Three Generations Recall Their First Bra
For a woman, getting her first bra is a rite of passage — or it can be a forgettable check mark on the road to adulthood.
When we looked into the history of the bra in India, we realised that, for a simple undergarment, the bra has as many meanings as wearers. So we spoke to women across three generations to collect an oral history of the first bra.
As it turns out, first bra shopping hasn’t changed much over the years; it is still a somewhat furtive, if exciting, experience that almost always ends in a scrap of simple white cotton.
But for the older generation the bra was functional — not there to be comfortable or uncomfortable, but to be worn and bourne. For girls coming of age now, the bra is a style statement closely associated with the way they feel about their bodies.
For all, the first bra was a shared experience, usually with a mother or sister. It opened up a new way to bond with peers. And it introduced a continual dash of frustration into their to lives.
Here are their stories.
Her first bra — Urooj, 20
Urooj’s relationship with the bra began on a deceptive note.
“When I wore my first bra, which was a training bra, in the 7th grade, I thought, ‘Bras are great! This is nice.’ Because I hadn’t been exposed to the underwire yet,” she says. “I didn’t even know that bras could hurt, till my boobs got bigger. I was completely unaware of the evils of the bra.”
She says a big part of that misconception was the advertisements she saw on TV, in which lingerie models all seem to be having “a magical experience.”
In the 9th standard, Urooj graduated to a ‘proper’ bra.
“The first bra was nice but after that it was all downhill,” she says. “Now my boobs aren’t tiny, almond-sized boobs anymore. Now they’re proper boobs. I have to wear an underwire, and it hurts. I can get a fancy, neon green bra to convince myself this is a fun experience, but it isn’t.”
For Urooj, the bra is a social construct – an unnecessary garment society requires women to wear. She doesn’t resent it, per se, she just gets tired of the aches and pains.
“I wish that we were OK with watching women’s boobs bounce around and didn’t think it was weird,” she says. “If no one wore a bra, no one would think it’s weird not to.”
Her first bra — Neelam, 62
When Neelam was a teen, there was only one type of bra available. Strapless bras and different cup styles were unheard of.
“At that time you only got cotton bras by Maiden Form – the conical type,” she says, adding that her sister-in-law still swears by the shape and finds t-shirt bras and other new styles very odd. “She feels like the look should be pointed. How can it be rounded?”
Getting her first bra admitted her into a sort of schoolgirl fraternity.
“In school, when we started wearing a bra, it was something new and fun. We used to pull each others’ bands from the back, and then there would be a loud sound,” she remembers. “Some of them would escape and run away, and then we would chase them. That was fun.”
Her first bra — Angelina, 27
Angelina remembers getting her first bra at about the age of 14, when her mother insisted she stop wearing sports bras, even though she wasn’t too keen on the new garment.
“I went along with it. It’s one of those [things] you have to do; you can’t avoid it forever.”
She says while the bra made her more conscious of her body, it didn’t make her feel more grown up or womanly.
“I feel like the experience wasn’t so great. It should have been, but it wasn’t. It was so hush-hush when I was younger,” Angelina says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s go shopping for a nice bra.’ It was more of a utility thing.”
She says the experience depended a lot on the kind of salespeople she met — some were too pushy and not helpful with sizing, she remembers – and the options available. At the time of her first bra and now, she says, there isn’t enough choice for women on the heavier side.
“You have three types and barely any colour options. Basically if you’re on the bustier side you have to wear an aunty-bra.”
Her first bra — Drishti, 18
Drishti’s first bra experience was a whirl of confusion. For three months during her 9th grade year, she tried different brands and sizes, wearing x or y before it became uncomfortable and she discarded it, all in a quest to find the right size.
When she finally found it, instead of finally being comfortable, it introduced a whole new set of worries.
“Once you start wearing a bra, you’re conscious. I would always struggle to wear it in the beginning and in school I would always be wondering, ‘I hope it hasn’t opened!’” she says.
But it wasn’t long after her first bra that she started having more fun with the garment.
“If you’re at a sleepover with friends, when we’re changing you would show each other if you’ve recently bought a new bra,” she says, adding that they often discuss new styles and patterns.
Her first bra — Indu, 42
“When we were growing up, this was not a topic that was discussed openly,” Indu says of her first bra. “There was no drama around it, nor did my mom try to educate me, nor were questions encouraged. We weren’t told that we have now matured and now become women.”
Her mother, she says, told her she needed a bra. It was all very matter-of-fact until she reached the lingerie shop, where the men behind the counter embarrassed her.
“It wasn’t something I would look forward to.”
She says she expects the experience to be very different for her daughter.
“She has an opinion on everything, and we discuss everything,” Indu says. “I gave [a training bra] to my daughter, at first she protested and she wouldn’t wear it for a long time. Then, slowly, she became comfortable. At my time, my mother said, ‘You have to wear it.’ So, we wore it. And the plain white cotton bras were the only things we wore. Fancier bras were considered a luxury.”
