More summery reflections: the boob taboo.

// 8 May 2008

So I haven’t worn a bra for about 18 months now: I’ve never needed one for support and just got out of the habit while in Paris. This was when I decided to stop shaving, so I thought I’d get rid of another unnecessary dependency while I was at it. Thus far neither decision has posed much of a problem, partly because I’m a student and so have the luxury of not having to conform to social norms of appearance, but also because being abroad for a year meant I missed out on summer: both my hairy pits and braless breasts have been hidden away under jumpers and long sleeves. No more.

Now, I’m not really bothered what anyone thinks of my hair, though I must admit to wondering whether people are talking about me as I stretch out in the library. But the breast thing is more difficult: walking down the street braless in just a vest top, knowing that the outline of my breasts can be seen fairly clearly makes me quite paranoid, particularly since my first braless outing at a wedding was met with the comment ‘Look at the puppies on that’ as I walked past a table of drunken revellers, resulting in much upset, a tearful argument and an apology which may or may not have been sincere.

Despite the fact that they are a major and visible part of the bodies of millions of people in this country, breasts are taboo. Sexualised to the point at which breast feeding in public is viewed by many as offensive and disgusting, while the photoshopped boobs on lads mags covers are highly visible in shops across the land, breasts are a sign of sexual availability, the outline of a nipple a sign of sexual excitement, viewed by some as an invitation to instigate sexual activity. In order to avoid giving out these signals, many of us wear padded cups over our breasts, moulding them into an often unnatural, smooth shape, an inoffensive, and much less sexual, rigid mound under our clothes.

When you stop and think about it, the bra, far from being a sign of womanliness and femininity, could be said to alienate woman from her feminine body and breasts, which are defined by external judgement: braless, they are too openly sexual for the public’s gaze (or not sexual enough: god spare us the hideous sagging boobs) , covered up they must be standardised and pushed up to meet the exacting demands of patriarchal femininity.

I do recognise that some women do genuinely need bras for support, particularly those with bigger breasts and those who play sport. But in many cases I think the wearing of a bra is simply to enable us to fit into a patriarchal society that has an age long fear of the female body, either claiming parts of it as its own and defining and controlling them to its own ends (breasts, womb) or portraying it as disgusting and, again, in need of control (body hair).

I recently tried to buy a bra, as I work with kids and think going braless is probably inappropriate in summer: I have to fit in. My god was it stressful. I tried on dozens and dozens, none of which fitted properly, all of which deformed my breasts into an unnatural shape, and I went stomping from shop to shop in an ever increasing rage. Eventually I found a crop top type bra in M&S which, mercifully, allows my breasts to stay their natural shape while covering the evol offensive nipples, but I really dislike the feeling of being bandaged up. I know I could go and get one specially fitted or made, but why should I have to spend so much money just to conform to a social norm that brings me no benefit whatsoever?

I know some – many – people will think that I’m fighting a pointless and unwinnable battle by braving the world braless, but learning to accept and be comfortable in my female body in its natural state has done wonders for my confidence and self belief*. I really do believe that the concerted assault by the media and beauty industry on our bodies, appearance and identity is one of the biggest challenges Western women face in our continued fight for liberation. After all, if we’re constantly at war with our own bodies, how can we possibly fight for freedom from sexism, violence and discrimination?

While we’re on the subject, I recently came across The Normal Breasts Gallery, which aims to show women the huge variety of natural breast shapes and sizes in an effort to counteract the standardised images of breasts in the media. If, like me, you’ve never seen many other women’s breasts, this really is amazing!

*This is not to say that I think women who are quite happy in their bras lack self confidence, but it explains the importance I personally place on this issue in the context of feminism.

Comments From You

zak jane keir // Posted 8 May 2008 at 10:09 pm

I hardly ever wear a bra and hardly ever notice anyone noticing. But this could be because I am short-haired, over 40 and dress a bit ‘oddly’ anyway. Still, good luck to you: wear what you want to. More people should do so. Though I will confess to a bout of horrible self-consciousness about my lower legs at present: they are unshaven because I have psoriasis and I don’t want to expose them, but that’s more about the psoriasis than the hairiness. I hope.)

