Her Daughter Asked: Why Do I Need to Wear my First Bra?

Thoughts on the importance of the first bra featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Gabrielle of Design Mom

Thoughts on the importance of the first bra featured by popular lifestyle blogger, Gabrielle of Design Mom

Friends, I need your collective wisdom. I received an email from a reader named Tina that brought up a really good question: What do you tell a 10-year-old who wonders why she needs to wear her first bra? Here’s an excerpt from Tina’s note:

“I have two daughters ages 10 (11 later this summer) and 7. On a whim, while on a rare after school trip to Target a few months ago, I asked my daughter if she wanted to pick out a bra. (Most all her friends started wearing bras sometime over this past school year.) She said sure. She has only worn her first bra a few times, and until a month or two ago, didn’t need it. However, now buds are starting to show through her shirt so I approached her about buying more bras to wear everyday. She asked why she needs a bra. Admittedly that question stumped me.

Any advice on how to answer that? I have no idea what to say. Support is not the answer because there is not much there to support. My mind went blank as the only answer to her question that came to mind is that other people are really uncomfortable seeing a girl’s buds, and even grown women with size A-cup-breasts wear bras because the societal expectation is to cover up; bras are expected for modesty because it’s too much too show.
 
Obviously I didn’t say all that, but it’s what I was thinking. Instead I responded with, “Good question, I’ll get back to you.” Now I need to get back to her and I need help! Am I way off on what I was thinking? What do I tell her that won’t shame her for having a developing body? Girls get slammed with so much shame about their bodies/sexuality. It took me years to become comfortable with being a sexual being and I would prefer my daughters be comfortable with themselves as they grow.”
 

My Own First Bra

Tina, I think that’s such a good question and I’m glad you wrote. My first thought went to my own daughters, but none of them have yet asked me a “why” about bras. My next thought went to my own experience as a child. In fifth grade, I remember wishing my mother would buy me my first bra, because I could see lots of other girls were wearing them and I felt like it was time and that it would be seen negatively if my classmates knew I didn’t wear one yet. This had absolutely zero to do with my own body — I was not developing at all at the time — it was definitely a social pressure thing. But, I didn’t get the courage up to ask my mom for a bra until the middle of sixth grade, and was so relieved when I finally had one. The “why” never occurred to me.
 
My third thought goes to the same place as your own thoughts: Is it really just about forced “modesty”? I use the word modesty in quotes, because I don’t really think it’s possible for a child to dress “immodestly”. And if it’s really just a forced modesty issue, then how do I feel about that?
 
Until support is needed (and as someone with small breasts can tell you, it’s still needed for running or anything particularly active, even with A-cups), a bra truly does seem unnecessary, and I suppose if a girl didn’t want to wear one, then hey, more power to her.
 
The only other thoughts I have are related to social issues. I wonder if, even though we know kids all grow and develop at different rates, we’re using the earliest development ages for girls as a baseline. Like, if the first girl in the elementary school starts wearing her first bra at the beginning of 5th grade, then somehow all the other girls feel compelled to wear one too, so that they don’t feel like they’re “behind”? Or are the girls themselves generally oblivious, and it’s us as parents that are forcing them into social norms? Maybe even in an attempt to prevent them from being made fun of, or receiving unwanted attention.
 
I don’t know. Probably there’s something else I’m not considering. Also: this tweet is relevant.
 
Dear Readers, what are your thoughts?
 

Have you ever considered the why of bras at young ages? Have your daughters asked you why bras are necessary? Did you look forward to wearing your first bra as a kid? Or did you dread it? Or maybe you had a neutral opinion of the whole thing? Do you have any helpful advice that Tina and I can both benefit from?

Like this discussion? Read more of my parenting thoughts here!
 
P.S. — If you are shopping for first bras for your daughter, I’ve had good luck at Target with the Cat & Jack line. Fun, bright colors and a sporty, active feel that’s not trying to be sexy. I’ve also been reading great things about Yellowberry (pictured at top). They’re a newish company and they specifically focus on first bras. You can find Yellowberry on Amazon too.

92 thoughts on “Her Daughter Asked: Why Do I Need to Wear my First Bra?”

  1. I didn’t wear a bra until I was 11 but I did, at my mother’s insistence, wear thick cotton undershirts at ages 9-10. I didn’t really get what that was about, but I cooperated. This might be a good compromise for this particular girl. The undershirts made my appearance modest enough, and they staved off the peer pressure to wear a bra for a year or so.

    I think the fundamental answer to the “Why?” question is modesty. Other people are not entitled to see too much of your body, and it’s probably better to start wearing a bra a little too early than a little too late. I think most 10-year-old girls will accept that if it’s put to them in those terms, though.I also think it’s normal to pass through a stage of thinking “What’s the fuss?”

    One other thought that occurs to me is that I found bras hideously scratchy and uncomfortable when I first started wearing them. After a year or so, of course, I got used to them and stopped thinking about it as much. And when I left home, I switched from the cheap, padded, heavily elasticized bras that my mother insisted on to thinner, underwire bras, which I find much lighter and more comfortable. The bras that many people consider appropriate for adolescent girls–inexpensive fabrics, elastic instead of underwire, likely some padding–are not the most comfortable bras, and summer (in a hot climate) is not a good season in which to try to get used to wearing a bra. So, if a girl is resisting wearing a bra because she finds it scratchy and uncomfortable, I’d suggest taking her shopping for a lightweight bra in a good, breathable fabric, and then not pressing the issue until the weather begins to cool off.

    1. Darcy, I wore thick undershirts, too, until I was something like 12 or even 13.
      At this age I was running towards a female friend and she said disgusted: “Go get a bra!”. I was pretty embarressed. After this I bought a training/ sports bra. I really wish that my Mom would have bought one for me before other girls could mock me.

