Why do we wear bras?

Last updated 05:00 26/07/2014
heidi klum
Supermodel Heidi Klum wearing the Heavenly Star bra - featuring 1200 pink sapphires and a 90-carat emerald-cut diamond - which was worth US$12.5 million when it was created by Victoria's Secret back in 2001.

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"I am not trying to argue for mandatory toplessness, or even bralessness. What I am arguing for is a woman's right to choose how she represents her body. Why should I feel overly exposed because I choose not to wear a bra?"

These are the words Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, posted alongside pictures of herself going topless in New York recently.

They were part of her crusade to "free the nipple" to protest social media site Instagram's decision to close her account after she displayed a photo of herself in a sheer top.

If you're a woman, you are probably wearing a bra as you read this. The chances are that, unlike Scout, you haven't given this much thought. Since the first training bra, wearing a bra is something women do almost automatically every day.

If asked why they wear one, they might say they like the look, they wear it for comfort or that they (secretly) hope it will prevent their breasts sagging or drooping.

SAGGING

Let us deal with that last point first. It turns out there is no evidence that bras prevent breasts from sagging: research suggests the opposite.

A French study reported last year that wearing a bra can actually make breasts sag even more.

Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon studied 320 young women aged between 18 and 35 and found that when the women did not wear a bra, their nipples lifted an average of 7mm over a year. (Rouillon is quoted as saying a larger study would be needed to see if this was true of all age groups.) The women's breasts also become firmer and stretch-marks faded.

This is in line with a 1991 Japanese study which found that when obese subjects with pendant breasts... wore a "well-fitted brassiere for a long time... her breasts hung down more".

Even bra manufacturers do not claim bras prevent sagging: bra adverts emphasise "comfort" and "support". And a British Professor of Surgery at the University Hospital of Wales, Robert Mansel, is quoted as saying "bras don't prevent breasts from sagging".

HISTORY

Most women's bras may not be as flamboyant as those of Katy Perry, or as expensive as the Heavenly Star bra, worth US$12.5 million when it was created by Victoria's Secret in 2001, featuring 1200 pink sapphires and a 90-carat emerald-cut diamond. But women have come to think of bras as an essential part of their lives.

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So why wear them? Marilyn Yalom in A History of the Breast suggests it is to create the breast illusion that will raise our "sexual and professional stock". It is not a new idea.

Yalom says that in the early 14th century women sewed pouches into dresses to lift their breasts as high as possible. Since then, she says, breast support was essential to the wardrobe of any self-respecting lady. Breasts used to be pushed up by corsets, rather than held up by a bra.

According to Yalom, corsets defined social status; poorer women could neither afford nor work in them.

Over the past 600 years, she says, breasts have been alternately flattened or pushed up, depending on fashion.

The bra itself was first patented in 1913 by Mary Phelps Jacob, who made herself a bra of silk handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon.

Dr Anita Brady, who teaches Media, Gender and Sexuality at Victoria University in Wellington, says that bras have become normalised for women, from a very young age, and that this is seldom questioned.

"Bras have become part of the rite of passage into adult femaleness - a bra is put on without thinking."

It is as if, in this era of science and double-blind studies, bras are above scientific law. "It's less about the rights and wrongs of debate, but more about how things circulate as if not up for debate. The response to the last year 's research about breast sagging, used words such as ‘unregulated' and ‘unscientific'. The debate becomes a conversation about the correct way of performing studies.

"The myth of the bra burning in the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant - of which there is no documented evidence that any bras were burnt - is so pervasive that not wearing a bra is symbolic of changing societal norms of femininity."

CANCER

Not everyone sees bras as harmless status-enhancing garments. Sydney Singer, an American medical anthropologist, links bra-wearing to increased rates of breast cancer.

He studied 4700 American women, half of whom had breast cancer, and found that the women with cancer had worn bras that were tighter, and had worn them for longer than those in the non-cancer group.

He also found that bra-free women had the same rate of breast cancer as did men, 100 times lower than the rate in women who wore bras.

