For many women, the best moment at the day’s end is getting to unclasp their bras. Now increasingly more women are wondering why that kind of freedom should be confined to home.
On May 28, 2018, a group of young women celebrated the annual Menstrual Hygiene Day with a campaign to reject shaming and lift taboos related to menstruation. At the event held in Yeongdeungpo in western Seoul, some women also rallied topless to protest against male voyeurism.
When women’s rights activist group Flaming Feminist Action posted photos of the topless activists to Facebook, they were blocked on the platform. In response to Facebook’s censorship they staged another topless demonstration in front of Facebook Korea’s headquarters in Gangnam on June 2 last year.
Facebook apologized at the time for taking down the pictures, calling it “an error.” But the social media site’s administrators recently had the privacy settings of another set of topless photos on Flaming Feminist Action’s page changed from public to private, citing a content guideline violation.
Feminist group Flaming Feminist Action celebrates "go topless day" on Aug. 26, 2018. (Flaming Feminist Action)
In a phone call with The Korea Herald, Facebook Korea’s communications officer admitted to double standards in the network’s community guidelines.
“Conventionally speaking, in places such as a swimming pool, men would bare their chests while women would cover up their upper bodies,” the officer said, likening Facebook to the public space. “In that general sense, the photos of topless women (posted by Flaming Feminist Action) may have been deemed to be unacceptable in a public setting and in violation of our standards.”
Lee Ga-hyun, a member of Flaming Feminist Action, disputed the notion, arguing that women’s breasts are not inherently sexual.
“Some people equate women going topless or braless with men flashing, but breasts aren’t reproductive organs,” she said. “What women want is the choice -- or rather, the right -- not to wear a bra.”
Feminist philosopher Yun-Kim Ji-young says the braless movement can be understood as part of South Korean women’s growing resistance against society’s constraints placed on them. She pointed to a movement against beauty standards dubbed “Escape the Corset,” which took off in 2016, as an example of that resistance.
“A brassiere is a physical restraint on women’s bodies, a most literal corset.
“Women must adapt to the binding discomfort of a bra. Wearing it is not a matter of choice,” Yun-Kim said. “Because women’s bodies are sexualized in men’s eyes, the bare chest of a woman is considered inappropriate and as something that should be covered up, lest it arouse men.”
The responsibility to guard against the leering eyes of men falls unduly on women and manifests as obligatory bra-wearing, she said.
Berlin-based dancer Lee Zi-hern, 31, said whether a woman decides to go braless is “a nonissue” where she lives. “I think it is unnatural to mind if other people are wearing bras or not, and I forgo bras most of the time because I personally find it a bit stifling.”
Kim Myo-ri, 27, says her 17 years of bra-wearing have been “pain-ridden.”
“I may fall on the extreme end, but I have chronic shoulder pain from wearing bras for too long. So much so that I’ve been medically diagnosed for it,” Kim said. She said she has spent more time wearing a bra than not wearing one since she started in the fourth grade.
To Kim, the constraint of bra is also associated with digestive difficulties. “The first thing I do when I have an upset stomach is take off my bra.”
Kim is not alone in her experience of bra-related health complaints.
Choi Seung-jun, a gastroenterologist who serves as vice president of the Yongsan district medical association in Seoul, said he has routinely seen patients who complained of pain or discomfort from wearing bras in his over 20 years of practice.
“When you are experiencing digestive problems, wearing bras exacerbates the condition because of the pressure it exerts on your body,” he said. “There is research that unbuttoning your shirt -- which is even less constricting than a bra -- is better for the digestive tract. I always tell my patients, ‘Take (your bras) off. It’s not good for you.’”
Trivializing female pain
Women afflicted by bras will not always be taken seriously at the doctor’s office, however.
Lee Sang-gil, a gastroenterologist at Severance Hospital, flatly denied any connection between wearing a bra and digestive problems. Breast surgeons at the same hospital called health concern from bras “unscientific.”
The lack of consensus in medical opinion may be due to the lack of research on the subject, according to Paek Se-hyun, a breast cancer surgeon at Ewha University Medical Center.
Paek said there is “just not enough research” on health issues related to bras, although he has observed patients complaining or worried.
Yun-Kim said the lack of expert attention despite frequent complaints from women shows how women’s pains are taken less seriously.
“As with most fields, research in medicine is also male-centric. It shows women are less listened to, and less studied.
“When addressing needs or struggles specific to women, women are often silenced,” she said. “For instance, women get told it’s natural that periods are painful and uncomfortable. They are discouraged from bringing their problems to doctors. And when they do, they aren’t understood or taken seriously.”
Paek, however, added that he has “never read wearing bras is good for breast health, either.”
“Wearing bras could worsen certain nipple-areolar abnormalities such as inverted nipples, and could lead to mastitis in some cases,” he said.
Another gastroenterologist, who declined to be named, said, “Bras that are tight-fitting around the rib cage could be linked with indigestion.”
He continued, “But I guess they could wear the right size.”
In search of ‘perfect fit’
Women wearing the wrong size is a common notion that comes up in discussions about issues many women have with their bras.
It can be a way of shrugging off genuine problems that come with wearing bras and chalking them all up to a single cause: the wrong size.
The problem is, women are forever in search of “the perfect-fitting bra,” oftentimes throughout decades of their bra-wearing existence.
Lingerie designer Park Aram said more women prioritize comfort when it comes to bras. (Taxtetaster)
And there is a reason it’s so hard for many women to find “the right fit,” according to Paek. Breast size and texture change over the course of a woman’s monthly cycle, the surgeon said.
The latest women’s lingerie market trends indicate that consumers are craving more comfort when it comes to bras.
Women’s underwear brand Venus told The Korea Herald that sales of wireless options such as bralettes and bra tops have been on the rise in recent years, especially among young women.
Lingerie designer Park Aram said the popularity of “sexy, pretty bras with underwire and skin-irritating synthetic materials” has been falling, as more women prioritize comfort.
Park said her women’s lingerie startup Taxtetaster was inspired by the lack of comfortable styles from existing brands.
“The truth is, if women are destined for a bra-wearing life, it shouldn’t have to be so hard to find a comfortable bra.”
By Kim Arin (email@example.com