Boobs, Bras, and Self-Containment

sports bra

When I took my mom bra shopping, we both agreed we were done with underwires. My mother was 72 years old, aka at the ripe old age of IDGAF. At 42, I… well, I had never given too much of AF, but I hadn’t discovered bralettes and other wireless bras until recently. Previously, whenever my underwires began poking out of my bras and digging into my rib cage, I’d use a seam ripper to fully release them and then yank them the rest of the way out. Toss them in the trash. Heave a sigh of relief.

But the proprietor of the bra shop was terrifying. An underwire evangelist, she convinced my mom that she needed those rigid arcs of metal to fully support her breasts. When I dared to try on a wireless bra just for funsies and, dissatisfied, returned it to the rack, she pounced. “That bra would never have been able to give you the proper support,” she said. “Sit over here,” she said, separating me from my mom so she could preach the gospel of underwire unimpeded. “I’ll help you next.”

“Oh, today’s not my day for a new bra,” I said.

She looked at me and I could sense she was judging the cut of my undergarments beneath my shirt.

“It should be,” she said.

My Evolving Relationship to the Dreaded Bra

Seven years ago, I wrote an essay for Refinery29 on what it meant for me to buy nipple guards for the first time. I described the difficulty I experienced during the summer especially, when halter tops and spaghetti straps prevented me from wearing my usual bra. Sick of ill-fitting strapless bras that always ended up around my waist, I ordered a pair of nipple guards and found them to be a revelation.

Of course, the piece was about more than just nipple guards. It was also about the history of brassieres, their evolution from tools of liberation to tools of suppression, my relationship to my body, and the way all of this was impacted by the male gaze. When I wrote the piece, I was wistful for a time when I could still go braless. I wished ardently that I could go back to that time, toss those uncomfortable undergarments, and still have my breasts and nipples remain invisible underneath my tops.

On my hesitation to actually discard my bras and free my breasts, I wrote:

“[M]aybe it’s just that I am more aware of men’s eyes upon them if I forego a supportive undergarment. Maybe, at a 34DD, I have finally internalized all of the societal messages about the vulgarity of my breasts, of the curve of them swinging visibly when I walk, of the embarrassment of nipples straining fabric. Maybe it is an acute awareness of my size that has contributed to the personal belief that it really is offensive to remind others that my breasts exist.”

Seven years later, things remain the same but also different. Summer is still its own special kind of hell thanks to summer tops with their unconventional necklines. I still go into contortions to avoid showing my bras straps because that’s seen as messy while, at the same time, I know I can’t show the outline of my breasts or my nipples because that’s seen as a crime against humanity.

And every summer, I still order a new bra in the hopes that it will be *The One*…the bra that magically solves all of my bra problems (it never is).

But unlike the me of seven years ago, I no longer wish to go braless. Not entirely. I’m older. I’m larger. And, my god, I could use the support.

But no one bra has managed to satisfy all my needs.

The Enduring Mediocrity of Bras

In my Refinery29 piece of seven years ago, I wrote about how the first bras were created in order to set women free from corsets, eventually allowing them to enter the workforce and engage in more physical activities.

But much like corsets, the modern bra itself also caters to the male gaze, pushing the breasts upward, creating hourglass silhouettes that overflow with cleavage (albeit less dramatically). Which made me wonder: If the corset had never existed, would a brassiere ever have been seen as necessary?

Feminists in the ’70s didn’t think so, seeing them as accessories that only restricted women and transformed them into sex objects, and more recent #FreeTheNipple campaigns also sought to eradicate bras completely.

Still, before the invention of the modern bra, it seems that some version of support for the breasts still existed. According to an NPR piece on the true history of the bra, “[t]he first-ever bra most likely dates back to ancient Greece, when women wrapped a band of wool or linen across their breasts, pinning or tying them in the back.”

Which means they’ve always been a necessary evil.

So why are they still so terrible?

And why can’t I just chuck them completely?

