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Bralettes, Bandeaus and Corsets, Oh My!

It’s a girl thing.  It lasts a lifetime. It’s called hating your body.

In fact, some researchers have referred to it a “normative discontent.” Yes, feeling dissatisfied and ashamed with your looks, weight, and body shape. It’s a phenomenon finely sculpted by our culture and, ah hum, ladies, lasts a lifetime.

Body dissatisfaction manifests in many subtle and not so subtle ways. It starts as young as 6 years old and ignites around puberty. I am now living through pubertal journey No. 3. First me; my older daughter; and now my youngest. The pattern, if there is one: Late bloomer, on schedule, late bloomer.

I remember having to have to ask my mom for a training bra back in the 1970s, when halter-tops were the fashion. A hang loose era. The grownups were in their own bubble, while adolescent girls were donning their crisscross bras, obvious under the classic white tees.

Pretty Please

There was only one store for girls in the small town I grew up in. The Cortina Shop. It carried baby onesies, pajamas, and party dresses – 6 months to 14 years. There seemed to be an odd hush in the store when I had occasion to go in; it felt like being in church. No touching. No talking. It was intimidating. On a small rack in the back of the store, near the dressing room, was a row of small harnesses: Teenform 32AA – 34C. Pretty Please, Criss Cross. Lucky Star.  (These could be names of horses in the Kentucky Derby.)

Teenform Training (collectible-5811)The packaging came with instructions not unlike Singer dress patterns, with line drawings on how to put one on. The training bras were without padding. There was a hint of lace. Maybe a rose bud in the middle. The bra wasn’t easy to get on or off.

At the time a girl might covet one or two bras at most. Eventually, the white fabric would turn a grungy yellow. Sometimes they were stuffed with Kleenex, a disaster in the wash and dryer. That first time “shopping” for a bra was mortifying. I had to ask mom to take me to Cortina’s. She complained that it was not necessary. Whether or not I needed a bra was not the point in my mind. As a post war German immigrant, my mom’s practicality trumped sensitivity. Plus, bras were an expense, relatively speaking. Having more than one was an indulgence – all the more so because I didn’t need one for a long time.

I digress.  Now I have a tween. Tween is a marketing term that retailers use to describe a demographic of girls between the ages of 8 and 12.  And it comes down to two personas that get promoted: princess and slut. (You can read Peggy Orenstein’s book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter to get a full picture of raising girls in today’s culture.) Yet, here is a word – tween – that aptly describes my petite 13-year-old. Officially a teenager, she laments that kids view her like she’s still a 4th grader. She hates being called “cute” in the hallways of middle school. In contrast, her best friend is the complete physical opposite and could easily be taken for a full-bodied senior in high school. They are quite a pair seen together and I love that they are still BFFs. Yet, both suffer from body image concerns. Neither fit the cultural norm. Not even close.

But who does?  Less than 5% of all women, that’s who.

Another way of saying this:

95% of girls and women DO NOT and WILL NOT fit the cultural beauty ideal for women.

95%. That’s me and you, girlfriend. That includes our daughters, sisters, mothers and friends. (Sorry if I’m shouting at you.)

Levels of Lift

Thank god for sport bras. They are best things since training bras, truly. Couldn’t we be satisfied with these colorful and truly practical under garments? Think about it. They fit just about any girl, at any age, no matter what size or shape. They are especially handy for the breast bud phase as well as for the years when gravity finally takes its hold. Brilliant invention. But No. Victoria and Aerie have changed the lingerie landscape. They have taken girlhood to an extreme, glorifying the unrealistic standard for beauty to a new level of egregiousness by the sheer fact of targeting tweens and their credit card-carrying moms. Now girls have 100s of bras to choose from, including bralettes, bandeaus and corsets!

Recently, I found myself shopping with my daughter for undies. Target and Justice were just not cutting it anymore. Knowing what was ahead of me, I had one rule: no thongs. Indeed, my husband practically had a heart attack one night as he was helping out with piles of laundry. He pulled out a string of blue lace belonging to our eldest. Pinching the specimen, he declared, “I’m not folding any more. Sorry.”



A bit of a stretch from 1970s Teenform: “Growing girls deserve first prize for the prettiest possible curve control.”  Now, the more stacked the better. There is hardly a bra to be found that doesn’t have foam padding (the option is “lite padding”). In my sentimental google search for an image of my first bra I was mildly offended that the research brought up “vintage training bras.” Vintage!

Then I looked at the antique packaging, with sweet pre-teens on the cover, and felt a wave of emotion. I felt proud that I could speak up back then and tell my mom what I needed. I also felt sad that the innocence of a girl’s coming of age is a pastime.

aerie ad

Today’s girls and moms may be empowered with the sheer volume of choices, may enjoy wearing the lace and silk, and feel good in their bodies for a while –  and yes, even acknowledge sensation and pleasure. A celebration! But to what end when the incessant messages about beauty, sexuality, and femininity are so narrowly defined?

I know moms who got boob jobs when their girls became teenagers. Cosmetic surgery is offered as a high school graduation gift. Often, mothers and daughters go together. And those mani-pedi parties for kindergartners?

Maybe there is another message we want to pass down. Maybe there is another way to celebrate the body.

Just maybe.

* * *

My daughter was very pleased with her new collection of undies. “I can’t wait to wear these even though no one will know!”

What did she do once we got in the car? She pulled one piece out of the bag, placed it on her head and exclaimed: “This calls for a Snapchat!”


(Short of buying a book, see history of the brassiere on Wikipedia. Patti Page in the 1960s is the real deal when it comes to perkiness. Curiously, the 1980s is missing!)


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