ugly truths

Throw Out Your Bra, Already

An intimate look at our worst intimates.

Photo: Hannah Whitaker
Photo: Hannah Whitaker

Sometimes when I’m wearing a low-cut top, I’ll glance down at my own cleavage. What’s going on down there? Does the inside of my blouse look like the balloon-filled ceiling of a political convention before the big drop? Like two hearty scoops of flan wobbling serenely in their fabric bowls?

On a recent inspection, I was dismayed. There, at the bottom of a once-lavender-colored bra I had lived in for the better part of two years, my breasts pooled limply in its tired, gaping cups. From its murky depths, the tops of my areolae gazed up at me sadly.

Despite the titillating promises made by lingerie ads, most bras aren’t so much seductive accessories as basic utilities, a containment device you need to be able to move through the world without getting knocked out by a tit when you run to the 4 train. Once you find ones that work for you, you hold on to them. Sometimes it’s for emotional reasons. More often it’s because, now that their chest is relatively secure, bra wearers have other things they want to think about and spend their money on.

That was my attitude, at least. So when a friend recently asked me how long people are supposed to keep their bras, my response was, “Until they dissolve into dust on your body.”

As soon as I said it out loud, I realized that maybe I was wrong. Maybe — possibly — people shouldn’t wear a bra until it swings loosely around their chest like tattered college honor cords.

If I was wrong, however, I certainly wasn’t alone. “Too long,” most of the people answered when I asked how long they kept their bras. How long is too long, though? In a poll I sent out on Twitter, 28 percent of the more than 200 respondents said they had owned most of their bras for between two and three years; 33 percent said they had owned them for less than two years; and 15 percent said they had owned them for over five years. As for the state of these undergarments, most agreed they had seen better days.

“Most of them are in really sad condition,” one woman wrote. “Old outlines from sweat, underboob galore, and even some stretched-out bands.”

“Too long” was also how long bra sellers said people keep their bras. “I’ve had a girl come in, she was in her 50s, and she said she’d been wearing her bra since she was 16. The same bra,” said Rebecca Apsan, the owner of Greenwich Village’s famed lingerie boutique La Petite Coquette. When I visited her and her sister at the store one afternoon in January, they showed me the trash can where they sometimes instruct customers to deposit the loose old bras they come into the store wearing.

How long you should keep your bra depends in part on how you care for it, Apsan says. Ideally, one should own six to eight bras and rotate them every single day. “I never wear the same bra two days in a row,” she said. “And I have my bras for a decent amount of time. I have them for years.”

Lori Kaplan of BraTenders in midtown said the reason many people keep their bras well past their prime is that they form an emotional attachment to them — “like a teddy bear.” For some, this attachment comes from the fact that it’s difficult to find a bra in their size, so they cling to the ones that fit them. For others, it’s that the style they like has been discontinued or that their bodies have changed and their breasts aren’t the same size they used to be. And there’s the financial challenge as well.

As one respondent explained, she needs to go to specialty stores to get the G-cup bras she wears. And while she knows her current bras need replacing, “to drop $400 to $500 on new bras is not a luxury I can afford right now.”

Regardless of the reason, Kaplan and Apsan agree that having a well-fitting bra is key to any outfit. “You can buy a $2 T-shirt and you’ll look like a million bucks if you’ve got the right undergarments, and you can buy a $30,000 dress that will look like a rag if you’ve got the wrong undergarments,” Kaplan said.

A few days after I spoke to Apsan and Kaplan, I decided to add two new bras to my limp collection. When they arrived, their bands and straps were taut, their cups sturdy. They didn’t gape or droop. They held my breasts firmly aloft. I didn’t think I looked that different in my clothes, but I liked the idea that maybe this was the person I might be from now on — someone whose bras look fresh and not like something that was pulled off a disinterred corpse. This person, I imagined, always has a fresh manicure instead of chipped nail polish. She gets all her clothes tailored and grows fresh herbs on her kitchen windowsill. She is someone I aspired to be but whom I knew, at the bottom of my newly contained heart, I didn’t really care enough to make the effort to become. Still, I was happy to playact as her for a while, until these bras, like my others, eventually dissolve, 15 years from now.

Real Women on Their Go-To Bras

Jenny, 57, 36B

Purchased roughly 2010

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

“I ain’t exactly the Fleur du Mal or Agent Provocateur type. I like a friendly bra, not one that intimidates.”

Liz, 39, 34C 

Purchased 2004

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

“I met my husband at a bar on the Lower East Side while wearing the bra.
We went home together, and the rest is history. Over the years, I’ve gotten rid of the asymmetrical black top (!) and brown skinny jeans (!) and … red rubber rain boots (???) … I was wearing that night, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to throw out the bra.”

Lily, 29, 34D

Purchased 2013

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

“The bra is a workhorse. She shows a lot of wear, but she also was supremely hardy to begin with, like an old truck.”

Madeleine, 28, 36B

Purchased 2018

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

“When I first got this bra, she was vibrant and full of life. Now, after over a year of heavy wear, she has the general complexion and energy of an old pack-a-day smoker.”

Sophie, 23, 32FF

Purchased 2018

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

“I don’t hate the way this bra looks, but it is a little sexless. I refuse to wear any other bra on most occasions, though, so I’ve had my fair share of times when I’m unexpectedly hooking up with someone and realize, Oh God, they’re gonna see my beige minimizing mom bra. I’m not too bothered by it at this point, though.”

Emily, 25, 32A

Purchased 2017

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

“I bought this when I was seriously dating a woman for the first time, and I remember it helping me feel more confident and sexy during the nerve-racking early stages with her.”

Madison, 27, 36DDDD

Purchased 2018

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

“This is my favorite everyday bra. I’ve bought it easily a half-dozen times in various sizes and colors over the years. This particular one I wore essentially anytime I wore something black (read: every day) for the entire eight months I had it in my rotation.”

*This article appears in the March 2, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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Throw Out Your Bra, Already