  2. I do see, and dislike, the forced “modesty” issue and have never discussed the issue of a bra in that context. When my daughter asked me to get her a bra, I am sure her motivation was that other girls were wearing one. Our discussion about the need for a bra have focussed on comfort, eg nipples rubbing against fabric that causes chaffing, or protection during sport or other physical activity. I made a conscious decision to keep modesty out of the conversation for the reasons mentioned in the post.

    1. I like the idea of focusing on comfort. Maybe then the decision to wear a bra comes down to when it’s more comfortable to wear one than to skip it.

    2. I was going to write nearly this exact same comment. Comfort and proper support for your activity level are the approach I plan to take (my daughter is only 7). As both my kids develop, I do plan to have many active conversations around societal expectations and their roles – acknowledging, analyzing, and either accepting or challenging the status quo.

  3. We have really good luck with the bras from Ivivva (the girls version of Lululemon). They’re really very comfortable and age appropriate and my daughter notices a huge difference between them and the bargain brands like Target. I won’t wear a Target bra either, so I don’t mind spending more for quality and comfort.

  4. Thank you- this is a wonderfully thought provoking question! Boys develop changes in their chests as well, including “buds,” but usually aren’t told to wear bras. My roommate in college never wore bras but only camisoles, and she was super “modest” if that means not emphasizing her female figure in any way. I, too, Gabby can remember be too embarrassed to ask my mother for a bra (she had previously brought it up, by I declined), even though at that point I needed one- for support and comfort playing volleyball! Many grown women don’t wear bras… So I think, deep breath, big hugs, take it slow, keep a sense of humor. If my daughter didn’t want to wear one, I wouldn’t mind. I guess I would share with her why I wear one, and try prevent her feeling embarrassed for asking for one or not! I would probably talk about the beautiful purpose of breasts for feeding babies…which I’m sure would be embarrassing for may girls and mothers :) Ah, good luck to us all.

    1. I have an almost 11 year old son with small buds and think of this too. With boys it’s not even a question socialized modesty. They are just seen as a bit cubby. You can tell my son is going to be tall like his father (he wears a size 9 men’s shoe at 10) and as he perhaps nears puberty his body seems to be filling out before his height shots off. No matter boys or girls it critical to talk to our children about their changing bodies before thy feel embarrassed by them for any reason, either because they don’t know what’s happening or are getting some form of pier pressure.

  5. My nine year old asked for a bra this year because one of her best friends wears (and needs) one. We chatted about it a bit, about how bras are really for support, but can also be a social emblem of growing up, and about everyone developing differently and families handling it differently, and about how differently people feel about privacy (and that people should probably not run around the playground telling everyone they got a bra!) and that it’s normal to be curious about the trappings of adulthood. I got her a Hanna Andersson bralette — cute, simple, soft white cotton. She wore it twice and was over it, to which I said, no problem, you have the rest of your life to wear a bra, so no big woop, but now you have it if you change your mind sometimes. I believe that now she feels like she can wear it or not, without having to explain it to me or anyone, and trust her own instincts.

    I think there is no reason to wear one if you don’t want to, whatever age you are, but as a mother, I appreciated the opportunity to give her information about it and also to explain that it was her body and her decision, and I’d provide what she felt she needed.

  6. Stephanie Phillips

    I don’t see any “why.” I’ve gone with and without a bra over the years from 13 to 35- during the without years, I was late teens to early twenties and a full C.

    I very much dislike the idea of forced modesty. What about a woman’s body (or a developing girl’s) is innately immodest?

    My answer would be “you don’t have to- but let’s discuss your comfort in different outfits as you decide when you want to wear one.”

    1. Wearing a bra for modesty reasons seems so ironic to me. Most bras, because they have a lifting effect, make breasts more prominent, rather than downplaying them! Do you think bras a re sometimes worn to hide nipples?

        1. Which makes it even sillier of a concept. I see men’s nipples all the time, big/small/soft/hard.

          We have to retrain ourselves and our children that men are fully capable of controlling themselves and that women are not responsible for men’s actions.

        2. I totally agree! I think it’s about nipples. And it’s also about the fact that society doesn’t like breasts that hang (we like ’em pulled up, right?!). I would never wear a bra if I didn’t feel that somehow my nipples were offensive. It’s like we all have to pretend that nipples don’t exists. [eyeroll]

          I have lots of thoughts on bras and daughters, but I also have a 13 year old–with a different body type than mine–so as a rule I don’t discuss her personal issues online very often. Suffice to say we’ve owned every kind of bra out there out of necessity, not desire.

  7. Great question! I belong to a modest community, but hate temptation-based reasoning and shaming.

    Not sure what the answer is — life is sadly (but naturally?) filled with double standards and hypocrisies. Like, I love fashion and hairstyles, despite the sexist undercurrent that women must enhance their features and men are enough as-is.

    So, perhaps a bra is a fashion item? As in, the style is to have smooth curves versus raw silhouettes? Or maybe a training bra is truly for training someone to wear a bra comfortably before they fully develop.

    If mother and daughter are interested in training bras, I recommend starting with sports bras. (Old Navy has a comfy and colorful line for girls.) Lots of athletic tops are made to be worn with them, and my daughter thought wearing one was cool and empowering, with an emphasis on athleticism not appearance.

    1. I appreciate your suggestion of starting with sport bras. Only a few years ago they weren’t available at kid sizes and I’m so glad they are now.

