Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Shopping For a Bralette


As a 34AA, I wouldn't bother wearing a bra, except that my work as a yoga teacher requires some modicum of discretion and containment. So the last time I went bra shopping, I bought half a dozen stretchy microfiber pullover bras that were breathable, wicking, and just supportive enough. But now that it's time to replace them I find myself in a deluge of uniformity.

For an entire desperate hour, I go through rack after rack of identical bras with stiff underwire and foam padded cups. Aha! I realize, this is why everyone's breasts look exactly the same. Haven't you noticed? Maidens, mothers, and crones now all have the same gently rounded, uplifted look, shaped and molded by hard plastic, foam, padded inserts, or even water. I need underwire like I need lead in my drinking water, and pads only highlight my lack of chestal adipose.

Some long-ago saleswoman told me that when you try on a bra, you're supposed to lean forward and pour your breasts into the cups. I try that, but as soon as I stand up, my breasts just cling to my ribcage. Then I remember a Japanese lingerie store in Manhattan where they tell you to scoop and scoop and scoop the skin, muscles, and tissue from your back forward to your chest where they will be put to good use as the basis of your cleavage. But I'm 110 pounds in my bathrobe and slippers. I have nothing to scoop.

One of my daughters inherited the Krishok stack, the other the minimalist Hong look. When we were negotiating curfews a while back, Katja complained that her older sister Meiko got to stay out later than she did. "And Meiko has boobs!" she exclaimed, her crowning argument for an earlier curfew.

Implying... what? Maybe Katja is on to something here. Hmmm...breasts connote fertility, which attracts attention from potential mates, thus a woman is sexualized, and when she is sexualized, is she more vulnerable? Should Meiko come home earlier to protect herself and her breasts? Or does she need to protect herself because she has breasts?

And what does this reveal about the cultural preoccupation with breasts? The only time I've ever had cleavage was in the early, engorged months of breastfeeding. Does society want us to look like we're always lactating, like hormonally enhanced dairy cows?

My relationship with my breasts has evolved through many stages. I remember studying my silhouette in the bathroom mirror when I was in seventh grade, proud of the gentle bulge in my red sailor sweater. I remember swelling to a B cup when I went on the pill in my early twenties. I remember watching in horror as my breasts defIated after breastfeeding like empty balloons. I remember accepting and learning to appreciate my streamlined figure when I started practicing yoga.

My first bras were from the Sears girls department, wisps of white nylon that my brother pulled out of the bag to his astonishment and embarrassment. They were my entry points into a grown-up world, a foreshadowing of my future as a woman. The nursing bras I wore in my years of lactation were built like tanks with flaps and hardware. They privileged my breasts as fundamental, and honored my hormonal function and my life-giving role.

But while I buy discount bras in quantity, my daughters exercise their more refined tastes at an obvious place I do not deign to name. Their shop windows take feminism back at least thirty years, and their ads and catalogs are best described as soft porn. My girls spend their hard-earned babysitting money on bras that cost four times what I spend. After a recent visit, Katja cringes as she tells me about the "old" lady she saw taking a fancy bra with fringe into the dressing room.

We want our bras to serve us on a soul level, to fulfill some deep need. I want my bras to affirm and uphold my shape even though it doesn't conform to societal ideals. My daughters seek some confirmation of femininity and beauty. And the old lady with the fringe? She needs a party bra.

Meanwhile, I'm still searching for simple cotton bras with a bit of stretch. Finally, I find a nylon bra with no pads, no wire, just a little gather at the center and a single hook. It's so different from other bras, so shapeless and lightweight that it's not even called a bra. It's a "bralette." I Google it out of curiosity and find padded bralettes as small as a girls' size six. Is it never too early to train a girl to want more? What would it take for us to truly love our bodies, regardless of cup size and brand names?

Peggy Hong was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Hawaii and New York. She is the author of a poetry collection, Three Truths and a Lie (forthcoming, Water Press and Media); the poetry chapbooks Lies and Fables and The Sister Who Swallows the Ocean (CrowLadies Press); and a fine art letterpress book, Hoofbeats (Gokiburi Press). Poetry publications include Spoon River Poetry Review, Rhino, Bamboo Ridge, and Mothering magazine, among others. A graduate of Barnard College, she received a Master of Fine Arts degree at Antioch University with a dual concentration in poetry and fiction. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband and three children, ages 18, 16, and 13. She teaches at Alverno College and Woodland Pattern Book Center.

