I'm A 34DD — & This Is What Happened When I Went Bra-Free

I regretted spending $25 on nipple covers as soon as I clicked the "place your order" button. I am, after all, the type of person who wears one pair of jeans until they've developed a giant hole in the crotch…a hole I don't notice until stepping out of the car in front of a restaurant. I'm the type of person who brags about the $12 jeggings she got from CVS. (Twelve dollars, you guys!) I am the type of person who waits until her hairdryer is partially melted, wheezing, and reeks of burning before replacing it. Spending so much money on two slim circles of silicone just so I could avoid wearing a bra seemed ludicrous.

But several weeks before, I'd pulled on seven different tops in a row before realizing I couldn't wear any of them without my bra straps sticking out. And then — because I'd never owned a strapless bra that hadn't shimmied its way down my torso within the first 15 minutes — I went to a local lingerie shop for a proper bra fitting and spent nearly $70 on one that squeezed my ribs so tight I was forced into good posture. Sure, it wasn't going anywhere. But neither was I, because it was too damn uncomfortable to wear for any significant amount of time. Upon discovering this, I googled "nipple guards."

When the small, black box of Nippies Skin adhesive pasties arrived at my house, I was prepared to take a peek, deem them unusable, and send them back for a full refund. But when I lifted the lid and ran a finger over one skin-colored, silicone circle, I was immediately seduced by how smooth and supple it felt. And so I removed them from their box and placed them, one at a time, on my nipples, awed by the complete disappearance of my areolae, and of the two tiny eraser tips at the centers of my breasts. I pulled on a soft, ribbed, racerback tank top, feeling it hug my body gently without the rigid barrier of an underwire bra between it and my skin. I looked into the full-length mirror hanging on the back of my bedroom door and was amazed.
Nippies Skin Adhesive Nipple Covers - Light, $24, available at NastyGal.
I wasn't always so self-conscious about my breasts. Back in college, when I was a size 34B and valued comfort above all else, I regularly went out on the town without a bra. I didn't think twice about it. They were small back then. Perky. My nipples less obtrusive.

But in the intervening years, I have gained weight. I have gained curves. I have seen my breasts grow full and floppy through pregnancy, early motherhood, and five months of nursing. And are my nipples more sensitive now? Maybe. Maybe that's why they always seem to stand at attention. Or maybe it's just that I am more aware of men's eyes upon them if I forego a supportive undergarment. Maybe, at a 34DD, I have finally internalized all of the societal messages about the vulgarity of my breasts, of the curve of them swinging visibly when I walk, of the embarrassment of nipples straining fabric. Maybe it is an acute awareness of my size that has contributed to the personal belief that it really is offensive to remind others that my breasts exist.

And so I contain them in clinging brassieres that feature thick shoulder straps and curving underwires…underwires that leave an angry, red furrow above my ribs. I flatten them and erase them, too, with restrictive sports bras that feel like giant rubber bands, and that leave me marinating in under-boob sweat by the end of yoga class. I strap myself into these instruments of torture and then I spend all day resenting them.

When summer arrives, it's even worse. All of a sudden, I am expected to bare my back and show off my biceps and play with keyhole tops and plunging necklines because that is what has been deemed attractive. That is what is fashionable. And I have to figure out how to do this without also reminding onlookers that my breasts are anything more than an alluring set of subtle mounds beneath my form-fitting top.

This is why I have thrown all of my money at strapless bras and pasties and bra strap clips. So I can find that balance between smutty and frumpy. But even in embracing these boob-related thingamabobs and doodads as a necessity of life, I can't help feeling bitter about them.
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Photo: Broadimage/REX/Shutterstock.
Believe it or not, bras were not always considered to be horrendous objects of constriction. In fact, many of the first bras were created in order to set women free from corsets.

Back in the day, wearing corsets was The Fashionable Thing to Do, especially among the wealthy. These undergarments were designed to push the breasts upward, making them look perky, and making one's neckline look as if it were overflowing with cleavage. The tightness of the bodice also flattened out the stomach, accentuating the hips so one could pull off that hourglass figure — considered to be the ideal of beauty — even if one wasn't born with it. They took an eternity to put on, and women would often have their servants pull the boning tight to their torsos, tying up the laces to ensure it was as close-fitting as possible (a practice known as tightlacing).

Over time, physicians became concerned by the harmful physical effects wrought upon women who were overzealous in their tightlacing. Corsets could restrict breathing, cause light-headedness, break ribs, and harm internal organs.

Not only that, but corsets were incredibly limiting. As a backlash to this, there was a clothing-reform movement, a push to free women from them so they could participate more fully in society, engaging in athletic activities and working outside the home. During the first World War, many women had to work in factories and wear uniforms for the first time. And women were also moving into other career sectors, including retail and office work. The bra enabled them to do this.

By the late 19th century, the bra began to replace the corset as the primary means of supporting the breasts. Over the years, there have been many iterations of the bra (the bandeau, the balconette, the racerback, etc.), designed to capitalize upon the needs and the beauty ideals of any given era. As for corsets, they have been mostly relegated in the public imagination to the realm of burlesque performances, fetish play, and all things Kardashian.

But back to the bra. What changed? What made the brassiere shift in our minds from an object of liberation to an object of suppression?

