McWilliams: Why the bra is (mostly) irrelevant today

The bra. Two soft cups, connected by a spandex band that hugs the upper ribcage, underlined by a plastic or metal wire.

This intricate contraption is a bit odd if you think about it long enough, and it has a interesting history that goes further back than many of us realize. However, as a nation that prides itself in its progression towards female freedom and equality, the time has come for us to (mostly) outgrow the bra as we know it.

As reported by Public Radio International and several other sources in 2012, archeologists recently found remnants of bras in a medieval castle in Austria. These bras date back to the 15th century, over 600 years ago. How exactly the bra has evolved from medieval times to the corset to today’s bra is still up in the air.

The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, a book by Joan Jacobs Brumberg, sheds some light on the more recent history of the feminine undergarment.

“The first bras were designed simply to flatten, but they were superseded by others intended to shape and control the breasts,” Brumberg wrote. “Our current cup sizes (A, B, C, and D), as well as the idea of circular stitching to enhance the roundness of the breast, emerged in the 1930s.”

Brumberg also wrote that around the 1950s, bra companies began marketing their products by increasing medical concern about breasts. Physicians suggested that bras were needed to prevent “stretched blood vessels,” “poor circulation” and “problems in nursing her future children.”

As a woman who has worn many a bra in her lifetime, I can tell you that there is absolutely nothing comfortable about wearing a standard, underwire bra. They itch, they dig into your rib cage and essentially hold your girls in a place where they don’t naturally want to go. The best feeling in the world is when I come home from a long day and get to take that horrible thing off.

But as uncomfortable as they may feel, women continue to wear bras. Seeing as there is no personal comfort benefit to wearing a bra, it must be more to do with a social expectation. It makes sense, seeing as it’s a tradition that has been engrained in Western society since the medieval times.

Our society has come so far in other areas of feminine fashion. We’re not expected to wear only dresses and skirts anymore. We’re able to show a lot more of our skin than we were able to in the past, if we so choose. So, why haven’t we kicked the brassiere to the curb?

Surely, there are valid reasons why women wear bras. For example, while playing sports, it’s much more convenient to be wearing a sports bra. Also, bras can be a fashion statement. They can be a form of personal expression with all of the different colors and styles available today.

That being said, the bra is such a long-time tradition that many women don’t feel socially acceptable in public without it. Women who go braless get labeled as hippies or even as “trashy.” And these types of judgments may be preventing women from wearing the undergarments they want to wear (or not wear).

If you truly enjoy wearing your bra, more power to you. But the notion that our breasts are unacceptable in their natural state is outdated and needs to end.

Breasts come in all shapes and sizes and there’s no reason why we should attempt to make them all look the same. Women who choose not to wear bras in public aren’t sloppy or anti-feminine. Like those who decide not to wear make-up or curl their hair, they’re simply comfortable with themselves — unaltered.

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Lindsay McWilliams

Lindsay McWilliams