There are a few things that I’m incapable of doing that make me feel like I haven’t graduated to full-fledged woman status yet, despite being in my late 30s. I can’t apply lipstick without looking in the mirror; I can’t go ten minutes without getting a run in pantyhose; fake eyelashes elude me. But the number one thing that makes me feel like I'm not quite a grown-up is my aversion to wearing a bra.
Much like Cher Horowitz and her party clothes, bras always feel binding, regardless of how well-made or expertly fitted. I’ve tried bras with and without underwire, push-up and plunge varieties, silk-and-lace and Lycra-spandex. Anyway you dress them up, my girls do not appreciate being restrained in a cage of elastic bands and nylon netting.
This bra-aversion is difficult to reconcile, especially since I grew up with an acute appreciation for good lingerie. My mother was one of those ladies who always matched her bra to her underpants, which to me didn’t just seem classy, but necessary. “It makes me feel complete,” she would say. Naturally, I figured that once my breasts grew in, I too would wear matching lingerie sets to feel “complete.” But as puberty descended, and I ventured into the complex world of brassieres, with their myriad styles, fabrics and empty promises, I discovered that no matter what I wore, I didn’t feel comfortable. And how can a woman look complete when she’s constantly tugging at her bra straps?
To further exacerbate my conundrum of conditioning vs. corporeality, I was commissioned to write a book about lingerie. A guide to understanding luxury lingerie, it allowed me to explore the world of soutache, frastaglio, leaver’s lace and mercerized cotton -- all hallmarks of the most exclusive underthings on the market. I was submerged in a world of exquisite craftsmanship and age-old artistry, and awash in beautiful silks and ethereal lace. They seduced me to the point of investing in a few luxury lingerie sets of my own. To this day, I still only wear the bottoms (when the occasion warrants it).
For a good five years between my 20s and 30s, I threw caution (and my bras) to the wind and went braless full-time. And since I’m small chested, it wasn’t hard to get away with. I did, however, have to rethink aspects of my wardrobe. There was a lot more layering involved -- tank tops were de rigueur under just about everything -- and cardiovascular activity at the gym was simply out of the question (twist my rubber arm).
But then my mid-30s hit and I started to feel odd about not wearing a bra to the office or to family gatherings. My chest didn’t change per se, but my feelings did. Suddenly, it felt unbefitting of a woman my age to eschew a bra on a daily basis. My mother’s “completeness” began to resonate, so I went to a lingerie boutique to stock up on some new basics, and took the special bras out for a spin now and again. It sounds crazy, but there was something empowering about slipping on a bra every morning before going to work -- even if I still struggled to hook it up.
It was a short-lived affair, though, because once I decided to work freelance from home, my bras fell to the wayside along with many other “professional” practices, like regular showers (and pants). Now I use the bra as a measuring stick for how important a social event is. If my boyfriend suggests a spontaneous dinner outing I ask if it’s bra-optional. The movies are a bra-free zone, as far as I’m concerned, while Christmas dinner is a non-negotiable bra-wearing event.
The weird thing is, I’ll still buy bras. I can’t help but want to have matching sets -- even if they are destined to languish in my lingerie drawer. Somehow, just knowing they’re there makes me feel complete.