Saturday, March 10, 2012

The heartache of the underwear department

Jeans, swimsuits and bras are perhaps the three most misery-causing garments to buy. All three are closely fitting and reveal the shape of the body, and all three have posed immense challenges to the garment industry to ensure good fits.

People come in a vast variety of shapes and sizes, none of which is intrinsically better or worse than the others, but some of which are marginalised by the clothing industries and by popular culture, making those who have these 'outlier' bodies feel ugly and rejected. My research is interested in the strategies by which this happens, and also in the embodied feelings of pleasure and shame linked to clothing fit and size.

An excellent place to observe these processes in action is the underwear floor of a department store. Because it's not a specialty lingerie store, it only stocks mainstream brands and sizes, and so it can't possibly fit everyone. It is an exercise in heartache, a machine for making women feel bad about their bodies.

Today I went to Myer Melbourne to buy a black T-shirt bra with plain thin straps. This is often defined as 'everyday' underwear (as opposed to the 'fashion' underwear you don in romantic scenarios when you want to be admired); its main purpose is to provide a smooth, moulded and unadorned silhouette that looks good under tight-fitting tops. My shopping was utilitarian – I was seeking to plug a hole in my repertoire of bras for everyday wear. But I also wanted something a little bit fancy; maybe some lace, ribbon, tucking or satin, or an understated print that combined black with other colours.

A truism of bra fitting is that women's shape changes over their lifetimes, but they cling to the idea that they wear a particular bra. There's a genre of popular media reportage bemoaning women who wear ill-fitting bras, which Time magazine neatly summarises:
If you are a woman, and you are wearing a bra, you are probably wearing the wrong size one. That's what they say. According to "experts," "industry studies" and "surveys," anywhere between 70% 85% of women are treating their breasts badly, either shoving them into too-small cups or allowing them to float freely in a draping sling. The statistic's origins are murky — some cite a Victoria's Secret poll, others something from the Wacoal brand. But it has been quoted back to me by friends, colleagues, interns. It sounds true. "Eighty percent of American woman are wearing the wrong bra" is the "more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married" statistic of the new millennium.
The current bra sizing system that combines a lettered cup size with a numbered back size was invented in the early 1930s as a marketing technique, similarly to the way corsets had earlier been marketed by defining certain body shapes or customer life cycle stages as problematic and then offering the corset as the solution.

In 1933, advertisements for SH Camp and Company were categorising their bras by their ability to counteract varying degrees of 'sag', with A being the least degree of correction needed and D the greatest. I haven't read anything yet that convinces me this system has any biometric basis whatsoever; the persistence of ad-hoc additions such as "DD", "FF" and "GG", as well the logical alphabetical progressions, certainly suggest bra manufacturers have been making sizes up as they went along.

Similarly, if the use of back measurements numbered by inch did not actually originate in biometrics, its adoption after WWII was a marketing response to a cultural interest in biometrics and ideal body proportions. If women were already measuring themselves against an ideal "36-24-36" hourglass figure, it made sense to size bras in inches as well.

It is ridiculous to believe your bra size defines you, yet so many women have strong emotional and psychological responses to bra sizes. Back sizes larger than 16 carry the same stigma as plus-size clothing, while women feel embarrassingly juvenile or unwomanly in AA and A cup sizes, and the stigma of obesity rubs off on cups larger than D. So do prurient, fetishistic associations; take the exploitation movie sequel Piranha 3DD, or the tabloid focus on the cup size of famous women's breast enlargements. Women feel freakish in large cup sizes.

This blog post from Knickers offers a good summary of bra sizing and fit issues that also offers insights into the general confusion that consumers feel. Many people feel that clothing size and fit ought to be intuitive: you try something on and if it feels comfortable, or if you're pleased with the way it makes your body look, then you call that feeling 'a good fit'.

For instance, when I buy a bra, I want it to make me look good in my clothes. I want the bra to create the illusion of a Barbie doll's smooth, firm body; it should not draw attention to its presence by creating visible rolls or lines in my flesh, or a crinkly texture that's visible on the surface of my top.

