Off the hook: a new generation goes braless

Why going braless was the year's most unexpected trend: 'It used to be people like Beyoncé all waxed and corseted up, or Britney in that sexualised school uniform, but now it’s about comfort. And freedom' 
Off the hook: a new generation goes braless

Florence Pugh attends the Valentino Haute Couture Fall/Winter 22/23 fashion show on July 08, 2022 in Rome, Italy.

Bralessness always gets lots of ‘flaunting her curves’ salacious flak in the media, particularly when young women — famous ones — are photographed with actual nipples. Images of British actor Florence Pugh in a pink Valentino creation in Italy in July — through the fabric of which her nipples made a veiled appearance — caused much media meltage. It was reported in one Australian outlet, Perth Now, accompanied by a ‘WARNING – GRAPHIC IMAGES’ statement in all caps, as though the image depicted an Isis beheading, rather than a young woman in couture sitting next to Anna Wintour at a fashion show.

Another, with unintentional hilarity, referred to other high-profile women out and about without bras — Gigi Hadid, Lily-Rose Depp, Zoë Kravitz — as ‘the pert-breasted elite’. So far, so Benny Hill. Other members of the PBE include Gwyneth Paltrow (a long-term member), Rita Ora, Dua Lipa, Lily Allen, Kristen Stewart, Sharon Stone, Sienna Miller, Alexa Chung, Poppy Delevigne, and most recently Gillian Anderson, who said, with refreshing lack of ambiguity, “I don’t care if my breasts reach my belly button. I’m not wearing a bra, it’s just too fucking uncomfortable.”

Well, yes. ‘I’ve taken my bra off’ has long been lady shorthand for ‘I’m not going out again today’ — you get home, you unhook, you exhale. Just like our grandmothers did with their 18-hour girdles, and our great-grandmothers did with their corsets. With the progress of every female generation, constrictive items once deemed crucial continue to be cast aside.

But 21st-century bralessness is not a political act for Gen Z the way it was for Boomers in the 1970s; it’s more that they can’t be bothered. To ascribe political meaning to bralessness is to miss the point of their relaxed, open-minded and accepting attitudes to gender; for clarification, I ask my in-house Gen Z expert, my 21-year-old daughter. What does bralessness mean? Is it for everyone? Who does and who doesn’t?

“It’s all about boobage,” she says. “I wear a bra top because I have big boobs and don’t want to slap myself in the face with them. My friends with smaller boobs don’t bother. It depends on the person and their body. It’s not a thing. Why are you making it a thing?” Bralessness, she says, is the same as girls having hairy armpits, part of living in an “open queer era” where the rigidity of gender, like the rigidity of bra-wearing, has loosened. “It used to be people like Beyoncé all waxed and corseted up, or Britney in that sexualised school uniform, but now it’s about comfort. And freedom. We wear what we like.”

Since the pandemic, sales of sports bras are up and sales of underwired bras are down. We are all Gillian Anderson now, no longer willing to spend hours of our day encased in something that elicits such relief on its removal; I have one bra — non-wired — for weddings and funerals, and soft stretchy yoga tops for the rest of my life. We have come a long way from the head-‘em-up-and-ride-‘em-out era of the Wonderbra, personified by Eva Herzigova’s Hello Boys billboards in 1994.

Inevitably, with any societal change, even one as seemingly innocuous as women pushing for the desexualisation of their own nipples, so that male and female nipples are granted equal status, there still comes moral panic. Instagram has a full nipple ban for women, but not for men (breastfeeding/mastectomies aside). Which seems extraordinary in 2022, echoing the 1938 case of Helen Hulick, the young woman jailed by an LA judge almost a century ago for wearing trousers in a courtroom (her house had been burgled by two men, but she was the one who ended up in prison after refusing to wear a dress while giving evidence).

Gillian Anderson arrives at the Paramount+ UK launch at Outernet London on June 20, 2022 in London, England.
Gillian Anderson arrives at the Paramount+ UK launch at Outernet London on June 20, 2022 in London, England.

In 2012, two years prior to the release of her film of the same name, Lina Esco began the #FreeTheNipple campaign in New York, to address the inequality of men’s nipples being allowed in public, but women’s being deemed sexual or indecent or both; her aim was to decriminalize and destigmatize female chest nudity, in a country where female toplessness — even on beaches — can be an arrestable offence. In 2018 in Florida, a 17-year-old girl, Lizzy Martinez, was pulled from class because she was not wearing a bra under her baggy t-shirt (she had sunburn); she was told by the head teacher she was ‘distracting’ male class members and told to put band-aids over her nipples.

This is what fuels Instagram’s — and Facebook’s — gender bias; puritanical misogyny embedded in mainstream US culture, a place where the female nipple has legally been defined as an erogenous zone. Tell that to a hungry baby. To highlight the absurdity of the social media ban, women have been posting images of themselves with cut-out stickers of male nipples placed on top of their own female ones. Not even the nipples of Rhianna, Miley Cyrus or Chrissy Teigen were allowed to remain on these platforms. The accepted narrative is that without bras, civilization — and breasts — will collapse.

A fifteen-year French study, published in 2013, found this not to be the case, at least not for breasts anyway. “Bras are a false necessity,” said the lead researcher, sports science professor Jean-Denis Rouillon at the University of Besancon. After measuring the breast changes of 330 women, his team found that the permanently braless experienced a seven-millimetre lift in their nipples for each year that they didn’t wear a bra. They also discovered that braless women had firmer breasts and faded stretch marks.

Nor did they find any evidence that bras relieve back pain. According to the study, “The findings suggest that breasts would gain more tone and support themselves if no bra was used. Bras limit the growth of supporting breast tissues, leaving the breast to wither and degrade more quickly.” It could be that in another generation, the bra, like the corset, will have morphed from mainstream day wear to special occasion or fetish wear; this was predicted in 1969 by Danish fashion historian Rudolf Broby-Johansen, in his article Obituary For The Bra. Women are moving towards comfort and ease rather than restriction, accelerated by lockdown, the normalising of working from home (WFH), and the ubiquity of athleisurewear. Sales of high heels were down 71% in 2020.

And yet as the Gen X parents of Gen Z daughters, are we transferring our own conditioning — that bras are essential — onto our girls? In all probability, the majority of older women have internalised the sexualisation of our own bodies, including our nipples; how else to explain the insanity of being more comfortable with plunging necklines, tit-tape, push-up bras, and sexualised cleavage than the ordinariness of going out without a bra at all? And why do we put bra-tops on prepubescent girls? Why do small female children wear bikini tops? 

As Lizzy Martinez, the teenage student told to put band-aids on her nipples pointed out, it’s not up to her to accommodate the gaze of male classmates ‘distracted’ by her bralessness; it’s up to them to redirect their gaze, to stop sexualising her. If your daughter goes out braless, it’s because she’s confident in the ownership of her body; teach your daughter that confidence, and to rebuke the unwanted male gaze. Ask your daughter what would Lizzo do.

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