Policing Girls’ Bodies: Bras

Strapped and Snapped

There’s more to the story than just the burkini scandal. High schoolers face constant monitoring in ways that often elude media attention. 

I started wearing bras in seventh grade. I didn’t really need to — I was something like a 32AA — but it felt like at age 13 it was time. I remember how mature and grown up I felt walking down the bra aisle of Target with my mom, selecting the brightest, most ornately patterned bras

I could find in my tiny size. She couldn’t understand my fascination with what she often called “boob prisons,” but bought me three. Come the spring, I would often wear shirts that exposed my tiny, 13-year-old shoulders as well as (gasp) my hot pink bra straps. I wasn’t purposefully trying to show this new sign of womanhood off (okay, maybe a little), but I didn’t really understand that bra straps were something to be hid- den until my Latin teacher held me after class one day.

“Ariel,” she said, “Your bra straps have been showing all class.”She looked at me expectantly. I gave her a blank look.

“Do you have anything you could change into? Maybe a sweater or something?”

I didn’t. She handed me a bright yellow piece of paper with “Dress Code Ticket” written in Comic Sans at the top, and I went to the front of- fice, where I was presented with a giant purple shirt, what the lady at the office called the “disciplinary shirt” and what everyone else referred to as the“shirtofshame.”Throughouttherestoftheday,whenmyclassmates asked why I was wearing a shirt that went down to my knees I had to explain to them that my bra straps were distracting to other students. More distracting than an enormous purple shirt, apparently.

Although middle school was my first experience with the scandal of exposed bra straps, it wasn’t my last. I remember waiting in line with my dad at the grocery store when I was 15 when I felt a hand on my shoulder, putting the neck of my t-shirt (it had slipped) back onto my shoulder. A middle-aged woman standing behind me had pulled it up, letting me know with an implied “tsk, tsk” that my bra strap was exposed. I thanked her, but internally wondered why the strap was so offensive that the woman felt the need not only to point it out, but to cover it herself.

This experience isn’t unique to my school, my town, or even my country. This is an issue that girls around the world have most likely encountered at some point. For example, at Menihek High School and Fisher Park Public School in Canada in 2014, girls were sent home for visible bra straps because they made the staff “uncomfortable” and were “distracting” the male students.

Why are bra straps so scandalous? Is it that they remind the public that we, god forbid, are wearing bras? One of my favorite things I’ve seen online is a post originally from Tumblr that reads: “‘Your bra is showing,’ you say. Children begin to scream. Tears are streaming down my face. My parents disown me and sell me to a shady, moustached man for three goats. No one can ever know I wear a bra.” The post perfectly points out through sarcasm society’s strangely archaic view of bras. Most women wear bras, primarily for practical reasons, yet society sexualizes them to such an extent that even a bra strap must remain hidden. Although the myth of 1960s feminists burning their bras has been found to be false (they actually just threw them in trash cans), one can still empathize with the frustration around bras as a symbol that might lead feminists to do so.

Ariel Censor on the Lilith Blog.