecond, you’ll stand and sit up a whole lot straighter.
So, if you’ve never had a bra professionally fitted, there’s good reason to. If you choose not to, at the very least Dr McGhee advises to always try on bras before you buy. “Bra companies don’t standardise their bra sizes so, even if the bra is made by the same manufacturer, you may be a 14C in a certain style of bra and a 16D in another, meaning you always need to try a bra on for size.”
When choosing a bra, many women also opt for vanity over comfort. “Most women who think they look good in a certain bra will still choose that bra even if it doesn’t fit properly and it isn’t very comfortable,” she says.
How to find the perfect bra
Author of The Bra Book, Jene Luciani, has a few gems to share:
- Wear or bring a thin t-shirt so you can see what each bra looks like under the sheerest of circumstances.
- Don’t be afraid to put the bra on and face yourself with a critical eye. If you see any gaps, spillage, digging in or other signs of a poor fit, it’s not the right bra. Turn around and look at the back band as well.
- Be aware of your body type so you know what bras to look for. If you are more of a top-heavy “apple”, you’ll probably be looking for fuller-coverage bras, not demi-cups.
- Don’t get stuck in a size rut. Write down the date of your visit and plan another six months to a year later. Our sizes fluctuate due to weight gain, hormonal changes, ageing and other life changes, so it’s important to get fitted at least once a year.
Tips for treating your bra kindly
Do you know how long you’re supposed to hang on to a bra? One year? Perhaps two? Dr McGhee says the average woman hangs on to a bra well past its use-by date. “Bra companies will generally guarantee a bra for 25 washes,” she says. “Most women, on average, tend to keep a bra for two years.”
What are the telltale signs your bra is no longer giving you the support it’s designed to? “The elasticity is failing, the material is wrinkled or worn in the cups or the band or, when you move your arms, the band slides up and down your trunk, even when adjusted to the tightest clip,” says Dr McGee.
You don’t need to wash an everyday bra every time you wear it; however, if you’ve played sport or have sweated, it needs to go into the wash, as the sweat will eat away at the elasticity.
To wash a bra, gently hand-wash or place it inside a garment bag, with the hooks done up. Don’t ever hang it on the clothes line — drape it over.
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