Singer's work, self-published in his book Dressed to Kill, has been rebutted by breast cancer organisations, who have said that correlation is not causation. In 2009, Scientific American also refuted Singer's study, commenting that it had not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

There is little published research on bras and breast cancer. A 1991 paper in the European Journal of Cancer by Harvard researchers found that pre-menopausal women who did not wear a bra had about half the incidence of cancer of those who did.

The authors noted that women with smaller breasts were less likely to wear bras, and that the study could be highlighting a link between breast size and cancer rather than bra-wearing and cancer.

Singer has a theory of how bras could be linked to breast cancer. The lymph system removes toxins and cell debris from cells and requires movement to keep the lymph flowing. Singer says bras restrict lymph flow, causing tenderness, lumps and fluid-filled cysts and that fibrocystic breast disease is essentially clumped-up lymph flow.

Professor of surgery at the University Hospital of Wales Robert Mansel also suspects bras may be suppressing the lymphatic system, saying that bras compress the body at the outer upper part of the breast where 80 per cent of the lymph flows. He also noted that tight elastic straps could contribute to the development of cysts.

In 2000, Mansel studied 100 women suffering from breast pain or cysts, and found that pre-menopausal women who did not wear a bra experienced 7 per cent fewer days of breast pain. His co-researcher, Professor Simon Cawthorn said the results were a surprise: "It's interesting that women put up with discomfort for improvement in shape."

And do breast cysts lead to breast cancer? A Scottish paper in the Lancet in 1999 reported on 1374 women with palpable breast cysts, and found that women with breast cysts were at an increased risk of breast cancer, especially at younger ages.

But both the Ministry of Health and the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation's websites say that cysts are benign and common and do not develop into cancer. And Auckland breast physician Dr Caroline Gray says the amount of compression the breast is subject to from a bra is not normally enough to restrict circulation or lymphatic drainage.

COMFORT

So what about other reasons for wearing a bra? After a mastectomy, women may feel more attractive and confident if their loss of a breast or breasts is not obvious, and the bra can protect any areas sensitive post surgery.

Breastfeeding mums may find that a bra supports their heavier breasts and usefully holds breastpads in place. Many may wear a good sports bras during active sports, such as jogging, using a bra as a specific piece of sports equipment, like bike shorts or running shoes. Or those with large breasts may not feel comfortable without a bra at all.

Jude Lloyd, Cranial Osteopath at Central Osteopathy in Wellington says that a well-fitted bra can provide support for the breasts and back. "Large breasts can create postural strain in the mid and upper back, which can lead to back pain."

But comfort is not always our first priority. Underwires can dig into our skin, elastic can be tight enough to affect breathing and straps over the shoulders can leave marks.

For some, like 53-year-old marketer Alexandra, going braless is a chance to feel free. "I don't like wearing high heels and bras feel much the same. I'd prefer to be barefoot and braless too. I know there are times for shoes and bras, but come the weekend, as often as I can, I go bra-less because it feels comfortable and free. I've never subscribed to the idea that breasts droop if unsupported and in fact I see no evidence of it in myself - other than that they are taking ‘the long journey south' as a result of age. There are things that feel really good, like swimming naked - and going braless feels the same to me - it's part of letting the body be what it is."

TO WEAR OR NOT TO WEAR?

Perhaps it is time for women to rethink their relationship with their bras.

There are many risk factors for breast cancer we cannot change, such as our age, family history, early onset of menstruation, late menopause and exposure to radiation. Wearing a bra is something we can do something about.

Going without a bra may not be for you. But next time you put on your bra, think about why you wear it.

You could try wearing it less, and use a camisole or other gentle support around the house, or wear a bra only for exercise. If you feel uncomfortable without a bra, you could choose a looser or soft-cup bra. Perhaps avoid underwire bras. Experiment.

As Germaine Greer said: "Bras are a ludicrous invention, but if you make bralessness a rule, you're just subjecting yourself to yet another repression."

- The Dominion Post

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