An interesting fact about me: much as I enjoy touching boobs, I don’t enjoy touching bras; at least the ones that aren’t on people. They have so much shape and padding that I feel like a skeevy teenage boy. Whenever I have to pick one up, I do so and then drop it quickly like a dead rat.
Bras are utilitarian things for me. They hold up the boobs I don’t always feel like I should have, and keep them from bouncing when I’m trying to work out or play rugby. I like them when they’re interesting colors, but the only place I’ve found that has “interesting” colors that aren’t varying shades of pink is Nike, and Nike’s bras do this miserable thing where they push my tits up and together.
Problem is, my tits don’t like each other.
When they get together, they fight. I wind up with a miserable, itchy rash exactly where I least want one, and spend an inordinate amount of time clawing at my chest in ways that are more or less socially acceptable, depending on the magnitude of the itch.
Because of these feelings, I had a few requirements in mind when I recently decided to go bra shopping with my fiancée, including:
- My new bra couldn’t be any one of the many virulent shades of pink Victoria’s Secret had to offer.
- My new bra couldn’t present my cleavage to the world on a silver platter. (I’ve never understood the point of sports bras that say to the world, “Here! Look! I’m red and sweaty, but I have BOOBS! SEE? SEE?” I have a million things to care about on the pitch or in the gym; my boobs are not one (two) of them.)
- My new bra needing to allow me to forget my boobs were even there.
I actually wasn’t even looking for a bra to begin with. This shopping trip was initially, as most of them are, for my fiancée – she, unlike me, actually likes bras and underwear, and especially likes when they match (here we can agree). The underwire had started poking out of one of her old standbys, and VS was having a sale, so off we went into the wild pink yonder.
I was poking around the sportswear section, trying not to touch anything, when I decided that my current undergarment situation – only three bras, and only two of them actually providing enough support for athletics – was untenable. I was going to go through that feminine cultural institution I hadn’t actually experienced since I was eighteen (when I went fully butch): the Victoria’s Secret bra fitting.
It made me think of a Julie Goldman skit. I sort of slouched up to one of the sales associates in a surly way and mumbled out of the corner of my mouth that I needed a bra, and enumerated my conditions. You would have thought I was a fifteen-year-old asking where the condoms were. The associate looked me up and down, taking in my brush cut and head-to-toe menswear without missing a beat. She measured me with the least amount of awkwardness possible and managed to find a couple of styles that she thought might match my criteria.
Now the real trial: the fitting rooms. Done up in virulent pink in an ovular shape so that everybody in the fitting rooms can see everybody else when they timidly poke their heads out or march brazenly into the center to model for their shopping companions, the Venus’s Boudoir feel was topped off by a large overstuffed pouf in the center.
Given my appearance and given my troubled association with the words “woman” and “female,” I often have gender trouble in women’s spaces. A part of me feels awful that I sometimes discomfit the women there who really just want to try on clothing (or change, or pee) in peace by making them think there’s a man in there with them, and I’ve developed a variety of methods to make it clear that I belong there (or at least belong more than in the other room): I talk in a high voice, I push out my chest, I ask any companions with me for a tampon. I will deliberately say “excuse me” to a woman standing near me, even if she’s not actually in my way, just so that she and everyone else around her can hear my voice and know that I’m not a threat.
My patience wears thin, however, when I’ve employed all these methods and I’m still getting the stink-eye, because at this point everybody knows I’m nominally female and whoever’s still got a problem with it is just playing gender police. I have zero patience for that and I’ve been in plenty of situations where this is patently the case. Listen, lady, I don’t like it any more than you do, but they haven’t yet made a “little butches’ room” and just like you, I really need to pee. Yes, I can hear you loudly whispering to your friend over there about me. Put a sock in it. Or a bra.
With these experiences in mind I nervously got in line to wait for a fitting room. The woman waiting next to me saw that I was heading her way and wasn’t stopping, but after doing a double take and giving me a once over she was able to make awkward small talk with me as we waited for rooms to open up. The fitting room attendant was chipper, cheerful, and efficient, taking into account the needs of eight or more women as they tried on bras and asked for opinions and sizes.
As I watched, one girl came out of her room in a matching bra and panty set and modeled for her boyfriend, standing just outside the fitting room entrance. She, too, looked at me askance, and I understood why. There’s something ruthlessly heterosexual about the Victoria’s Secret fitting rooms and the way that people interact in them, a slumber-party sense that “we’re all girls here.” That sense gets disrupted when you have someone in there who doesn’t necessarily identify as a girl, and is attracted to the female form who is badly trying to remain honorable and not see anybody’s bits. And yet I recognize that this is also women’s space, a place where women can be comfortable with and show off their bodies and find new clothing that makes them feel good. As much as I felt uncomfortable, like the awkward younger brother who wanders into a scantily clad sleepover, I also recognized that we were all here to get a job done.
I figured out which bra would do just that in record time, and sat on the pouf in the center of the room as I waited for my fiancée to finish her own decision-making process. I watched a dude standing just outside the fitting room with his arms crossed, waiting for his girlfriend – a position that felt more familiar to me, as I’d occupied it many times before. But here I was, sitting on the pouf in the middle of the vibrantly pink fitting room circle, waiting for my fiancée. I was in women’s space, acknowledged – if grudgingly, by some – as someone entitled to be there, by my shared need to buy a bra.
Gendered spaces are, in many ways, meant to be comfort spaces, free of the pressure of desiring gazes, unless invited. And yet people like me, masculine-identified and other-gendered, necessarily disrupt these spaces. I have a need to keep my boobs from sagging, yet anyone who looks at me can tell that I have desire for women (this is working with stereotypes here. I don’t mean to erase the experiences of butches who are attracted to men). My appearance and my desires should, by gendered logic, disqualify me from spaces like the Victoria’s Secret fitting room – and yet where else am I to go for this one specific need? There are no spaces specifically for people like me. I feel bad about disrupting the sense that no desiring eyes are on the women around me, and I do my best to keep my eyes to myself, but I have a need, and fifty dollars is a lot to pay for online trial-and-error.
Bras have always been the chink in my butch armor. I can wear menswear pretty much everywhere else, but they don’t make “men’s bras.” As someone with a relationship with my boobs that is ambivalent at best, going into a store and a space entirely devoted to the care and keeping of such is kind of a mystifying experience, both for me and the people around me. I left bemused, having been let in on Victoria’s Secret, and tickled Pink.
Editor’s Note: Amanda wrote earlier about suits for people outside of traditional gender roles here. We highly recommend it.