      1. My problem with sports bras is that when I got my first bra it was a training bra with wide straps and a racer back — like a sports bra. I was 9 and the first girl in my class to war one (an early developer). A boy in my class noticed my bra strap because the neck of my shirt didn’t cover it. He teased me ruthlessly about it and I was so embarrassed and denied it was a bra. My self-consciousness about my larger-than-average breasts continued through middle school, high school and I have only recently (thanks to nursing) become comfortable with them. They can be a really wonderful thing, but I think comfort and support is the way to go. I woke up this morning with my sternum screaming in pain because I did not have on a supportive enough night bra and the weight of my hanging breasts was too much for my chest muscles to hold up.

  8. I don’t think it’s so much an issue of “forced modesty’ (whatever that means). My daughters were required to wear white shirts as part of their daily school uniform. I had them wear tank-tops under their shirts until they moved into bras because the shirts could be seen through, especially as the year progressed and the shirts became worn and thin. I remember seeing a girl in 5th grade who was quite developed who wasn’t wearing a bra (or a tank-top/camisole) and her nipples were very clearly showing through her shirt. She was completely unaware and I appreciated her innocence, but I was concerned at how aware others were of her. Women don’t want to objectified and turned into sexual objects, but it can’t be denied that breasts are a major component of sexual arousal to men. Some women are comfortable with showing off their breasts, but I’m not comfortable putting young girls into situations that they don’t know how to handle, and the thought of older men/boys looking at my young teenagers in an inappropriate way makes me very uncomfortable. If my girls choose to go without a bra as an adult, I’m fine with that because by then they should be prepared to deal with wanted and unwanted comments and behaviors from others at that point. For me personally, I’m very small-chested and don’t “need” a bra, however wearing a bra gives my breasts shape and makes me feel more feminine.

    Having said all of that, my girls were excited to wear bras. They saw it as a rite of passage into womanhood, and they are excited and proud to be women and have a woman’s body.

    1. JENNY, I completely agree with you..completely. I see nothing wrong with teaching my daughter when the time is right about dressing modestly (which nobody else has to agree with) so as to avoid unwanted attention and also because it is what I believe God requires of me as a Christian. Personally, I developed very early and was in a B cup by the time I was 10 so I needed a bra because I felt more comfortable and supported when doing so. So while I want my daughter to appreciate her God-given body, I also want her to be aware that she does not live in a vaccuum or on an island where she is the only inhabitant.

  9. It may be a little too late for this approach in this one instance, but I am a huge fan of discussing this stuff way way way before any “need” comes up. With my daughter, we started reading and talking by the time she was 7 or 8. We talked about all the different reasons girls and women wear bras (for support, for coverage, for comfort, for shape) right alongside talks about how her breasts would change. I let her know that if she ever felt ready for one that we could go shopping to find something that she felt comfortable in. We had kept little undershirts around since she was wee, so changing her under things didn’t feel like too big a deal. Also… the American Girl books are fantastic. They really helped her get ahead of what changes her body would go through. She is 13 now and we just wrapped the latest round of bra shopping – underwire, cups, and real support! My size A skills were inadequate for her needs in the lingerie department, but luckily there were professionals available! I think at the end of the day we just have to be willing to make this part fun for them. :)

  10. I really appreciate this discussion. I had my baby girl two months ago but I’m already nervous about this type of situation. My mom (God love her) handled all of these “growing up” situations SO POORLY. Looking back I can’t help but laugh. She’s a wonderful mother BTW………..but maybe just didn’t have the resources, like this blog, that i have. 😉

  11. I am the breastfeeding mother of a 21 month old girl and stepmother to two teenage girls. I’ll admit I have a knee jerk negative reaction when I hear the word modesty pop up around girls’ and women’s bodies, particularly breasts. My opinion is that whether any girl/woman wears a bra or not should be based entirely on her own comfort. If other people around her are uncomfortable, that’s not her problem. It would be nice if we would stop telling women and girls that they are responsible for how comfortable other people are with their body.

    1. “If other people around her are uncomfortable, that’s not her problem. It would be nice if we would stop telling women and girls that they are responsible for how comfortable other people are with their body.”

      YES. SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS.

      1. Pamela Balabuszko-Reay

        I’m in line to shout it from the rooftops after Gabrielle. YES. YES. YES. Well said. Enough is enough.

  12. Ugh. I remember the “bud” stage.
    Personally, I felt awkward having part of me sticking out so obviously and wanted I way to “keep it in,” so to speak.

    As for the question….

    If my daughter (now 5) asked me the same question, I think I’d respond something like…

    “You’re starting to develop breasts, and your nipples are probably going to be sensitive, and you might find that wearing a training bra is a good idea. The bras will be uncomfortable at first because they’re something you’re not used to, but it will be much easier to get used to wearing one right now than later when you have breasts that need support. All that being said, if you don’t want to wear a bra around the house, you don’t have to. I would prefer you wore one in public.”

    In the case of a girl who is developing, I like the idea of helping her prevent unwanted stares and looks at her chest. (I also had terrible body awareness as a tween and needed a wardrobe that accommodated that). If a grown-up woman wants to go in public sans-bra, that’s her choice and she’s likely aware of the stares it might bring.
    A young girl simply isn’t.

    || secondgenhomeschooler.wordpress.com ||

    1. This is exactly how I would handle it as well, Lee. The training bra phase was short-lived for me, but looking back, I appreciated that I had the chance to get used a bra at that younger age, since as an adult I have to wear one for my own comfort every day (before any considerations of modesty). If it turns out that she doesn’t need a bra as she develops further, great and that’s ultimately her choice, but at the outset, I think it’s good that she learn what having and wearing bras is like on the high likelihood that, like her mom, she’ll need to wear them.

