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Padded bras, the requiring of and banning of, discussed here

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, March 14, 2011 12:14 EDT
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Early morning amusements: Salon caught Fox News being taken in by a satirical article, and reprinting it as straight news. Not-so-amusing is that they did it as straightforward hate-mongering, and still have not taken the story down or apologized for it.

The story, which is still featured on Fox News’ Fox Nation website, was illustrated with a picture of a woman’s mid-section and carried the headline “Pakistan: Islamic Clerics Protest Women Wearing Padded Bras as ‘Devil’s Cushions.’” The lead of the Fox Nation story, which sources the piece to the Indian news website sify.com, reads:

The Council of Islamic Ideology in Pakistan has protested the use of padded and colourful bras by Muslim women, and recommended that Pakistani Muslim researchers should try to invent an innerwear that makes female assets unnoticeable.

The problem is, if one takes the time to track the story back to its source, the whole thing is an obvious Onion-style satire — a fact first pointed out by Arif Rafiq of the Pakistan Policy Blog.

Naturally, the comments are filled up with wingnuts using this as an excuse to lambast every Muslim in the world. Salon quoted one commenter calling Islam a “cult”, just to give you an idea of the levels of stupid and bigoted we’re dealing with here. Yet again, I find myself irritated lately, because it’s not like I’m Team Islam or anything, since I think all religions are pretty silly. But American conservatives aren’t making the case against religion. (LULZ.) They’re just playing the game of “my made-up bullshit is better than your made-up bullshit”.

Most of the panels/speakers I saw at the Women in the World Summit were awesome, but by far the most troubling—though definitely interesting at parts—panel was one hosted by Andrew Sullivan titled “The Multiculturalism Debate: Is Europe Stigmatizing the Veil?” It was supposed to be a debate over banning the niqab, which is a face veil, and while some pains were made to try to differ between wearing a niqab and wearing a hijab of any sort that covers your hair completely or just partially, the distinctions got blurry. Some good points were made by Liesl Gerntholtz about how bans—or requirements—on religious garb of any sort usually serve only to limit women’s movement, because women who object to the requirement, or are forced to do so by their families, will just find themselves staying at home or being forced to more often. Ayaan Hirsi Ali made a lot of interesting points, mostly objecting to how this debate swallows up larger discussions about how religion is used as cover to control and oppress women in ways that are significantly more damaging than anything clothes could do to you. But mostly it was a confused mess, and not helped by the fact that no practicing Muslims, much less anyone who wore a hijab (which Ali sensibly pointed out can often be a non-obtrusive item of clothing, instead of one that says, “Look at how modest I am.”) was part of the panel. They said they couldn’t get anyone to agree to do it, which to me should have been an indicator that it was time to go back to the drawing board.

Anyway, setting aside the debates on the legal restrictions, one thing that annoys/amuses (we need a word for this in English) me about the whole debate—and thankfully this was something that was alluded to by people who got up and asked questions—is that it presupposes that only Muslims fall into the trap of obsessing over how much skin is too much skin, or other questions of women’s “modesty”. (And it presupposes all Muslims do, which is simply not true.) I guarantee every fucking person frothing at the mouth at this satirical story has spent some time judging some woman or other for being immodest. I was thinking about this while watching the panel, and tweeted an observation, I think, about skirt length and bra thickness.

Which is the irony here. While all these wingnuts are frothing over an imaginary ban on padded bras, in America, the padded bra is, in and of itself, an object of modesty obsession. While some communities are more liberal, and thus this falls under the radar, in other communities, leaving the house without a solid amount of padding to conceal your shameful natural breast shape is a big fucking deal. At Slate, Emily Yoffe dealt with this concern. The question:

I find myself at the age of 31 wondering what proper nipple etiquette is. I recently read an article that led me to realize that some people are offended by the sight of the outline of a woman’s nipples showing through her clothing. I own a variety of bras, some padded and some not. I know that if I wear an unpadded bra and it gets cold, the outline of my nipples will show through my top. My mother never mentioned anything about this when I was growing up (she didn’t object when I sometimes went braless as a teen), and the only person who has ever said anything about my nipples is my boyfriend. I am inclined to think that it is not improper, and I have never been offended by the sight of nipples. Would you please educate me?

The answer:

o educate myself I turned to the women of Slate, who enlightened me on their bra-washing schedules the last time bra etiquette came up. This time the responses ranged from, “No nip. Never” to “What can you do—sometimes nipples are visible” to “A little nipple is fine. Women have breasts, people should get over it” to “It feels rude and intrusive, demanding everyone look” to “Some nippage is inevitable, though I wouldn’t expect men to behave like adults and divert their gaze.” So I will anoint myself the nipple arbiter and say, particularly at the office, keep your nipples under wraps. This does not mean wearing a Kevlar bra; it means finding one with enough lining or tensile strength to make sure that if you’re cold, or if you’re thinking about Mark Ruffalo, the rest of the office won’t know. If you want to wear lingerie that’s sheer and silky, then make sure you’re wearing thick enough layers of clothing so that your colleagues can’t see if you’re standing at attention. It will improve office productivity; you’ve probably noticed that when you’re talking to male colleagues and your nipples are straining at your blouse, the men tend to forget the point they were trying to make. After hours, it’s your choice. But remember, if you release your nipples, some people are going to have a hard time remembering to look you in the eye.

You can imagine which of those quotes was mine. My feeling is and always will be that women’s bodies are only “distracting” if you choose for them to be. Nipple shape is only a thing insofar as people make it a thing. If 3/4 of American women suddenly started to cover their hair or their ankles, the other 1/4 would start to worry that the sight of their hair or their ankles was driving men to distraction. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali sensibly said during the panel, once you open the door to debating modesty, suddenly, in her words, a woman’s entire body becomes “a private part”. Every inch is up for negotiation, depending on cultural norms, which can change at light speed. (For instance, the nipple debate is suddenly rearing its head in part because women in more conservative parts of the country started to wear those thin cotton shirts that were invented so as not to hide your shape under a T-shirt. Then, to protect their “modesty”, T-shirt bras became standardized to the point where they’re unavoidable. Now it’s getting to the point where you either can’t buy anything else, or if you choose to wear another kind of bra, you’re a slutty slut. I’m holding out. I think the bras look kind of silly when it’s really obvious that’s what you’re wearing.) But the flip side of this coin is that banning clothes only imbues them with more meaning. It’s ironic/sad (another word we need to invent!) that the conservatives who are screeching about an imaginary ban on padded bras—the American modesty clothing item of choice—mostly find themselves supporting bans on niqabs and even hijabs.

I propose than banning and requiring certain items of clothing that denote modesty are two sides to the same coin. As Sussan Tahmasebi said when she got up to ask a question, these are battles over other things being waged through women’s bodies and that’s unacceptable. I propose that people everywhere just stop bugging out over women’s clothes. Accept that fashion is arbitrary, and stop trying to control what women wear. You’ll find that the world does not end, and that fears that this opens the door to some unchecked orgy in street situation is just so much nonsense.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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