(Now crossposted at Feministe – I’m guest-blogging there this week. Thanks, Jill!)

10 points to Indian journalist Saira Kurup for debunking the myth of bra-burning feminists as part of a column about the history of the bra.

-100 points for not getting the larger point, although Kurup is far from the only one who missed out on a crucial word in the history of the 1968 protests outside the Miss America beauty pageant.

The 1940s and ’50s embraced the new curves. But with the 1960s came consciousness about the way women are portrayed and “sexualised”. Feminist thinking was breaking new ground. Radicals like Germaine Greer raised a storm by saying that the “willingly suffered discomfort of the sixties’ bra was a hideous symbol of male oppression”, though not all feminists agreed.

Around the same time, a London School of Economics male professor said the bra’s achievement was in “converting the primitive droop into a civilised thrust”. Quite a provocative statement. In 1968, some activists demonstrated against the Miss America beauty pageant and threw objects of “female oppression” “” bras, high-heeled shoes, girdles, curlers “” into a trash can. They were arguing about liberation “” there was never any bra-burning “” but the myth of the feminist as a bra-burner was created by the western media. The image of the braless, man-hating women’s libbers was hard to shake off. (emphasis mine)

You’re not kidding about the image being hard to shake off. Kurup riffs on from this paragraph to argue that women will always need bras, and quotes an academic from New Delhi to bolster the idea that feminists should just give up on arguing against the bra.

According to John, this is what feminists object to “” women being seen as consumers of products and their own beauty, health and sexuality, and even their success in life, being seen as built around consumption of products.

This just rings totally false to me. It’s a line of argument from feminists about consumerist fashion in general, but it hardly applies to bras qua bras rather than to particular manifestations of lingerie fashion. Greer did make the statement that “bras are a ludicrous invention” but she simultaneously acknowledged that some women might need support in order to be comfortable during physical exertion. What Greer was objecting to about the hideous discomfort of the 60’s bra was that the particular styling of 60’s bras was a problem because it distorted the natural shape of breasts in the service of fashion and male desire rather than simply being a support garment.

This brings me back to the “crucial word” missed by Kurup and many others who have written about feminists designating bras as one of the symbols of female oppression in 1968. What was that word, you wonder? I think it’s a word that changes the whole meaning of everything Kurup jokingly attributed to feminist objections about this particular undergarment.

You see, the bras tossed into the trash can in 1968 weren’t just any old bras. They were padded bras.

Just like the shoes tossed into the trash can in Atlantic City weren’t any old girly shoes, they were high heels. Girdles went into the trashcan, not normal underpants. Curlers went into the trash can, not hairbrushes. Kurup doesn’t mention them, but other things placed in the trash can were false eyelashes, hairspray and makeup. All products that by their very existence told women that they were not acceptable as they were, with small breasts or shoes that don’t painfully contort feet into a “sexy line” or curved bellies or their own natural hair/eyelashes/face.

“The first action of the new women’s liberation movement to receive front-page coverage was a demonstration against the Miss America pageant in 1968″¦The reason this event got so much ink: a few women tossed some padded brassieres in a rubbish bin. No one actually burned a bra that day – as a journalist erroneously reported. In fact there’s scant evidence of underwear torchings at women’s rights demonstrations in the decade. (The only two such displays that came close were both organised by men, a disc jockey and an architect, who tried to get women to fling their bras into a barrel and the Chicago River as “media events’. Only three women cooperated in the river stunt – all models hired by the architect.)”
Backlash – Susan Faludi

Apparently, the journalist whose article in the New York Postwas given the title “Bra Burners and Miss America” (probably by a subeditor) didn’t even actually claim in the article that the feminists burnt any bras that day. Lindsay van Gelder compared the trashing of bras to the burning of draft cards at Vietnam War protests, and that combined with the title of his story was enough to start the legend.

So, Saira Kurup, the reason that feminists have had little success in eradicating the bra is that feminists never wanted to eradicate the bra. Criticising certain manifestations of the bra, as I mentioned earlier, is not at all the same as wanting to see all bras disappear.

I find it interesting that the myth has feminists as bra burners instead of girdle burners or makeup burners or high heel burners. Myths are propagated and embellished according to how they appeal to the prejudices of those who hear them, and to propagate a version using those other obvious artificial enhancers of “feminine charms” would be to acknowledge that the feminists had a point, just as propagating the crucial word “padded” would emphasise the nature of that particular bra as an aid to artifice rather than simple anatomical support. Obviously bras have that little extra fillip of salacious titillation as well that aids propagation, but in the light of misrepresentations of feminism over the years it is unsurprising that the version that had the “longest legs” (as folklore scholars say) is the one that makes feminists look profoundly silly.

Categories: gender & feminism, history

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5 replies

  1. Damn, that’s different from the “official” version! And don’t get me started on the whole padding thing. While things have gotten somewhat better in recent years, it’s still damn hard to find a bra in my size that DOESN’T come w/ padding. That isn’t in the preteen section.

  2. As if feminists don’t have enough to do, do we have to keep assigning valuable energy towards debunking this myth over and over again? Good on you tig tog for taking on the task again, great post. Now if only your post could be printed into leaflets and disseminated across the world. And then if only every critic of feminism had to agree to read the leaflet and desist in reigniting the sad old myth. Everyone got the leaflet? Have you read it? Do you understand it? We’re not against bras per se, we never burned them. Right, next myth. Feminists hate women having children! ‘K (deep breath), let’s sort this out, One. Last. Time.

  3. As another reason why there isn’t an equivalence between the bra and these other technologies mentioned above, I could cite Iris Marion Young, who suggests that bras are particularly significant because of the particular significance of the ‘ideal’ breast-as-object in a patriarchal society.
    Young addresses this myth, and suggests that there are a number of reasons why the bra burning image has ‘stuck’. Firstly because, in her alternative, the breast without bra suggests a ‘fluid’ ontology which challenges a phallocratic ontology that the ‘ideal’ breast is a part of. Secondly, because the nipple is a challenge and a scandal to the genital zoning of sensitivity and eroticism and bras tend to conceal nipples. In both of these ways, the myth of bra burning depicts a scandal for phallocentrism.

  4. I’m sorry, Adam, I don’t understand. Are you saying (or I.M. Young (great name)) that the bra has a function like a headscarf or a niqaab or another dress that conceals shapes of women? So in that sense that it makes sense that women in the 60s would have burned normal bras? Cause I don’t really understand ““ find the language quite hard to understand, not being an academic and not being English. By the way, no matter how I understand the righteousness of burning of padded bras, I once have had bras like that, and felt damn sexy in it. Weird, since I’ve always found behaviour that had to add to a certain “femininity’ (god, how I hate that word (hope I spelled it right; the Dutch equivalent is called “vrouwelijkheid’)) quite silly. I never wore make-up, pads in my shoulders, or had fake eye-lashes or anything like that, but still I absolutely didn’t dislike the look of the pads in that bra. I don’t understand that paradox in myself. I could guess that it is an old-fashioned fear that I’m not sexy just as who I am, but it didn’t feel as fear…


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