“My, What Healthy Breasts You Have!” (said no one, ever)

“My, What Healthy Breasts You Have!” (said no one, ever)

Bra Guide. (Wikimedia)

This past May, I attended the annual meeting of the Western Association of Women Historians, which is one of my favorite history conferences (I’m pretty sure there is no other history organization that concludes its awards banquet with a sing-a-long). Usually I hate to miss any of the sessions. But this year, I snuck off with Cheryl Lemus and another historian (I’ll call her L) to do a little “mentoring” in the shops of Berkeley. This isn’t totally facetious, as we were on a mission: to find me a properly fitted sports bra. I had started running a few months earlier, and while I had great shoes and a snazzy outfit, certain other areas of my anatomy were feeling less well-equipped. Cheryl and L are seasoned runners, and they were appalled by my bounce. So, we headed to the only place where any self-respecting women’s historian would go for such things: Title IX Sports. Ninety minutes and about thirty-seven bras later, with the help of no less than four other women, I walked out with the right equipment (I got this one, in case you’re wondering). I have no doubt in my mind that when I finished my first 5K five weeks later, it was due in large part to this support. But, to be perfectly honest, I had never thought so much about my underwear in my entire life. I was glad that it was over.

Dorothy grows up and meets The Wonderful Wizard of Bras. (eliz.avery/Flickr)

So, imagine my surprise when, three months later, my new obgyn and her nurse practitioner suddenly started talking to me about wearing the proper bra not only when I am running but also just in daily life. Aesthetics never once entered into the conversation. Instead, their focus was entirely on the effects of aging, pregnancy, and breastfeeding on the female form. More to the point, they were talking about taking care of my breasts in a way that went beyond self-exams, reduced caffeine intake, and sex appeal. Their concern was long-term comfort – preventing stretching and tearing that could cause pain down the road. This was an entirely different conversation than I might have expected, more akin to those I have had about the proper fit and style of running shoes suitable for my particular needs. When I mentioned to the doctor and nurse that I was impressed that they were talking about this matter, they pointed me to this article in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Pause, a magazine produced by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists aimed at providing women with “the very best medical information on dealing with a variety of midlife health concerns.” (How I feel about my doctors identifying me as “midlife” might be the subject of another blog.) The article itself is vague in the medical rationale for a good fit; indeed, unlike my health care providers, it focuses on appearance rather than comfort or well-being. But it had gotten them thinking, and they passed that on to me. Being who I am, I immediately wondered what this meant.

There is ample feminist discussion about shifting cultural definitions of what the female form is supposed to look like in order to be the most appealing to a (predominately) male gaze. The best example of this, in my opinion, is Jill Fields’ book, An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. Fields traces the history of binding, the invention of cup sizes, and the use of fabric color, among other devices, to illuminate the role lingerie played in shaping ideals of femininity and the female body in the twentieth century. This intimate apparel was often marketed as scientifically advantageous to women’s health, but the sexual function of breasts was always the bottom line. Binding them down, lifting them up, pushing them together – none of this had anything to do with encouraging the natural state of a woman’s breasts. No wonder women’s liberationists threw their bras in the trash can.

Beige underwire bra.(Wikimedia)
Pink Ribbon. (Ted Fu/Flickr)

As a feminist used to thinking about bras in this context, I found the conversation about selecting the proper bra to enhance the health of my breasts to be…well…confusing. The article in Pause ostensibly is about breast health. But health here seems to be code, once again, for appearance. If we set aside concerns about what is the most preferred positioning from an aesthetic stance, there is little of substance in the article. This left me wondering. What does it mean to have healthy breasts?
In the United States, October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here in Louisiana, the governor’s mansion quite literally turned pink in order to shine a light on the fact that we have the second highest death rate due to breast cancer in the nation. Women are inundated with information about self-exams, early detection screenings, and genetic testing. We are told not to use aluminum-based antiperspirants, to eat more vegetables and fewer fats, to avoid certain plastics, and to be aware of the chemicals in our water supply, our cosmetics, and our weed killer. All of this is very important information, and I in no way intend to diminish that. But I can’t help but be aware of the assumptions imbedded in this advice. So much of it requires a commitment of resources – particularly time and money – that can be scarce for so many women in this country and around the world. An article posted on eMaxHealth earlier this year posed the question, “Is Your Bra Strangling Your Breasts and Your Health?” The article began with a quick refutation of the mythical link between bras and breast cancer before moving into a discussion of the real links between ill-fitting bras and health, particularly in women with larger breasts. Breathing problems, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic back pain are among the many conditions caused or exacerbated by a bad bra. But anyone who has ever gone shopping for one knows that well-constructed, well-fitted bras are not cheap. Are creating the conditions for breast health yet another privilege reserved for the select few? Or would we all be better off taking a tip from feminist iconography and burning them all?

Lingerie Fashion Show. (Beth Olson/Flickr)

I suspect that most women with ample bosoms would be loath to give up their bras, not only for very real reasons that have to do with physical comfort, but also due to cultural assumptions regarding the female form. Unrestrained breasts are loose breasts, and loose breasts belong to loose women (or so we are told). So we contain our breasts, our bodies, our sexuality, ourselves, in order to minimize our exposure for condemnation and molestation. Nursing mothers perform acrobatic feats in order to feed their children discretely, and they still risk public approbation. Men can shed their shirts in hot weather, while women sweat through not one but two layers beside them. Bras are marketed to girls as young as seven who wear a size 6x. Women’s magazines print before and after shots to demonstrate how the right bra can make a woman seem younger, slimmer, more professional, and more attractive. It’s hard to look at all this and convince myself that I’m going to spend $70 on a bra because it will make me healthier.

So I ask you, dear Nursing Clio readers, what are your thoughts on this? What does it mean to have healthy breasts? How do you navigate between cultural standards of beauty, self-image, and health? What role (if any) does a bra play in your own sense of wellness?

Featured image caption: Bras. (Gabriel White/Flickr)

Carolyn Herbst Lewis is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. She is the author of Prescription for Heterosexuality: Sexual Citizenship in the Cold War Era (UNC Press, 2010). Her current project is a history of the Chicago Maternity Center.