by Meagan Murphy
For most of recorded history, societies throughout the world have required women to use some kind of bra-like garment to hide, restrain, and reshape their breasts. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of this at excavation sites near ancient India, Greece, and Rome. By the Renaissance, corsets were required attire for all women of means. Iron supports – the predecessors of today’s underwires – forced women’s shapes into an aesthetic ideal defined by men: narrow waist, flat torso, broad hips, and high, round breasts nearly spilling over the front of a dress. Sound familiar?
In the early 19th Century, the corset gave way to the bra. This new invention was sold to consumers as a modern and healthful improvement. Women were led to believe that the bra would offer greater mobility and lung function and that it would enhance their overall well-being. But what’s the truth about bras?
The Commercialization and Industrialization of Bras
Caresse Crosby patented the first bra in the U.S. in 1914. After rejecting her corset and spontaneously sewing together a bra from a pair of handkerchiefs and some ribbon, she patented her “backless brassiere” and started a business. Crosby got some orders but her business was on the brink of failure when, at her husband’s insistence, she sold her patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500. Soon after, the American bra industry boomed during World War 1, as the U.S. government asked women to refrain from purchasing corsets so that the metal used in their manufacture could be redirected toward the war effort. Rather than the original, woman-to-woman industry that might have flourished innovatively, we were left with what exists today: a society in which 95% of women wear bras, and the overwhelming majority of them are purchased from corporations like Victoria’s Secret and Hanes, with highly-compensated men in most top positions. These executives profit directly by keeping their industry thriving regardless of the true cost to women.
Our First Bras – What Do They Mean to Us?
“When I was in the fourth grade I played a fairy in a school play. I had to wear a white leotard and tutu. After the first dress rehearsal, my mom pulled me off stage and said, ‘We need to go to the mall. Now.’ Apparently the leotard was quite see-through, and everyone in the audience could see…well…a lot. So that’s how I got my first training bra.” —Sarah
The purchase of a first bra is portrayed in the media as a symbolic milestone in a young girl’s life. But what does that mother-daughter trip to the mall truly celebrate? What does it really mean to us and our relationship with our breasts?
For many of us, our first bra sends a signal to the world that we are “wo2men,” despite the fact that many of us obtain bras before we’ve had our first periods. But this change in our self presentation ushers in two big changes: we must now cover and reshape our breasts. Until this moment, we’d been comfortable in our bodies. But now we are inclined to be ashamed.
That first bra can also be an initiation to the sexualization of our bodies. Bras for tweens or teens are frequently designed as steps toward the heterocentric world of lingerie – women’s apparel created to please the male gaze. Just last year, the internet went wild with criticism when UK-based company Matalan marketed a plunging, padded black bra to tweens as young as 8 with the tag line “my first bra.” Many thought it simply too provocative. When 18 year old Megan Grasell of Wyoming took her sister Mary Margaret to the mall for her first bra, she was shocked to discover that it was virtually impossible to find an appropriate choice. In response, she launched a Kickstarter and her company Yellowberry now successfully markets wholesome, comfortable bras for girls ages 11-15.
Are Underwires Safe?
“Having studied the toxic biological effects of wireless radio frequency (RF) radiation, I find it amazing that women will willfully strap on two radio frequency antennas to their breasts in the form of an underwired bra. The wireless industry knows the underwired bra as a dipole antenna or doublet.” – Steven Magee
Many women choose bras with underwires to lift the breasts, but the safety of these bras is still in question. Most obviously, underwires can poke through the bra and cut or irritate the skin. However, more subtle concerns lurk.
- Exposed wires can cause contact with nickel plating, creating a rash.
- All bras leave marks on the body that can be seen through thermography. This effect is exacerbated when underwires are present.
- Although most medical personnel are trained to cut away bras when using an AED device to treat cardiac arrest, the wires can conduct electricity, causing burns.
- Steven Magee, author of Toxic Electricity, poses serious questions about the effects of radiation in our world, and whether underwires might conduct that radiation more aggressively toward women.