    2. Hannah Beth Reid

      Wearing a bra is much like wearing eye glasses…they feel odd at first, but eventually you forget you’re wearing them at all!

  13. Is there a single area of parenting boys in which modesty is even considered as a justification? I’m sincerely curious, I have young daughters, so it hasn’t come up for me, but I’m trying to think of anything….

    1. I have four boys and one girl, three are over the age of 20 and two are much younger…the answer is no. Nope. Nada. Even when two of my sons developed breast buds in middle school, no one cared or said a thing. (They went away as puberty marched on.) No one was concerned about them wearing mesh basketball shorts or going topless while playing outside. Literally nothing is considered an issue of modesty for boys. For girls, it’s a landmine.

      We have to teach our sons that only they are responsible for their actions and teach our daughters that they are only responsible for theirs, and that they are specifically NOT responsible for the comfort and actions of boys and men.

      1. That’s what I figured. I’m putting “modesty” down with “ladylike” (which was thrown at me a lot by authority figures in my childhood who wanted to correct behavior they didn’t like) in the list of banned words for my household when it comes to addressing my daughters’ choices. Health and safety, yes. Modest or ladylike, no.

    2. I agree with Liss. It’s a non thing for my boys. It never comes up. And when I see men lecturing on modesty I want to scream. I have a grown nephew who writes a blog and did a recent post on modesty and I had to keep taking deep breaths to try and get through it.

    3. Actually, this has come up at our elementary-middle school in relation to boys wearing athletic lycra leggings without underwear, which became a wardrobe thing for awhile. (I didn’t agree with it – but I did live through that example of boys and modesty!)

    4. I have four sons and two daughters (ages 11-1), and I’d say our expectations for modesty are pretty similar for all of them. (The boys wear rash guards with their board shorts, don’t walk around half naked, wear a belt if their underwear is showing, etc. Our daughters wear shorts under their skirts if they’re wearing a skirt, and also wear shirts and rash guards. The bonus with the rash guards is less to sunscreen and more time swimming!) For us, it’s more about respecting our own bodies – our own selves – and the people around us, not about having anything to be ashamed of. It’s a beautiful thing to respect yourself (and of course different families’ definitions of this will vary) and respect others, just as the bodies underneath our clothes are beautiful! For our family, they’re just not for everyone.

  14. Elizabeth Anne Davis

    It’s so funny that this discussion would come up today…just yesterday I noticed a twinge of envy in my heart when I saw the cleavage of a woman in an online picture, and I sighed as I wondered to myself if I was going to feel that way till the day I die. I was so slow to mature – didn’t start my period till 15, didn’t need a bra till I was pregnant the first time. I was desperate for a bra when all my classmates starting wearing them – the girls would actually “casually” put their arms around each other’s backs to see if the other girl was wearing one. When I finally got one – glory of glories! – my brother teased me mercilessly because I had nothing to put in it.

    I only had boys, so I don’t have any advice to offer, but I can’t tell you how nice it is to share these secrets that have felt like a burden all my life. Maybe my experiences will help moms who, like mine, hate bras and periods and can’t understand that their daughters might be desperate for them.

  15. As a late bloomer, I felt terribly self conscious about my lack of a bra (or need for it), and I think often about the relationship between puberty and female self consciousness. I like what the ladies at beautyredefined.org say about body image and modesty, and what they said about about body self consciousness and self objectification certainly applied to me as a child: https://beautyredefined.org/modest-is-hottest-the-revealing-truth/. For me, not wearing a bra made me self conscious. For others, it might have the opposite effect. With my own daughter, I think giving her the option so she feels comfortable is the most important thing. I hate when I see girls’ shoulders roll in when they start developing, and if either providing a bra or allowing her to go without one prevents that, great. (For the “why” of wearing a bra, I like the explanations in the comments that bras are for support, comfort against chafing, shaping, and preventing nipple “exposure”…After nursing 5 children, including twins, I wear a bra almost exclusively to provide some shape!)

  16. In my opinion, wearing a bra should always be optional. I wear a size 32DD (I’ve been an E cup in the past) and I was told growing up that I “needed” a bra for support. Without it I would get back pain! And my breasts would sag! And the shape would change (presumably for the negative)!

    Thanks to friends in the women’s health profession, I now know that none of these things are true. My midwife suggested going bra-less as much as possible while breastfeeding. I completely avoided plugged ducts and mastitis. I leaked, sure, but no more than anyone in a bra.

    Four years later, I still only wear bras occasionally. Almost never in the winter, when clothes are heavier. No one has ever accused me of indecency. If they notice my nipples, I don’t notice them noticing. And I have no back or nipple pain. My breasts haven’t sagged.

    Yes–I wear an underwire bra when I go to fancy event. I wear a supportive bra for sports. My swimsuit has support. Basically, I wear a bra if I feel like I want to.

    If you’re really worried about nipples, try nipple covers! They’re awesome!

    It must be mentioned: A bra is not necessarily more modest than going without. That’s personal opinion. It’s hard to hide a bra under a light-colored shirt. Bra straps hanging out can be seen as less modest than not wearing one. Bras with lacy edges and bows show through all kinds of fabrics, and too-tight straps and bands create visible bra lines. These things are all fine! But are they modest? It depends on your point of view. Modesty is in the eye of the beholder.

    1. I love your comment, Jennifer. Lots of great info. And I especially appreciate the last bit:

      “These things are all fine! But are they modest? It depends on your point of view. Modesty is in the eye of the beholder.”

    2. Yes!! I was just going to say that even larger breasts (I wear 36dd regularly and I’m nursing now so…) don’t need much day to day support. I wear a bra at work (because white dress shirts and also because it provides a goof shape), or for sports, but it’s the first thing I take off when I get home. The thing is, though, its this comfortable because the muscles supporting the breasts are used to doing the work. If you grow up in bras all the time and never let the muscles develop, then, yeah, they need the help.