Because I Am Older and Larger, Even Uncomfortable Bras Make Me More Comfortable

Seven years ago, I wore a 34DD. These days, god knows. I wear a wireless bra that utilizes unconventional sizing. I’m afraid to get sized at the bra store because the owner terrifies me and I don’t want her to bully me into purchasing an overpriced bra with an underwire. But I do know that a 34DD wouldn’t cut it. Not even close.

I mention size (and age) here because, as my body has grown larger and my breasts have sagged lower, it’s simply not comfortable to go completely braless. In the summer months especially, when I’m marinating in my own underboob sweat, the feel of my breasts against my rib cage bugs the hell out of me and causes chafing. And when I’m engaged in physical activity, it just feels more comfortable to have my breasts hugged tight to my body, where they don’t have the freedom to do the can-can all over the damn place.

There is also that niggling matter of the male gaze. Sure, I give even less of a fuck than I used to. But if a glimpse of my younger, smaller boobs was a crime against humanity before, god knows that my older, larger, more pendulous breasts would elicit even more disgust. Or continued sexualization. Who knows!?

Either way, I’m not completely immune to the simultaneous shaming and sexualization that those with breasts are subject to, so I suppose you could say that bras also make me feel more psychologically comfortable.

It’s too bad that, as a larger woman in particular, the world of fashion doesn’t seem to allow for comfort, support, and style. I want to wear halter dresses, too, dammit! My solution this summer was to buy a whole-ass strapless bodysuit, not because I wanted shapewear (which is what the damn thing was) but because I wanted a strapless bra that wouldn’t shimmy down my torso in slow motion throughout the day. The full bodysuit ended up being the best option, this despite the fact that the largest size felt like it was still constricting my internal organs and I also felt in danger of pulling several muscles every time I had to redo the crotch clasp after going to pee (my age is “needs-to-pee-every-five-minutes-or-I-might-wet-my-pants-when-I-sneeze” years old).

The Ever-Present Difficulty in Shopping Ethically

Putting aside the difficulties in finding the magical bra trifecta of comfort, support, and style, it’s also tough to find a bra I can feel good about spending money on when at a brick-and-mortar store where I can also get sized by a professional.

And I’m the type of person who feels weird about having someone go through the labor of sizing me if I’m not going to then invest in their business.

My gosh, I wish more stores would start carrying the ethical brands that do exist. Because I want someone who knows what they’re doing to tell me what size bra I should wear. I don’t want to fumble about with a tape measure at home while taking some online sizing quiz. I do not trust me to do such a thing correctly.

Still, if you are looking for ethical underwear brands, I get my boyshorts from Parade and I’ve also heard good things about Knickey and the Girlfriend Collective (the latter for sports bras and other athletic apparel).

Also, Underwires Are the Bane of My Existence

Can someone please tell me if they’ve ever managed to find a wireless bra that also manages to provide adequate support to their ample bosom? Am I asking for too much?

Also, is it too much to ask that a functional bra also be comfortable when at least half the population requires support for their breasts? Why does every supportive bra seem to feel like a torture device?

At this point, my wish isn’t to shrink my body and go braless. My body is what it is, and I’ve finally come to a place in my life where I can appreciate it.

I just want the bra industry to also love my body, no matter its size or shape.

Also, I want every article of clothing I own to have a built-in shelf bra. That just seems simplest.

Get on that, fashion world.

So what do you think? Is the self-containment required of bra usage just another byproduct of patriarchal control and the male gaze? Are bras a necessary evil? Are you befuddled as to what I’m even complaining about? Have at it in the comments section below.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.


  1. Jay Whitney

    Hi, Steph
    This is the one and only article I have read on the subject but I learned and laughed (you are so funny) a lot. Kudos!

  2. Steph,

    I feel you, but also, I thank you for the laughs. I don’t have as ample a bosom, so I’m more likely to go free than be restrained. My daughter is closer to your size and has found happiness with Target’s Auden bralettes. They’re not as ethical as you’d like, but she has found them to be as supportive as underwire.

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