by Betsy Morais
One Sunday evening, when the December air felt too warm, and the sidewalks were packed with storefront-gazers, I went to midtown. It wasn’t very late, but the sky had already turned black. I wore a puffy coat, which brushed against people and scaffolding with an excited “swoosh” as I walked with brisk pace to Lord & Taylor, which had sent me a freebee discount in the mail. I have never liked Lord & Taylor as much as my mother does, but their marketing department’s computer had remembered my birthday. When your birthday coincides with holiday gift-buying season, the stern sales barks — “Time is running out!” — feel all the more pressing. So off I was, in search of a bra.
I have reached that point in a woman’s life when I basically know which bra will make me feel the least lumpy and gross. Before going to this store that I don’t especially like, I checked the back of the coupon (as so many six o’clock news specials have instructed me to do) in order to confirm that the kind of bra I set out to get was not excluded from the sale. This is significant in part because I am not a person who cares deeply about designers or brands, nor am I a person who wishes to dwell at all, if I can help it, on the selection of beauty products. A bra can be beauty-enhancing thing, an assertion of one’s sexuality, or a self-pleasing extravagance, a hot frivolity, or a political statement, but it is most fundamentally, to me, an undergarment. In the morning, I am getting dressed with a wish that my bra to be the least noticeable element of the day.
I arrived at the store with my very patient boyfriend. What my boyfriend did not know was that it took many years and trials to get to the point of being able to walk into a store, and over to a particular rack, with confidence. I bought my first bra at the KMart on Route 17, in Paramus, while my mother was shopping for laundry detergent and Lean Cuisines; I wandered off, in search of some sense of autonomy. I bought my first mall bra at Victoria’s Secret, with my friend Kathleen, who assured me that this was where mature girls went. My most formative bra-buying excursion, one that many women endure, involved the kind of intrusive measuring and scooping motion and stranger touching that some experts believe is required to identify the right fit. A peroxide blonde woman wearing a mostly unbuttoned black blazer unfurled some measuring tape and went about her business in a way that she probably believed to be clinical but felt to me like a second date. In the end, though, she was the best second date I ever had, since she not only found exactly my bra size but also transformed, through a sequence of tutorials with different sample bras, the way I put one on.
Keeping those lessons in mind, I tried on a number of styles, while my boyfriend waited, taking a seat on a stool by the fitting room. From over the door, I heard a saleslady approach him, and then a muffled exchange that included the phrase “You can’t be here, SIR.” I emerged, led him out, apologized, and got some more bras to try on. Each one cost between $50 and $70. Hence the motivation of a discount. It is hard to justify paying that much for an item of clothing that exists for the very purpose of being unseen, but it is also hard not to, because without it, you certainly will be.
Here are the stakes: A bad bra can give you a bizarrely landscaped chest; it can exacerbate back pain; it can dig into your sides; it can stick out from your clothes at inopportune moments; it can itch; and it can fail to provide support (and when that is the thing you are willing to pay for and still do not receive, it is all the more disappointing).
I found a good one. It was not too padded or pointy or flashy or tight; the straps were O.K., the cups didn’t stick out, and so on and so forth, with all the considerations that upon enumeration make one feel at once both self-conscious and bored. I showed it to my boyfriend, who, more than anything, appeared relieved to be finished with this part of our day. At the register, I presented the bra, the tank top that would get me over the required seventy-five dollar threshold to receive the discount, and the coupon. The cashier was on her phone, unenthused, as if my arrival at this phase did not represent a personal victory. This is not merely a purchase, Miss; this is underwire. She rang me up and told me the total. “Sorry, the system won’t allow you to use the discount on this — ” she began. No, I protested, that can’t be. Yes, she said, pointing to her screen, it could.
Regret, the agony over squandered opportunity, is often felt acutely in December, on a birthday, when hours are devoted to dragging yourself to shop for a bra that you cannot in the end afford. Should it, could it, be easier than this? My great-grandmother, after arriving in America as a young woman, worked in a brassiere factory in New York stitching pieces together; I’ll never know whether she had any grand theories about any of that. A load of emotion and alienation and history and gender-complication is bound inside a bra, but it can’t merely float abstractly as a symbol of something else — it’s got a job to do. I admit that at times I’ll enjoy a bra, though that must be partly because my satisfaction with it has been so well earned. A woman’s bra can be her own measure of herself, and on this night I was going home empty. These and other frustrated thoughts filled the resentment-purse inside my ovaries, as my boyfriend and I descended the escalator. “Well, it wasn’t a total waste of time,” he said. “I got accused of being a pervert in a lingerie department.”
Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.