Molly // Posted 8 May 2008 at 10:44 pm

I doubt anyone here will disagree that breasts are hyper-sexualized. But there is, if you’ll forgive the old canard, something to be said for letting them be somewhat sexual. If I’m breastfeeding a baby, damned right I should be free to do so in public. For that matter, in this jurisdiction I can walk around topless and be following the law, and that’s a good and important law.

But. On an individual level, I don’t want other people to be able to see the shape of my breasts. Sure, it’s a cultural norm that they’re “private.” But as long as we can continue moving towards de-sexualizing breastfeeding, which is where it counts, I don’t really have a problem with breasts remaining moderately sexualized. I don’t want strangers to see the shape of my breasts or my nipples; that’s for me and my girlfriend, and her only if I say so. I think a lot of women have chosen that, and I don’t think it’s a choice that’s at odds with feminism. It doesn’t oppress anyone. It just lets us have our individual comfort levels.

cranberry // Posted 8 May 2008 at 11:34 pm

yup, following on that comment: I know and like my breasts being sexual objects and am quite aware of the fact that I don’t want everyone on the street to see them. I mean I’d find it quite offensive if a man was walking down the street with his genitals on display, or even men walking around overtly topless in the wrong context (i.e. in the shopping mal, not on the beach).

I have medium-sized breasts and have always found it uncomfortable to not wear a bra, they simply get in the way of everything!

Tulip // Posted 8 May 2008 at 11:59 pm

Over the last few years I have slowly weaned myself off wearing a bra and haven’t done so now for months. I can’t even remember the last time. I really am not aware of anyone noticing. I’m quite flat-chested so it’s not a particularly prominent part of my physique.

This topic is timely for me though when it comes to body hair. I shaved my under arm hair today b/c it was hot enough to be wearing a small vest. I am of med. descent and have strong dark thick body hair, so it’s very noticeable.

It’s left me feeling quite sad as I actually liked having my hair and I feel guilty, and cowardly actually, for removing it, for fear of what others will think :(

Esther // Posted 9 May 2008 at 12:25 am

I gave up bras while I was a student. When I became a proper adult, with a permanent job, I started wearing them again, at least at work (but obviously, that often means after work too, and if I get drunk on Friday night and sleep in my clothes, I could be wearing one most of Saturday!)

What I find works really well, though, is a shirt with a vest top underneath it. The other thing that I love, is if I see someone looking at my breasts on the tube or whatever, I’ll stretch to show off my hairy armpits!

Danielle // Posted 9 May 2008 at 6:55 am

Our university library has recently extended its opening hours, and I decided to go one night to find a book I needed. As it was late and I was studying in my room, I wasn’t wearing a bra, and thought it unecessary to put one on just to take the 5 minute trip to the library.

But when I was in the mirrored lift, I caught sight of my reflection, and was horrified to see how “saggy” my breasts looked. And then horrified to discover myself thinking in this way.

Patriarchy really doesn’t take much effort on the part of the enforcers when they have us policing ourselves.

mia // Posted 9 May 2008 at 7:37 am

I have not been able to find one single decent non padded bra in over two years. Not one. When I say decent, what I mean is that they don’t make my breasts into crazy triangles. And I have to say, now when I see myself in the mirror wearing a tshirt sans bra, I feel ugly. I am so used to having these huge breasts on my tiny frame now. Its awful. I feel so resentful of the idea that all bras have to be padded. When did it become so? I dont want huge tits. I just want some support. Jesus.

Kirsty // Posted 9 May 2008 at 9:31 am

More power to your elbow Laura, good for you. I am one of those women whose rather large breasts means that going bra-less for any length of time = muchos pain and discomfort, and I would love to be able to discard the flippin’ underwiring sometimes.

I also agree that it’s monstrous that breastfeeding in public is so disapproved of – that is a battle we must win!