Also, because I sometimes wear low-cut or strappy tops and wide necklines, I needed to consider the accidental exposure of the bra. Mary Russo writes in The Female Grotesque that the notion of 'making a spectacle of oneself' carries specifically gendered assumptions:
"For a woman, making a spectacle out of herself had more to do with a kind of inadvertence and loss of boundaries: the possessors of large, aging and dimpled thighs displayed at the public beach, of overly rouged cheeks, of a voice shrill in laughter, or a sliding bra strap – a loose dingy bra strap especially [my emphasis] – were at once caught out by fat and blameworthy."
There is a thriving industry of bras and bra widgets designed specifically to create invisibility under particular kinds of clothes – for instance, strapless bras, super-low-cut plunge bras, 'convertible' designs whose straps can be reconfigured, and those clear plastic straps that fool nobody. Owning these items is a technique of compliant womanhood that acknowledges our culture's requirement of public propriety in women. Alternatively, the visibility of one's bra mimetically conveys a messy psyche or messy morality. Loose bra strap = loose woman! Dingy bra strap = dirty woman!

It has become far more acceptable to reveal one's bra than when Russo was writing in 1994. I could trace this to subcultural bra-wearing that re-coded 'sluttish' (in both its original sense of 'slovenly' and its patriarchal sense as 'sexually active') as 'insouciant' – for instance, in punk and Riot Grrrl music scenes – and the popularity of the burlesque and 'retro' aesthetic that has made it fashionable to glimpse lingerie in necklines or through transparent garments. Talk about mainstream: Dita von Teese has a lingerie line at Target!

But even this contemporary bra-exposure is concerned with propriety – the criteria are simply different. It's acceptable for bra straps to echo the straps of singlet tops, or boldly stripe across shoulders exposed by off-the-shoulder or racer-back cuts, but you don't want a chunky sports bra; you want a thin, plain strap, or a deliberately decorative one. Similarly, if the bridge of your bra is visible in your neckline, it should be a fancy one with ribbons or lace, and one that matches the aesthetic of your outer garment in style or colour.

Meeting these expectations while also meeting the criteria of 'support' and 'comfort' actually poses a major challenge to bra manufacturers and fitters. My body is upholstered in soft flesh, and the wide, spongy strap that looks like shit under my singlet top, or creeps into the frame of my boat-neck T-shirt, is the same one designed to stay put on my shoulder all day. The fancy lace that looks so sexy peeping from my neckline looks terrible rumpling the contours of my T-shirt.

Unfortunately, the bra industry deems phenomenology – that is, the wearer's feelings and experiences – to be a thoroughly inadequate method of determining bra fit. Instead, bra fitting is cognitive and quantitative – it's about measurement and problem-solving.

For instance, today I tried on a bra that I found really pretty, but it was too small. But the next cup size up in the same style was a fundamentally different garment. The straps were wider and made from a different fabric and colour; it had three clasps in the back rather than two; and it had corsetry-style boning inserted in the sides of the band. This shit makes sense to the bra manufacturer, which has made the industrial decision that these design elements are more 'supportive'. But it disrupts my expectations.

A successful bra fitter understands these dissonances. She is halfway between a counsellor and an engineer. She simultaneously scrutinises the wearer's body, exerting her expert knowledge on it, and offers change-room sympathy when the wearer feels vulnerable and frustrated because the bras she's trying on don't make her feel the way she wants to feel.

When she's good at her job, she can inspire feelings of gratitude and even liberation in her customer. That is, she has successfully influenced the bra wearer's perceptions and associations, subtly realigning them with bra manufacturers' size ranges.

While I was trying on some bras today, I overheard a bra fitter at work in the neighbouring cubicle, fitting a pregnant woman for her first maternity bra. Making matters difficult was that the customer claimed to wear a 16G, which you will immediately recognise as an outlier size.

It was fascinating to hear the fitter and customer talking, growing more and more apologetic as it became obvious that Myer didn't have anything to sell this lady.

"It fits well here, but not here"
"It fits fine now, but it will be too small once your milk comes in"
"I'm sorry, that one only goes up to an F-cup"
"Sorry it looks a bit old-fashioned, but that's the only one we have in a G"
"There's another good brand you can find in maternity boutiques – you could try XX in Australia On Collins…"

The bra fitter succeeded in creating sympathy with her customer, but she failed to align the customer's feelings about bras with the sizes available.

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