By Elisabeth Dale
It was hard to miss this week’s big news about a study claiming that wearing bras may be harmful to women’s breasts. Internet news headlines screamed, “Bras Make Breasts Sag More!” Fox News accompanied this piece with a stock photo of a pink-bra clad, cleavage-baring woman, oddly cupping her right breast. Other outlets favored an investigative angle: “Do Women Need Bras? French Study Says Brassieres Are a ‘False Necessity.” Those reports paired their articles with images of Victoria’s Secret models in provocative lingerie poses.
Good Morning America took a more medical approach, calling their segment “Saggy Breasts, Back Pain: Is Your Bra to Blame?” It led with footage from a Katy Perry music video with the singer sporting a chesty cupcake bra. Colorful graphics underscored the French study’s main points. The cartoon image of a young woman tossed her bra aside and broke out in a wide grin as the words “firmer, perkier, breasts” filled the screen. The voice-over added: “each year women didn’t wear a bra.”
Reaction to the news was split along gender lines. Women were terrified that they might be forced to go without a bra and doubted the researcher’s conclusions. They said they depended on their bras for comfort, style, and support. Men, on the other hand, seemed thrilled at the thought of women going bra-free. But their reasoning was a bit more self-serving. Male anticipated viewing pleasure, and not women’s better breast health, led men to accept and celebrate the study’s findings. Even when doubting the science, they expressed interest in measuring and assessing women’s breasts.
And what of the study? It wasn’t published in any medical journal. Mass media coverage was based on excerpts from a French student radio interview with sport specialist Jean-Denis Rouillon, in Besancon, France. Over the past 15 years, Rouillon recruited 330 “sports” women between the ages of 18 to 35, and asked them to go without a bra. Rouillon used calipers and a slide ruler to record changes to the women’s breasts. He made no mention of the women’s weight, height, bra sizes, or whether a control group was enlisted to test his thesis. Professional breast movement specialists were at a loss to critique Rouillon’s results without access to such details. But that didn’t stop a multitude of reports from branding Rouillon’s research as worthy and legitimate.
It doesn’t matter whether the French study’s conclusions are valid, or not. One woman’s perkiness may be another’s droopy. Published research on the bio-mechanics of breast movement (led by women researchers) cite the reduction in pain and discomfort as the reason female athletes should wear sports bras – not to gain nipple movement further up their chests. Plastic surgeons know what contributes to skin in-elasticity yo-yo weight gain and loss, cigarette smoking, and multiple pregnancies. They put their patients in bras after augmenting, lifting, or reducing breasts. Even the term breast ptosis can be an arbitrary definition used to help define ideal post-surgical breast shape and size.
Will women heed these headlines and stop wearing their bras? I doubt it. Going without a bra isn’t an option for most of us, either personally or professionally. Even when women go bra free in public, we are criticized for some bad fashion sense or told we are flaunting our sexuality (nursing mothers included). The reports of the French study may make a few of us question our desire to wear a bra. We may doubt our own judgment. We may feel less comfortable in lingerie fitting rooms, trying to hide what we consider are “less then” perfect breasts. It could make women more self-conscious with sexual partners, wondering whether our breasts are acceptably perky or unacceptably saggy. Yes. Publicizing irrelevant but titillating pseudo-scientific breast studies doesn’t serve the needs of women — or men — very well.
What’s your opinion? What do you think of the media coverage of the French study?