      That said… my mother bought me bras but didn’t force the issue, and I considered them so uncomfortable I wore them for sports and nothing else. Did it make some people uncomfortable? Maybe. Probably, in fact. But yknow what? That was, and remains, not my problem.

      I hope that, when the time comes, I manage a good balance with my daughter – something that takes into account that, on one hand, your appearance is the first thing someone notices before you even open your mouth – so make sure you want to be saying what you’re saying (also known as “if you wear cargo shorts to a wedding, people assume you don’t care or want to be there”) and, on the other hand, that there’s a lot of social bs about women’s bodies and appearance that doesn’t need to be indulged, and that everyone is responsible for managing their own feelings about other people’s bodies.

  17. julia g blair

    Thanks for featuring this delightful dilemma! One of the delights of my life is recalling the history of “Bras” in my family. My mother, Jennie, a beautiful, educated woman never wore a “Bra” while I was growing up. You need to understand that my mother gave birth to and breast fed eleven babies. We’re all still alive! Being the 2nd in this huge family, I didn’t know my mother during any period when she was not either pregnant or nursing. Jennie’s spiritual commitment to having as many children as the Good Lord would send her and her beloved husband, was almost equal to her commitment to the Divine Blessing given to mothers, to breast feed their babies. The idea that a woman would choose to not breast-feed, was intolerable to her. And the concept of wearing a “Bra” was beneath the beauty and dignity of my breast-feeding, Earth-Heaven bound mother. Actually my Jennie often had a diaper over her breasts, and under her clothes, which caught the natural (and “marvelous”) drops of breast-milk . Breast feeding was almost part of Jennie’s Religion.

    The idea of wearing a “Bra” to emphasize the sexual femaleness of the breasts was disgusting
    and disappointing to Jennie. The real purpose of a women’s breasts was for the nurturing of both mother and babe. She loved nursing. (I must admit that I loved nursing my babies also, and was very disappointed when I was not physically able to nurse my last baby. )

    The big change happened after I was married and gone and my younger sisters insisted that Jennie wear a bra. She had not breast-fed for many years. She tried going modern and appeasing her young daughters by wearing a bra on occasion, but it was not comfortable either physically or mentally.

    I applauded my amazing mother when she told me she felt like burning her Bra and I told her to “Go Ahead!” This was the modern symbol of the emancipated, feminist ! Hurray for Bra Burners!!!

    1. I remember you talking about this and being surprised about how much our cultural notions of “modesty” change over time. I love that Grandma Jenny went braless.

  18. This post and comments were very thought provoking, especially as the mom of a ten year old girl (with buds) and a 14 year old son who brings his friends over. I agree with those who mentioned not bringing unwanted sexual attention to girls who aren’t prepared to deal with it. My daughter has to wear an undershirt or a sports bra. With the kids coming in and out of our back yard, I just can’t have her teenage brother’s friends leering at her because she doesn’t have a layer to take attention away from her developing body. Is this fair? I don’t know. But men and women’s bodies aren’t the same, nor are their brains, and until the teens in my yard are grown past the hormones raging in their veins, and my daughter is old enough to understand and own her sexuality, I don’t think a little modesty is a bad thing.

    1. I suppose I can’t help but wonder why your reaction to your son’s friends’ leering is to ask your daughter to be modest, rather than to correct the leering behavior of your son’s friends, and to tell them that this kind of behavior isn’t acceptable in your home

      It is a grave sadness to me that for so many of us it is more comfortable to control a daughter’s body than it is to require respectful behavior of young men, when they are visiting our own homes. Why is it worse to risk embarrassing a son by teaching his friends that leering is unacceptable behavior than it is to risk embarrassing a daughter by teaching her that her body is an invitation to bad behavior and that she deserves to be treated poorly if she’s insufficiently modest (a constantly moving goal post)?

        1. I know not everyone will agree with me, but when my ten year old has nipples and/or breast buds showing through her shirt, it would hard for a teenage boy not to notice that, whether or not he wanted to. I can talk to the boys about their behavior towards my daughter, and I do. Training my girls to dress appropriately and my boys to be respectful (as well as their friends) is all part of the plan. I know there is a generation of women who has been fighting hard so that women and girls can be free to do and act as they please, but I don’t think it is fair to place feminist ideals (whether or not to wear a bra being a free choice) on kids who are a. Growing up in an oversexed culture and b. Do not understand what they may be communicating to others with their attire. I ask that my son wear a belt so that his backside and underwear are not visible to the world, and in the same vein, my daughter wears a bra or undershirt so that her goods are not available to the greater public.

          1. Laura G., I completely get where you’re coming from, and I agree. I’m a feminist mother of 4 daughters and 2 sons. I give my kids a lot of freedom in regards to their clothing choices, and I can’t help but roll my eyes at the idea that girls are responsible for boys’ sexual proclivities. But they’re kids. And it’s my job to do what I can to protect them while preparing them for adulthood. I can’t control others’ behavior toward my kids — if I could prevent creeps from ever leering at my kids, I sure as hell would.

            My oldest daughter is utterly gorgeous and started attracting attention from strangers around age 10. It makes her feel unsafe/uncomfortable when guys check her out (I don’t think she notices when other girls do it), yet she would be humiliated if I confronted someone for looking her up and down. She takes what power she does have to minimize those situations by choosing to dress fairly conservatively, including a bra. She still gets some unwanted attention, but feels less violated because she’s not publicly showcasing the parts of her body she wants to be kept private.

