Why You Don't Have to Wear a Bra According to Experts
In 2012, Lina Esco introduced the phrase “Free the Nipple” to the collective consciousness with a campaign (followed by a movie of the same name) to decriminalize and de-stigmatize female nudity in public. The movement quickly caught on (with the help of attention from celebrities like Rihanna, Chelsea Handler and Miley Cyrus, with women mobilizing in hordes against public toplessness laws as well as rules — namely Instagram’s — banning women’s nipples from social media (while allowing men to freely reveal the same body parts without shame or consequence). Instagram later clarified in their community guidelines that "photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too."
Being topless is what we had to do [to] start a real dialogue about equality,” Lina told Time in 2014, when her film was released. “This is not about being topless; this [is] about equality, it’s about having that choice.”
And while Free the Nipple may have initially focused on being literally, completely topless, the movement has also come to encompass conversations about going braless under clothes. In fact, in the past couple years, while celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Camila Mendes, and Bella Thorne have been demonstrating and speaking out about freeing the nipple beneath the fabric, students across the U.S. have mobilized against sexist dress codes, with one of the most salient points being the requirement to wear bras. This year, high school students in Florida staged a “bracott” that went viral after their dean told 17-year-old Lizzy Martinez to put Band-Aids over her nipples because she wasn’t wearing a bra. And two years ago, the protest No Bra, No Problem went viral after a student was disciplinedbecause her lack of a bra reportedly “made someone uncomfortable.” But what that didn’t take into account was the fact that wearing a bra — or being called out for not doing so — makes someone else uncomfortable: the person with the breasts.
Not that that fact is necessarily surprising. “Women’s bodies are seen as contested terrain in public space,” Deborah J. Cohan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort, tells Teen Vogue. “For example, pregnant women experience unsolicited advice as well as strangers touching their bellies; the right to choose around pregnancy and abortion remain relentlessly contested; women nursing babies in public, and basically everything related to women’s bodies seems like fair game for waging war on women and on advancements made by feminism, as well as for shaming women.”
The No Bra, No Problem’s Facebook page (which is no longer live) described itself as “the movement for gender equality, women’s rights, and being comfortable.” And ultimately, that description is at the root of every person’s decision about whether or not to wear a bra. While the choice may seem simple, the reality is it’s one inextricably linked to not only fashion, but also women’s history, rights, sexuality, and health.
What’s the history of women ditching bras?
The aforementioned high schoolers certainly weren’t the first people to rail against the policing of women’s bodies or the societal standards contributing to the unspoken rule that women should wear bras. Chances are you’ve heard of the “bra burning” movement of the 1960s and '70s. The trope of feminists burning their bras en masse is actually a myth stemming from a women’s liberation demonstration when women tossed seemingly anti-feminist items into a trash can that was briefly set on fire. While women filled the receptacle — known as the “freedom trash can” — with various things (like high-heels, false eyelashes, and women’s magazines), bras were definitely included, being an item that Deborah says “stifled [the women’s] sense of freedom.”
And the image of the bras getting discarded was the one that was captured, shared in the media, and cemented in society’s mind as a symbolism of the feminist movement — and not in a good way. “When people say, ‘Are you one of those bra-burning feminists?’ — and yes, I have been asked this many times — the people who ask this are doing so from a pre-existing place of hostility toward feminism,” Cohan says. “It's like a boomerang dismissal effect where feminists are dismissed and discarded for assumptions of what they dismissed and discarded.”
Four decades later, Free the Nipple became the next most well-known feminist movement linked to ditching bras — and it’s all at once similar and very different from the previous one. “It’s another cultural movement where women are ‘fed up’ with the status quo,” Laura Tempesta, a bra expert with a master’s degree in lingerie design and the founder of Bravolution, tells Teen Vogue.
But, she notes, “the current zeitgeist regarding women's empowerment is unlike any other time in history. [...] This is the first time men in positions of power have been held accountable on a large scale for abuses toward women which were formerly considered ‘just the way it is.’” So while forcing women to wear bras previously “might have been simply accepted as ‘just the way it is,’...now it is being challenged — along with lots of other things women find restrictive, arbitrary, and unjust,” she adds.
