All I wanted was a cute sundress to help celebrate the end of a miserable pandemic winter. As someone who’s been trying to reduce my clothing consumption and move away from fast fashion as much as possible, it had been a while since I’d purchased a staple summer dress that made me feel flirty and feminine. But I was in the mood to treat myself, so I opened the Aritzia website and started to scroll.
To my dismay, the experience wasn’t nearly as pleasant as I had expected. After just a few minutes of looking through the website and seeing dress after dress with an open back, spaghetti straps or excessively low-cut style, I found myself repeatedly wondering, “How the hell am I supposed to wear a bra under that?”
And then it hit me. I thought back to conversations I’d seen on Twitter, articles I’d read from major outlets and styles I’d seen on the streets of Toronto, and I quickly realized my shopping struggles weren’t just a fluke: they were the result of a rising braless movement born out of the pandemic.
Sure enough, a quick search of the term “braless movement” reveals a host of recent articles from major publications like The New York Times and Vogue, and more declaring that “2020 could be the end of the line for the bra.”
The pandemic allowed people all over the world to prioritize comfort over style and, in turn, enabled many women to do away with the uncomfortable and restricting bras they had come to resent. The push to make widespread bralessness a permanent fixture of modern life is surely meant to to liberate women from a tool used to oppress and objectify them for decades.
While I'm all for those who feel empowered by this change, as a busty woman who feels most comfortable wearing a bra (usually a wireless one, let's be honest), I couldn't help but feel excluded and frankly, inadequate to see countless outlets declare that bras should be banished and to watch bralessness trickle into 2021 fashion trends.
Going braless has rarely felt like an option for me. I went through puberty at a young age and developed breasts before most of my friends, and I have always felt most comfortable when the girls are supported rather than left on their own to succumb to the effects of gravity. Letting them hang free would attract attention not to mention the back pain that would come from carrying around their weight without help.
As I gave up on my online shopping quest earlier this spring, I began to feel as though my desires to both support my bust and remain stylish were becoming increasingly incompatible. And if I was experiencing this frustration as a size 34D, what about people with even larger chests for whom going without a bra would be entirely out of the question?
“I would totally be one of those people if I could be, but I’m not, so I’m watching from afar and very envious,” says Abby Seitz, a 24-year-old woman who wears the cup size 40F.
Seitz says she’d feel far too self-conscious and uncomfortable going braless in public, adding that she has a heightened awareness of her body and how it moves when she doesn’t have some kind of support. Even going out to meet the delivery man means ensuring her arm is strategically positioned across her chest to avoid unwanted attention, she says, but it wasn’t until she recently went shopping at her local H&M and Zara and noticed how few clothing styles were actually accessible to her that she felt discouraged about her body.
“I went shopping for the first time in a while for summer clothes and was shocked at how many tank tops and dresses were cut in a way that I would either need a strapless bra or no bra at all,” she says. “I don’t struggle with body image issues but I felt really gross and defeated after trying on several of the tank tops and realizing that even though they came in XL, they were not for me.”
A discouraged Seitz left the mall that day with a couple of long-sleeved shirts, but nothing she was excited to sport in public during the upcoming hot summer months.
Twenty-three-year-old Kelly-Anne Lemay has had similar experiences. As a size 34DDD (though it ranges depending on the store), Lemay says she’s been in countless situations in which her body has been sexualized and objectified in public because of the size of her breasts, and she feels most at ease when she’s not drawing attention to them.
The reality of physical discomfort is also a major factor.
“My chest weighs quite a bit, and it would give me severe back pain to go braless,” she says. “I would just not be comfortable with myself that way... It would cause me more anxiety than empowerment.”
But Lemay is also into fashion, and she too feels that both maintaining the support she desires while partaking in the trends of the season is becoming more and more of a pipe dream.
“If you go on sites such as Shein, Dynamite, it's easy to notice that a bra would not work in about 50 per cent of the shirts that are being sold,” she says. “It's a bummer because I really like some of the patterns, but wearing a bra would completely ruin the style of the tops.”
Of course, the no-bra movement began long before COVID-19. The feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s saw activists burning and disposing of their unwanted brassieres as a political statement. The question of whether bras are really necessary or simply a useless contraption created by the patriarchy has resurfaced many times since. But no wave of pro-bralessness has successfully resulted in the extinction of the undergarment just yet, though not for lack of trying.
A 2013 study from Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon, a sports medicine specialist from Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Besancon in France, even declared that bras don’t present any health benefits whatsoever and can actually cause breasts to sag. The study explicitly advised young women to throw their bras away for good.
Julia Metraux, 23, recalls hearing about this study and feeling puzzled.
As someone who struggles with chronic pain, Metraux says she experiences an unbearably sore back without a bra. She doesn’t believe she’ll ever jump on the braless bandwagon no matter how widespread the movement becomes.
“There are some health benefits to me, just as someone who has back pain and things like that. When I walk around a lot without wearing a bra, then I bounce a lot and that hurts my back,” says Metraux, who wears a size 32GG. “When I’m sitting at home and not moving, that’s fine, but it’s a very different situation when I’m going places.”
Metraux’s proportions have always made shopping for clothes no small feat, but she estimates that approximately 80 per cent of the items being sold by major retailers right now don’t work for her body type. Just shopping for bras in the first place is a challenge in and of itself, she says, due to her small waist and large bust.
“I never felt like I really could participate in [fashion trends] in the first place,” she says. “If we’re moving past bras, that comes with the idea that there are a lot of bras that fit me in the first place, which isn’t true.”
Though she does believe she should have more options when it comes to clothing, Metraux says she’s skeptical that the fashion industry will ever accommodate all body types, including hers.
According to Dr. Sarah Nutter, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria and an expert in weight stigma and body image, the fact that many of the styles currently dominating mainstream retailers don't allow for bras to be worn creates even more barriers in an industry that is already inaccessible and non-inclusive to so many. It also doesn't help that many of the current styles are reminiscent of Y2K, an era known for its exclusion of bigger bodies and chests.
“We know that a lot of stores don’t carry plus sizes or aren’t size-inclusive and that limits a lot of women from participating in clothing they’re really excited about potentially,” she says. “And so, by adding this no-bra aspect to it, I think it’s just further limiting who this fashion is accessible for.”
Indeed, those who’ve historically struggled to find clothing to fit their bodies are now seeing that struggle exacerbated by trends stemming from the discourse claiming that all women everywhere would like to do away with their brassieres for good. And some busty women who used to be able to find clothing that covered up their bra straps and clasps are now experiencing that same struggle, too.
At times, Nutter says this can have detrimental and lasting effects beyond just putting a damper on someone’s shopping trip.
“When we’re feeling as though our bodies aren’t accepted and don’t have a place in the world, that can lead to some potentially really harmful consequences including mental health struggles, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and so on,” she says.
In the end, Nutter says the way to make a movement truly inclusive is by emphasizing that it’s about choice. If we want to break free from the harmful and restrictive rules society imposes on women and all people, she says, we must encourage individuals to make decisions for their own bodies and ensure whatever choice that may be is made possible and accessible.
In an ideal world, that includes whatever styles are filling the racks of major clothing brands.
“All of this is well-intended and a really great effort away from beauty ideals that have been so strict and rigid for so long and really negatively impacted women, and I think the key is if you want,” she says. “If you want to wear makeup, do it, if you don’t want to wear a bra, do it, but if you want to do the opposite of those things, please feel free to do that too.”
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