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Supported: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
As a pubescent teen, I pined for a real bra. Sure, those cotton elastic undershirt-type things did the job well enough for my small chest, but there was something about a real bra that was symbolically important. A sign to myself and the world that I had officially entered womanhood.

I don't remember exactly when I got it, but I know what it looks like: blindingly white with very triangular cups. As a small-chested person, bras have never really been about function for me. And to be honest, I didn't think much about why I was wearing one until early 2020. The pandemic hit, and my bras came off. Zoom meetings, no bra needed. Socially-distanced hangouts, definitely no bra.

It wasn't until my world opened up a bit more that I realized where the internalized pressure to wear a bra was coming from. I was at an outdoor concert and saw a coworker across the way and panicked — I wasn't wearing a bra. And certainly visible nipples around coworkers is improper, but why? For many, bras are certainly about function, but clearly, they're also so much more. They played a symbolic role in social movements across time, have a hand in the making and expanding of beauty standards, and are part of how we define and redefine gender and social norms for ourselves and others.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

Sheila Rao
I love bras. I feel really super comfortable in them. I even wear my bra to bed. I just like to wear it. I am secure in the bra, and I feel — I feel really comfortable.

Audrey Smith
In order to avoid some of the unwanted attention, I would wear multiple bras at once. I would wear an underwire bra, which would give me that separation and lift. And then I would layer sports bras on top of those — sometimes up to three, depending on what kind of shirt I was trying to wear.

Adele
So for me, I am a very active person. So I just wear sports bras every day. I find it much more comfortable, and then I can jump and dance around and run without having to change my bra or worry about anything like that. It's just much easier and more comfortable in my opinion.

Ashley
Now that I'm done breastfeeding, I am kind of still wearing my nursing bras, which are generally wireless. And it's definitely taking some getting used to go back to wearing a wired bra. Of course, I think they're more flattering. But it is quite comfortable to just wear one of these nursing bras, especially the ones that are just very stretchy and really made for comfort and function rather than the way they look.

Anita Rao
You just heard from my mom, Sheila Rao, producer Audrey Smith, and listeners Adele and Ashley. Today and throughout most of my 30-some years on this planet, there have been as many different styles of bras available to me as contexts in which I could possibly want to wear them. But that was not the case in my mom's generation. As I was floored to learn, bras designed to support athletic activity for breasted people — aka sports bras — weren't invented until the 1970s.

Lisa Lindahl
We had no idea that it was going to, number one, take off so fast. It was the right product at the right time. And number two, so dramatically influence the feminist movement.

Anita Rao
That's Lisa Lindahl, the inventor of the sports bra. Her road to making it came from a desire to solve a very personal conundrum: How can I make my new running habit more comfortable?

Lisa Lindahl
Well, it's kind of a funny story because I was not a jock. I didn't join sports teams. I wasn't into sports at all until the jogging craze hit, and I was in my mid 20s. I began to gain weight, and a friend said well just go out and run a mile and a quarter three times a week and that'll take care of it. And I thought, really, run? Well my goodness, I fell in love with running. It was fabulous. It literally changed my life. I was never a competitive runner, but it was really a meditative activity for me. And I was running about 30 miles a week back then — five to six miles a day. And it was wonderful except for one thing: my breasts were uncomfortable.

Anita Rao
Yeah, tell me about how you were outfitting yourself at that time. When you were running and amping up those miles and — and what did what you were wearing feel like?

Lisa Lindahl
Well, I was in Vermont at the time. And so in the spring and the summer I was wearing cut-offs, or men's athletic shorts, and crappy T-shirts and a regular bra, which was really uncomfortable. And so then I tried a bra that was a cup size smaller than I usually take, and that didn't help either. There was chafing, the straps fell down. So in the winter, I had to wear, like — do you remember tracksuits?

Anita Rao
Yeah, I do. So, you had a bra one size too small under a tracksuit, pretty much.

Lisa Lindahl
In the winter, a tracksuit. But in the summer, just some crappy old T-shirt.

Anita Rao
So that — you and your sister were both avid runners. And there is this now legendary conversation between the two of you, kind of, lamenting this fashion conundrum that got you started on the invention path. So take me back to that conversation, and how it got your brain turning.

Lisa Lindahl
Well actually, it happened when my sister started running. And she called me up, and said, "Oh, what do you do?" We're both amply-breasted women. And she said, "Whatever do you wear to — for the comfort of your breasts? I mean, this is terrible." And I told her I had no great solution at all, and what I tried and what hadn't worked. And she said, jokingly, "Why isn't there a jock strap for women?" And I laughed, I thought that was so funny. Then I said, "Yeah, same concept, different part of the anatomy." We laughed, we thought we were so funny. But when I hung up the phone, I thought, that's not so silly. That's a really good idea. And I sat down and wrote down what such a garment would have to do.

Anita Rao
So what were some of the criteria you came up with of what something that would be supportive while running would need to do?

Lisa Lindahl
Well number one was breathable, because it got hot and sweaty and chafing. We wanted to get rid of chafing and the hardware digging in. I didn't know at the time that you couldn't eliminate breast bounce, but — so I put that down, eliminate breast bouncing — but really minimizing it would be good. Straps that didn't fall down off my shoulders. And part of me really liked the idea of, what if it was modest enough that I could take off my T-shirt in the summer?

Anita Rao
So you started experimenting, and yeah, trying out various prototypes, and you came up eventually with a product that you named "The Jock Bra." So tell me the story behind this original name choice.

Lisa Lindahl
Well, that was because my husband at the time was a real comedian, and he took his jockstrap and pulled it over his head around his chest as a joke when we were struggling with prototypes that didn't work. And he said, "Here's your jock bra, ladies, ha ha ha." And after we were done laughing, the next day, Polly, who was actually helping me at the time — Polly Smith was a costume designer. And she bought two jock straps, and took them up to her costume shop and cut them apart and sewed them back together, brought it home at lunchtime. I went running in it and said, "Oh my gosh, we've solved our engineering problems. This really works."

Anita Rao
Believe it or not, the sports bras you wear today evolved from an experiment in which two jock straps were sewn together — with the butt bands crisscrossed to prevent the straps from falling. You also just heard Lisa mentioned her friend Polly Smith, who was clutch in the design process, as was Polly's assistant at the time: Hinda Schreiber Miller. After Polly finessed the fabric and elastics and Hinda's family loaned them some money to get started, they were off. Their working name for the invention at the time was "Jock Bra." Hinda took an early prototype of the Jock Bra to sporting goods stores in South Carolina. And while folks seemed interested, they encouraged the women to change the name from Jock Bra to Jog Bra, so it had wider appeal. The three launched their company Jog Bra in 1977. And just to situate you in history, this invention came out just five years after the passage of Title IX, which revolutionized the sports world.

Lisa Lindahl
Title IX came out in 1972. And it did a lot because it — federally funded programs had to provide equal money, whether you were a guy playing football or a woman who is interested in another athletic endeavors in her school or university. So that was great in terms of making programs available and money available for programs. But it did not do anything for the woman who was self-conscious or uncomfortable going on the field because of what her breasts were doing. And so the introduction of the sports bra was really the — it's like a one-two punch, there was the money and the programs available. And then all of a sudden, there was proper athletic equipment for women.

Anita Rao
That very same year, in 1977, on the opposite end of the country, there was another bra story in the making. An entrepreneur named Roy Raymond opened the doors of the first ever Victoria's Secret as a small boutique 35 miles south of San Francisco. Today it's the biggest name in the lingerie game. And while its reputation and history is no doubt complicated, the company plays a leading role in many folks' memorable bra stories.

Jené Luciani Sena
I remember being about, I want to say 13 or 14, and looking around at the girls changing in the locker room at gym class, and being like, something's not right, I look different.

Anita Rao
Meet Jené Luciani Sena. Those early observations in the locker room that her breasts were very different sizes led her to search for something to mask what was going on. Enter the Victoria's Secret Miracle Bra, which had removable padding.

Jené Luciani Sena
So I would take out the padding in the one side that had the larger breast, I would leave it in the side of the smaller breast. And then I would adjust the straps, so that they would at least, sort of, sit at the same height on my chest. And I could look, quote unquote, "normal" under my clothing. And many years later, many years later — I mean, I wasn't into my 20s that I discovered that this was something called tubular breast deformity. And it's very common, and I had a pretty severe case of it.

Anita Rao
It's really common to have breasts of different sizes, as you said, but you learned that there was something going on that eventually led you to getting reconstructive surgery. So tell me about that decision, and what that tipping point was for you.