            So I guess the answer to the original post’s question would be to ask your daughter whether or not she cares if people can see her nipples through her shirt. She might not realize that anyone can see them. If she shrugs it off and doesn’t seem to care, and if she’s more comfortable with no bra, then I wouldn’t force her to wear one. But if she doesn’t want other people to see her nipples through her shirt, then I would encourage her to wear a bra. Either way, as long as she has all the information (like knowing what’s visible to others), it should be her choice.

            The sport bra idea is excellent, too.

  19. The “why” is hard- I never gave it a thought as an adolescent, but I remember wanting a bra, a real, with cups type bra SO badly, even before I really needed one. My mom got me Jockey crop tops that did nothing, and were so ugly. I even cut one up so I could wear it with a sleeveless top. There are better options for girls now- the double layer type of tank is perfect this age, and there are so many styles of sports bras and bralettes. But why indeed? Whose comfort is being considered? It should come down to the girl- whatever makes her feel comfortable with her body that day.

  20. Hannah Beth Reid

    Comfort is key for a first bra! I needed a bra when my mother bought me a sport bra. It was uncomfortable up near my neck and showed above my shirt, which I found embarrassing. Then she bought me a “training bra”, but it was lacy and itchy when I sweat, so I hardly ever wore it. Looking back, I assume my mother was buying them and bringing them home to me without any input from me to save me any embarrassment at the store, but not only did I hate them and hardly ever wear them, it made it even more difficult when I got older and had to shop for myself.

    In my opinion, the reader who wrote to you did the right thing to include the daughter in the shopping, at the very least.

    Funny thing…my daughter called a bra “contacts” when she was little. I can only assume because I removed my contacts and my bra at the same time before bed…haha!

  21. I’ve been mulling over my response for a couple hours now, and I’m not completely sure that it doesn’t sound a bit silly . . . but my first response to the “why” question was because I can use a bra to get the shape/look/style I want . . . sort of like cosmetics for my girls. I might be completely blind, but I don’t think that my desire has anything to do with pleasing others but simply to get the look I want – the shape I want everyday under a tee is different than how I want to look when I am going out on a date with my husband, for instance. Now that might not be easy to explain to a young girl getting her first bra, but I think it’s something to consider.

  22. These comments are so wonderful and enlightening! I am all on board with emphasizing that our daughters are not responsible “for how comfortable other people are with their bodies” and I’m am right up there on that rooftop shouting.

    However, I also believe we have the power to instill as much or as little meaning as we want to our children’s life experiences/milestones/whatever you want to call it. I read an article online somewhere that was titled something like “We do not touch our vulvas at the dinner table.” (If someone can help me source this, please help!) There was no shame associated, no discomfort of others a factor, just a simple “this is how we do things in our family.” I think the same could be said for bras – “when our beautiful bodies start (or are) growing into beautiful grown bodies, we wear bras to school.” It’s up to us to make it a big deal, an opportunity for conversation about double standards, or teach empowerment (among other things) – or not!

    I keep my bras hanging on my closet door knob, and when my daughter was 3, she would grab them and ask “Which boobs do you want to wear today Mommy?”

  23. I have an 8-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son and I think the question of modesty in attire might come up more for boys if there were male clothes that deliberately emphasized the “private” areas of the body the way that a lot of clothes for girls. We are so used to hypersexualized clothes for females in this culture — I sometimes imagine men walking around in skintight leggings, for instance, or halter tops or super-booty shorts. I’m not advocating for a new “sexier males” fashion trend but it’s interesting to reflect on why the disparity might exist. (And I’m not arguing that men shouldn’t dress in a sexually provocative manner if they want to, or that women shouldn’t either. Wear what you want, grown-ups! When it comes to children, though, I agree with others that they might need a little guidance, because they’re as yet unclear on the “message” they might be sending.)

    And I’m all for doing away with bras entirely, or inventing something supportive that is actually comfortable. The breast bud thing — sure, people of either sex should cover them up if a shirt is completely see-through but if you’re talking about the general shape of them, well worrying about that seems like a waste of time, to me.

  24. They still tell the story of me at the age of someting between two and four (thank got we escaped to Copenhagen for marrying and had no slide-show).
    Together with my mother in a store, she was trying on bikinis, little Ina saying (loud and clear): ” Oh Mama, I want a breastmaker like yours, too!” And I got my own bikini with a real top and I loved it, it was a game… we also bathed naked in public or only with a panty but with the top like my moms it was special.
    Bras were no special topic, I was not the first and not the last developing in my class and got one when the others got theirs and maybe I felt a bit uncomfortable or ashamed asking my mom but in the end it was no big thing. Now I’m wearing one for support still looking for the perfekt one, not too much like a grandma-bra but still supportive and comfortable after over 30 years… a neverending story.

    Btw. can I upload pictures here? My brother is getting married in Autumn and my father is scanning picutures, I’ve spotted my bikinipic already. There’s no escape! 😜

    Ina

  25. Another great topic!
    I’m 35 and got talked into/ a little bullied into buying an underwire bra this week by a sales associate. I wore this thing once and NEVER AGAIN! What a waste of money bc I can’t believe how uncomfortable it is! The associate went on and on about how I should look in public and what was appropriate for a large chested woman and somehow I found myself buying what society says I should wear rather than the very practical and comfortable cotton bra I wanted.
    When my daughter hits puberty she can decide what she wants. I’ll probably tell her about the history of bras and explain the options out there. I wouldn’t buy her anything provocative but I’d let her choose if/ when/ what kind of bra she wants to wear. I know what I’ve wanted has changed and I know her style will evolve too.

