Fashion’s Boob Positivity Isn’t As Feminist As It Seems

Designed by Kristine Romano.
The memes about whipping off your bra at the end of a long day of work have only been exacerbated by lockdown. Now, my phone is swamped with tweets and selfies from people declaring they no longer need bras at all, as they are not leaving their homes. On top of these online declarations of freedom, a question asked years ago during the #FreeTheNipple movement is being posed once again: why was anyone wearing a bra in the first place?
The answer is not as straightforward as blaming a patriarchal system for our padded cups. Before we get into the details of Victorian corsets and Victoria’s Secret, I want more consideration towards those of us that see this piece of lingerie as a real necessity. Because for us, the question itself is alienating.
As well as a desexualisation of breasts on our social feeds, the celebration of bralessness has gone mainstream: no longer the symbol of highly politicised feminism, tit-positivity has made its way to the high street. It has evolved into prints on tote bags and T-shirts featuring line drawings of different sized boobs, first started by Etsy artists and now available on fast fashion websites like PrettyLittleThing. And as these boobs are not all perfect identikit tits, the idea of swapping a Vivienne Westwood punky and perky boob tee for a graphic of something saggier may sound revolutionary, but once again, the action ignores those whose breasts are being used to lead this new 'rebellion'.
Every step of this championed liberation has made myself and others feel more and more like failed feminists for wearing an F cup. From hyper-positive Instagram posts to neo-liberal feminist tees, I'm reminded of all the times my breasts have been debated by others and detested by myself for their size and shape. My peers recall how our bodies were once demonised and are now monetised, made worse by the largely smaller-chested audience wearing these prints and the big corporations using them for profit.
When speaking to friends, they all tell me that the use of saggy breast prints makes them uncomfortable. But I'm met with differing takes on why this tote bag trend isn't as inclusive as it may seem. Charlotte, an independent jewellery brand owner in London, says she sees the whole saggy boob motif as some kind of joke at the expense of fat people. "My body isn't to be fetishised by thin people, or joked about," she explains. "To me, it is the equivalent of wearing a fat suit: I'm not even seen as a person but a caricature. Taking up space as a fat person and being confident in myself takes a lot of energy, but when all my efforts are being belittled by a thin person in a £3 Primark T-shirt, it makes you want to give up."

The line drawing of a sagging tit is an emblem of the caricature fat people have become for a feminism that wishes to seem intersectional without any actual action

While Charlotte sees the prints as deprecating, I hold onto the hope that the women wearing tees and crop tops with long titted line drawings on are doing so to try and empathise with me. But in the same vein as freeing the nipple and burning our bras, I see this type of solidarity as a shallow, unsupportive strand of feminism that focuses on thin, cis, white women. An attempt at inclusion that isn't delving deep into the real roots of systematic issues, but is instead merely touching on surface-level topics that apply to hashtagged trends.
Caitlin, a Belfast-based writer, sees the concept of solidarity through these clothes cynically too, "It doesn't really matter what the intention is, it will always come off a bit weird," she says. Caitlin is reminded of thin artists who capitalise on drawing fat bodies: "They are doing it to 'look good' to a feminist audience, rather than [possessing] an actual respect or appreciation for fat bodies." Lauren, an LA-based artist and photographer, echoed these sentiments. "I appreciate your 'solidarity,' but again, how do you treat fat people in your life? Do you even have fat friends? (One token fat friend does not count). If wearing a titty motif is all you're doing to support fat people then, no. You're just doing the bare minimum."
The sense of faux solidarity in feminism is rife throughout the body positivity hashtag on Instagram, and bras, bags, or bedsheets with boobs on is just the tip of the iceberg for the commodification of fat bodies by feminism. Seeing more images of bodies shared by our thin peers doesn't solve fatphobia, it just emphasises how different their frames are to our own. In a sense, this tokenisation isn't serving to make the fat community feel better. Instead, as Lauren puts it, we are being "used to make thin people feel better about themselves."
Whether that benefit comes from feeling glad they don't look like us, or that they have ticked their 'good feminist' box for the day, anti-sexism that serves just one kind of person is just as damaging as the original sexism itself. Whether we are a joke or a trend, either way our agency as people is gone. The line drawing of a sagging tit is an emblem of the caricature fat people have become for a feminism that wishes to seem intersectional without any actual action.
While it's easy to spiral into cynicism and negativity with issues like these, Lauren reminds me it is important to realise that this representation has never existed before. "I'm sort of happy to have a T-shirt with an image on that looks closer to what my body looks like. I think that it can be valuable to other people who look like me to see it in public."
Marilyn, a drag performer from Manchester, agrees. "I like the rebellion of seeing bodies that aren't typically sexualised or desired under capitalism being elevated into fashion. Having other body types represented challenges the norm and also it shows us that our saggy tits can be desirable. All bodies are consistently commodified under capitalism. That shouldn't stop us celebrating fat ones."
While my cynicism still stands, Lauren and Marilyn both make good cases. Maybe finding agency in my boobs would have been easier if I'd seen them represented in the mainstream. I just hope those rocking these representations are doing more for their plus size peers than following a line drawing trend produced for fast fashion.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here

More from Fashion