Laura // Posted 9 May 2008 at 9:50 am

Hey Tulip,

I think I’d feel sad too if I shaved now. But you really shouldn’t feel guilty, or cowardly, you have to do whatever it takes to be comfortable in public, and sometimes going with the norm can just make life easier – there’s nothing wrong with that. Makes you really angry at all the razor adverts and ‘get your bikini body ready’ crap all over the place at the moment though, doesn’t it?! Fuckers.

Suzi K // Posted 9 May 2008 at 10:12 am

I’m an H cup so going bra -less really isn’t an option for me- I just wear sports bras, I’m sick of shoving myself into uncomfortable underwired bras that just hurt.

I haven’t managed to give up shaving but Laura I want to say thank you – your posts about growing your hair made me re evaluate why I shaved. Now I no longer do it as frequently – it’s not unusual for me to not shave for 3 weeks at a time whereas before I was shaving every 3 days.

Bras, leg shaving, attitudes to weight and post pregnancy bodies – I think it is important to evaluate these things from feminist perspectives in order to try and have a healthier more ‘me’ centred body image. I also think as women we need to support each other more about our bodies – I like the previous comment about who needs the patriarchy when we police ourselves!!

Larla // Posted 9 May 2008 at 10:44 am

I could never give up bras. My breasts are fairly substantial and it would be uncomfortable to walk around without them. That said, I don’t need them to feel comfortable. I’ve met people who can’t sleep unless they have a bra on. I could never sleep with one on. They may be useful and save my back from constant pain, but they’re certainly not comfortable enough to sleep in.

I admire you for not wearing one, though. Bras can be useful, but they should not be a necessity.

Vinaigrette Girl // Posted 9 May 2008 at 11:42 am

Ah, bras. FWIW, think bra and an Italian suffix, Mia. I thought I was a 38C; turns out I’m a 34F, who knew? I have bras I am totally comfortable in now, without padding or weird conical shaping.

I *did* breastfeed in public with no trouble at all, in three countries; I wasn’t HEY! LOOK! TITS OUT FOR MY BABY! about it, but when my son needed feeding, he fed. The “worst” thing that happened was an older woman in France who said that as a health visitor she didn’t think much of my technique and I should hold him at a different angle so his head was a bit higher :-).

Wearing a bra isn’t, to me, a patriarchy thing or a form of self-hatred. It’s practical: nipples can get chafed, they brush against stuff that can hurt depending on where you’re going and at what speed, and swingy boobs (in my case) are painful and In The Way. And I don’t see why other people need to know the erectile state of my nipples, any more than I need to know the erectile state of theirs.

Lady S // Posted 9 May 2008 at 1:00 pm

I disagree that breasts can only be sexual if they’re covered. A counterexample to this is that men’s chests can be sexual objects but it’s legal and socially acceptable for men to go topless.

Although I am a women who definitely needs a bra if I’m exercising – and just for general support – I have really enjoyed the times I was able to go topless in public spaces (in Spain).

Faith // Posted 9 May 2008 at 1:24 pm

Thanks for the link to the breast gallery, Laura. I sent in my pic after flipping through a few of the pics.

There’s a similar project here you might wish to check out if you are unaware:

sian // Posted 9 May 2008 at 1:49 pm

i hardly ever used to wear a bra – im an A cup so it’s easy for me to pick and choose. i tend to wear them more now – as i tend to wear a different style of top that would mean no bra may be too revealing for me to be comfortable with.

what used to annoy me as an A cup was that it was so hard to find small sized non padded bras. i used to get so frustrated that just because to the fashion world i had unacceptably small breasts, i was being forced to buy a product that would make them bigger. it was ridiculous!

i do think i am lucky to have the choice, and apart from my mother, i have never had a negative response to going braless!

Anne Onne // Posted 9 May 2008 at 3:17 pm

Sian, it’s also quite hard to find medium and large non-padded bras, too, which is even more surprising. Do they actually think women with J cups feel their boobs are too small?

