On bras and taking them off in public

The museum for communication in Frankfurt currently has an exhibition called “Body Talks” in which they portray the history of the bra since it’s invention around 1900 and its patenting in 1914 – so this year is its 100-year anniversary. The interesting thing to see is the relationship between bras, the perfect female body and feminism.

A short summary from what I remember (as unprofessional as I am, I didn’t take notes): Before and around 1900 women, especially those higher up in society – wore corsetts to give them an hour-glass-ish body and a good posture. So it made the women attractive for men, but it also kept them in place – as it was not very comfortable. It also caused long-term organ damage among other things.
They showed a newspaper article from a woman who – fighting for the usage of the corsett – vowed that it would only be beneficial to wear one. She said by wearing one, she gained 15 cm on her boobs and that it surely was truly embarrassing to have flat breasts and that men only found women alluring when their boobs were huge enough (obviously it was in German and she spoke more 20th century-like). It was rather funny.

Pro-Women in politics poster

In the twenties came the bra and with it the flat-breasted (OH NO!), androgyn-looking business women, working in the cities, women’s emancipation on an upswing. The women’s right to vote was introduced, though many had no idea what to do with it. But other took the chance to introduce women actively into politics, while on the other side their ambitions were ridiculed.

And then – again, this is Germany – came Mr. Hitler with his twisted views, turning them into breeding machines, but also using them as a work-force because all the men were – well – most likely dead. Anyhow it was a huge set-back for the women’s right’s movement. The ideal woman here had rather wide hips and a strong body for work and child-bearing (reminds me a bit of Lord of the Rings, when they mass-produce Orks).

There was hardly any credit for them in the fifties, though they had basically rebuilt Germany after the war. In that time, they had installed women’s councils and groups, but that was all set back when the men came home.

According to the exhibition, women wanted to be women again in the fifties and sixties. So it was back to old gender-rolls. Men at work, women at home. At the time, the wider public was faced with the question whether or not women could handle stressful situations. They even brought out the so-called “Frauengold” (women’s gold) which was basically alcohol. The adverts suggested that women were subjective, hysterical creatures that needed some booze to chill. It’s rather funny in hindsight. It’s funny to think that in the war, women were the ones working and rebuilding the country (yes, I know, the men were fighting and dying, but you see my point) and a few years later they were seen as weak and over-sensitive. There was more of a tendency towards the corsett again, or at least a bra with an extension downwards.

Later there was a tendency for big boobs, supermodels and baywatch. The sixties were a time of a new wave of feminists fighting for the emancipation of women and the end of sexual oppression. Their goal was to make women equal to men as throughout history they had been marginalised and seen as lesser beings. They wanted more involvement in politics. The US-Women were a bit faster than those in Germany by forming the national organisation for women (NOW).

Now, everybody knows the images of feminist activists running around, shouting paroles, bare breasts with writing on their bodies. At the time, surely it was effective. The wave of new media with sexy, curvy, confident women was a large one, but I think that’s where the problem started. While protestors asked for more appreciation and stronger rights and power, more choice, the entertainment world caught onto it and along came the beginnings of an over-sexualised society. I am not blaming the feminists. I think they were right. But I don’t think that magazines for men with half-naked women are the answer.

Nowadays they say it’s a woman’s free choice to be on the cover of some partially pornographic magazine, working in a strip club or the sex industry. They say nobody is forcing them. But like one hundred years ago, there was a general undestanding of how a woman has to be and what she ought to look like. Today, there is more variety, but there is always some form of self-optimization going on to be appreciated. Not just women, also men. I think we just need to realize that the ideal apperance will change every five years. I feel like the image for the perfect breasts changes every year.

But women are not equal to men. Sure, we have women in politics, Germany has a female Chancellor, but we still get less pay than men, for example. We are still subjected to sexual violence or even just the threat of it, which is scary enough. And there is still too much prejudice, not just for women. I think as long as we continue to watch TV-shows about “The typical guy” and the “The typical woman”. These things put us all into a position when we either have to submit to given standards or do our best to fight them. It they did not exist, or at least weren’t emphasized as much, we would be given the chance to developp into whatever we will be, undefined by any prejudice or stereotypes.

So I think feminism is still necessary, but somehow I feel like people have forgotten what that means. I’ve been asked what I think about women today showing their breasts in protest. In the world of today when people do the strangest things, it’s hard to be surprised. So, reviving a protest-form from the sixties and seventies, is not an ideal way to promote women’s emancipation. Everybody knows, what breasts look like, it’s not really shocking anymore. Of course you can say that there is a difference between taking your clothes off to please men, as you are taking them off for yourself and your own message, using your body for your own purpose. But most men I’ve heard comment on this topic, they don’t seem to take it very seriously: “It’s nice to look at.” is something they say or: “It doesn’t bother me at all.”


Usually, the message is lost on people. So I think there should be more new ways to promote feminist views – and yes, these views should be promoted – through journalism, through influencing the general public and the media, by starting in school, with small children, with teenagers and also in the family. Currently it’s taken for granted that women can be objectified by men – and – in protest – the other way around. It needs to be taken for granted that both men and women deserve equal respect and equal rights and equal say in all things and that everybody can become whatever they want on an individual basis. There is no use in trying to live up to a trend, because trends come and go like seasons.


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