transgender women on what buying their first bra meant to them

Few pieces of clothing represent as many things as a first bra. But when you’re transitioning, elastic and lace can be a powerful accessory.

by Wendy Syfret
11 May 2016, 6:15am

Image via Flickr

It's hard to think of a piece of clothing as emotionally, politically and culturally loaded as a bra. Since it emerged as an alternative to the corset at the beginning of the 20th century, the bra has represented adulthood, freedom, sexuality, and repression in turns. We're told buying our first bra is a transformative experience, a progression from girl to woman. TV, movies and books stress that by this new piece of underwear has the power to make us a new person. Different designs and styles speak to who we are, or how we feel, at that time: sexy, sporty, maternal, functional. Bras are heavy with sentiment.

Since they were burned in the 70s, they've also been seen as symbols of control and patriarchy. But to call the garments themselves flatly oppressive ignores the experience of transgender women, for whom a bra can be a sign of truth and freedom. For them, this collection of elastic and lace presents a way to explore and interact with gender, in a private way.

The first bra was in some ways maybe like a first step in my transition.

Ruby Burns is a cofounder of Bachelorette Beauty Services, a Melbourne based queer, trans and body positive salon that provides affordable beauty treatments. She bought her first bra online about five years ago. In conversation with i-D, she remembers "it was in secret because I had a partner at the time and I hadn't really started to explain things. It was a very painful shitty bra I found off eBay—it was maybe three sizes too small and cut into me like all hell." Wearing it under her clothes constantly, Ruby says that from the beginning the decision to put it on felt significant: "I guess the first bra was in some ways maybe like a first step in my transition."

Receiving this ill-fitting piece of underwear in the mail marked a "private beginning where I knew that I was taking steps to feminising how I felt about myself and how I dressed." Still publicly identifying as a man, Ruby wasn't ready to share her thoughts about transitioning with anyone. But at a point in her life where she was beginning to research hormones, have hair removed via laser treatments and legal changing her name, she realised that "capitalism had kind of made this one particular option of feminising really easy." While the aforementioned processes felt difficult to access, she remembers "the [option] that is easy is to buy stuff." Buying a bra was part of what she calls an "initial process of transition" that was "centred around getting clothes to wear, getting makeup to wear, learning to do these beauty process."

For musician Bailey, buying her first bra was something she did because she felt women were simply expected to. "My first bra was a sports crop top from Kmart," she remembers. "I walked in, grabbed the first black one I saw in my size and walked out. I didn't try it on, in fact it would be a while before I realised that trying bras on was a thing people did." Despite not feeling she actually needed it she continues, "I think I had made this lame connection in my head like 'I'm a girl and girls wear bras so I should buy a bra'—so I did."

I don't wear a bra anymore, because small tits look better without a bra.

Promoter Dakota also had expectations, but hers were less anchored in gender roles and more in the experiences she'd watched her family have in childhood. Growing up with two sisters, she'd witnessed them discuss, buy and experiment with different types of bras for years. "I have a knack for remembering outfits so I already had a mental catalogue of lingerie looks I'd like to try and where to get them, but I hoped my family would have been more involved."

Dakota hoped she'd have her own turn being taken to the store and guided through the "seminal" experience of buying a her first bra. Instead, her family "remained silent through a lot of my transition, the physical side particularly. I think it was one thing for them to have me talk about my transition and theorise it, but then something else to actually see me in a dress with boobies."

While all the women i-D met saw buying that first bra as an initial step in their transition, most have since chosen to give lingerie up. "I don't wear a bra anymore, because small tits look better without a bra", laughs Ruby. "I guess for me the first bra was a moment of liberation for me. It was a moment of stepping outside of the gender binary and stepping outside of the gender norms and a moment for freedom."

In some ways I felt like I'd finally 'joined the club'.

Bailey agrees: "Bras are a useful piece of clothing for certain situations and for certain people, but as mandatory items for no other reason than having a nice boob-shape or not showing nipples it seems ridiculous to me—doubly so since my boobs haven't really changed, but now they're somehow socially inappropriate?"

Explaining her own conflict Dakota continues, "As a feminist I felt a little annoyed at myself for how important it was to me." Despite seeing the garment as a symbol of oppression and censorship she adds "I desperately wanted to wear what every woman around me has worn, I wanted that sense of community that comes with doing something everyone around you is doing. In some ways I felt like I'd finally 'joined the club'".

For Dakota, wearing a bra became less about identity and more about choice over time. "Feminism is giving women the space and accessibility to do, say, and make the choices that best suit them without judgment, shame or need for justification," she explains. "I know people with an old school approach to feminism throw shade my way because I love makeup, sex and shopping, but telling women what's right for them according to a societal framework is exactly what feminism is trying to work against!"


Text Wendy Syfret 
Image via Flickr