“Your bra is not supporting you.”
What was so great about surrounding my upper torso in a wad of cotton or wrapping it in non-breathable polyester or binding it with metal wires?
My mother talked to me about sex only once. I was ten-years-old. She was in the middle of giving me a piano lesson in the rumpus room of our Long Island suburban home. Bubbles of sweat covered her top lip.
“Are you feeling OK, Mom?” I asked.
“There’s a film in health class tomorrow on menstruation. Read this pamphlet,” was all she said.
That’s why, three years later, I became confused when my mother asked me to join her in being part of a market research study conducted by a man testing the quality of his company’s brassieres. How could she be comfortable with this?
The first time I saw a man fondle a woman’s breasts was in a book I discovered hidden in the top drawer of my mother’s nightstand underneath her Bible. The cover of the book was camouflaged—neatly wrapped like my school textbooks in the cut-up remains of a brown-paper food store bag. I flipped through detailed black and white sketches of various sexual positions. I didn’t want to think about my parents doing these things.
“We’ll need to wear some bra samples for the next month and then this man will stop by to ask us questions,” my mother told me.
“What does a man know about bras?” I asked.
She ignored my question and said, “He’s a friend of your father’s. He’ll pay us twenty-five dollars each.” That was a lot of money in 1967.
When I’d first started to develop breasts, I was embarrassed by them. They were bigger than any of my friends’ mammary glands, which were either a size A or B cup. Mine reigned in at a size 36C. I wasn’t allowed to go braless (a popular trend during this period of my youth) and I was jealous of my friends who could.
“I can tape band aids over my nipples so they won’t show through my shirt,” I told my mother.
“You look like Grandma Moses without a bra,” she replied.
To make matters worse, my mother disliked all of the bras I owned. Her classic line was, “Your bra is not supporting you.”
There was talk on the news about equality of the sexes and the feminist movement. Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan claimed housewives would have more fulfilled lives if they pursued careers outside the home—the way men did. I told my mother she should become a concert pianist. Then, maybe my father could work less overtime on the weekends.
“Being a wife and mother was my choice. It’s what makes me happy,” my mother said.
“Shouldn’t a person who chooses to work for a bra company be a female—someone who actually needs a bra?” I asked.
My father (an aerospace engineer who designed planes and spaceships, not bras) was worse than my mother when it came to the mention of anything sexual. I was barely allowed to talk to boys at age thirteen, let alone date them. The fact that a fifteen-year-old girl on our block had gotten pregnant last year didn’t make matters any easier for me.
Once, I got caught riding tandem with a boy on his bike. I was sitting in the crook of the handle bars as my father passed by in his Buick Skylark on his way home from work.
“What were you doing with that boy?” my father asked.
“We weren’t doing anything, Daddy,” I said.
I was grounded for a week, but my father had nothing to worry about. That boy was so afraid of him he never came near me again.
Still, I couldn’t figure out why my parents wanted me to talk to a strange man about articles of clothing designed to hold breasts in place.
The bras arrived in the mail. All six of my mother’s samples looked great on her. She was much smaller than me. I took after the females on my father’s side of the family—the large-breasted Sicilians.
For the next twenty-eight days, I jotted down notes in a journal about my samples: "Too rough." "Too loose." "Too tight." "Too skimpy." "Lost shape." The last one I tried on was an underwire bra with a curved band of metal sewn underneath each cup.
“Just what you need to hold you up,” my mother said.
“Boys have it so much easier!” I screamed as I saw myself in the mirror. My breasts looked pointy in this model, like two inverted snow cones. I hated the bra. I hated them all. Damn support, I thought. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to choose my own clothing.
What was so great about surrounding my upper torso in a wad of cotton or wrapping it in non-breathable polyester or binding it with metal wires? I wanted to let it all hang out—to feel the fabric on the inside of my shirt rub up against my chest.
“You can treat yourself to some new clothes,” my mother said. That was fine by me.
My friend told me she read in the newspaper that feminists were burning their bras in trash cans alongside guys burning their draft cards. My father told me this was all media-hype and wasn’t true.
The dreaded day came when the market research man arrived to conduct his survey. I lined up all twelve bras—a dozen instruments of torture in plain sight for all to see—on our avocado-green Formica kitchen table. Thank goodness my father and my two brothers were out on a Boy Scout trip.
“Please answer the questions with one of the following choices: Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor,” the man said.
My mother knew I was nervous, so she went first. Then, she left me alone with this man for a few minutes to go check on my sister who had woken up from a nap. The man smiled as he checked off my answers on a form attached to a clipboard. He had on a dark suit and both of his canine teeth stuck out a bit past his thick moustache. He reminded me of a walrus.
“How would you describe the fit of the white-lace, underwire sample?” the man asked me.
Like a slow brushfire, I could feel myself turning red, the heat creeping up my neck, around the tops of my ears and across my cheeks. I knew my mother liked this particular one, on me so I lied and said, “Excellent.” I continued to answer the questions with whatever I figured he needed to hear.
What I wanted to tell him was these bras cut into my back and shoulders. What I wanted to tell him was I didn’t need extra padding to make me bigger. What I wanted to tell him was the elastic straps make me bounce around like Jell-O. What I wanted to tell him was he might want to survey jock straps instead. How could he think there was any joy in wearing a harness?
The idea of selling an opinion for money seemed scandalous to me at the time. Where was the value in that? On the television show “To Tell the Truth” it was hard to pick out who was honest. How did you really know?
I avoided eye contact with the man. I focused on our brown and yellow flowered wallpaper and thought about what I could do with my twenty-five dollars. Marty’s Sporting Goods Store—where all my friends bought their clothes—had this midriff-top in orange seersucker and these low-rise blue-jeans called hip-huggers. And I had my eye on a braided macramé belt in the window of the gift shop in town.
After I completed my questionnaire, the man handed my mother and me our money and gathered up his materials. “You can keep the bras,” he said. “And thanks for your help. My wife just delivered our fifth child.” I found out he had taken this market research position after losing his engineering job at Grumman Aerospace where my father still worked.
I went shopping for my outfit and I had enough cash left over to buy myself a tube of white lipstick. My new jeans needed to be broken-in before wearing. I spent three weeks laundering them at least fifty times to get them soft and faded. Then, I cut them a bit in the knees and on the left upper thigh and washed them for another week so they’d fray.
The following weekend, the jeans were ready. I decided to wear them with my midriff-top and macramé belt to an eighth-grade graduation party at my friend’s house. I blasted Grace Slick’s “Somebody to Love” on my stereo as I got dressed.
My father pulled into the driveway when I was about to walk out the front door. “What kind of getup is that?” he asked.
“Leave her alone,” my mother said. “She bought the outfit with the money from your friend’s survey.” Then, she glanced at my chest and said, “Those samples bras aren’t holding up very well.”
I didn’t tell her I wasn’t wearing one.