For the majority of my teen years, my worth and value relied heavily on the size of my breasts. Perhaps it was a result of the culture I was brought up in, where beauty was found in a woman’s cup size. Perhaps it was the criticism that I was forced to endure on a daily basis from those who were closest to me. Regardless of how I gained a negative view of body image, it stuck with me all throughout my adolescent years, negatively affecting my perception of myself, and other women.
I was a so-called “early bloomer” —menstruating earlier than my peers, and wearing underwire bras much sooner than the girls in my grade. Still, the idea that the early onset of puberty had peeped its head through the front door never bore importance. I did not feel like a woman, nor did I care to understand what a transition from a girl to a woman meant. That fantasy was shattered instantly when I entered the seventh grade, and the majority of the girls had started developing large breasts. Many of the girls, myself included, realized that boys were increasingly giving the girl with the largest chest the most attention. She was deemed “hot” and “sexy,” starring in many of my guy friends’ fantasies. It soon became a competition: who could show the most cleavage and get a boy’s attention?
Having been raised in a predominantly white city, I was almost always the only Asian girl in the entire school, throughout both elementary and middle school. Being the only Asian had never been a negative experience, if any thing, it had been quite the advantage in class and out. However, in a setting where a girl’s attractiveness was determined by the size of her breasts, I became the running joke: “Asians don’t have boobs.” This quickly became engrained in my mind, tampering with my self-esteem and forming a toxic relationship with my body image.
The origin of the bra is unknown, though there are a few theories on how it came to be. It is believed that the first “bras” were used in the Ancient World, when women would wrap a band of wool or linen around their breasts. Then came the Victoria era, and suddenly corsets were mandatory for middle and upper class women in the Western world. Due to World War I, women were needed for work in factories, which encouraged them not to wear corsets as they limited one’s physical ability. After World War II, bras had completely replaced corsets, and from then on, it became a billion-dollar industry.
This summer, I stumbled upon a YouTuber who announced that she was throwing away her bras, replacing them with bralettes, and going completely bra-less in the future. Inspired, I too replaced my bras with bralettes. When I first wore a bralette in public, I felt very vulnerable and naked: it felt strange. Although I felt pride surge through me, I could not help but miss the feeling of having cleavage.
It soon dawned on me that the reason I met the first few days of wearing bralettes skepticism was because I had been wearing push-up bras my entire adolescent life. It felt unnatural to have breasts that were not rounded, or pushed up to the extreme. This is all thanks to Frederick Mellinger, founder of Frederick’s of Hollywood, for inventing the push-up bra (known during its introduction in the mid 40s as the “Rising Star”) as we have come to know it. The idea that breasts should be perky and round was largely influenced by Mellinger’s lingerie business and the debut of the first push-up bra.
Women ’s lingerie is a rapidly growing, billion-dollar industry. To say that the bra industry—as well as the cosmetic industry—is making billions of dollar off of women’s insecurities would be an incredible understatement, and a disservice to the female narrative and experience. Lingerie is and can be empowering for many women, including myself. While it can definitely be used as a tool to objectify a woman and her sexuality, in a situation where female agency is present, it can allow a woman to embrace her femininity, sexuality, and overall beauty. The act of wearing and presenting oneself in lingerie to a lover is a sensual experience, and enhances the intimacy in the bedroom—or wherever you choose to explore. The lingerie industry is far more commercial than it has been in the past. It still plays into female insecurities pertaining to body image, but also presents a message demanding women to reclaim and embrace their sexuality. That being said, it has, in the grand scheme of things, allowed women to discover their bodies.
It took me eight years to wholeheartedly embrace and accept my breasts, the size and shape, despite not complying with society’s expectations of what constitutes one’s body as being feminine and attractive. For years, I had contemplated going through surgery in order to feel like a “woman” but now, I have realized that it takes a lot of confidence to show the world the real size and shape of one’s breasts. I have stopped giving a damn because I truly, completely, and wholeheartedly accept my body for what it is.