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Tales our mothers could tell: The Bra February 10, 2006

Posted by Winter in body politics.

This piece was written for us by a woman in her sixties.

I was twelve years old when my mother decided that I was BIG and needed a bra. To this end she visited Dorothy Perkins, unattended by myself, and discussed the matter with the assistant who dealt in bras – telling her that I was BIG. The latter suggested that I should be measured but recognized that of course young girls were SHY about being measured when they were BIG. My mother purchased a 38 bra which she presented to me, informing the rest of the family of its and my dimensions. I worked out how to raise the straps, tried it on and discovered that it was significantly too large. I was just about five feet tall and probably weighed in at around eight stone so a 38 bust would have looked proportionately odd. But I didn’t question the matter, particularly since after my rather slim childhood, my father had taken to referring to me as ‘fatty’. I set about altering the bra to fit, taking in at least one inch on either side – although this did nothing to alleviate the bagginess of the cups. It is interesting of course that my mother did not alter it and was thus able to maintain her position as to the correctness of its size. The information continued to be spread but I do recall one younger visitor looking at me, emphatically denying that I could be that big, and offering to measure me to prove the point. The challenge wasn’t taken up, and my perception was reinforced by other family members, one uncle pronouncing that I had ‘good mammary glands’, and another finding it very amusing that my younger brother called me ‘Bubbie,’ since one could make the association to ‘Bubs’ and subsequently to ‘Stonkers,’ and Bristols,’ – although I found the semantic development unclear. It seemed that I was no longer a person – an individual with a unique identity, but some entity attached to two breasts.

I am still puzzled as to what this was all about. Was my mother involved in some cultural throwback in which she had to demonstrate to the tribe that her daughter was ready to suckle a child and therefore available for mating? And did the older members of the family have to confirm this with suitable observations? Occasionally I have been with a group of women when the subject of the first bra is mentioned and immediately excited stories pour out. It seems that it is always the mother who initiates the bra – becoming seriously involved in its size and purchase. One such story described a mother packing several sized bras into her daughter’s luggage when she departed for boarding school. This might seem prudent and kind, except that one wonders how many sizes a girl would need in the course of one term.

It is the drama that is puzzling. I can well understand a degree of furore if a girl did not produce breasts, but since they are definitely going to appear round about the time of puberty or adolescence, excitement such as my mother’s, seems odd, as indeed are compassionate comments that girls at puberty and adolescents feel awkward and even embarrassed about their bodies. I’m not surprised!

Did you know? Feminists did not burn their bras in the 1960s. This myth is based on events which took place at a demonstration against the1968 Miss America Pageant. A few women tossed some padded brassieres and other items of stereotypically feminine adornment in a rubbish bin. This action was wrongly reported as a burning of bras. There is in fact little evidence of bra burning at women’s rights demonstrations, “Yet, according to press accounts of the time, the bonfires of feminism nearly cremated the lingerie industry.” See Susan Faludi, Backlash, p. 99.



1. TP - February 10, 2006

Interesting post – my early ‘womanly’ milestones were so uneventful.

Shame about the bra burning fact. I love the thought of wowen whiping their bras off and setting them on fire! It doens’t make much fiscal sense though. They’re expensive!

2. Naiades - February 10, 2006

I think thong burning makes more sense. except i don’t have any to burn

3. Winter - February 10, 2006

Oh yes, let’s organise a symbolic thong burning. I don’t have any either – we’ll have to buy some from Primark.

4. Diane - February 11, 2006

Thanks for doing your part to smash this media myth.

Erma Bombeck said: “I never burned my bra; I ironed it.”

5. Pamela K Taylor - February 15, 2006

I am always amused by the Grand Mufti in Saudi Arabia who declared bras to be “haram” (that is, forbidden according to Islamic law). Seemed to me that he’d be worried about jiggling breasts and pointy nipples inflaming the passions of Saudi men. Nope — he was much more worried about false advertising. God forbid, some male found out his new wife was smaller or less firm than he thought he was getting…


At least it’s a good excuse I can use when I go to the mosque without one and get rude stares — didn’t you hear bras are haram!


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