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Proud 32 double A here! I will never forget the liberation of being told by my first real boyfriend (at 20) that I should stop wearing bras, since I didn't need them. I am chagrined that it took a man to tell me and convince me that my flat chest was beautiful and just perfect for me. But after 20 years of listening to my mother bemoan her own flat chest as if it were the chief tragedy of her life, I was brainwashed. Now I'm a lesbian, but I still thank that boyfriend (who later became my husband, then ex-husband) for giving me an ego boost at a critical moment in my life. I can count on one hand the number of bras I've owned since age 20 (and I'm 37 now).
I find myself sometimes emabarrassed by my large breast. Annoyed that when I talk others eyes more focused on my breast. When I was younger and smaller chested I went without a bra for some time until and older bitter lady told me with a threatening face that it was not lady like and so I put the bra back. Yet it is when I am without a bra that I am most comfortable with my body, at least in private-- I wont dare try that liberation in public again. Instead I spend my time in public twitching and scrathing the unnatural underwire that has become a norm in our society. Large or small, young or old, we must all be lifted, round and perfectly trapped behind these things to be considered beautiful.
The grass is always greener, isn't i? I am rather full figured and could never go braless, but I love the idea that maybe someday, in a future world, I might. Thanks for writing this.
As a 38 H at age 33 I can only dream of being able to buy bras at a discount or even in any type of quantity. I am constantly bemoaning to my less endowed friends (which to be honest is everyone I know) that I have to budget at least $40-50 if I am considering getting a new bra. I worry for my daughter, who is, at 13, already showing signs that she has inherited my "stripper body". I want people to address her mind not her chest.
I was always a 34B until I was pregnant and for the first time in my life, I had boobs, something that my mom (a 38DD) bemoaned her whole life (and still does). In fact, she has scars in her shoulders to prove it (and back problems to match)! Rather than be happy with the extra mass on top, I couldn't wait for them to shrink back to my normal size. I didn't like moving my arms at my side and feeling a mass bulging out. Eventually they shrunk back but not to my braless days. Like masses of women, I got used to them being entrapped, but I still encase them in functional, stretchy, underwire-free contraptions. I'd still prefer to be braless! 17 years later, I took my daughter clothes shopping for a year in Ecuador. For the first time, she wanted a two-piece swimsuit, so I waited outside while she tried them on. At one point, she called me in to see. Much to my consternation, her boobs, which I hadn't really seen for a few years, had blossomed and had grown. "Holy shit!" I replied. "You have grandma's boobs." She hurriedly tried to cover them up, but I laughed. I knew that what she was most embarassed about at 17 would become something that guys would oogle at a few years later. I'm just glad that I never inherited my mom's chest size! It's definitely liberating to be small!
I remember watching my mother struggle to find a bra that would fit my maturing and well-endowed sister. I vividly recall the day my sisters breasts took us from shopping at K-mart (during the discount sales) to a "brazier-boutique" in Whitefish Bay. I had no idea the extents to which people go to contain their bodies! I'll never forget the shock on my mother's face when she was told that her 13 year-old daughter was a size 32 DD. We'd entered into a new dimension--the Containment Zone! Then came the stories of my aunts who had to roll their breasts-up and stuff them into too-small bras -- yikes! Most of this I observed from the sidelines...blissfully unaware of my own cup size (I took after my father's more slender athletic build). I now have a beautiful son who's arrival as taken me through 3 cup sizes (up and down). The last time I shopped for a bra was 5 years ago. I spent over 3 hours searching for comfort in all the wrong places. After that escapade, I vowed to care for my "good bras" and wear athletic bras-when needed-and hang free as often as possible! I've given up the idea of containing underwear all together! Thank you Peggy for writing this article and reminding me to stop, hang, and appreciate my freedom! P. S. I discovered that there is no synonym for "breast" in MSWord...curious thing...
Peggy, another wonderful column. If you interested, please read Charles Simic's poem "Breasts" as I was thinking of it when reading your essay on purchasing bras. DC
How delightful to hear everyone's bra stories, and also for everyone to post their bra size online! (Except for Dewitt.) Thanks, all, for your thoughts.
Peggy, wonderful column! And it's delightful to read the comments. They made this 36DD (who ballooned to 42G when a nursing mother) think about hajib - and how some Muslim women say that, counter to the typical Western view, the headscarf actually frees them, frees them to be who they are, freed from sexualization. It's a claim I always dismissed -- until I reflected on my own view of underwire bras in light of your column and the comments that followed. For me, a supportive and "structurally sound" bra does not constrain, restrain, or limit me. Just the opposite. A good bra lets me move without pain, lets me defy gravity (at least temporarily), lets me run and jump without my boobs thudding around. I love that. Thank you, underwire! So, what to some may seem an instrument of oppression, can in fact have the opposite effect. Perhaps the true issue is whether one has the choice -- to wear the bra or headscarf, or not. Only when women make a free choice are they truly free.
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