    1. I want to talk about the history of bras and underwear and clothing too. Including how fashion changes the outline of people’s forms overtime (think 1830s sloping shoulders, and breeches, 1890s monobossum and loose pants, 1950s inverted tulip and pointed boobs and dashing fedoras), how early feminists spoke out against corsets, and how there are different societal norms not just over time or in different location across the world, but even in our own town. We can’t wear our bathing suits to the office or school – at least not here. I want to put all of this in a broad context for my children. I want them to behave appropriately when admiring others and check their negative reactions to others’ appearances. Most important to me, I want them to be comfortable choosing their own paths in fashion and otherwise and give them powerful tools to use against bullying and peer pressure. Sing it with me: “Now am I wrong for trying to reach the things that I can’t see?”

  26. I agree with all the comments about modesty–my daughter does not need to make sure her nipples are completely invisible.

    But I also have a problem with the very grown-up/”sexy” styles of clothing that are a lot of what’s available, even for young girls. (Check out the toddler girls bathing suits at Baby Gap!). I don’t want to teach my daughter that she needs to be “modest” but it annoys me to no end that all the 9-year-old girls are wearing skintight leggings as pants, and it’s nearly impossible to find girls shorts with an inseam longer than 2.5 inches.

    The actual message (harmful) behind body-shaming modesty and sexy adult clothing for girls is the same: that girls’ bodies are for looking at.

  27. So my daughter is 8 and actually prefers wearing swim shirts (rash guards?) and a pair of girl’s swim shorts I bought from Land’s End last year. (I was going to purchase more, but the review’s for this season were complaints about irritating material. ) When it comes to boys/girls swimwear, who wouldn’t prefer the comfort of the the boys swim trunks to the offerings available for girls? Last week she asked me to buy her boys swim trunks so I did. She also asked me why she had to wear a shirt and her older brother didn’t. I had answers – but none were any that I wanted to give her, so I said I would have to think about it. Why does an 8 year old girl (who happens to NOT be developed, anyway) have to wear a swim top, but it’s ok to wear tiny, panty-sized bottoms?

    Specifically about bras – at least there seem to be more options than there were when I first needed one.

    1. I require my boys to wear shirts anytime my girls are required to wear them (I have 2 sons and 4 daughters), including swim shirts. It’s only fair, IMO.

      1. Ah you are the best for requiring the same of your sons and daughters! I remember being so angry going to a very conservative Christian camp as a middle schooler and being required to wear a loose dark t shirt in the water while the boys got to wear no tops at all. Trying to manage a ton of wet fabric when you jump off a dock is no joke. I feel like all of that narrative is built around the false story that women aren’t sexual and men are so it’s not problem if guys walk around with their shirts off, etc. (and that women are responsible for men’s reactions towards their bodies which is absurd).

    2. My answer for my daughter to this question, was that it is a societal double standard! And if she didn’t want to wear a top she didn’t have too! She has chosen too up to this point. She’s 8!

  28. My husband and 7 children live in rural Hawaii. It is not uncommon to see babies and toddlers swim naked. Most people live in their swim suits for half of the year and even go grocery shopping in them, barefoot. Bikinis are the norm and I frequently go without a bra because it is so hot most of the year. I have two teenagers and will eventually have 5 teenage boys in a few years. They have grown up seeing women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes covered and un covered. This is their norm. This is not sexual for them. They are used to it without the shame and embarrassment or sexual tension we felt and saw being placed on it when we lived on the mainland. In Europe you’d swim topless if you were a girl. The men do not have a problem controlling themselves around this because that is their norm. For me and my girls, it always will be about comfort. What feels comfortable and right for you. Nipples or no nipples.

  29. it should be up to her!!!!!!! she is a person with thoughts and feelings and those are all that matter here. if she wants to wear one, great. if she doesn’t, great!

    i developed early and rapidly and was uncomfortable and looking for support at 10. my mom denied me this until i was entering middle school the next year and was embarrassed to change in front of the other girls for p.e. without one.

    skip ahead 16 years and i reduced my breast size from a 32H to a 32D and i haven’t worn a bra since. they are the most horrendous contraptions even at their most wonderful and fitted. i shopped at nordstrom and made sure all my bras were as perfect as i could get and they were still awful. please don’t force your daughter to wear such things. i run and hike and exercise without anything but a tank-top with a bit of compression, no bra band, nothing and it’s great. my “new” breasts still look amazing 2 years in. in fact, there was recently a study released about how breasts are better off without the “support” of a bra and are perhaps even harmed by the bra wearing: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/259073.php

    think about it, how long have bras even been around? the human body is not built to withstand our social whims. there is a form and function for everything and we’re simply meddling for the fun of it. end the madness.

  30. Gabi, my oldest is 8 and I just want to say that I thrilled that you are evolving into these older children topics – phones, bras, etc. You are leading the way for me and I am very grateful to have this space for advice before I need it so I can start to consider and form viewpoints!

  31. At least for me, I wore a bra to protect my new/growing nipples! I didn’t need the support, but I needed the layer of protection. Having a soft fabric that is stationary against them (like a simple cotton bra or undershirt) protected them from the movement of my shirt. Those growing boobies could HURT!

    1. Yup! That’s why my daughter wanted a more supportive (beyond a simple sports bra) or even pads (well, that was one excuse she could come up with). But her pediatrician suggested a good bra to help with the tenderness.

  32. I’m bookmarking this post, but I wanted to add I have had the same types of conversations with my son about briefs vs. boxer briefs and how boxer briefs may offer more support and comfort for sports, etc.

    With our kids, we take the practical side and openly talk about things.

    Great discussion!

