Fifteen years of research reached an uplifting conclusion last week for French scientist Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon, a man who has positioned himself as an expert in the perkiness of the female breast. You see, since the late 90s, he'd been comparing with care the bosoms of over 300 women. In a face-off between the braless and the bra-wearing, the professor found that the breasts of the former group were less pendulous over time, by 7/10ths of a centimetre. 'Medically, anatomically, physiologically' the professor declared, there's no benefit to wearing bras. We might as well burn them. To which I say: sir, try walking a mile in my shoes. Or rather my bra. Or rather, in my breasts, without my bra. You would find that it's rather uncomfortable.
Like many women, my decision to wear a bra has less to do with my desire to maintain some ideal shape as I age, and more to do with utility and comfort: lugging a heavy-ish bosom around all day is psychologically wearing enough without the addition of a bit of physical support. Professor Roullon is not the first man to exhort me to discard my bra, in one way or another, and he is also a member of a cast of millions of people -- women as well as men -- who regard breasts as discrete objects rather than part of a person. We judge them to be ideal or not-ideal, and, if they fit in to the latter category, consider them to be mutable: suitable for alterations as if they were an ill-fitting dress rather than, say, an arm. Though I'd argue that in both their composition and function, breasts have a great deal more in common with limbs than with frocks.
Breasts are unique in the manner in which they arrive on a woman's body rather later than her other component parts, and this is no doubt part of the reason that they hold their special status: their growth, though expected, is a bit disconcerting. But it's one thing as a teenage girl to come to terms with your new acquisitions; it's quite another to come to terms with the degree to which they are regarded as other people as a matter of interest in a way that no ears or ankles could ever command. If, like me, you turn out to be busty, there’s the daily problem of getting people to make eye contact with your eyes rather than your chest. And then there are the special cases. The professional bra-fitter who described my breasts as 'so weird' because they challenged the average range of sizes that she had on hand. The airport security inspector who pushed her hand through my top and under the underwire of my bra, in public and without warning, because she thought my cleavage looked like it had great potential for drug smuggling. The colleague at a company where I once worked who grabbed them at an office Christmas party, squeezing and twisting; the other colleagues who reacted to my subsequent distress by telling me that I should have a sense of humour about it.
With each incursion, I am struck by how these people seem to consider my breasts to be items for consumption or amusement, rather than essential parts of my self; every time, I find myself thinking that I must learn to make concessions in the way that I dress or behave to stop eliciting these reactions. And I'm aware that this is just my experience on the bosomy end of the spectrum; that there are plenty of ways that people choose to demean women based on their breasts, whether through supplying them with so-called chicken fillets or encouraging them to consider surgery to achieve, well, a level of buxomness that will attract unwarranted groping. Hurray! No matter what their size, our breasts are one more part of ourselves in which women learn we should never be satisfied, and yet which we should endlessly battle to improve or correct.
And that's why I bristle at the news that I should cast off my bra in order to save seven millimetres of droop: because I wear a bra not to achieve a level of perkiness to evoke admiration (or horror) in passersby, but so that I don't have to think about the extra weight I'm hauling around on the front of my chest any more than necessary. For other women, I'm sure, bras are an unnecessary annoyance; I support anyone's right to go without one, though I need my support. Either way, enough edicts about what we should or should not do with our breasts: let us dress and store them as we wish. Breasts are parts of whole women. Not objects for which we are vehicles of display.