The second wave of feminism seems to have been the main impetus behind women's negative attitudes toward undergarments. In the 1960s, some of the trappings of femininity — including bras — became subject to scrutiny by feminist activists. In 1970, Germaine Greer even wrote in The Female Eunuch that, "Bras are a ludicrous invention." She went on to say, "If you make bralessness a rule, you're just subjecting yourself to yet another repression." Still, feminists maintained that bras — in addition to other beauty accoutrements — existed to restrict women and reduce them to sex objects. Because of this, they renounced them.

And now? We seem to be living in an era in which most women consider the bra to be a necessary evil. There are those, however, who are fighting to free the (female) nipple, despite Greer's warning that there are other things to fear beyond physical discomfort and the degradations of being bound to patriarchal beauty standards.
Cold Picnic Private Parts: Boobs, $220, available at Cold Picnic.
GoTopless.org, for example, believes that women have the same constitutional right as men to go bare-chested in public. "FREE YOUR BREASTS! FREE YOUR MIND!" its website exclaims. Elsewhere on the site, the org tracks topless laws around the country as they pertain to women and also publishes news of the Go Topless Day events that occur every August (check out the BoobMap to see if there's an event near you).

The Topfree Equal Rights Association (TERA), meanwhile, also claims to help women who "encounter difficulty going without tops in public places in Canada and the U.S.A." According to its constitution, the association's primary purpose is to "collect and distribute funds to be used to assist women who encounter legal difficulty being topfree in public places where men are so allowed."

There is even a Free the Nipple film-turned-gender-equality-campaign. Director Lina Esco released her Free the Nipple film in 2014. When she faced difficulty in getting a wide release for it, she went ahead and started the movement of the same name.

I, meanwhile, have no interest in baring my bosom to the world (though if I do feel such an inclination, all I have to do is change into my pajamas in front of my bedroom window, where my husband and I have yet to install blinds). Instead, I dream of a world in which my breasts can be cradled in the warm embrace of my soft, cotton tank tops, and nothing else. I dream of a world in which I can wear halter dresses and racer-backs and off-the-shoulder tops and not worry about bra straps or wing bands. I dream of a world in which I don't have to feel self-conscious about the fact that gravity and time have done their work on my body. I dream of a world in which my nipples are not free, but are invisible.

Alas, I feel this is impossible. Because, as Germaine Greer intimated, bralessness only opens you up to the heavy, humiliating weight of the male gaze. And even when women don't go braless, they are still subject to sexualization by others.

Several years ago, I was power-walking through New York City, on my way to speak on a panel about career diversification. I was wearing jeans, boots, blouse, blazer. And a bra. Definitely a bra.

As I made my way down Eighth Avenue, I caught the eye of a man approaching from the opposite direction. He grinned at me and, reflexively, I responded with a smile of my own. As the corners of my mouth inched up, as my cheeks stretched into that smile, his lips moved.

"Nice tits," he said.

I was startled.

My smile faltered.

By then, he had already passed me by.

Instead of feeling angry (the anger came later), I felt ashamed.

For smiling back at him. For encouraging him. For being a woman with breasts.

They were not pushed up. They were not exposed. There was no heaving bosom. There were no erect nipples. My breasts were, for all intents and purposes, invisible. But I was a woman. And women have breasts. And so that man knew they were there, my "tits," lurking beneath my polyester/rayon/spandex-blend blazer. And so he called them "nice."

Because all tits — even invisible ones — are pleasing to the male gaze.
Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Pasties first made an appearance in the 1920s, in the worlds of burlesque and striptease. They were used so that women could avoid breaking the laws that existed against performing topless or nude. Performers still use pasties, but they are no longer limited to the stage. Some women now wear them as a concession to what is considered common decency when they slip into apparel that makes it impossible to also wear a traditional bra.

In the summertime, especially, women wriggle their way into silhouettes that seek to bare almost everything. There are backless dresses. There are plunging necklines. There are sheer tops and crop tops and bra tops. Sometimes, there is even side boob. All of these silhouettes make the wearing of a traditional bra unfeasible.

But though no amount of adjusting will make it possible to wear your brassiere without some part of it peeking out (and a visible bra is considered to be untidy and tacky), nipples are verboten. Perhaps this is because erect nipples are a common, physical sign of sexual arousal. And so when someone catches a glimpse of your nipples, they assume you're shamelessly placing yourself on display.

If men notice them, they assume you're inviting their gaze.

If women notice them, their internalized misogyny causes them to feel disgust at what they assume is your wanton promiscuity.

I want to be comfortable during a summer filled with improbable necklines, but I also want to be invisible. I don't want a nip slip or a stiff breeze to allow others to make assumptions about my character. I don't want to feel my stomach drop with the shame that comes from a man commenting upon my tits. I don't want to feel others' eyes crawling — uninvited — over my body.

With this at the forefront of my mind, $25 for a pair of nipple covers seems a small price to pay.

Today, these slim circles make me feel safe from the prying gaze of others as I go about my day. They sit unnoticed beneath my tank top as I work and as I run errands. Tonight, I will slowly peel them off, one by one, place them carefully back into their elegant, black box, and slide them into my underwear drawer, next to my $70 strapless bra.

Tomorrow, I might pull out the bra instead of the pasties. It all depends upon how much breast support my top does or does not provide, and how much scrutiny I feel up for. Because if my breasts swing free, I am past my prime. But if my nipples are too obvious, well, I am a slut. And you know what I have to say to that? Fuck it: It's summer, it's hot, and my breasts should be able to do whatever the hell they want.
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