Sex, Lies and the Politics of Padded Bras

Padded, push-up bras are surprisingly contentious considering they're just small pieces of foam inside a bra. Of course, when they are on a woman's breasts, their significance and sexual nature gets exponentially magnified.

The social implications of being a woman so often seem to rest in conjunction with the treatment of breasts, and by extension the lingerie encasing them. In many ways, this juxtaposition of breasts, beauty and femininity is what got me personally interested in lingerie.

I wanted to write about padded bras because I was intrigued by the article in Salon, "Dating in a Push Up Bra" by Tammy Delatorre. The piece was more nuanced than I expected from the title, as the author explores her own discomfort with her chest size and feeling unfeminine as a result.

Sex, Lies and the Politics of Padded Bras

[I'm guessing this is the type of padded bra the author bought– via Victoria's Secret]

She brought up the subject of bras and honesty by saying:

Was it a form of womanly deceit to hoist my small breasts up in cushioned cups, a bit of self-promotion to the coveted size C I've always longed for?

I'm not surprised at the equation of lingerie and femininity. As an intimate, gendered garment, it's not uncommon to view lingerie as a way to embrace femininity. Your clothes make you the right type of woman. Can we ever untangle this mixture of bodies, clothes and gender?

Delatorre writes:

In a push-up bra, I am no longer just a tomboy with knees scarred from running after my father, and of course, falling. I catch a glimpse passing a mirror, surprised by my hourglass form. My shape is pleasing to the eye, even if it's only my own. With one on under my business suit, male executives seem to smile more, want to discuss my ideas for their division over coffee or lunch. Dinner, if I'm available.

I appreciate the ode to the power of transformation inherent in her choice of lingerie, even if it is a choice that seems ultimately to rely on the feedback of others rather than herself. And it's seductive to start receiving positive about being the 'right' kind of woman.

Maybe you aren't the same person in a push-up bra. We have to be so many people throughout the day and throughout our lives that it makes sense that we might have different costumes. Who's to say which is the 'real' you? Unless you're illegally impersonating a police officer, your clothes aren't lying, unless you feel they are.

Sex, Lies and the Politics of Padded Bras

I can relate to the author's struggles accepting her own bust size, as I've shared definitely shared some of those thoughts. It wasn't until I got into lingerie and discovered bras that didn't require padding to be beautiful that I understood my own beauty. Personally, I started to feel good about my small bust when I tried sheer, soft cups and left behind the automatic 'push up.' The funny thing is, I've come back around to push ups again. When I choose them and they aren't forced upon me, I can play with them and with my appearance.

Molded push-up bras have a particular physical presence that might also add to their feeling of otherness. With most other clothing, and in unlined bras, the object doesn't truly have a shape until it is filled out and worn. The moment of putting on a beautiful piece of clothing can feel wonderful in it's rightness, a sudden synthesis of fabric and body. A molded bra always keeps its own shape–it doesn't need a body to fill it out and therefore can seem almost like a prothesis. I've found that when a molded bra gapes away from you, the negative space seems to loom that much more blatantly, almost a taunt to one who wishes they would fill it up further.

I was also interested in The Gloss's response to that article, entitled, "If Push-Up Bras are Dishonest, Who Cares?" The author genuinely wants to be supportive to the woman who wears push up bras, but ends up basically agreeing that there is dishonesty intrinsic to a push up bra:

And really, what isn't a little dishonest about the dating process? When I was dating I wore makeup, high heels, clothing that hid my problem areas and accentuated my assets. How is wearing a bra with a little oomph worse? Most partners could care less once they have you in bed anyway, or at least that is the common saying.

Doesn't it seem somewhat ludicrous that certain clothes are 'honest' and certain clothes are 'dishonest'? The ickyness of the phrase 'problem areas' aside, this quote seems to be saying that there would have been more honesty if she had worn clothes that emphasized 'problem areas' and ignored 'assets.' But that doesn't seem to make any sense– that sounds like honesty is making yourself look the way you don't want to look.

Why is the bust something important enough to bring up dishonesty and deception? Because it's seen as a bargaining chip in a sexual relationship, bigger boobs being more valuable. Fraud is only relevant if you are replacing something of higher value with something of lesser value. Deceit comes into play when the result is hurtful. The only reason push up bras can be dishonest is because boobs are viewed as commodities that increase a woman's sexual value.

One thing I think about is how much women don't know about other women's bodies. Or rather, people don't know about other people's bodies. In the piece, the author describes the difference between her own boobs and others by using the metaphor of a flat line vs. a curved road ahead, but specifically describes herself as lying down, with her boyfriend's head on her chest. The flaw in this example is that almost allwomen see their chests as nearly flat when they are lying down, due to the fact that the fatty tissue splays out and settles down into the body (see photos below for an example). Basically, the genesis of the article comes from the author imagining herself different from other women, when actually being overwhelmingly similar. The author strings together moments of inadequacy to create a story in which she feels her body is wrong and must be corrected.

Sex, Lies and the Politics of Padded Bras

The expression is 'naked truth,' but it's hard for me to see that nudity is any more honest that being clothed. Doesn't clothing sometimes reveal more about us than if we were simply naked? That seems to destabilize the idea that nude= honest.

If you look at the photos from the 'Bare to Bush' project of the same woman, at the same time, in radically different poses, it is an excellent example of the idea of nudity containing some essential honesty. In fact, if you asked people whether they thought this woman was beautiful and only showed one of the photos, you might get radically different answers. And yet it's the same woman. I don't, however, want to suggest that the second one is somehow more honest that the first– a photo in a position that is generally considered more 'flattering' is no less true than any other.

The conclusion I've come to is that appearance is always an illusion. When it comes to personal representation, disentangling perception and truth is unimaginable. Whether you choose the 'truth' of what you see in front of you, the 'truth' of the photograph or any other 'truth' is up to you. I'm not going to shame someone who tries to create an illusion that is pleasing to others because she enjoys the benefits of being the 'right kind' of woman, both professionally and personally.

This piece originally appeared on The Lingerie Lesbian. Republished with permission.

The Lingerie Lesbian is a fashion design student based in NYC with an unhealthy obsession with talking about knickers. You can see what she's up to on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram.

Previously: Why I Love Lingerie
What It's Like to Be a Lesbian in the Lingerie Industry
What Lingerie Isn't About: Why I Hate Compulsory Femininity

The Concept of a 'Bikini Body' Is Infuriating Bullshit

Main image via bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock