It was the beginning of March. The corona virus was wreaking havoc abroad, but here it seemed to be something only over-zealous HR policymakers were worrying about. Then, on the twelfth, we received the shock announcement that we would have to work from home until the end of the month. Three days later, the schools were closed for three weeks. Everyone I knew was counting down the days until we could get back to normal. Three weeks seemed like a long time.
On the seventh of April, a bombshell hit. During his press conference, the Dutch prime minister used two new phrases, ‘the new normal’ and ‘the 1.5m society’. My jaw dropped as my heart froze – surely it was impossible that this situation could become permanent? I could not believe in ‘the new normal’. Four months on, I’ve been forced to accept that many things I would have found bizarre back in March, now indeed seem to have become normal. This series of blog posts will look at various aspects of the ‘new normal’ as I experience it in the Netherlands. The topic of this post may be a surprising one: bras
I hate clothes shopping, and I loathe throwing away clothes. As a consequence, I detest fashion. The idea that I should regularly change the contents of my wardrobe according to the whims of some shadowy dictator (who decides these things, anyway?) seems like madness. Unfortunately, any time I do need new clothes, I can’t escape the tentacles of the fashion industry. Finding what I want is a gruelling and sometimes fruitless search, as the shops are filled for 90% with the limited array of colours and styles that are ‘in’. The rest of the time, however, I successfully ignore fashion.
So, it was to my great surprise that, during lockdown, I suddenly found myself reading fashion articles, drawn in by totally unexpected headlines such as “No sweat: how tracksuit bottoms became the height of lockdown fashion” and “The thought of skinny jeans makes me ill!”. The gist of the articles was equally unexpected. High heels hurt, tight jeans are restrictive, people prefer to be comfortable – wow, such revelations! It seemed almost as if the fashion world had suddenly emerged from collective madness and seen the light. It was a bizarre experience to find myself nodding along in agreement. Then, one headline caught my eye and jolted me out of my approving mood: The death of the bra: will the great lingerie liberation of lockdown last?. I thought “huh?”. Now they’re going too far. Bras are – well, essential. After all, I’ve worn one for almost thirty years.
I got my first bra as a young teenager, a 28AA with a little rabbit on it holding a heart. It had been my sister’s before me, and for years I had been longing for the moment that I would inherit it, a joyful rite of passage.
Fast forward a few years, and I hated wearing my bra. Quite aside of the habit teenage boys had of pinging the strap, delivering me both a stinging slap across the backbone and a flash of red-cheeked humiliation, my bras were uncomfortable. I refused to wear an underwired model, which wiped out most of the available options. But even those few bras without wires felt tight and constricting.
As a student, I finally had a long overdue measurement session, which revealed that my bra was a size too small. The fitter also introduced me to sports bras. Finally, I could wear a bra in comfort. Even so, in hot weather a bra is warm. On one occasion, hot and sweaty after martial arts practice and late for a student committee meeting, I left my bra in my bag and sprinted to the meeting venue – leaving a string of smirking males in my wake. Another time, on a boiling hot day in Malta, I also went without – and discovered how much it hurts when a rattling old bus without suspension bounces violently over a street full of potholes and your breasts do likewise.
These experiences had fixed in my mind that bras were sometimes a pain but were a definite necessity. Besides, I had always heard that if you didn’t wear a bra, then you would stretch and damage the tissue around your breasts, ending up with saggy boobs. Now, reading the fashion article about discarding your bra, I was astonished to find references to a French study that had shown the opposite – going without a bra had no negative effects and might even be beneficial. Still, I wasn’t convinced. I understood that for a woman who had always worn underwired push-up bras to make herself appealing to men, the idea of going without would be a liberation. But my (mostly) comfortable bra was my own choice – wasn’t it?
A month later, a heatwave hit the Netherlands. Preparing to cycle to work, I chose the bare minimum of clothes for my ride to keep as cool as possible. Of course, I would have to wear my bra. Or would I? As a test, I decided to put it in my bag along with my change of clothes. During the bike ride, I was physically comfortable – and definitely cooler. Yet it didn’t feel right, and I was relieved, once at work, to put on my bra. What was going on? Why was my bra so unmissable?
I had to trace it back to those embarrassing smirks during my bra-less sprint across campus. I can’t really blame those who smirked, having once myself smirked (and outright guffawed) at the site of an Olympic athlete’s meat-and-two-veg ricocheting from side to side in his running costume. Not being called upon to sprint regularly in my daily life, however, this extreme example was unlike to arise. Yet I didn’t feel comfortable without a bra, because I felt that even gently jiggling breasts were not acceptable because of their sexual connotations. Without a bra, I wasn’t appropriately dressed, just the same as I would not feel right going to work in a low-cut top. That seemed quite reasonable.
Then, I remembered a scene in the film ‘Steel Magnolias’ where two characters at a wedding make snipey remarks about the jiggling bottom of another female guest. ‘I haven’t left the house without lycra on these thighs since I was sixteen’, says one character. ‘You were brought up right’, is the other’s rejoinder. Now, I’m pretty sure my bottom also jiggles, yet I would never dream of wearing a girdle. In my mind, that would be suffering a great deal of discomfort in order to live up to some idealized image of how a woman’s body should look. But isn’t that the same thing that I do by wearing a bra? Put up with discomfort because the world says that a woman’s breasts – even when covered by clothing – should not jiggle? Similarly, why do I even worry about whether my breasts would or would not eventually sag if I don’t wear a bra, when I don’t dye my grey hairs or inject botox to get rid of my wrinkles? Why, when I permit the rest of myself to visibly age, do my breasts need to imitate those of a twenty-year old?
I’m still wrestling with myself on this one. I’m genuinely not sure where my own sense of comfort, propriety and self-image ends and my social conditioning begins. I don’t think I’ll be ditching my bras completely anytime soon. But I do think I’ll stop treating them as an essential item of clothing – especially when working in a sweaty home office during a heatwave.
I have my doubts as to how long the fashion world’s ‘born-again’ passion for comfortable clothing will last. The essence of fashion is constant change, so once everyone has filled their wardrobe with new jogging bottoms and floaty skirts then this ‘new normal’ will make room for the next fad. I do hope that the shift in social attitudes will be more permanent, allowing ‘smart’, ‘professional’ and ‘comfortable’ to come together. I am fortunate enough to work in an informal environment, but five years of school uniform has left me with a deep sympathy for anyone forced to spend all day in uncomfortable and unseasonable clothing. For me, the lesson of this facet of the ‘new normal’ is this: despite having prided myself on not being a slave of fashion, there is definitely room for more liberation in my choice of what to wear. To bra or not to bra – at least now I’m asking myself the question.