Of greatest concern is the effect that underwires can have on the lymph nodes, cinching them and restricting the flow and drainage of vital bodily fluids. Numerous physicians have written in support of this theory, including:
- Michael Schachter MD, FACAM, Director of the Schachter Center for Complementary Medicine – Over 85 percent of the lymph fluid flowing from the breast drains to the armpit lymph nodes. Most of the rest drains to the nodes along the breast bone. Bras and other external tight clothing can impede flow. The nature of the bra, the tightness, and the length of time worn, will all influence the degree of blockage of lymphatic drainage. Thus, wearing a bra might contribute to the development of breast cancer as a result of cutting off lymphatic drainage, so that toxic chemicals are trapped in the breast.
- Joseph Mercola, Osteopathic physician and founder of Mercola.com – Avoid wearing underwire bras. There is a good deal of data that metal underwire bras can heighten your breast cancer risk.1 Many physicians and researchers now agree that wearing a tight fitting bra can cut off lymph drainage, which can contribute to the development of breast cancer, as your body will be less able to excrete all the toxins you’re exposed to on a daily basis. Aluminum from antiperspirants, for example, is one potentially dangerous source of toxins that can accumulate if your lymph drainage is impaired.2
- Dr. Mandy Ward, Naturopathic Doctor, contributing writer for keep-a-breast.org – According to Dr. Mandy3, our naturopathic expert, 85% of the lymphatic fluid must drain its waste around the armpit area, while 15% drains along the breast bone.4 This is exactly the area constricted by underwires.
- Dr. Cheryl Kasdorf, Naturopathic Physician, founder of drcherylkasdorf.com – Tight bras, poor food choices, and lack of exercise can hamper lymphatic removal of fluids from the breast. That can result in breast tenderness and is a risk factor for breast disease including cancer.5
Do I Need to Wear a Bra?
“One of the main functions of a push-up bra is to lower the number of mothers who seem like mothers.” – Mokokoma Mokhonoana
We are the grateful recipients of the spoils of the battle for Women’s Rights. Women in 21st Century American enjoy greater freedom of choice than our sisters at any other time and place in human history. Although most mainstream women’s magazines and fashion outlets make it seem that all women should have bras on at all times, of course that isn’t true. There are no rules. Make whatever choice feels right to you. Here is some information to help you decide:
- In 2013, French scientist Jean-Denis Rouillon completed a fifteen year study and concluded that there is no truth to the idea that, left unsupported by a bra over a long period of time, breasts will sag more. In fact, he found that the opposite was true: in women aged 35 and under, the absence of a bra caused the surrounding muscles to work harder to support the breast, resulting in less droop! “Our first results confirm the hypothesis that the bra is a false need,” Rouillon reported. “Medically, physiologically, anatomically, the breast does not benefit from being deprived of gravity. Instead, it languishes with a bra.”
- “At the end of her cycle, a woman’s breasts are larger than at other times. However women typically wear the same size bra throughout the month. During times when her breasts are enlarged due to her high hormone levels and heightened lymph flow, constriction from the bra will be at its greatest. This can lead to obstruction of the lymphatic drainage and the development of lymph-filled cavities, which are experienced as lumps. When the cycle starts over and hormone levels decline, swelling is reduced and the lumps go away.” (54, 55)
- Livestrong.com reports that a good sports bra can help you minimize bounce and stay comfortable during exercise. The more comfortable we are during any activity, the more likely we are to continue.
Learn More About Women, Girls, Bras, and Breasts
Much of the information that we have about the connection between bras and breast cancer come from a study conducted by Sidney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer. They published their study in their book Dressed to Kill, available from Amazon.
There’s a terrific article about the bra/cancer link at goop.com. Lots of information there!
A Word from Meagan
As much as I’d love to live bralessly, I’ve found that my breasts (and I) are happier when we’re “resting” and supported. But it’s taken a long time to gather an ideal collection of bras; for work, for leisure, for errands and for that little black dress. I’m really glad that bralettes are now more widely available for double D types, like myself. However, finding products that are 100% cotton is often challenging. Can you make a recommendation? We’d love your input!