On Wearing A Bra: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

Nothing on the female body is as contested and controlled as The Breasts.

Every day, my various newsfeeds are filled with stories of controversy surrounding what female persons, usually young ones, are wearing or not wearing. From a Quebec teen being sent home for “too-short” shorts to a Virginia high school student being sent home from her prom for a “provocative” dress that might arouse her classmates’ dads, to recently, 28 high school girls in Newfoundland and Labrador being sent home on the same day for dress code infractions including visible bra straps, issues around how we understand appropriate attire and the female body are everywhere. And aside from whether or not leggings are, in fact, pants, nothing on the female body is as contested and controlled as The Breasts.

As mentioned above, in some cases of students being reprimanded for dress code violations visible bra straps were cited as the reason. In such cases, I am not aware that any nipple, cleavage, or “underboob” was spied, but I am certain that bra straps were spotted. And bra straps indicate the presence and existence of bras. See, bras unfortunately fall under the realm of “underwear” and society still thinks underwear must have to do with sex—forget comfort, cleanliness, and practicality. Underwear: It’s a big secret that we’re all in on but not allowed to talk about.

Exactly what transpired in each situation of teen girls being, essentially, punished for how they dressed isn’t as important to me as the conversation it should provoke about how girls’ and women’s bodies, and breasts particularly, are monitored, and the kind of messages young women receive about the appropriateness of the bodies they cannot help having.

Last week Scout Willis went topless in NYC to protest Instagram’s ban on (female) nipples in photographs while using the hashtag #FreeTheNipple. The female breast is excessively sexualized, and certainly disproportionately to male chests and nipples.

This week, Rihanna’s see-through dress on the red carpet is causing the latest boob furor. Celebrities wearing something see-through over a bra or even a blazer with nothing underneath but a bra is a look that crops up on the red carpet routinely but, in this instance, Rihanna ditched the bra altogether. What is it about visible breasts and nipples through a shirt that makes an outfit that much racier than Lil’ Kim’s infamous purple nipple pasty getup from the ’99 MTV Video Music Awards?

So let us interrogate all the hoopla about breasts.

First of all, in the context of school dress codes, I sympathize with the task at hand for educators and school administrators. I respect that they want to foster and maintain an environment conducive for learning. I recognize that students do, indeed, need to put clothing on their bodies to attend high school. Even as a resister of excessive regulation of clothing, I recognize that there have to be some limits and parameters, as difficult as they are to define.

I’m not calling for the complete abandonment of dress codes or norms for attire in different environments, but I think it’s important that all people, especially people working with young adults, such as in a school environment, defamiliarize themselves with the long accepted and unchallenged notion of women’s bodies as needing to be hidden.

But the fact that, according to students, schools’ reasoning to dress code-infringing girls often includes that their attire was distracting to male students and male teachers is deeply disturbing. Not only for its heteronormativity, but for the mere suggestion that people, male or female—being distracted or aroused by a girl or woman’s body is her fault and her problem.

Rather than spend some time talking to students and young people about being comfortable with their bodies and also respecting other bodies by not ogling, let’s just remove the temptation. It sure doesn’t give high school boys much credit. And I don’t even know what to say about how it reflects on male teachers.

As a breast-having person, it’s not my responsibility to control whether or not you look.

This is my take on bras, broken down logically:

  • I did not choose these breasts. I was born biologically female, continue to identify with that gender identity, and I have breasts. In fact, I’ve had them, in some noticeable form, since about 5th grade. And yes, I found it humiliating at the time. Because at that age, even if boys like the girls with boobs you still feel hyper-visible and hyper-embarrassed about your body.
  • High school girls are young women. Many of them may also have breasts.
  • Women often wear bras to support these breasts. But bra-wearing is not just for support and (for many) comfort—they’re also about concealing. Bras conceal the size and shape of breasts and ensure the nipples are less or not visible through clothing.
  • Bras require straps to work.
  • Bra straps may become visible in the course of clothes-wearing (consider yourself warned).
  • If bra straps, in and of themselves, are inappropriate, then are bras inappropriate? Should students—and women generally—forego bras?

Bras are not fashion, not an accessory—they are utilitarian garments that are useful and have purpose. If, ostensibly, going bra-less would also violate dress codes and social norms, then shouldn’t the wearing of bras be supported? (No pun intended.) Maybe we should give young women a message other than “your breasts are OK, but keep them a secret.”

I also think it is important that written, easily available dress codes exist so that organizations have the difficult task of actually articulating what they envision as good and bad and why. Students at least deserve to know what’s expected before their bodies and appearances are policed.

I’ve never read a nuanced and thoughtfully written dress code that actually states why any given item isn’t considered acceptable. I want to see dress codes that aren’t vague and euphemistic but will take the time to describe which areas of the body are off limits. “Revealing” isn’t descriptive enough to cut it for me. Revealing what? Some people find feet extremely sexy, should open-toe sandals be banned too?

I realize that some body parts have a long legacy of sexualization, but high schools—safe, supportive, learning environments—are not the place that girls should be sent the message that having breasts is deviant or embarrassing.

It seems to me that it’s OK for girls and women to have breasts and mandatory that they physically support and contain them in clothing, but not OK that you catch a glimpse of the apparatus through which that support and concealment is made possible.

Zaren Healey White is a St. John’s, Newfoundland based journalist, web editor, and blogger. She is completing her Master of Gender Studies degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, having already completed a Master of Arts in English at McGill University in Montreal. Zaren blogs at Of Sugar-Baited Words.

Related Links: