For most of my adult life, bra shopping consisted of infrequent trips to the clearance rack at the local department store. I alternated between two boring bras, each the same make and color, through early motherhood and grad school. As I approached the date of my doctoral hooding, both were shot. Broken strands of elastic curled from the cups. Their beige faux satin had faded to cream, with stark white patches under the armpits. The time had come to scrape some money together and plunk it down on replacements—something sexy and empowering, something my husband wouldn’t lament.
I had never shopped at a store that required an appointment, but within weeks of uttering the words “bra fitting” to my sister-in-law, she’d made the arrangements, and we steered my fifteen-year-old Buick LeSabre an hour west to our allotted fitting time at Phipp’s Plaza, the highest of the high end Atlanta malls.
The parking lot appeared recently vacuumed. I skirted the edge, maneuvering past the valets. They could have their Escalades and Lexi. Only one person parked this Detroit-tastic, sofa-on-wheels, and that person was me.
I can’t say for sure that uniformed men manicured the hedges along the entry with nail scissors. I can’t be certain that the sidewalk was getting one last spit polish before the post-lunch rush. Surely, imagination added the trays of crumpets and finger sandwiches. Even so, if any mall were to offer a free ice sculpture with purchase, this was that mall. Its supersized chandelier dripped with crystal. Custom mosaic marble tile floors were set off by polished Cherry wood accents. At its center, Olympian columns soared to meet an immaculate, oval skylight sized to accommodate the entry of a reasonably sized zeppelin.
We followed the scent of air-conditioned roses to our shop where gentle guitar music and Chanel-suited sales ladies greeted us, inviting us to survey the stock as we waited for our dressing rooms. Mind you, we were not to strain ourselves sorting through tit slings. Our fitting expert was to do any and all work. We were connoisseurs, appreciating underclothes as art—each bra hung and spot lit as meticulously as any museum objets.
My sister-in-law was soon whisked into one dressing room and I to another. “Room” is the operative word. These were not the pin-scattered stalls of my usual mall. Each generously sized space had a full-sized door on oiled hinges and a heavy knob that clicked shut more securely than the average bank vault. A small ottoman flanked the mirror. I want to say a potted plant sat on a table, but I suspect they would have balked at anything so gauche as a fake fern. This was a store that throve on the sleek austerity of old money manners mixed with modern, sans serif efficiency.
My consultant asked first to look at my old bra, which I quickly removed and handed to her. She pinched it, her nails a kind of forceps. She sighed. “How many bras do you own?”
“Two for everyday wear and two sports bras,” I replied. “I run,” I added.
She smiled broadly. “What you really need, then, is a whole bra wardrobe. We recommend a bra for each day of the week, plus two for sleeping and two or three for sports, depending on your activity level.”
“I can’t do that right now.” I wanted to be honest with her from the start.
“Of course,” she said. “What I’d recommend, then, is two new everyday pieces now, which you can alternate, one bra for sleeping in, and a couple sports bras. You really need two at the least so that the elastic gets a day off to recover.” (My bra’s elastic needed the same time off as a major league pitcher—an observation I kept to myself.) “What size is this?” Again, my consultant lifted the bra, dangling it off a single manicured fingernail.
“36D,” I said.
She pressed her lips together and looked at me sideways as she reached for her tape, circling me in one swift motion as she cast my old bra to the ottoman. “As I thought,” she said. “You’re a 34D, not 36D. If your bra is loose, your breasts will pull it up your back and out of position. I’ll be back with some options,” she called, bustling away.
Alone, I occupied my half-naked self by looking at an infographic on the wall behind the dressing room door. It showed four women’s torsos. In the first, pert tits bounced skyward. These were labeled “healthy.” And the next? The next were more… familiar. These were gravity-bound, the nipples still forward facing but with a notable sag that made them appear more like slightly deflated half-footballs than grapefruit. The infographic’s illustration could have been modeled on my own breasts. “Damaged,” it read.
The next two pictures showed breasts that sagged into further degrees of distress, culminating in a classic portrait of old lady boobs that stretched to the woman’s waistline. I cannot remember the labels on either of these two pictures. My mind was fixated on the pejorative chosen to describe my own.
What did it mean to be damaged? Beyond repair? Short of surgery, there was no going back. More importantly, back to what? Even in my earliest days, my breasts had never defied gravity as these perky orbs. I had come of age “damaged,” my bazoombas beyond hope even from their budding. Time hadn’t helped. Breastfeeding, now long over, had done no harm, but the stretch marks I’d had since puberty had multiplied during pregnancy. Aside from the added racing stripes, my breasts were back to pre-pregnancy shape, a shape I’d always accepted as my own, as normal, as genetically dictated. A shape that, the infographic argued, was preventable. A shape I was now asked to reconceive as damaged.
A quick knock and the brisk opening of the door startled me from these thoughts. “Try this one,” my consultant told me—but no sooner had I maneuvered the bra around my waist then she gasped, “No, no. That’s not how to put on a bra.”
This, I must admit, left me baffled. I had approached putting on this bra as I had put on every bra: hooking it behind my back, sliding my arms into the straps, the gently lifting each breast to set it in its cup. In countless locker rooms, I don’t remember ever seeing a woman put on a bra any other way. “If you pull your breasts like that,” my consultant said, “it’ll stretch them out of shape. Here, let me show you. Bend at the waist, like this.” She tilted her body, flat-backed, at a forty-five degree angle from the hips. “You want your breasts to dangle in front of you.” (I was fairly certain I had never wanted such a thing, but never mind that; I was still reeling from the idea that years of settling my ta-tas into my cups had damaged them.) “Now, put your arms through the straps and draw the bra to your chest so that each cup catches its breast. Then, fasten it behind you. Easy.”
Gentle reader, there are many times in my life in which I have felt less than coordinated. I found my inner athlete late in life, so I never managed to climb the rope or clear the hurdles in seventh grade gym class. Trying to put on a bra bent at such an angle, though, was more awkward than any feat of athleticism I’d yet tried. The shoulder I had dislocated coming off a horse years earlier refused to bend in the manner required. Looking in the mirror to see where I was going wrong only made matters worse, my hands moving in the opposite direction to the way they needed to go.
“I can help you today,” the consultant finally said. “You’ll have to practice at home.”
She slid me into the bra, situating satin and lace to capture the girls in their optimal position, nipples pointing my way forward through the jungle of life. We repeated this step through several bras.
And honestly, each was beautiful—more carefully constructed than any bra I’ve worn, but even so, I doubted their functionality. I loved, for instance, the brown check bra with the elastic straps constructed of linked flowers, but would those elasticized daisy chains lay flat under my clothing? And wouldn’t the brown show right through a white shirt? The demi-cups, too, were lower than I was used to. “Won’t I fall out of the top?” I asked.
“We’ll try something with more coverage if that will make you more comfortable,” she said, her lips pursing, her tone peeved, and into the next bra I went. She put me into one bra after another, trying unsuccessfully to mask her increasing irritation as I asked questions.
“What can I wrap up for you?” the woman finally asked, as she rehung the last bra.
“I’m really not sure,” I said, feeling both dazzled and overwhelmed. I gravitated towards one pale pink bra, which was both functional and comfortable, but still, I had reservations. It didn’t seem like me. None of them did.
My consultant sensed my hesitation, and it did not please. She pursed her lips. “I will get a couple sports bras while you make up your mind.”
“Actually, I’m pretty happy with the ones I have.”
She stared at me for a full second. “The problem with most sports bras,” she said, clipping her words now between her whitened teeth, “is that they crush your breasts flat, killing the tissue at the root. Ours don’t. I’ll be back with two of our most popular models.”
It was clear to me now that the woman worked on commission, but I hardly held that against her. I’d worked retail myself, and though my own sales jobs had only paid flat minimum wage, I imagined that she depended on making sales. The need to work was something we shared. Less clear to me was the “science” being used to support sales. The infographic had been bad enough, but did elastic need rest? Could one actually pull one’s breasts out of shape? And since when did breasts have roots?
Pondering these mysteries as well as the question of when I had spent this much time topless, I turned over the price tag of one of the bras now piled on the ottoman.
Now, let’s be clear: I had planned to spend some money. I’d figured forty dollars, maybe even fifty per bra. One hundred dollars for two bras was a crazy sum—I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent so much in a single shopping trip—but I had reconciled myself to the cost because I knew I would wear whatever I bought for years to come. I thought I had prepared myself.
The tag did not say $40. The tag did not say $50 or even $55. What the tag said was $78.99.
At this point, I was thinking of my daughter at home. I was thinking of the next grocery bill. I was thinking of electricity and gas. I was thinking of my grad school stipend—a yearly salary of less than $14K a year.
I flipped through the stack. The price tags ran from $110 down to the $55 pink bra. I could see now why I was supposed to choose my favorites before asking their price.
The consultant returned, interrupting my panicked flicking of one tag after another. She turned delicately from my unsightly price-checking and removed the sports bra from its hanger. I bent again at the waist, calculating. How long had this woman spent with me? Twenty minutes? Half an hour? How much would she lose if I didn’t make a purchase?
“There.” She finished doing the clasps behind me. “How does that compare to the bras you have at home? Better, right?”
I stared at the mirror, my chest smushed into a mono-boob by the tight fabric. Unlike my everyday bras, my sports bras were not cheap. I had selected them after careful research so that I could run with minimal bouncing. My philosophy of beauty is basically that all clothing looks better on a healthy woman. Spending money on sports bras meant not spending money on clothing designed to camouflage and compensate. This bra, to be blunt, was nowhere near as supportive, comfortable, or attractive as the two I had in my drawer at home. “Honestly,” I said, “it feels rather snug.”
“Of course.” Disdain or frustration again pitched her voice high. “It wouldn’t be much of a sports bra if it didn’t hold you in place.”
I’ve always been a good student, in part because I ask questions when I don’t understand a concept, so perhaps that’s why I couldn’t bite back the next question. “But,” I said, “I thought you said that bras that were too tight killed your breasts at the roots?”
She stared at me. Questions were not, apparently, an allowable feature of underclothing commerce. “Would you like to try the other sports bra or not?”
“I really think I’m happy with the ones I have.”
“How about sleep bras then?”
“I’m afraid I’m really not going to sleep in a bra.”
“Did you at least decide on any everyday bras?”
I swallowed. “Can I have a moment to think about it?”
She left me then, telling me to let her know if she could be of any further assistance. Frustrated as she was, her Southern manners—or at least the formalities of Southern manners—held to the end. I put my old bra back on, trying first to dangle my boobs as instructed before giving up and doing things my usual way. For twenty minutes, I walked around the store with the pink bra clenched in hand, trying to make up my mind to buy it, before I finally returned it to the rack and went out to sit on the bench near the entry while my sister-in-law finished.
Her consultant drew the lucky straw. My sister-in-law walked away with three new bras that day, all works of art that I’m sure brought her pleasure, but her pleasure was compromised when I relayed my own experience. I felt contrite for having wasted my consultant’s time. My husband, too, would have to deal a little longer with the sad old bit of tortured faux satin. I’d let multiple people, not to mention my own damaged breasts, down.
That’s how they get us, isn’t it? Working on our guilt, our desire to please others, our aspirations to be all that we can. They tear us down with pseudo-science and infographics. They attack our self-esteem. They damage our self-perception, then promise to rebuild it—for $78.99, or $50, or $199, or whatever price we’re willing to pay.
My husband, far from disappointed, laughed with me in the comfort of our kitchen that night, chopping and dicing together as always, because a good sauté makes up for many lacks. Despite walking away empty handed, my small daughter had literally jumped for joy when I walked in our front door, making me feel like the most important person in the world. And what did I find on the next visit to the clearance rack but the new version of my tried-and-true Bali underwire, size 34D, $13.95.
Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.