We’re at the point, Tempesta says, where “women no longer want to put up with the discomfort of wearing a bra and are challenging the cultural mores which dictate their breasts must be covered up and restricted.”
And it’s also about protesting the hypocrisy that comes with those assertions. “Because women’s breasts — and especially nipples — are so sexualized, and because our culture is both hyper-sexualized and also quite repressed, women who want to challenge this and go topless are wanting to challenge the double standard, judgement, and harassment,” Deborah says. “They are pointing out that women doing this should be free and no more scrutinized than any man. They are also challenging how women’s breasts are seen as totally titillating and disgusting at the same time...how they are at once seen as distracting sexual objects and also regarded as disgusting when breastfeeding in public.”
Of course, we know the bra decision isn’t only a political one. For many people, there are other questions that go into it as well, like….
Will going braless hurt my back?
Bras aren’t only vehicles for modesty or policing women’s bodies. They’re also technical garments carefully designed to provide physical support — and for good reason. Andrea Madrigrano, M.D., a breast surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, tells Teen Vogue that one of the biggest diagnoses she sees outside of breast cancer is breast pain. And while it is commonly hormonal in nature (particularly in young women), for women with large breasts, the pain can often be due to chest wall inflammation because the muscles that the breasts are laying on become strained. “If you held out a three or four pound weight with an outstretched arm, your arm muscle would get very sore, because it’s trying to hold that,” she says. “The same sort of thing: If you have a three- or a four- or a five- or a six-pound breast that’s just laying on this muscle and moving about, it could cause strain, and then it can shift your posture forward to compensate for the weight.”
That’s where a bra can come in really handy. “A good, supportive bra takes that weight off the back and shoulders,” Dr. Madrigrano says. “Eighty percent of the weight is then shifted to the band and the structure of the bra.” (Of course, she notes it’s important that the bra fits properly, otherwise it can cause digging in shoulders or the torso that will just contribute to more pain.)
Now, this doesn’t mean that wearing a bra is the only way to prevent or minimize back pain if you have large breasts. “Working on strengthening your back stabilizers, stretching, and good breathing biomechanics are always helpful when it comes to posture and pain,” Kristina Petrocco-Napuli, a chiropractor and member of the American Chiropractic Association’s Council on Women’s Health, tells Teen Vogue. She recommends doing exercises and stretches that open up the chest to avoid slouching and using weights to strengthen back muscles (taking care to use proper form). She also suggests taking up yoga or pilates (“which can help with stretching, strengthening, and breathing”), getting a massage (which “can help ease tight and tense musculature in your back”), and seeing a chiropractor (which “can help ease the pain in the spine and ribs").
And if you want a good middle ground, Tempesta points out that “sleep bras, bralettes, seamless knit light support sports (yoga) bras, tanks with a shelf bra, and tightly knit tanks with a bit of compression are all great ways to provide minimal yet comfortable support.”
Karen Erickson, a chiropractor and member of the American Chiropractic Association’s Council on Women’s Health, tells Teen Vogue that bras and back pain are not a black-and-white subject. “I have patients who find not wearing a bra is more comfortable,” she says. “Others find that they crave the support and feel better when the breast is distributed by the bra. So the take-home is this: Experiment with well-fitting bras versus no bra. Trust yourself; make a choice based on your own comfort. Beauty should be healthy and pain-free.”
If you do choose to wear a bra, make sure you get one that fitsproperly so the garment itself doesn’t cause any pain or restriction. “A bra should be fitted so it does not restrict the rib movement of breathing,” Erickson says. “Do not wear bras that cut into your body. The bra cup should support, but not squeeze, the breast. Breasts need constant lymphatic flow to stay healthy. [...] The straps should be wide enough to avoid digging into the shoulders. The length of the straps should be adjusted to support but not pull on the shoulders.”
Will my breasts be more likely to sag in the future if I go braless now?