Jené Luciani Sena
So after going through high school and college, I ended up getting my first job in TV news, right out of college, for an NBC affiliate. And I had a paycheck, a steady paycheck. And I went to my parents and I said, "You know, I really want to fix my breasts. I'm so sick of it. And I'm sick of looking this way, and feeling insecure about it." And my parents were like, "What are you talking about?" Because again, I kept it a secret, and I never told anyone. I remember my — my stepdad, you know, said to me, "Go in the bedroom and show your mother, we don't believe you." And I showed my mom and she went, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe this, like, I just can't believe it." So they gave me my blessing that — for me to, kind of, go under the knife for this, and I was 21 years old. And I ended up — it is a reconstruction because it's not just a matter of, you know, putting in implants. They had to actually lift one breast, and really just a brutal experience.

Anita Rao
That surgery led to a subsequent surgery because of complications with the implants. But all of this personal experience set Jené on a path to wanting to understand as much as she could about breasts and bras. In 2009, she wrote "The Bra Book," which gets to the bottom of the statistics around why so many folks are wearing the wrong bra. Jené says a big part of the problem is people don't understand how each part of a bra should fit and how the whole garment is supposed to work together.

Jené Luciani Sena
All of the parts of the bra have to be working properly for the bra to work. So if one part is off — for example, if the band is too big and it's riding up your back, then think about gravity and the fact that it's coming down in the front. So therefore, it's not supporting you the way it should be. So all of the parts have to be working together. I know there was a documentary years ago where it was, kind of, likened to the engineering of a suspension bridge. I love that analogy because that really is what it is. There isn't, like, a cup size that's tagged on to a band size, and then that's your bra. Understanding that bra sizes are based on volume. So this is, I guess, part of the reason why it's so confusing for women but also just really important for people to know.

Anita Rao
There's obviously been more attention paid to the needs of breasted folks and how to create good fit. And you — because of your thought and research on this, the U.S. Army actually brought you in as a consultant on the project that they've been working on, which is developing a bra optimized for soldiers. So take us into that, and what options existed for soldiers with breasts before and your role in this creation process.

Jené Luciani Sena
So about a year and a half ago, I got the call from someone at the Army, and I was referred to them by a bra company — a sports bra company called SHEFIT that I've consulted for in the past. And so just a little background, the Army does offer a bra to its female soldiers in its uniform bag. And this is something that, when they go to boot camp, they have to basically check their belongings at the door, and they're given what they're supposed to wear. And I was shocked when I saw that this bra literally looked like a cotton, like, almost like a cotton pair of underwear made into a bra. Yes and so, they also do have base stores where they do give the women money to shop, and they're allowed to buy other bras such as SHEFIT. And that is for beyond boot camp, to my understanding. So the Army was really smart enough to take initiative and know that they needed to address this. So they asked me to come out to their uniform design facility in Natick, Massachusetts, and, essentially, teach a class to their design team. And then the design team was going to decide whether they could do this or not. So I went there. I spent the day. I talked to them about how a bra works, how a bra should fit, different fabric options. Of course, the Army has some additional challenges in that it has to be flame retardant and all sorts of other things. So they had a lot on their plate. And they ultimately decided to design something in house, and they came up with four prototypes.

Anita Rao
These four prototypes include pullover options, a compression bra and a zippered closure bra. And if you read some of the reporting around this, it's clear just how needed the development is for breasted folks in the military. So awareness around the functional importance of bras is slowly shifting. We started with Lisa and her invention. And just this year, she and her coinventors were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Audrey Smith
I remember being really excited to shop for and wear my first bra. It seemed like an important step in growing up, and it seemed really sophisticated and glamorous to me. In reality, it was quite the opposite. I realized toward the end of elementary school — and definitely into middle school — that my breasts were developing much more quickly than others my age, and also that they were a lot larger. Which meant that this process that I had idealized as a younger person — this process of going bra shopping — was actually a source of anxiety and dread. Because it was impossible to find bras that fit me, but that were also comfortable and that were also cute.

Caitlin
As I began to mature, my boobs were, kind of, the only thing to grow on my body. So because I was skinny, it made it look like I had really big boobs. So I went from training bra to, like, C-cup very quickly. When I started playing sports, I went to a sports bra very quickly, and then my boobs got smaller and so did my cup size. I stayed at a C36. But now I wear nipple covers because they cover my piercings, and I don't do too much else with them. I have a few good bras, but I barely wear because they're uncomfortable, and I can't stand bra wires digging into my skin.

Jenni Lawson
You know when you're young, you wear a training bra. But that's not when they need training. The chest is, you know, pretty well-behaved then. It's not until we get middle-aged that the ta tas start to act out and misbehave. And that's when you need training. But I guess maybe training may be too soft of a word, maybe more something like coercive bra or detention center.