Her first bra — Bianca, 20
“I was in 8th grade,” Bianca says, remembering the day she bought her first bra. “It wasn’t planned, actually. We just went to a mall and we passed by the lingerie section, so my mom suggested I try one (a bra). It was nothing special, or awkward, it was quite normal actually. Though, I remember coming home and showing my bra to my grandmother and my aunt.”
Discussing bras was never an awkward subject with her family she says.
“I actually just bought two bras yesterday and I came home and showed them to my dad. He’s chill about it.”
While her first bra was a simple white one, she began trying out different styles and colours soon after, once she realised they made her feel fancy and confident. And while that part of wearing a bra is fun, she gets annoyed with bra advertisements, which portray women as only one size: skinny with medium-sized breasts.
“I usually face trouble getting my proper size,” she says. “If you want something really fancy, you won’t get that for a D cup, you get it only in A or B. Sometimes I get really upset.”
Her first bra — Aditi, 29
For Aditi, the initiation into bra-wearing was more of a formality than anything else.
“I don’t have large boobs, so the necessity for wearing a bra was never that obvious, and there was a never moment at home where it was like, ‘We have to get her a bra,’” she says.
She remembers wearing a trainer bra at age 12 or so, and then graduating to the bra at age 16.
“And the thing is, if I hadn’t started wearing different clothes, I’d probably be wearing them [sports bras] all my life. Because that’s all I need. For people like me, I think bras aren’t really necessary.”
She also admits to not knowing her actual bra size until about a year ago. It just wasn’t relevant, she says; finding a bra to fit her small cup size and narrow frame was difficult regardless of whether a number and letter were assigned.
“With skinny people and small boobs there’s nothing to hold on to, so you have to find one that stays in place,” she says. “I never saw the point of heavily padded or push up bras because, once your clothes come off, there’s no hiding your real size.”
Her first bra — Rupa, 50
Rupa remembers a confab between her mother and older sister, who made the collective decision for her to go shopping for her first bra – a simple, cotton one that made her feel comfortably grown up.
“For women who are heavy breasted like me, it makes you feel comfortable, supported,” she says. “And when you’re not conscious anymore, you start feeling more confident.”
But that wasn’t true for all women, she says. She remembers friends telling each other to walk straight instead of hunching over their cups. And in school, older girls would tease anyone who hadn’t transitioned from slip to bra about their “nimbu-sized” breasts.
Rupa didn’t do much shopping herself in her early years; since her sister and mother knew her size, she often relied on them to pick up a new one for her when she needed it. And since there were few styles available, she never felt like she was missing out.
Perhaps more than that first cotton one, Rupa remembers when she first branched out beyond it.
“In my first year of college, I remember wearing a black dress with spaghetti straps for a jam session and I had bought a strapless bra especially for that dress.”
Her first bra — Deekshitha, 25
For Deekshitha, the main reason for transitioning from a sports bra to a bra, in 8th standard, was curiosity.
“I used to like trying new things and the bra was one of them,” she says. “I went with my mother, and we purchased it. I bought one with back hooks and one with front hooks also.”
And although lingerie ads and mannequins were common place, there weren’t many options in her hometown, a small town in Karnataka.
“We didn’t have many colours and patterns, just black, white, and beige,” she says. “The sales girls also would just measure your band size like 30, 32, etc., but the different cup sizes you have these days were not there, and the fitting wasn’t so good.”
Her first bra — Sudeeti, 18
Sudeeti developed early, too early to associate her first bra as a rite of passage, she says.
“I think when you start wearing a bra, it’s quite exciting. It’s something new,” she says. “But I was quite young so I didn’t have any notion of it being connected to womanhood.”
Mainly, she remembers the struggle to find the right size while growing rapidly; for the first few years, she says, she had to change her size every six months.
The connection to adulthood only came later, when she was able to move beyond the plain colours of her earliest bras, the only styles available in her size. Now, she has a few fancy bras which she only wears for special occasions.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but I only wear those when I am going somewhere nice, not if I am just sitting at home,” she says.
Her first bra — Himali, 26
“I was hesitant. I was hiding behind her in the store like a criminal,” says Himali, as she remembers shopping for her first bra with her mother. “Of course, it’s a very good feeling and you feel like you’re growing up. But it brings up a lot of awkwardness because you start to become very conscious.”
Himali’s friends – many of whom thought that starting to wear a bra too soon would prevent their breasts from growing – added to her discomfort.
“Usually in school we wear it (the bra) and then on top of it, we wear a singlet or something. For the first time I wasn’t wearing i[a singlet] and my shirt was a little transparent and all my friends made a big fuss about it, saying, ‘How could you do it?’” she remembers. “And I thought to myself, ‘It’s not a crime.’ That whole day I was sitting at my desk, not moving.”
The possibility for self-expression – however hidden – helped her move past the early embarassments.
“When I started shopping myself, I started buying sexier bras,” she says. “Earlier, I would say the bra was more connected with utility. But now it’s more of a fashion statement.”