I wouldn’t go out without a bra, the discomfort and pain if I’m active would be too much, but I don’t feel obligated to always wear one if I’m lazing around at home. Personally, I just with more of the focus was on practicality and comfort, rather than only selling underwear that is supposed to be seen, but is hell to wear. Many bras are uncomfortable because the focus is on aesthetics (and what men are supposed to want!) rather than on fitting the body of the women who have to wear them all day. And I don’t like the idea that all or most underwear has to be seen to be sexual, or be dressy. It to me reinforces the idea that women are expected to be in a permanent state of sexual availability and consent. What about women who just want comfortable underwear, not something to hang up as a work of art? It’s just not fashionable to wear utalitarian underwear, even if it fits better, and that says a lot about women, and our priorities regarding them.

I fully support (no pun intended) women of all shapes and sizes who choose not to wear one, especially if it feels better for them. When I was little, I used to think that only women with really big breasts needed to wear bras, so I was really surprised to find out that all women are expected to wear them!

At the same time, there can be many good reasons to wear a bra, whatever your size (not all of them patriarchical), and it obviously doesn’t necessitate handing in your feminist card if you do!

Tulip // Posted 9 May 2008 at 3:49 pm

Laura- Thanks, I do know what you mean. It might seem like a strange analogy but I have a septum piercing and whilst I love it and am proud of it, I do choose to flip it up when I can’t face the tedium of people staring at my nose during conversation trying to work out if it’s a ring or … snot. I guess it’s a little similar to the hair thing but I am going to resolve to not shave again throughout the summer. It is important to me and I really do miss and mourn my fluffy tufts!

The normal boob gallery is really valuable IMO. During that ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ week on channel 4 it also struck me just how few examples of non shaved/waxed vagina’s that I have seen. You really need to hunt them down and it concerns me that girls grow up with the expectation that they aren’t ‘normal’ or attractive (whatever that means) if they don’t remove some if not all their pubic hair. Radio Five Live did a discussion on hairy women a number of months back and I was actually pleasantly surprised to hear the majority of callers, male and female, backing hair bearer’s. It’s funny because I think in some ways women’s body hair is a bit like the elephant in the room. Lots of people are fine with it, love it even (my partner :D) but they don’t want to admit it because it goes against the grain.

Anna // Posted 9 May 2008 at 5:57 pm

I’m only a B cup so I don’t really feel the need to wear bras; but oh my, the comments I elicit when not.. from the “I never knew anyone had four nipples” [I’ve got them pierced, so they do look rather funny through a top] to “Look at that whore”… not just coming off men, funnily enough.

Hazel // Posted 9 May 2008 at 7:47 pm

Like Vinaigrette Girl for years I was wearing a bra size that was wrong for me.

If you need to wear a bra (like I do) then please take the time to get yourself measured by a professional and don’t take a guess. The best thing I ever did for my self confidence regarding my breasts which I had never considered attractive was to wear a bra the right *cup* size.

All my bras are underwired and are not in the least uncomfortable and that is because they fit me properly.

On the subject of hairiness there was a horrible article in the Daily Mail about Anne Robinson’s hairy pits which assumed the position that hairy oxters are by default “unsightly”. They couldn’t resist putting up that photo of Julia Roberts from a few years ago when she had the temerity to do the same when in my opinion she looked great. The comments were generally refreshing mind you.

Danielle // Posted 9 May 2008 at 9:33 pm

I don’t think I’ve quite reached the stage where I would miss my armpit hair, although I can now confidently go outside exposing my stubble/hair if I haven’t got time to shave (or just can’t be bothered- which is increasingly the case).

But in the last four years or so since I started putting on weight, I have become rather attached to my excess fat… I found an old pair of size 10 jeans lurking at the back of my wardrobe a few weeks ago. I tried to imagine my body as that size again and it just seemed wrong!

I couldn’t have imagined this when I was 15, an age where I was religiously shaving everyday, even if no one would see my legs or armpits, and watching my body like a hawk for the tiniest smidgen of fat.

Yay for feminism!

