In my lifetime, I have spent many, many dollars on bras. Most of it in the last decade when the task of finding one I can stand, that’s really the bar now–a bra I can stand, has gotten infinitely more complex and baffling.
What has happened to my boobs? Overall, they don’t look that different—a bit lower, wider, but essentially the same gestalt, like, I could pick them out in a lineup even through the ages, so why is bra shopping so maddening?
Back when I started wearing one—I don’t remember the exact age, maybe 9th grade—it was a breeze. I had a simple thing that held the girls in place without any drama or issue. I don’t remember trying on training bras (What are they training for? The Big Game? The Major League of being ogled, secured, exposed, protected?) In my mind, it was a magic trick–poof—one day a white, cotton, pad-less bra appeared between my skin and my shirt.
A few years later, and for a long stretch, it was Maidenform, 34B, underwire, one beige, one white. I wore them for ages, throwing them in the washer and dryer until the wire pierced the fabric, jabbing my armpit or sometimes, emerging slowly from my cleavage like a tiny sword.
When the Maidenforms stopped working, I’d zip to Macy’s or Target, tackle the mounting selection of brands, able to find ones that worked well enough.
The changing bras of pregnancy were a whole separate category. In pregnancy, your body is a construction site until the baby is out and then your body is a snack bag of leaky tingly boobs. I soon abandoned the nursing contraptions–I needed emergency access and wore whatever facilitated that. After I stopped nursing, the plant was transformed. I had to tour in the facility, survey the situation, the skin tag and stretch marks, nipples, shell-shocked from all that pulling and biting and twisting.
I treated myself to a professional fitting at a fancy lingerie store. The saleswoman ushered me to a boudoir with a couch, statues, plants, a 3-way mirror. As I looked around for a private room, I was stripped down, my tattered bra cast aside, new ones swiftly secured, hands expertly reaching into the cups from all angles, positioning the girls like furniture. It was all very intimate—I felt like an interloper, like maybe I should leave. Oh, that feels tight, I said when she was done. Nope, she replied, that’s your size. I spent a small fortune, came home and told my kid, Well Scooter, I could have sent you to college, but I bought these bras instead.
Now, I’m a 36D or 3, or 1, or XXL, or a Papaya. They’re a respectable size, not huge. I have friends with triple G, H cups. By the way, I think all boobs are nice. I’m not here to objectify any boobs or spaces where boobs once were or spaces where one wishes boobs would be. I’m chest-positive, all for rejecting the hetero-patriarchal paradigm of the male gaze.
That said, I do want them to look nice. I do. I want them to have a lovely contour and slope, to sometimes be the star of the outfit, to partially peek-a-boo in the best way.
People say, Oh, I never wear one or Oh god, I sleep in mine or Toss em out! Free the nipple! I’m all for the Great Encumberment. Women have been whipping off their bras the moment they get home, or earlier, in the car or subway, so eager to end the torture. The subtle unhook and extraction through the sleeve-a sort of bra laparoscopy–is a universal move. I’ve done it at a restaurant, mid-meal. If I love taking them off, why put them on? It’s not for convention or to clean up the view. It’s a comfort issue. I wear a bra because, after a few hours, not wearing one, feels bad. The sweat collects, muscles ache, my mood sours.
I just wish I knew what was going on so I could address it with the right product. This older bosom is an enigma and I want to solve the puzzle. Sure, I’m heavier than I was 20 years ago, but it’s not the weight. Something else happens to the bosom over time—one’s particular jello mold shape spreads into neighboring territory, shifting the whole landscape. Plus, they need me. They’ve gone through the years without a say in what the years have done to them. They rely on me. They can’t dress themselves.
Shopping now is a stumble through an ever-increasing onslaught of bra outlets, most of them online where it’s impossible to try anything on before purchasing. I do appreciate the models in every skin tone and body size, the sight of real people with real flesh. Yet, these companies are not all created equal. Some are very hip, using sustainable fabrics, ethical business practices; others talk a good game but won’t take returns. You must simply eat the cost. Still others are happy to send you a different size without returning anything. Donate or give it to a friend, they cheerfully suggest.
So, I measure, take countless online quizzes, and swiftly my Instagram feed fills with ads for the t-shirt, plunge, sports, scoop, strapless, backless, racer-back, triangle, full coverage, convertible, halter, demi, tank, pull-over, wrap-around, bandeau, balconette, stick-on, the cloud, the revolution, the date night, the cage!
Package after package arrives, wrapped in tissue and promise, all dashed when I try them on and am instantly uni-boobed, straightjacketed, pancaked, bifurcated like a mollusk, or sent flopping out like escaping fish every time I bend over.
Comfort. Containment. Contours. Am I asking too much? It must be wireless-I haven’t been able to abide a wire for ages. The straps must be adjustable, no back fat, armpit chaffing, scratchy lace, no padding or pushups, no nipple cut outs or bras made of licorice.
I don’t need a return to the perky breasts of my youth that protruded, literally, straight from my neck. I’m fine for them to have matured and mellowed, leaning into gravity the way a fatigued child leans into a parent carrying them to bed.
I’m also not ungrateful. I’m lucky to have had them all these years. They’ve been hilarious, functional, a magical milk factory, a source of pleasure, some annoyance, the recipient of unwanted attention just for being themselves. If I should lose them, sail on my friends, thanks for the memories.
In the meantime, I continue in this body I was given, trying to acclimate, accommodate, even celebrate each stage, working to support this older bosom the way I want to be supported, to be given a warm welcome, a bit of fun, taken out for a spin, home for a rest, to know I’m worth the time and effort even if there are some things I may never, ever figure out.