Saturday, December 12, 2015

Function, Fashion, Faux Pas --Fuck Off!

A few weeks ago, a man in a position of power told me this story:

"I was in a store once with my son, who was five at the time" he said.  "And what comes out of his mouth?  'Daddy, that lady needs a bra!'  And everyone was looking at me.  A bunch of people were trying not to laugh, because, really, I mean, I agreed with him, she did need a bra..."

Right around this time, I became very aware of my body.  This awareness, however, only followed the awareness that this man clearly makes a habit of judging women's bodies.  And immediately I was plagued with the contradictory urge to become invisible so as not to be judged and to stand up and be truly seen as someone who is more than a body.

And doesn't that make sense?  We've all had the experience of withering under someone's scrutiny.  This tends to set up a thing where I either hide who I am by disappearing, or hide who I am by being exceptionally visible and pretending not to care when people denounce me.  But I think most of us really, truly want to be seen, not our physical bodies, but the core and true sense of ourselves as beings.  There's deep power in being witnessed in our authenticity and accepted. 

When I was in 5th grade, my sister's mom (different households, different mothers, still sisters.  I know, it's complicated) took her to get a training bra.  I remember looking on in wonder as she wore it in front of her mirror.  It was white, broad like a sports bra, with a small, lace-spun flower on her breast bone.  A training bra?  Was this a normal thing?  Were girls supposed to get these?  What needs training?

My mother had made sure to teach me (a little too) openly and honestly about "making love", pregnancy, puberty and tampons.  But when it came to me doing grown up things, my sister, Green*, was always first.  And it was always a revelation to me.

In 4th grade, she got deodorant.  I guessed I was behind the times because clearly, this was when people started wearing deodorant!  So I asked my mother for some.  She leaned over, sniffed my armpit and declared that I did not yet smell like an adult.  So my sister and I snuck off to the mall, and I bought my own, which I hid underneath my bed until somehow I was found out.

In 6th grade I found out that everyone (the other girls) was shaving.  I don't know if I even bothered to ask my mother at that point.  I just sat in a bath for 40 minutes assiduously soaping a tiny portion of each leg and gingerly dragging a disposable bic across them.

When Green got her training bra, I entered another new world of awareness.  Were other girls in my class wearing bras already?  Of course I knew what bras were, but they really hadn't much crossed my mind other than that awkward day when someone pointed out that the arm holes on my sleeveless top were large enough to view my non-existent breasts if I leaned in a very particular way.  Then I noticed the divide.  ALL the popular girls wore bras already and the unpopular girls clearly didn't except for one who had developed a bit before the rest of us but that only sealed my feeling that I was desperately behind the times.

My mother took me out and bought me the bra I wanted.  "Nothing with bows or flowers" I said, not as much because I wouldn't have liked that as that I had learned to link these symbols associated with femininity to weakness, and that would never do in my family!  (Talk about ingrained misogyny.)

While my education about such adult topics as intercourse, masturbation and the association between menses and babies far exceeded that of my peers, it was severely lacking in matters of day to day gendered knowledge.  So the next day, I proudly went to school in my new white bra under my Sea Trek tshirt, which had a silhouette of two snorkellers in deep ocean water under a beautiful sun... on a white background.

We all know that 5th graders aren't all that nice and I had NO CLUE that white undergarments are able to be seen under white clothing.  About half way through the day Destiny* saw that I was wearing a BRA and, yelling down the hallway, asked if she could snap the strap.

I was mortified!  Clearly now everyone, including my male teacher, knew that I was wearing a bra because it was visible!  I had to take it off in the bathroom right away so no one else would see it.  (I might point out that this was back in the days when bras were considered underwear and underwear showing above or through one's clothing was nearly as wrong as vomit flavored jelly beans would have been before Harry Potter.)

Thus started my complicated relationship with the brassiere.  I wore one religiously, although not alone under something white, through 6th grade.  But sometime in 7th grade I got to questioning.  Why should I wear a bra?  Why did a bra have the power to make me mature while not wearing one made me a kid?  Why was wearing a bra "right" and not wearing one "inappropriate?" You might have already guessed that I didn't need to wear one for the sake of comfort.  If it had been a matter of pain, my questions might never have arisen, but in my AA standing, there was no pain, no bouncing, and I decided: no need.  So I stopped wearing one.

And I did get ridiculed.  In 8th grade a boy I'd "dated" in 6th grade told me that I "should never wear that shirt without a bra."  I have been told I look "horrible."  It's been suggested that if I don't wear a bra -oh, sorry, I mean- if someone doesn't wear a bra, she's likely to be raped.  It was the same when I decided to stop shaving.  "Do you have a boyfriend?" asked a classmate in art my freshman year.  "Doesn't he mind?"

This really has nothing to do with bras.  What did a bra ever do to that man whose son is so aware of his father's misogyny that at five years old, he already "knows" that there is an acceptable and an unacceptable way for women to appear?  Does anyone ever look at a piece of clothing on a hanger and say something shaming to it?

I've gone back and forth over the years.  Most of my early adult life I went without a bra.  Now that gravity has been pulling on my breasts (which are no longer AA) for over 20 years they hurt a bit and a bra helps alleviate that.  A medication I started taking a year ago has the odd side effect of making my nipples stick out 100% of the time.  I've never tried on a piece of clothing without wondering, "can someone tell if I'm wearing a bra in this?  Is there enough pattern to hide my nipples?"  There are days I wear a bra because I can't cope with the feelings other people have about my breasts.  And there are situations that I've swallowed as "bra wearing times" as dictated by our society.  I even prefer the way I look wearing a bra, but that's not enough to have me wearing one every day.

There's a special assumption we make in the U.S. about autonomy.  We consider it each person's exalted right to have their own control and self-determination over their physical bodies.  This is the basis of many arguments about abortion.  This is the crux of assault cases.  But when it comes to autonomy, this is actually what we hear: "You get to determine for yourself what you wear except if you choose no bra/leggings/something small if you're not small/something modest if I want to see more of you/something I don't like.  Then you're wrong and inappropriate." This castigation tells us that the autonomy that society says is incredibly important, is a sham, it's for other people, we are not respected enough to be granted this basic human decency.  Our autonomy is not really ours but something the world around us controls.  As a friend and some tweets pointed out recently, "I'm tired of men [and others] trying to divide women into "good"/"bad" based off what we choose to wear. It's not our clothes you don't respect. It's us."

*Names changed of course

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