  33. At 42, I have been wearing a bra in public for so many years that I feel less protected/more vulnerable without it around anyone but my closest friends and family. I would not feel comfortable working in my professional environment without one. I dress rather modestly because of my own comfort zone and this is another aspect of that. The bra is the first thing to go when I get home and the first thing I grab when we have an unexpected visitor.

    In contrast, I breastfeed my kids in public with little concern about fully covering up.

    As I read through the other comments and had strong reactions to many of them, I found myself questioning how much my choices and comfort levels are affected by societal conditioning. I will have to consider this issue more fully so as to give my daughter as much freedom as possible in determining what is right for her.

    1. I’m with you. I feel like I might be the school marm of the nineteen twenties in the corset while her students wear camisoles and short skirts.

  34. Love this post and comment thread!

    I don’t have kids but I’m a teacher and former camp counselor and I wanted to add that bra wearing for young girls can be a socioeconomic issue and point of judgement for some. A white girl from a wealthy family in a “nice” neighborhood has more freedom to wear (or not wear) what she likes but the same can not be said for many other girls who don’t benefit from the same privledge. I’ve been privy to student concern meetings where “not wearing a bra even though she is developing breasts” is mentioned as evidence of neglect along with things like “doesn’t wash her hair, doesn’t wear deoderant, wears the same shirt all week”.
    I wish that this wasn’t the case and that bodies were left to their own comfort and devices but…I guess we aren’t there yet.

    Throughout college (super liberal environment) I enjoyed the freedom to not wear a bra, never shave my legs, and skip deoderant, but it’s hard to be a woman with hairy legs, visible nipples, and sweat stains and still be considered “professional”. Maybe I’ll go back to being a camp counselor… :)

  35. My 5 year old is obsessed with anything that is “grown up” so I predict that she will be begging for one by 8. I was fairly small chested (A to small B) until kids. I wore mostly tank tops with built in shelf bras throughout college and was completely unselfconscious about it. Looking back, I wonder how much was “showing.” Funny, I was a forestry and biology major- one of a handful of women. But the guys never were rude or leering or made awkward comments. As I got older and more “aware,” started working, met my husband, went up to a C after nursing… I have changed. Just yesterday I felt self conscious walking the trash to the street in a tank but no bra. Then I was like, whatever! I have breasts! They are covered! This is my own damn house! So I stopped worrying. My kids are used to me wearing no bra around the house. My 7 yo son decided he wants to sleep in just boxer briefs and shirts but I asked him to put on pants or shorts when he gets up. We dont want my daughter in only her panties, so he cant be in only undies, either! Love reading so many thoughtful, insightful comments here!

  36. What a great post and discussion!!
    I remember when I started to develop breast buds. I was in eighth grade and had on a thin gray t-shirt one day. A girl I was friends with told me I needed to wear a bra. I also remember around the same age I was wearing a tankini bathing suit and my younger cousin told me my chest looked gross. Both moments made me feel so ashamed. When I did start wearing bras I was so self conscious about my bra straps showing. I swear part of the reason I hunch is because I was ashamed of my developing body and tried to hide it as much as I could.

  37. I am a big ole feminist with two young daughters (age 6 and 8) … and I love bras! I wear one literally 24/7. I developed breasts very young, have lived with boys and men staring at my chest practically my whole life, AND experienced a hovering mother trying to protect me from stares. Now, I have DD/E breasts (even after breastfeeding). For me, I would never go without some sort of support! Even at night, I sleep in a soft sports bra.

    My younger daughter – age 6! – begged me to buy her a sports bra at Athleta, in the Athleta Girl line. No, I wouldn’t buy her one until it is needed! But I was shocked by how shocked I was at her request – LOL!

    It made me realize we are in a new era for girls & bras! The sports bra look is cool and fun. My girls see me in sports bras all the time. They love the Athleta Girl colors and design. So, for me, the sports bra will be KEY for my daughters in making the transition to bras.

    They will have support and coverage, while feeling sporty and colorful — and they will be able to buy them in a fun environment! Or, better yet, through trying on different styles at home. The worst part of bra shopping for me as a kid was doing it in a department store — I was sooo embarrassed! Yay online shopping!!

    Another relevant, forward thinking discussion — thank you, Gabby!

  38. I’m reading Bossypants and this quote from Tina Fey, of advice she gives women who want career advice, made me think of this discussion. “I encourage them to always wear a bra. Even if you don’t think you need it, just…you know what? You’re never going to regret it.”

  39. >>Until support is needed (and as someone with small breasts can tell you, it’s still needed for running or anything particularly active, even with A-cups)<<

    Just a quick comment from the other side of the aisle… there are a heck of a lot of older guys (and some younger) with B-cup and bigger man-boobs. Such guys are not necessarily fat. Often it has to do with hormones. You don't hear about gynecomastia very often because men go for breast reduction surgery (about 10% of all breast reductions in the U.S. are performed on men) rather than going for a bra. Ladies, laugh and be grossed out if you must! But when you're done chatting about bras with your kids, check to see if you ought to have a chat with your hubby. Most men would rather die than wear even a sport bra.

  40. Came back to this after remembering it and having a discussion about bras with my 8 yr old. While reviewing it, I was reminded that the reasons given were a lot for “modesty” and more specifically visible nipples. Well, we can cast that aside. I saw these a couple of days ago and had to share. I never thought i would see the day, but, evidently, visible nipples are coming into vogue.

  41. Love the trend of girl and women boxer briefs that allow full range of movement, end the chafing, and poor construction of one size fits all panties. Very comfy, modestry where needed, and secure. Bralet if desired and needed.
    No need to force girls into the objectification of women’s bodies like last generation which prevented women from controlling their own bodies from publicity and public consumption.

    Boxer briefs solve many of women’s impractical problems, and they are warmer!

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