Read more from Slate’s puberty series. Bonnie J. Rough tells you how to maintain a close and loving relationship with your teen throughout adolescence. Rachelle Hampton assesses the current crop of girl puberty books. Christina Cauterucci praises advancements in period technology for giving girls control over their bodily care. Nick Greene offers a primer on shaving for first-timers. In case you missed it: Check out Slate’s book list for middle schoolers.
In Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, first published in 1970, the training bra is practically a second protagonist. Margaret and her parents move to suburban New Jersey when Margaret is almost 12, and she meets some new friends, with whom she makes a pact to start wearing bras at the beginning of sixth grade. With ceremony, Margaret calls the date she’s going with her mother to buy her first brassieres “Bra Day.” This whole episode—her nerves right before she asks her mother to take her; her annoyance at a saleslady who directs her to the training bra section, because she’s too small for the AAs—was painfully familiar to me when I read it back in the late 1980s.
Today, online shopping and the spiking popularity of athleisure have rendered Margaret’s experience all but obsolete. Girls experience thelarche even earlier now than they did in Margaret’s days, and many start wearing bras, or bralike undergarments, as early as 8 or 9; companies like Lululemon, Athleta, and Hanes offer products as small as a girls size 6. But perhaps because of athleisure’s dominance, these bras look totally different from Margaret’s “Gro-Bra.” This new breed has no clasps or cups. They come in bright, fun colors that make a fashion statement and boast smooth seams guaranteed not to bother or bug. A lot of things have gotten worse in the world, but I feel confident saying that the training bra experience has gotten better.
For girls growing up in the 1950s, getting a bra was a landmark event. The United States was positively obsessed with breasts (see: Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Lana Turner). For girls who didn’t have a “chest” yet, the prospect of getting one became extremely significant. “The bra was validated as a rite of passage,” writes historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg in her book The Body Project. The purchase of training bras, whether your breast development required one or not, became a social mandate. Training bras were big business, and alarmist doctors, who published articles in popular magazines about the need to provide “lift” for breast tissue just as soon as it appeared, helped goose sales.
Girls’ culture reflected these adult fixations, as “breasts, not weight, were the primary point of comparison among high school girls in the 1950s,” Brumberg wrote, and girls idolized classmates with bigger breasts than they had. But because womanhood is an experience full of double binds, having big breasts was not always a ticket to popularity. While the girls in Margaret’s club memorably chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” to coax their breast development onward, poor Laura Danker is branded with a “bad reputation” solely because, per the rumor mill, she’s been wearing a bra “since the fourth grade” and probably has her period.
Thankfully, the prevalence of athleisure-influenced training bras has ratcheted down the stakes for today’s girls. These garments are determinedly desexualized, visually referencing the soccer pitch rather than the bedroom. Megan Grassell is a 23-year-old entrepreneur who founded Yellowberry, a company that specializes in “first bras,” offering a line of garments for girls that are bright and sporty. Yellowberry’s bras are double-layered, and the company advertises the fabric as intentionally super soft—which makes sense, because new breast buds can be sensitive, and at this stage of breast development girls are often just looking for something comfortable to alleviate chafing.
Moms of daughters needing bras often contact Yellowberry by live chat or email to ask for advice on selection, and Grassell said the girls range from those who are “physically ready, but really anxious about it and don’t want to talk about it” to those who are really excited: “I want every color, and I’m going to do cartwheels around the playground, and if my shirt falls down it’s OK because it’s really fun!”
A bra that doesn’t have lace on it and is assertively not lingerie-colored can make either kind of girl feel more comfortable with this transition. Some colors of the Gaiam Big Girls’ Yoga Bra are almost bathing suit–like—tie-dyed and cheerful. Many of the worries I had when I started wearing a bra—“What if you can see it through my shirt? What if my shirt’s neckline exposes the shoulder straps? What if you can see it under my arm when I reach up to get a book out of my locker?”—can disappear for girls wearing a bra that playful-looking and bright.
The Yellowberry Luna has the strappy back popular in adult yoga garb, as do the company’s Star and Tink models. Athleta sorts its girls bras into “strappy,” “everyday,” and “active.” Lululemon doesn’t even categorize its bras as “underwear” or in a stand-alone “bra” category when you shop online; you find them lumped in with “tops.” These bras for girls—decorative instead of sexy—are meant to be part of an outfit, rather than invisible under it. It’s a key aesthetic distinction familiar from adult athleisure gear, and one that’s a big advantage for girls who might be ambivalent about this transition, as the bra becomes a layer of clothing rather than intimate apparel.
The no-clasp structure of the athleisure training bra also makes everything simpler. “I think for a younger girl sports bras are easier to start with,” a mother wrote in an Amazon review of Fruit of the Loom’s Big Girls’ Cotton Built-Up Sport Bra. In the bra purchasing scene in Are You There God, Margaret’s mother has to come into the dressing room to help her put her new bras on. “I wondered how I’d ever learn to do it by myself,” Margaret thinks. “Maybe my mother would have to dress me every day.” Since they lack clasps, these bras are like another shirt—easy to understand using a tween’s preexisting self-dressing skills.
A sports bra provides girls with a gentle introduction to bras.
Without tags or clasps, training bras in this style also have a better chance of not irritating girls who are sensitive to the way a bra feels on their skin. “The worst thing ever for a young girl [is] to have uncomfortable itchy seams,” a fatherly reviewer of Amazon Essentials’ Girl’s Active Sports Bra says with fond exasperation. The Amazon Essentials bra doesn’t have them; Yellowberry features a bra, the Chickadee, that the company describes as ideal for girls with sensory issues.
The sportiness of this kind of bra works well for girls who are going straight from school to after-school activities. A garment like the Maidenform Girl Big Girls’ Crop Bra isn’t technically a sports bra, but functions as one. As a mom on Amazon wrote in a five-star review, her 9-year-old “loudly vocalized that she doesn’t want to go through puberty. … She is very athletic and didn’t want anything that would in any way interfere or distract from her sports practice.” She said that her daughter “admits that she actually feels MORE comfortable wearing it when running or jumping.”
Sports bras are only about 40 years old—younger, in fact, than Are You There God. Athleisure (defined loosely) is much older than that, but it’s only recently taken center stage in American women’s wardrobes. It certainly has many problematic aspects: Athleisure is expensive, punishingly tight, an artifact of conspicuous consumption for the gentrifier set. But for tween girls, its influence on their introduction to bra-wearing is an unmitigated good.
Thankfully, the bra buying experience has changed since Margaret’s days.
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