For the past two months, during self-quarantine and sheltering in place, if you listen closely you’ll have heard, beneath the relentless screaming of the news, under the raging culture wars there’s a low hum. Shhe listen: it’s the sound of millions of women taking off their bras—breasts loose, tits free, or as they say in Latin, tatas liberatus. I made that last one up.
Do men know what a big deal it is to negotiate life with a set of boobs? Straight men seem to be focused on not staring at them when they’re at the bank or ordering fast food or paying for gas. Or just staring, they say they can’t help it. They hear the song of the boob, calling to them. I’m gay so I’m just guessing, my relationship to boobs is different.
In my late twenties I had a regular drag show at a funky little theater in Highland Park, on the eastside of LA. Being a big guy, I wanted big boobs. At first, I was from the athletic sock school of stuffing—roll em up and stuff em in, one sock per cup. It was several years before I learned the birdseed technique. Mark Brey taught me that. But he was tall and slender—willowy, you might say—and his boobs could be small and high on his chest. That wouldn’t be right for the woman I wanted to be when I dressed up.
I was talking to a friend who recently got her breasts reduced. “How do you feel,” I asked.
“Uh, fantastic. Imagine the part of your body you hate the most, the thing that’s caused you pain, discomfort and difficult feelings for most of your life—and then one day, it’s just gone, I mean, they’re not gone, I still have big boobs, but the problem is gone.”
She had worn a compression bra most of her life. To compress a part of the body sounds—what? Cruel? Sad? It made me think of Judy Garland and how they had to bind her breasts for Wizard of Oz because she was starting to develop. Like an old photograph in a darkroom, a woman’s body emerging in the red light.
The bra was invented as a tool of liberation—prior to that, woman seeking support wore corsets. Talk about compression. I wore a corset in a production of The Importance of Being Ernest, I played Lady Bracknell and it gave me a different carriage. I held myself high, taught myself to take shorter breaths because I was tied so tightly into my costume. Sitting became a completely different deal, the leg muscles required to hold the torso just right. The moment my ass hit the setee was one of such relief. I carried a parasol to steady myself to avoid being jabbed in the flesh by the boning. Or as it came to be called, ribbing, another word for joke, which is fitting because I remember thinking, are you serious, women used to have to wear these, like, all the time?
After curtain call I would walk stiffly back the dressing room where the dresser would untie the laces at the back and my big flabby body would expel. “Aaahhhhhh.”
Corsets were invented in France in the 1500s, in response to a decree by the Queen, Catherine de Medici. She decided there would be no thick waists in her court--excuse me? To this contemporary reader, it sounds like she didn’t want any thick bitches up in her castle.
The word corset comes from the French corps, for body—then diminished with et at the end. So: little body. That’s what they were going for. Some corsets were made of iron. It’s no wonder the issues woman have faced in liberating their bodies.
Corsets were controversial for centuries—tightlacing led to deformed bodies, sickness, death. In Victorian times, there was backlash against corsets because they were said to sexualize the female form. Well, yeah.
In 1917, corsets were outlawed in the US. By that time, they were made with metal instead of whalebone and, because of World War 1, there was a metal shortage.
Here’s a short list of nicknames for bra:
-Over the shoulder bolder holder.
Why are bras funny? Are they? Are breasts funny? Sometimes. I can remember so many girls I’ve known, woman, joking about their breasts, lovingly, intimately. But I’m sure for some they represent oppression—maybe a symbol of the patriarchy.
I was trying to think of the male equivalent of the bra, I guess it would be a necktie. But it’s not the same. I mean, yes, I’ve exhaled when taking off a tie and loosening my collar. But the tie doesn’t restrict a secondary sex characteristic—it ties around the neck, and everyone has a neck.
What business do I have writing about bras? They’re not really my domain—but I wanted to honor those of you who have such a personal relationship to them. Whose breasts rely on them or don’t. Who own several or none. Who haven’t worn them in years or have decided during all of this to never wear one again.
There are so many ways that our lives are falling apart. So many of our societal structures are crumbling.
I’ve always loved the concept of Gaia, the earth as a woman, mother of all life—and isn’t it almost as if, at the end of a long, long day, a day which has lasted millennia, she’s taken off her bra? The breasts of the world have been freed, the earth is breathing deep, her mountains jiggle. Hear her sigh.