Not long ago, a 17-year-old girl named Lizzy Martinez was called out of class because she wasn’t wearing a bra, and this fact was somehow “distracting” to her classmates, most notably the boys. She was instructed to put on a second shirt in an attempt to cover up her breasts, and then—I kid you not—she was sent to the nurse’s office, where she was given four Band-Aids to place over her nipples.
Yes, this actually happened. In a modern-day high school in America. And no, the school has no grounds to stand on. There is nothing in the school dress code that requires its students to wear bras.
I was horrified when I read her story, especially as a parent, because if anyone were to humiliate my child for their appearance in this way, I would be absolutely livid. I was horrified, but not entirely surprised. You see, 22 years ago, the same exact thing happened to me.
It was my senior year of high school, and I hadn’t been wearing a bra for months, actually. I was in my “hippie phase,” and I was experimenting with what the “bra-free” life was like. I hated the underwire on my bras anyway. But my reasons don’t matter. And neither does the fact that I actually had pretty large breasts, which some might say required a bra.
In any case, I was pulled aside by the dean of the school (who happened to be a woman). And just like Martinez, I was told that my lack of a brassiere was “distracting” to the other kids. The dean told me that she couldn’t name names, but certain kids had complained that they were uncomfortable, and that she herself felt strongly I should change the way I dress.
I told her that I was uncomfortable with the low-cut shirts and short skirts that some of the girls wore, but that it wasn’t my place to police how kids dressed, and neither was it her place to do the same for me. I fought this woman, and I’m proud of that. But inside, I was crying. I was mortified, ashamed.
Like Martinez, who took to Twitter to share the incident, I spoke out about what had happened. I wrote a letter to the school newspaper. The newspaper staff loved it, but it was somehow barred from being published. I never found out the exact reason, but I got the sense that the school administration didn’t want the world to know what they had said to me.
So when I heard that Martinez had been blocked by her school on Twitter, I wasn’t the least bit surprised about that either. You see, when brave women and girls speak about mistreatment like this, they are apt to be silenced. And in both of our cases, the school knew they actually had no case to make—there was no way to justify the comments they had made to us, because there is no rule on the books of any school I’m aware of that requires its students to wear a bra. Or place bandaids over their nipples.
Telling any woman—a teen, or a woman of any age—to wear a bra is just some ridiculous, offensive, patriarchal bullshit that none of us should tolerate. Not for one second.
You can feel whatever way you want about bras. I personally started wearing one again in college. I just ended up feeling more comfortable in one during that time. But if a woman doesn’t want to wear a bra for whatever reason, that’s her choice. And if the lack of a bra allows the shape of her breasts or nipples to be somehow easier to see—or if they bounce a little more when she walks—well, it’s on you to deal with your feelings about that.
It’s also very simple to not look at said breasts. Problem solved.
Yes, going braless is not the norm. I get that. But the idea that every woman must wear a bra at all times is a social construct. In fact, although women have been binding their breasts (or squishing them into corsets: ouch!) for ages, the first bra wasn’t invented till 1914. And in some cultures, even now, bras are rarely worn. So while wearing a bra feels normal and required to most of us, there is nothing wrong with a woman deciding that it is not for her. Some people have even argued that it is healthier for breasts to go bra-less.
But the point is that however you feel about someone who chooses not to wear a bra—even if you think it’s ugly or tacky—your job is to keep your mouth shut. Your job is to learn that we all get to make whatever choices we wish to make about our bodies. Your job is to begin to accept that all women—even if they hide their breasts under bras and tanks and layers upon layers of shirts—have jiggly breasts and pointy nipples underneath it all. And sometimes you’re going to be blessed with the presence of said breasts. And you need to get the fuck over it.
Finally, if you have a concern about a teen girl and her choice to go braless, you need to be very careful about how you address it, if you address it at all. Unless her breasts are literally hanging out of her shirt (and in that case, it wouldn’t be the lack of a bra that would be the issue), there is absolutely no reason she is violating any kind of dress code. She is allowed to do whatever she wants in terms of bras, and it is not your place to say a word.
And most importantly, if you are concerned about other kids (ummm, boys) feeling distracted by her lack of a bra, it is not the girl you need to educate, but the kids who are feeling uncomfortable. Are we seriously at a place where boys’ sexual feelings about being around breasts have the upper hand here? This only reinforces the idea that boys’ uncontrolled, predatory feelings toward girls are normal, and girls are “asking for it” if they dress a certain way.
Putting the responsibility or fault on the girl herself is not only shameful and embarrassing, but is full on victim blaming. Period. We can do better than this. We can, and we must.