Bra Politics – A small history of feminism’s rifts with the bra
The pandemic has been here for 6 months now, and our relationship with bras is more complex than ever. As more and more of us work from home, now, we are acquainted to the understated irrelevance of bras. An instrument of torture, burning holes in our pockets, more sensitive and delicate than the fragile male ego, and for what? Is a bra feminist? Is a bra not feminist? I don’t know. But in history, at more points than one, bras have been the ‘headlines’ of movements. Thus, this is a small attempt to deconstruct what bras truly mean, in the context of the patriarchy and of ‘womxn’s liberation’.
Breasts have been hyper-sexualised in almost every culture. Which is also why the female nude body is considered intrinsically erotic. And bras, by association, are also sexualised. Additionally, bras with their tight elastics and underwires have been well known to cut blood flow and cause other problems like back pain and shoulder ache. And due to colonialism, the European standards of beauty, their evolution from corsets to bras have become widespread in all cultures. ‘Lifted breasts’ were considered attractive. Indigenous cultures were first introduced to the bra with the British and Spanish rules, but this has stuck. Now bras are mandated at almost every space, from schools, offices to even a sidewalk, and bralessness has led to termination, expulsion and even arrests for ‘indecent exposure’.
Bra Burning Feminism, what does it mean ?
Bra burning feminists, never really burnt bras. This myth has been carried from the 1968 Miss America Pageant in New Jersey, where feminist protestors threw mops, lipsticks, high heels into a trash can. They symbolically threw objects that oppressed women. No one burnt any bras- but a news headline carried the phrase and it stuck. This marked a new wave of feminism, one that was focused on bodily autonomy. While 10 aspects of the pageants were opposed like racism, commercialisation and body standards, but only one aspect sensationalised. And ever since this tag has stuck, describing any woman that is championing for any rights, that men have, but deem too superficial and unimportant for women to get. In the words of Ms Morgan, a protestor present that day, the “headlines trivialised the movement.”
In the coverage that followed, opposers of the movement stated, bra-burning feminists weren’t really seeking freedom, but attempting to attract men. This painted a picture of any braless woman as an ‘angry feminist’ for decades to comes, and declared any sort of radical feminism to be about bra-burning. It also paints feminists as monsters interested in destruction. Post this sensationalisation of ‘bra-burning feminists’, bralessness became more widespread and political than ever.
Bralessness – Political and Personal
Bralessness was simple, do not wear a bra. It was political in the sense that women were freeing themselves from the multibillion-dollar industry of brassieres. It was about self-acceptance, bodily autonomy and practicality- this was more comfortable, healthier and let you breathe more freely. At the time of the movement, the practicality of bras was negligible. They were constraints, that prevented your lungs from expanding properly, dd not allow any flexibility and also cast the female breasts into an unnatural conical shape.
Susan Brownmiller, in her book Femininity 1984 states, “bralessness shocks and angers men because they implicitly feel they own breasts and they should be the only one’s removing bras”. Even in India, ‘blouses’ were popularised during the British Raj after Indian women were refused entry into clubs due to wearing traditional sarees- those that were worn without blouses.
Free The Nipple
Free the Nipple came as a movement about choice. It challenges puritanical beliefs and aims to desexualize breasts. While a large part of the campaign has been about acceptance of nudity. More actively, it challenges the impositions placed on women worldwide due to these connotations. Breastfeeding in public is still a taboo, even though it has all to do with practicality. Women are also subjected to a thousand dress code regulations, instances of them being fired for breeching these are also common. Further, breasts in most cultures have a lot to do with ‘maturity’, and for females that develop them at a younger age, it means being forced into early marriage, or being sexualised by relatives themselves. Thus, they’re asked to stay home, not play sports anymore and become ‘domesticated’, all to not tarnish their womanhood.
It is not a call for Nudism but a call for freedom. It has also been mostly seen on the internet, supporting artistic nudity and opposing the censorship of female-presenting-nipples on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. However, there is a large question of ‘expressionism’ and how this movement is not intersectional and nuanced, largely ignoring the struggles of black and indigenous women.
Bras as a measure of Control
Even now women’s decision to wear bras is mediated by the ‘male gaze’. Schools ban ‘colourful bras’ because they might distract male students. In the workplace, there are different grooming laws based on gender.
In 2013, mannequins wearing bras and panties were banned from being present to prevent ‘rape’ in Mumbai. This was so that men do not get excited by these presentations.
Breasts have also been controlled for ensuring the caste hierarchy. In the 18th century, a breast tax was imposed on Dalit and Shudra women by the Kingdom of Travancore. Under this, if they wanted to cover their breasts, like the upper-caste women, they were liable to pay a tax depending on the age and size of their breast. This practice stuck until 1924 when it was outlawed. The then ruler saw this as a sign of ‘respect’ to the upper castes of the village. Thus the display of breasts in India has to do a lot with the upper caste gaze imposed on lower caste bodies.
Even now there remains a lot to be undone to truly free ourselves from the constraints of the bra, both figuratively and literally. This involves shifting the ownership of the breasts to the men and women that own them.
Anureet Watta is an Intern at SheThePeople TV