When working with a woman who had had a double mastectomy she talked about her breasts being containers of stories. This made me wonder what happens to these stories when our breasts are removed through surgery?
I was thinking of the stories contained in my own breasts when I had a strong memory of getting my first bra.
As a child and adolescent I was a competitive swimmer. I spent, what seemed to be half my waking hours, dressed only in speedos swimming up and down a pool. I trained twice a day before and after school and three times a day in school holidays. I went through puberty in this swimming culture with its ease of nakedness. In the girl’s change rooms we comfortably chatted and gossiped as we stripped off our wet speedos and got dressed. We had a natural ease with our developing bodies and noticed each other’s budding breasts but we more focused on our bodies as swimming machines than as developing sexual objects.
However, there was always that very embarrassing moment of transition when our breasts were deemed to be of an appropriate size to require being encased in a bra. So at different times we would all go through the rite of passage of being dragged off to the local womenswear shop to be fitted for our first bra.
Being a child of the fifties, there were no comfortable stretchy crop tops as there are today that could provide an easy transition. No, we had the full cotton bra complete with complex hook and eye fitting at the back. So there was a whole new set of skills to learn as we developed breasts, not least was how to put on a bra properly. I was shown by my mother how to put my arms through the bra straps place the bra over my breasts and connect the hooks and eyes at the back by feel. Such a complicated manouvre! I never did accomplish the correct way of putting on a bra.
At different stages each girl would come to swimming shyly sporting their new signifier of womanhood – the bra. I remember choosing not to wear my new bra to swimming for sometime – desperately trying to hang onto my carefree innocence for as long as possible, but eventually I did. The other girls noticed and we laughed uproariously as we shared our stories of our first bra fitting.
I remember my first bra shopping expedition with my mother so clearly. I grew up in Parkdale, a small bayside suburb of Melbourne, Australia. I was born in 1952 so had the innocent carefree childhood of a child of the 50’s in middlle class Australia. Life was comfortable for most Australians, apart from our parents suffering the effects of war, we lived in a bubble of happy innocence and post war prosperity. There were a large number of newly migrated families from the UK, Italy, Greece and Holland (now the Netherlands) who settled with varying ease into our suburbs. My memories of going to a small catholic school is of us kids mixing well, with a fascination in the strange food that the Greeks and Italians brought to lunch and an awareness of their different garlic infused smell; but we all easily made friendships. And I had lots of crushes on the handsome brown eyed, olive skinned Greek and Italian boys.
Our suburb had a small shopping strip with the all the shops that we would need, a licenced grocer, greengrocer, newsagent, menswear shop, a milk bar (the much friendlier forerunner of today’s 7 eleven stores) and Mrs. McGain’s Ladies Wear and Lingerie shop. It was to Mrs McGains that I was dragged off by my mother for my first bra fitting. Being the third daughter I had seen by two older sisters go on a shopping expedition and arrive home with two new bras.
Mrs. McGain was an appropriately large cheery big bosomed woman. In the 50’s women had bosoms, rather than breasts a terms we no longer use. This word depicts for me the more maternal, motherly well covered breasts of women of the 1950’s. Unlike today’s focus on breasts as sexual objects with bras constructed to present our uplifted perky breasts to the world. In the 50’s bras were practical serviceable underwear garments to keep a woman’s breasts in place. They were made of cotton with some lace trim but they were made to encase the whole breast. As a young girl most of the women I knew were mothers so I saw them as mother figures with these nice soft bosoms I could be enveloped in when I needed a hug. This was in stark contrast to the nuns who taught me in my catholic school. The nuns were neither sexual or maternal, their breasts were flattened and hidden beyond recognition underneath their many layered black habits. A large wooden cross adorned their chests and there was no hint of them having breasts beneath their habits.
So Mrs. McGain fitted the norm of a large bosomed motherly woman whose breasts seemed to create a convenient shelf on which to rest her glasses and her measuring tape. Her shop contained some women’s fashion wear – dresses, cardigans, blouses as well as hosiery (stockings and suspender belts) gloves, nightwear (nighties, brunch coats and dressing gowns), and ladies lingerie – petticoats, underpants, singlets, spencers and bras. Writing this I am aware of how my childhood really does represent a distant era – women no longer wear petticoats, or singlets or spencers. We seemed to have so many more undergarment layers in those days!
There was one small fitting room in the back corner of Mrs. McGain’s. I was told to go in there and take my top off. Mrs McGain came in and placed the cold tape measure around my chest to measure me for size. Being a swimmer I had a very broad back and small breasts. There was really only one style of first bra. It was a simple white cotton with a broderie anglaise lace trim with a small piece of elastic and two hooks and eyes at the back. When I put it on it felt like a straightjacket. I felt like I couldn’t breathe with this tight band of cotton squeezing my chest. To this day I hate wearing bras and only ever wear them when in the outside world. The first thing I do when I enter my home is take off my bra. I still dislike the feeling of restraint I get with a bra.
Writing this I am amazed at how remembering my first bra fitting has brought such a rush of memories of my childhood. It has taken me back to my days of competitive swimming of going to the small strip shopping centre of Parkdale. Of a much more innocent era when life in the middle class Australian suburbs was care free, of long summers spent at the beach, playing with my friends in the street outside, of close knit neighbourhoods and families.
It has brought to my attention the rich stories that are contained in my breast.