It’s a tale as old as time: If you pass on bras now, your breasts will be more likely to sag significantly later. While breast sagging is normal and absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, it’s also completely fine if you want to minimize it. And if that’s the case, there’s good news: "Contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that wearing a bra keeps breasts from sagging, [a condition known as] breast ptosis,” Tempesta says. “Ptosis over time is caused by age and gravity and occurs whether one wears a bra or not.”
Dr. Madrigrano explains that breast sagging largely has to do with breast density rather than opting out of wearing a bra: Those who have more fiber than fat in their breasts (i.e. more dense breasts) are less likely to experience sagging, while those who have more fat than fiber are more likely.
The exception to all of this may be exercise. “When you’re...doing vigorous exercise, and the breast is moving up and down and side to side, there can be stretching of...the ligaments [connective tissue] as well as the overlying skin, if you're not supported,” Dr. Madrigrano says.
While Tempesta points out that no studies have officially linked wearing sports bras with preventing sagging, both Tempesta and Dr. Madrigrano point out that wearing them is important in preventing injury and pain during exercise. Beyond that, “it could be argued that although everyday bras might restrict women, sports bras have liberated women by allowing them to participate in athletic activities,” Tempesta says, noting that “the first commercially viable sports bra and Title IX happened within a few years of each other.”
The bottom line? There certainly can be advantages to wearing a bra (such as minimizing or preventing pain). But, “Is there a medical reason to wear a bra? I would say no,” Dr. Madrigrano says.
But can I fashionably go braless if I have large breasts, or if I don’t actually want to free the nipple?
The long and short of it: Yes. “Breast size has nothing to do with going braless,” Andrew Gelwicks, a celebrity stylist whose clients include Delilah Belle Hamlin, tells Teen Vogue. “The act of freeing the nipple is not for one group of body types; it’s for anyone and everyone.” Indeed, there are absolutely no rules that says bras of any shape or size have to be lifted or covered. If you have large breasts and want to skip the bra — whether it’s to make a political statement, because you want to wear a backless or strapless dress and avoid the inevitable discomfort of backless or strapless bra, or you just don’t like them — more power to you.
And going sans bra doesn’t mean you have to actually free the nipple if you don’t want to, or if you’re just not quite ready. “If it’s something that interests you, test it out,” Gelwicks says. “Start out with going braless under a heavier top and see how that feels. If you’re comfortable, try it next time with a T-shirt or something lighter. You don’t need to jump right in to a sheer top if that’s not comfortable for you.”
And if you want to keep some skin covered up or minimize nipple protrusion under your clothing, there are certainly fashion solutions available. “Nipple pasties are a great way to test the waters of going braless without completely freeing the nipple,” Gelwicks says. “With those and some double-sided tape, you can rock anything you want.”
So, yes, the decision of whether or not to wear a bra is a loaded one. But the bottom line is it’s your decision, just like everything else you do with your body. In considering why so many women do wear bras, Deborah J. Cohan relates it to the reasoning behind women wearing jewelry and makeup, and shaving. “We have been socialized since girlhood to conform to certain standards of beauty,” she says. “This gets complicated because we may also feel like we look better when we do all these things, and that may be because it gains the attention of others. There is a way in which this is all about grooming for patriarchy. Yet, at the same time I tell you that, I shaved my legs and armpits last night, used a face mask, have my nails painted, and am wearing some makeup. Am I still a feminist? Hell yes! I think that part of the beauty of feminism is how it offers opportunities to understand and embrace ambiguity [and] contradictory realities.”
For example, while Cohan says she typically goes braless at home but wears one when exercising, teaching, and socializing; her 83-year-old mother ditched the undergarment for good years ago. “[She] in fact went braless at my wedding when she was 68, something that is visible in pictures given a sheer black underpinning that she had under a black vest,” Cohan says. “In my mind, she made the coolest mother of the bride! But her decisions to do this have never been political and neither are mine; we were doing what felt most comfortable and making our own rules — as it should be.”