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Health

Freeing the nipple – are there health drawbacks to abandoning your bra?

September 20th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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Going braless is becoming increasingly popular thanks to movements such as #freethenipple and Saggy Boobs Matter. Here are some implications of casting away the cups and underwires...

Push-up bra sales are down (oh the irony), Victoria’s Secret’s revenue has dropped by 38 per cent since last year, padded bra specialists Ultimo announced in April that they’re leaving the UK market and traditionally sexy underwear manufacturers such as Agent Provocateur and La Senza have gone into administration. On the face of it, you’d think that the women of Britain are burning their bras (this never actually happened FYI- as The Pool highlights, it’s one of many feminist myths), and while there’s certainly not a lot of underwear arson taking place that we’re aware of, there is a cultural and sartorial shift towards skipping the bra in daily life.

From Rihanna to Halle Berry to Serena Williams and many a Kardashian/ Jenner, going sans bra in public is becoming more commonplace, and not just among AA cupped supermodels. Author and creator of the #saggyboobsmatter movement Chidera Eggerue chooses not to wear a bra and is aiming to increase the representation of “saggy-looking” boobs in the media, as beauty standards presenting perky boobs as the norm gave her a complex about the appearance of her boobs when she was younger that she’s adamant would not have been the case if women with so-called saggy boobs had been glorified and depicted as beautiful.

If taking off our bras feels so good, why bother wearing one in the first place?

In a slightly more specific breast-baring drive, the #freethenipple campaign, which originated in 2012 and has been supported by the likes of Cara Delevingne, Jennifer Aniston and Emily Ratajkowski, aims to normalise women showing their nipples in particular, arguing that the fact that men can bare their chests in public, yet for women it’s considered indecent and an arrestable offence in many countries, is indicative of inequality between the sexes.

Campaigners argue that women should be granted the same bodily freedoms as men, especially considering that the nipple serves a functional purpose in breastfeeding, and isn’t simply a sexual organ in the same category as genitals. The fact that tennis player Alizé Cornet was penalised just last month at the US Open for briefly showing her (full coverage) sports bra while adjusting her top (she’d put in on the wrong way round...been there) proves that projects such as #freethenipple have a long way to go. Incidentally, male players such as Nadal have been free to swap shirts in between matches for aeons with no risk of punishment for “unsportsmanlike conduct”, which is paradoxical rule book terminology given that sportsmen such as Novak Djokovic et al were allowed to take substantial breaks while fully topless during the very same tournament (a “heat rule” permitted players extra time to cool off between sets).

But back to the bras. According to a survey of 2000 women by Lenor, one of life’s top twenty simple joys is taking off our bras at the end of the day- it came in at number six, above being given a back rub or buying jewellery or beauty products. If taking off our bras feels so good, why bother wearing one in the first place?

Given that a bra’s main job is to support your breasts, while also making them look aesthetically appealing under clothes, if you feel better without one, there’s no health-related reason you need don one per se. Our Editor Victoria is firmly in the ‘bra off as soon as you get through the door’ camp:

“I hate wearing a bra. I would live in a yoga bra if I could – and at home I do (I’m still looking for the ultimate one – suggestions please!). I can’t wait to whip off my underwire when I get home. I have perfected the art pulling my bra out of my sleeve so I don’t even have to wait to get undressed.

“Up until I had children I had very odd-sized breasts. When I was 11, one started growing and six months later the other one decided to join in, but they got the ’stop growing’ memo at the same time, with the result that the little one never caught up. As a consequence, no bra has ever fitted me properly; I was always ‘cup half empty’ on one side. Bras were very useful to disguise my lopsidedness if I needed to and I do believe that they give a nicer shape to clothes – or is it that clothes are designed on the assumption that breasts, if not naturally even and perky, will be cantilevered or upholstered in order to oblige?”

This is an interesting question and one that Eggerue confronts often- the default is perky, seemingly gravity-defying breasts, or in the case of sample size clothing, no breasts at all. Fashion, culture and society have all too often not accommodated our boobs, whether in terms of clothing and lingerie design, breastfeeding in public or simply the merest hint that our boobs might not fit the very literal, stereotypical mould that page three and the like seem to hold so dear. The overarching message up until now has been that breasts are only palatable in a narrow set of circumstances and ‘packaging’, all of which, funnily enough, pertain to male titillation. Think ‘Hello Boys’ on billboards, while breastfeeding women are still to this day asked to leave restaurants, get off buses and generally sent packing in public (Unicef reports that a third of people in the UK believe that breastfeeding in public is “wrong”).

Breaking away from these constraints, both physically and figuratively, feels liberating, but ditching your bra doesn’t equate to a freeing feeling for all of us, as GTG's co-founder Sarah Vine underlines:

“Bras have always been a focus for feminist ire, a handy symbol of so-called male oppression. Cast them off, the thinking goes, and you free your mind and body from the constraints of the patriarchy.