Anita Rao
That was Embodied producer Audrey Smith, listener Caitlin and our technical director Jenni Lawson. In case you weren't already thinking about it at this point in the pod, there's clearly a lot loaded into the bra conversation — including how to navigate assumptions other folks make about you based on your breast size, bra choice or lack thereof.

Destiny Liley
I'm very close to my mother, but she's a bit conservative and modest with her views. And, you know, growing up, the thought of not wearing a bra to her was so crazy and so shocking.

Anita Rao
Destiny Liley is a freelance content creator based in Arizona who is no stranger to talking publicly about bras. She's participated in multiple challenges run by the BuzzFeed media brand, As/Is, including one in which she and other large chested folks documented a week in their lives without wearing a bra.

Destiny Liley - video audio
We are bra-free. Waking up in the morning, putting on my bra is, like, a ritual, like, it's literally part of what I do every day. So it feels a little weird to, like, put my shirt on, and that's it. I always wear, like, oversized T-shirts, I think that's just, like, comfortable for me these days. I'm hoping that it, kind of, masks the fact that I'm not wearing a bra.

Destiny Liley
So I was really excited to try this challenge. A, for myself to prove that it doesn't matter if you want to be free, be free. It doesn't, you know, doesn't matter what people are thinking. But also to see what my mother would think and, kind of, if she would be maybe against it or in support of it. And I was pleasantly surprised at — A, I'm walking around, no one's really looking, I'm, like, shocked. I think it, kind of, lends itself that a lot of these issues that we think are a big deal, are really only a big deal to us. Or really, you know, only noticeable to us, but also just to, kind of, see my mom's reaction be what it was — she was very, like, indifferent to it. She wasn't upset, or there was nothing negative about it. She just complimented me on the top I was wearing actually, which I thought was funny. So overall, it was a great challenge.

Anita Rao
Well, that's so interesting that you're, kind of, noting that some of these things might be — where they're so internalized that it's hard to know, you know, how our experience might be out in the world. And I know for me, kind of, that biggest point of discomfort that I talked about, like, in early on in the show is related to nipples being visible. How did that come up for you during this week when you went braless. Did you have any, like, thoughts or insecurities about that?

Destiny Liley
I did. And I think that is a huge insecurity many of us have when it comes to, you know, going without a bra — is the nipples. Because it can be noticeable depending on what you're wearing, and drawing attention to your nipples isn't always, you know, ideal for some of us. But I do think having some of that insecurity about, oh, can they see it, or like, kind of, trying to cover, or like use my arms, or use a purse, or an accessory to, kind of, cover the nipples. It definitely is something that would come to mind for sure during that challenge.

Anita Rao
What do you think it would take to — for that to shift within you, and I guess maybe within society at large? If you have any thoughts about that.

Destiny Liley
For society at large, honestly, I think some of our standards — I think it obviously dates with beauty standards, and just our standards of, you know, breasts in general. And, kind of, normalizing breasts coming in different shapes and sizes, and that they hang, and that they're not all, you know, perky or have a certain aesthetic look to them. I think, kind of, as a society, once we just get comfortable with seeing them hang, or just seeing them move — that's probably a really good start in the right direction.

Anita Rao
You recently got a breast reduction after years of living as a larger-chested person. Tell me about what led to that decision for you.

Destiny Liley
Yes, so I did recently have a breast reduction. It is something that I know, you know, many women with larger breasts think of at least once, and it's something I've been thinking of forever. And made so many excuses, and finally decided, you know, there's never going to be a right time, there's never going to be the right moment in life. You just gotta go for it. And I went for it, and it was probably one of the best decisions I've ever made. So, neck feels better, back feels better. I work in the fitness industry, which is very hard with a larger chest. So feeling physically better, feeling physically more capable of doing some of these things. And again, internally just a little bit more confident when shopping, and wearing clothes, and being seen in the fitness industry.

Anita Rao
Getting a breast reduction made it easier for Destiny to find products she likes. So that means the fashion industry is still on the hook to do better. If you've been listening to Embodied for a while, you may remember our lingerie show. It is one of my all time favorites, and another time we met folks of varying body shapes, sizes and gender expressions who wanted undergarment products designed with them in mind.

Jake DuPree
A lot of the lingerie that I order is made for women, and I have to add little things and sew in little parts to, kind of, make sure everything is situated appropriately. I get so many messages from so many men being like, "I want lingerie." And I have to qualify things like, "You'll probably end up having to add this to it, or add that to it to make it fit appropriately." It is such an empowering thing. And I mean, before I even performed, I sometimes would wear lingerie underneath outfits like this. My super suit underneath my, like, day clothes was like the Superman to my Clark Kent.

