My mother presented me with my first bra when I had just turned 13, which might be one of the worst gifts I have ever received. What was this elasticised garment, and why were the women in my family so secretive about? It was an ugly sports bra with thick, elastic bands, and it taught me my first few cuss words – directed mostly at myself for voluntarily wearing something that was making me miserable. The fact that I had to wear a thin slip under it to minimise the discomfort didn’t really boost my self-image either.I had always thought myself perfectly capable of carrying my own weight, until the time came for me to start wearing bras. Apparently, they would keep my breasts lifted, something I didn’t even know I needed. Another function of the bra is that it is supposed to make me feel comfortable around others. I wasn’t so sure this was true either. Pillows, beanbags, recliner chairs – those made me comfortable; a bra just made it harder to breathe. But back then, instead of questioning whether my breasts really needed a lift as if they were two tired hitchhikers, or wondering why being comfortable felt so damn uncomfortable, I simply accepted this imposition on my body. Back then, I didn’t know that it was possible not to.
Forgive the cliche, but I eventually found enlightenment while getting lost on my travels (no, I haven’t sold the film rights to Imtiaz Ali, yet). A couple of years ago, on a trip to Gokarna, I realised my breasts were happier underneath soft cotton dresses without being caged by a bra. The sensation of the breeze caressing my skin was more welcome than a window seat on a crowded Mumbai local. In the days after, I continued slipping into a host of outfits – flowy kurtis, oversized tops, asymmetrical dresses – without any bra between them and myself, and my body thanked me for liberating it from tyranny. So, 12 years after I was first introduced to this sinister garment, I decided to break up with it. It wasn’t a decision borne out of rebellion or one to support a socio-political movement, but a choice to embrace what I wanted. Not every woman who chooses to go braless is a man-hating, radical feminist. Some of us just like it that way.
As someone with small breasts, my life never depended on wearing a bra in the first place. I now realise that I only wore them for reasons that had nothing to do with me. For instance, I wore them to make my breasts look bigger than they were so that their smallness wasn’t deemed undesirable. Like many women, I grew up with most of my friends telling me with full conviction that men prefer women with bigger breasts and my size was always a topic of discussion for every man I dated. Naturally, I looked at bras as a convenient shield – a performance that I had to keep up so that the world would accept me.
Some of my friends still take a jab at my “mosquito bites”, but since going braless, I’ve had the last laugh as I languidly stretch while they are complaining about some unfortunate bulges that need to be packed using wires. My new, braless existence found an unlikely supporter in my mother, who soon emancipated her own breasts under soft cotton dupattas. This made me wonder why our culture scorns and shames bralessness while our history exhibits sculptures and paintings of women with exposed breasts. “I think the idea of nudity being sinful came from Abrahamic religions,” says Bandana Tewari, fashion features director at Vogue India. The arrival of the British stapled together the blouse and saree in every Indian wardrobe. And with the westernisation of clothing, bras became the new norm. Unfortunately, when the Indian freedom fighters ousted their colonial overlords, the Brits left behind their Victorian sense of morality in India.
Perhaps this is why choosing to go braless in a city is a whole different deal than doing it on a beachside vacation. I live in Delhi, arguably one of the most unsafe Indian cities for a woman in India, and like a majority of the middle-class, I depend on crowded public transport to travel across the city. Commuting is only made easier because of the ladies compartment in the metro. But even there, jeers suggesting caution against harassment is a given. On the road, my guard is always up as constant stares meet my breasts. Occasionally, I have found myself scared of being groped or squeezed at another’s whim.
But I have tasted sweet freedom, and I’m unwilling to go back to confinement. Braving my way through, despite the pitfalls, is made worth it by not having to endure the stabbing pain of two tightened straps digging into my shoulders all throughout a long, tiring day.
Bras might just be some of the most unnecessary items fashioned by humans until the fidget spinner came along. A bra is just another product targeted at women as a perceived necessity, a need created where there is none. For a long time, they’ve been sold to prevent sagging, an erroneous claim which multiple studies have debunked by now. When the world could no longer convince women that bras are functional, we were reminded that they are at least appropriate. Bras are equated with decorum, with presentability, and ultimately with respect, all of which sound very nice on paper, but are just a roundabout way of telling women that it is their responsibility to ensure their body is free of unwelcome stares.
Still, a girl can only be stabbed by her underwire so many times before she snaps. I’ve reached a point in my life where silent judgement of strangers is the lesser of the two evils, so I’m going to stay free. And, without a trace of irony, it feels like a burden has been lifted off my chest.
Vaishnavi is living the unconventional life that your conventions warn you about. Doing so, she lives in tiny outhouses with moths and butterflies decorating the walls and hopes to eat what she grows herself. She swears by candle lit rooms and pillow castles and hopes she never has to return to a city again.
This article was originally published on Arre
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