Amy // Posted 10 May 2008 at 1:45 pm

I wish I had the nerve to go without a bra. When I was about 15 I was subject to a sexual assault which centred on my boobs and since then I’ve been very protective of them and would never go braless or wear anything that shows the shape of my nipples for example. I literally make them into a formless lump like the original blog entry said! Sometimes I feel like I would put them under lock and key if I could. It’s unhealthy I know, but I blame my feelings firstly on the assault and secondly on the way patriarchal society makes breasts a public sexual commodity (the first surely follows on from the second). Boobs are everywhere, while simultaneously not being accepted and respected for what they are. Odd. It seems patriarchy has decided what our breasts are for (men’s sexual pleasure) and will disapprove firstly of us using them for anything else (i.e. breastfeeding) and secondly of us treating them as a part of our body that should remain private if we so wish. And for those who *do* wish to uncover them in public, it is somehow seen as license to leer, jeer, grope and so forth. Page 3 and the lad mags constantly reinforce the message that having them ‘out’ is both slutty and an invitation for them to be touched and used for whatever sexual jollies men wish. In this hostile environment it becomes difficult to remind people that our bodily integrity should be intact whatever we wish to expose… just like it is for men.

So I applaud the decision to go braless because it gives the world a dose of reality. I would if I could (perhaps one day I will!).

As for shaving… I’ve decided to put down the razor for the summer, and see what happens. I’ve always said that I feel my deodorant is more effective with shaved pits but I’m going to put it to the test. My boyfriend was a bit less than enthusiastic when I announced it this morning but I made the point that him fancying me has nothing to do with my shins or my armpits (at least, I hope it doesn’t!). And the more I thought about it the more I thought yeah, why is it considered so terribly unattractive to have hair on these two relatively out-of-the-way parts of the body? Bizarre! A person’s sexual attraction to their partner can’t be that strong if it’s wiped out by a few body hairs. I look forward to proving my boyfriend wrong… (and saving money on razor blades).

Rachel // Posted 10 May 2008 at 6:18 pm

It’s not just bras. I couldn’t even find a swimming costume without foam padding this week.

I don’t feel the need to have my breasts hoisted up, facing north and foam padded at all times. Not wearing a bra means that I sweat less and there are no straps to dig in either.

For those who want to give bralessness a try, a cami top makes a good nipple cover-up. They double up as nice summer tops too.

Anna // Posted 23 May 2008 at 6:28 pm

I’ve taken to not wearing a bra of late on the grounds that I don’t need them for support, being a very modest B cup and today when I walked in I was told that I was trying to make myself look like a ‘dirty little tart’ who ‘wanted to fuck her teacher’ .. by my self-proclaimed ‘feminist’ mother. I am really at a loss as to why I SHOULD wear a bra when I don’t want to.. Surely it’s my choice? Tits are tits, quite frankly. I’ve got them. I fail to see the issue here. *sigh*

Kathy // Posted 24 September 2008 at 4:35 pm

I have read with interest the comments from everyone concerning going “BRALESS””. I for one HATE bras. I am a 67 yr old female who gave up wearing those things in 1976. Its been 32 yrs of freedom. I was a 36 B. I have been told by both men and women that I have the breasts of a much younger woman. I do have to be careful of the type tops I wear as I have very large areolas. I really dont mind if my nipples get cold and point out.[ It gives the guys a thirll…LOL] So….I just wanted to thro my bra into the ring ….sort of speak……LOL————–Kath

Richard // Posted 31 January 2009 at 7:13 pm

To me there is nothing more attractive than a woman over 60 who feels good enough about herself to go braless. She is self-confident and defiant. She has looked in the mirror and realizes that her breasts are not ugly, floppy, old bags, but a sensuous, beautiful part of who she is, to be celebrated, admired and enjoyed.

As far as breastfeeding in public, I think it should not only be tolerated, but encouraged. A woman’s breasts are not only lovely to look at, but functional as well. You give birth to life. You nourish and nurture life. You are wonderful, beautiful and life-affirming. We need to be constantly reminded of that. We desperately need your civilizing influence.

Aggression and violence toward women is not only an obscene aberration but a crime against humanity and should be treated as such.


Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds