By Ila Ananya
Originally published on 15 June 2016.
In boarding school, M had a deep red bra that she’d take off at night and hang from the hook above her bed before she went to sleep. It was the first really sexy bra I’d ever seen – not with lace or anything, but just that colour of plums that made sure you kept glancing at it instead of focussing on the essay you were supposed to be writing. She called it her weapon of mass destruction. Since then, I haven’t been able to come across the term – even if they’re talking about something as utterly serious as nuclear arms – without seeing the two cups of a beautifully self-confident red bra hanging on the wall.
I’ve never owned such a bra. I own boring padded bras in two colours (black and skin don’t count because everyone has them). On most days I don’t realise what bra I’m wearing, unless some well-meaning person comes and whispers to me that my bra strap is showing, or makes pointed eye contact on the bus and exaggeratedly pulls the clothes she is wearing closer to her neck. The only time I actually remember the bra I’m wearing is when I wear my only slightly nice looking black bra with lace. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to M’s plum weapon of mass destruction, and I didn’t even buy it myself.
A few days ago, my friend P and I went for a lingerie workshop at Buttercups. It’s a brand that’s very aware of itself as being one of the few with a fitting room, where women spend time taking your measurements, helping you find the perfect bras with the right size, and colour, and underwire that doesn’t hurt, and you can ask them all your lingerie questions. At the workshop, twelve of us sat at a long white table on white chairs, and listened to Ganesh, the CEO of Buttercups, telling us how to measure our bra size, what to look for in a bra, and how to wash them – the things that bra shops usually have on pink boards in their trial rooms. It was as though everyone was looking at everyone else to see through the white clothes everyone seemed to be wearing (was there a colour code? I was wearing black), picking out all the problems with other people’s bras.
I was intrigued and tickled by the idea of a lingerie workshop because it made bra buying the serious business that I never considered it to be. When I was younger, I used to go bra shopping with my aunts once in about three years. Usually it would be because my father would tell me my bras looked old, every time I hung them out to dry. Once, my aunt and I walked into a small, dimly lit underground shop on Commercial Street that made me feel like I was buying something top secret that nobody else had. It was one of those shops that have rows and rows of underclothes in small plastic packets behind a glass counter. There was a triangle trial room in the corner with no space to move. My aunt kept asking me questions that I didn’t know the answers to. Do you want underwire? – What’s underwire? Do you like a full cup or demi cup? – I don’t know. What’s your size? – Um, small.
But at the workshop, Ganesh gave us an elaborate checklist and asked us to repeat it after her. Understandably, she’d finish each point by talking about the bras that Buttercups made – she obviously did this well, because everyone in the room rushed downstairs after the workshop to go try on their bras and have their own personal fitting room experience.
1. The band around your ribs needs to be just right. God forbid it shouldn’t be tight or there’ll be spillage – then everyone would see the fat under your band or near your arms.
I could see the fat near my arms. I could see P smiling to herself from across the table. Was she also thinking, “So what?”
2. The cups shouldn’t be too tight. There may be many a slip between the cup and the lip but not in a bra workshop. There shouldn’t be space between the cup and you either. You’ve heard of people naming their breasts? This was a whole different thing. Here ‘you’ meant my breasts. In the whole workshops Ganesh never once said breasts or boobs or anything. But to get back to the instruction: if there is space between your bra cup and your breasts, maybe you want to go for a smaller size. If it’s too tight, then go up one size. I know people don’t want to admit to themselves that they need a bigger size, but just be happy you’re well endowed, she said.
I could see a space between my bra cup and breasts, but so?
3. You can’t wear a bra with the straps falling off – just wear a strapless bra otherwise. And don’t keep the straps so tight that they dig into you. What you need to be able to do is put one finger through the strap and your shoulder. And if the hook is riding up your back, then the bra’s too loose for you. It needs to be in the middle of your back.
My straps were too tight.
4. The gore (I didn’t know this, but it’s the part of the bra between the cups) needs to be flat on you. If it isn’t, get a smaller size.
I’d got one thing right.
But then what happens when the gore is right, and the straps are too tight, or the band just right and the cups a little loose? It was like some permutation-combination thing that I didn’t understand.
Throughout the workshop, I kept thinking about the time my friend S and I went to Jockey because I needed to buy bras. She ran into the trial room with me, and I could see everyone widening their eyes as I shut the door. Every time I changed, I would face the door, and S would close her eyes. Then I’d turn, and she’d look at me and tell me what she thought – this colour, that size – does this look too loose? I’d ask, why don’t you jump and see, she’d say. Tighten the straps, your hook is off. I bought three bras in fifteen minutes that day, but they weren’t pretty or anything.
Z, S and I have had many conversations about our sizes. S and I have arguments about who’s bigger; we say we want to buy a push-up bra, but never do. Sometimes we talk about pretty bras, like when we watched Finding Fanny, and S and I nudged each other over the boy sitting in the seat between us, and pointed at the light purple bra we could see Deepika Padukone wearing, and said we’d go looking for the exact same one. Of course we never did, because we’re too lazy, but I’ve always liked to flip through magazines and look at sexy looking bras that I’ll never have the patience to search for, or the money to buy.
At the lingerie workshop, Ganesh began to ask us all how often we bought bras and how much we spent on them. I buy them every two or three years, and P said the same. Someone said a year, another said six months. Ganesh cringed and closed her eyes with her hands in horror – apparently we’re supposed to buy bras every four months, because they lose their shape. Then a woman said she has spent Rs 3,000 on just one bra (I spend 500) – Ganesh announced that we must all buy fewer clothes and more bras (starting price Rs 1500), so that the clothes we wore looked good on us, and now we could stand tall, with our shoulders back, and give off a super-confident vibe. In college, every time someone explained some elaborate problem that wasn’t really a problem, someone else would tell them they had, “first world problems,” to make them shut up and move on in life. As we were leaving, P called all the bras first world problems. and I remembered V telling me, “My best is in National Market, I get 4 super comfy bras for Rs 300.” (The day I went shopping with S, I also picked a horrible fluorescent blue bra that looked darker on the cover than when I actually took it out at home, but it doesn’t really matter. I still wear it.)
And then Ganesh announced at the workshop that you can’t ever wear a white bra with a white top – you can wear any colour, fluorescent blue, red, pink, but not white, because it would show. Apparently you can’t wear a white bra under a black top either, because that would show too. Can you wear skin colour under white? I don’t remember.
I’ve looked at bras and decided they looked beautiful, and in my head, they’re always automatically comfortable. But these are also bras I’ve always only looked at and never thought to buy, instead of the same boring padded bras I own. I didn’t realise that buying bras was an elaborate process where you had to match the combinations of straps, cups, bands, and gore, to the possible colours, and necklines, to thinking about the clothes you own, and which bra you can wear with which t-shirt, and which with a kurta, or a dress. As P had said, “This is all such a booby trap.”
When I told S about the workshop, she said, “They say if you find the perfect fitting most comfortable bra, you’ll never be able to wear anything else.” Oh no.