“Personally, I think it’s the opposite. I couldn't do half the things I do without a decent bra. The smallest I’ve ever been is a D cup. These days, what with the passage of time and breastfeeding, I’m an F. If I didn't wear a bra I would simply look like I had two stomachs. I wouldn't be able to run for a bus or go to the gym. None of my clothes would fit. And I would get a sore back. Forget politics; for me, it’s all about practicality. There are far better ways to prove your feminist credentials.”

Restrictive and structured bra designs are no longer de rigeur, even if you do have a bigger bust

A well-fitting bra can improve everything from posture to back and neck aches and breast pain, distributing the weight of breasts evenly and preventing damage to the Cooper’s ligaments- the collagen and elastin structure that naturally supports the breasts. This is a particular issue when it comes to exercise (or indeed running for the bus). A study published last month by the University of Portsmouth in partnership with Shock Absorber found that women’s breasts can move up to 14cm when unsupported, and that inadequate support, combined with excessive breast movement, is the most significant factor in terms of breast pain. In addition, as Cooper’s ligaments aren’t stretchy and springy as muscle is, any damage is generally irreversible. It’s for this reason, and a few others, that Victoria has gone back to the bra, until she arrives home at least:

“Post-children I’m down to a diminutive 30C (which sounds larger than it is – think teacup) but I do wear a bra every day ever since a doctor told me that it was as important for small-breasted women as for those with larger breasts. She explained that there were no muscles that could hold your breasts up – once they have sagged, you’d reached the point of no return because your ligaments stretched irrevocably with gravity. So a bra was necessary to work against those downward forces, and a snug-fitting sports bra when you are running and working out is particularly key. The one time that wearing a bra is really a health issue for me though, is when I have painful breasts around my period. At those times, my bra adopts a ‘best supporting’, pain-relieving role.”

If you’re not bothered by a bit of natural sagging (losing elasticity as we age is a fact of life anyway, bra or no bra), and you’re not in pain, there’s no compulsion to wear a bra during day to day activity if you don’t fancy it, while advances in bra ‘tech’ mean that, if you do want to wear one, they’re more comfortable and adaptable than ever.

Underwiring no longer feels like it’s cutting you in half, a greater variety of retailers offer high-quality fitting services and a more extensive range of cup and back sizes, while styles increasingly have our lifestyles and ease of wear in mind, as opposed to bold and bulky ‘two sizes bigger’ options. One such example is the bralette, which has become more supportive in design than the flimsy crop top incarnations of the 90s, yet is on the whole incredibly soft to wear and swerves wiring completely. Net a Porter reports that 30 per cent of its bra sales are ‘soft cups’ and probably the most famous undie manufacturer of all Marks & Spencer saw a 40 per cent surge in sales of non-wired bras in 2017, proving that more restrictive and structured bra designs are no longer de rigeur, even if you do have a bigger bust (see Bravissimo’s bralettes for further proof).

The main takeaway is to do what makes you feel good across the board, but just make sure that your bra fits if you’re wearing one- according to University of Portsmouth research, 80 per cent of us are wearing the wrong sized bra, which can in itself lead to breast pain, back, shoulder and neck issues, postural problems and uncomfortable chafing and indentation marks. Given that you’re wearing a bra to avoid most of the above in the first place, prioritising fit and comfort and taking the time to find a bra to suit is a worthwhile exercise (and one that needs repeating regularly, particularly if your weight has changed, you’re pregnant or you’re postpartum).

There’s even a bra in the making that claims to adapt to breast changes and provide a ‘one size fits all’ support solution- the Anesi Bra is designed to adjust its fit around 90 different sizes while also wicking away moisture, replacing tight elastic straps with cooling gel fabric and doing away with underwiring in favour of a 3D nylon support structure. It’s priced at £54, so a blowout option as far as bras go, but the fact that it morphs neatly around the monthly hormonal breast fluctuations and tenderness that a good number of us experience makes it economical in itself. There’s currently a Kickstarter campaign with the aim of bringing it to market

As for the oddly much-debated issue of sleeping in your bra, Marilyn Monroe did it and Sarah Vine has recently taken to wearing sleep bras as they make her pyjamas fit better. There’s no medical reason to wear a bra in bed, and forces of gravity or vigorous movement won’t be acting on your breasts as they might during the day, but equally it’s not damaging, just so long as your bra fits properly across the back, cup and shoulders, and assuming that it isn’t digging in.

For more information on fitting your bra, good old Marks and Sparks has an online ‘bra calculator’ to help out, but nothing beats a face to face (or eye to breast) consultation for accuracy. You want your boobs to be free, not frozen or subject to friction. They’re too precious to be imprisoned.

How to avoid the most common bra fitting issues

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