Anita Rao
That's Jake DuPree, a fitness instructor, a burlesque artist and self-proclaimed lingerie lover. You can hear more from Jake in the lingerie episode "Unbuttoned". For Destiny and other large-chested folks, while available options check the boxes of form and function, the fashion piece is still really lacking.

Destiny Liley
I feel like many women, you know, especially with larger chests, we love that feeling of coming home, taking off our bra, you know, putting on a big T-shirt, going through with the day. And I think bras becoming truly functional, like it's like, just — this is just something I put on, this is just something I have to wear. It's to the point where you almost get numb, and you don't even look at those types of things to put on, and you don't even look at those types of fashion. You, kind of, keep your same set of what you wear, like this is what we're putting on to either conceal, or hide, or cover, or shrink your chest. That just kind of became a part of the day-to-day.

Anita Rao
There is still plenty of room for growth. But as an industry watcher, Jené says she does feel like there have been some promising movements in the right direction.

Jené Luciani Sena
It's come such a long way since the Miracle Bra at Victoria's Secret offered in, you know, the four core sizes that they would try to sister size you in and to get you out the door with bras. Bra makers — not only are there great advancements in the design and the fabrics, but also in just being more size-inclusive, and offering a lot more range of sizes, so that women are actually able to fit and wear something that's more true to size. There's so much more out there. It definitely makes my job much easier when trying to help. So now really, you know, I'm mainly educating on how to, you know, get — to fit yourself, understanding how the fit process works, just really important for people to know.

Anita Rao
Jené and Destiny's journeys with their breasts and bras has in many ways been about reclaiming what they once felt pressured to conceal. The same is also true for Ren Gutierrez.

Ren Gutierrez
Relationship with bras have always been so complicated, especially considering the fact that I am trans masc. And bras are seen as this, like, sexual, sexy thing, when in reality for me, they were just a method for my body to feel like my own. And even then, it didn't.

Anita Rao
Ren is a trans masculine person living in Portland, Oregon. He had top surgery just a few days before recording us this message and said that the process of going through the bras they no longer need has prompted a lot of reflection.

Ren Gutierrez
I first started getting boobs when I was about 11. And it will always crack me up because my entire family's small-chested. And by the time I was 13, I was a D to a double D. And I had no idea what was happening, I hated my body. When I was allowed to actually start wearing bras when I was about 13, I would, like, double up on my bras, and I would wear sports bras above my regular bras. And just, trying to minimize my chest as much as I could. I went out and bought my first, like, Victoria's Secret bra, you know, try to be sensual in a way that maybe didn't feel good for me. I came out as nonbinary about four years ago, and it wasn't until now that — I just turned 30 — that I finally got top surgery. And I actually decided to go without having any nipples either. And so, it's been a really wild time now that I am days post surgery, going through my clothes, and going through my bras, and separating the bras that I am going to give to other trans people, or bras that I am keeping from sentimental value. And what's completely bonkers was having to go through my binders and trying to think of who I can give them to of my friends, who might also not love the way that their silhouette looks with their natural body.

What do you do with a drawer of bras that you no longer want, and you no longer need? It gave me this source of anxiety of, like, what does my closet look like now that these things don't need to be restrained? Especially because I've been binding for the last, I don't know, four years. And so, it is interesting now to think of how, when I get ready, I don't have to put on this thing to contain my body. I just get to put on a shirt and go. I think I am most excited about getting home from the bar, and just taking off my shirt, and not have to think about what else I need to peel off and reveal afterwards.

Anita Rao
Ren Gutierrez is a first generation Latine advocate for queer and trans mental health. Bras can be fun, flirty and fashionable. They can also feel like barriers to comfort, style and gender expression. But at the end of the day, whether you've been wearing a Jog Bra, a bralette or nipple covers, nothing quite beats the sweetness of taking it all off.

Embodied is production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only made possible because of listeners like you.

If you enjoyed this episode, please share it — text it to a friend, post about it on social media. Any way you spread the word about our show helps this community grow, and it means so much.

This episode was produced by Audrey Smith. Amanda Magnus is our editor, Kaia Findlay also produces for our show. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer, and Quilla wrote our theme music. Thanks also to Dino Pandolfo at Imagine Studios in Pittsburgh.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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