My first bra came in a box delivered by my older sister with a humiliating gentleness. I took the box down to my bedroom and fumbled to put it on. Then I sat on the edge of my bed and stared out the window in shock. I felt strapped into a straitjacket. Was this the beginning of the rest of my life sentence? I was deeply ashamed to receive a training bra, a bra for babies, a two-triangle white lie about the status of my chest and thus my girl-ness. I was convinced I would never become a shapely woman like my sister, a woman with a fiancé — a man to take the place of our dead father.
I wanted to be a girl, but I didn’t want to be a woman. I’d seen my forceful sister Nixie exhibit a new gooey deference to her fiancé Dave. She was now nicknamed “Dooh” to his “Pooh.” Once, at dinner, he’d made me change seats with him, and she’d taken his side. “The man sits at the head of the table,” she said. At twenty-one, Dave seemed to be the boss of Nixie and of me. I knew the two of them were upstairs, probably talking about me and my stupid bra and worst of all, my body. This bra was the beginning of the end. Its purpose was to train me to accept my eventual fate: a Dave of my own. I cried in my room for an hour.
I grew into a woman anyway — despite never filling out any bra — and I married a man who would assure you that he is no way, no how, the boss of me. But my first bra experience still holds deep truths about my life and who I am. In surveying and interviewing hundreds of women for my in-progress book Underwired, I’ve learned that a first bra story almost always covers more territory than you expect.
Ask any group of women to tell you their stories, and you will hear tales of mortification, excitement, confusion — and mothers. “I wanted a bra way before I was brave enough to ask my mom about them,” a teenager wrote on the survey. “We didn’t really talk about girls’ stuff and she always emphasized necessity over fashion, so I wore two shirts a day for a couple years cuz I thought she’d call me stupid if I asked for one.” An older woman wrote: “I should have had a bra at about 14 or 15, but my mother (Hispanic) never talked about anything . I believe the first bra I wore was hers that I took from her drawer because I knew I needed one and didn’t know how to ask for her to purchase me one.”
The bra itself might be a real bra or a training bra, needed for physical or emotional or social comfort, a big deal or forgotten in time. It could be loved, despised, stolen, hand-me-down; white, beige, leopard print; a cotton sports bra, a lacy bralette, a matronly fortress of seams; a symbol of joy in becoming a woman, a symbol of the lost freedom of androgynous childhood, or a little of both: “I felt scared about changing from being a kid to a teenager, but also excited about how cool I would be when my friends found out I was wearing a bra. I had a wall calendar and I wrote ‘braw’ on it to remember to wear it.”
I was so mortified at all this feminine shit that was going on with me.
50-year-old Jen was the oldest child in a chaotic family of alcoholics, and for her the bra meant control. “You’re this kid, and you’re dealing with big things, and you don’t have that skill set, so how am I going to get that skill set? Well, I’m going to be an older kid,” Jen told me. “And I absolutely remember trying to rush that. Wanting to be in makeup, wanting to shave my legs, wanting to have a bra, because it decreased my anxiety. ‘I can handle this, I‘ll be able to take care of everybody better when I’m older.’” It took decades, after a career in nursing and two children, for Jen to put herself first.
Kim, 64, was not excited about her first bra. She cried at the store trying it on; cried at home later. “My mother had had it with me!” she remembers. “I saw my freedoms being taken away because now I had this fucking period, and now I had this fucking thing around my chest, and I wasn’t allowed to play tackle football anymore because ‘You’re a young lady now.’ I was so mortified at all this feminine shit that was going on with me. I didn’t want to celebrate any of these things. Oh, I hated it, I hated it so bad.” Her mother didn’t understand what the big deal was, and in a way, Kim didn’t understand all the layers to her feelings, either: “I didn’t know anything about orientation back then, at all. I didn’t know the word ‘lesbian,’ I didn’t know the word ‘homosexual.’ I just knew that I was a tomboy.” Kim hasn’t worn a regular bra since the ‘70s and grins cheerfully when she pulls up her shirt to show what she does wear: a TomboyX sports bra with rainbow-striped elastic trim.
38-year-old Michelle told me she’d had “a completely different experience” than the other girls she knew: “I didn’t have the mom who could teach me how to do my hair or makeup or all those girly things.” Her mother had primary progressive MS, the most severe and unrelenting kind. Though she was too weak to take her daughter shopping, she had strong opinions on Michelle’s coming of age. “I was skin and bones, a string bean,” Michelle told me. “But I was ten, and my mom, she developed very early, she was very large chested, and I think she started wearing a bra around that time, and she felt that I needed to wear one. My mom was in the hospital for a round of steroid treatments, so my dad took me to Sears. He asked the lady where the training bras would be, and then she showed us where the rack was. I picked one style and got a couple. I would never wear them because they were itchy. Awful. Finally, my mom told my dad to take me to the store and get sports bras, because she was adamant that I needed to wear something.” Michelle’s modest, bed-ridden mother put a bra on every day with the help of Michelle’s father, until her MS made it impossible.
Stories nest like Russian dolls; open the story of a girl’s first bra, and inside you find her family’s beliefs about the body and sexuality; inside that, her relationship with her mother; inside that, her mother’s relationship with her own mother.
As a child I was fascinated by the full-breasted girls who needed a real bra, unlike me and Michelle. But I’ve learned that being the first girl in class to wear a bra — the notorious girl whose full name other women remember decades later, against whom they calculate their own position— is usually painful. A first girl learns too soon that a woman’s body is subject to unwanted male attention and constant judgment. The more obviously feminine her shape, the more likely she’ll be called fat or slutty.
“It was horrible,” a woman in her fifties wrote. “I was in 4th grade and the first girl in my class to wear a bra. Everyone had something to say about it. Classmates, family, friends. Even friends of my mother. It affected so many things in my life. The clothes I could wear, how other girls reacted to me, how boys and men reacted to me and how I felt about myself, starting as a teenager and well into adulthood.” Another woman told me wryly, “I am so glad I was not the first girl. But I was the second girl. There was slightly less pressure. It sort of felt like being the vice-slut.”
Early puberty carries risks: of certain cancers, of addiction, of sexual abuse, and most of all emotional and physical repercussions: “By the 6th grade I was already a D cup,” one woman said. “That started a lifetime of hunching over to hide them. It is only now at 46 that I have been doing PT for a year that I am able to consistently stand up straight.”
“It’s about bras,” I tell people about my book, “but it’s not really about bras.” Stories nest like Russian dolls; open the story of a girl’s first bra, and inside you find her family’s beliefs about the body and sexuality; inside that, her relationship with her mother; inside that, her mother’s relationship with her own mother.
All of these are contained within the biggest story, that of our collective body as women. Once upon a time, we wore corsets. Once upon a time, we bought bras at a department store, from a salaried woman trained by the manufacturer to fit the bra and hand-sew custom alterations. Once upon a time, we had no sports bras, and we weren’t allowed to run the Boston Marathon. Once upon a time, high schools were full of braless young women with long straight hair and wild Afros, no makeup, and clearly visible nipples. Once we were children, shirtless, the sun warm on our skin.