Why are Indians So Embarrassed About the Bra?


Why are Indians So Embarrassed About the Bra?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

We, as a nation, have always been surreptitious about lingerie. Just like sex, we’ll go to great lengths to avoid talking about it. While the lower garment barely makes a brief, the bra for some reason creates a mountain out of a molehill.

As Indian girls, we are raised with the strict instruction that our bras should not be hung out to dry like the rest of the dirty linen we wash in public. And if there are sons at home, then there’s even more reason for us to pretend that lingerie does not exist. If unannounced relatives dropped in, and lingerie waved out from the clothesline, furtive glances were exchanged and the deft and dexterous mother would have it stashed away as unassumingly as possible. The son’s VIP trunks or the father’s yellow-with-age vest remained hanging recklessly, with not a sign of shame in its folds.

We are one of the fastest growing populations in the world, which means every minute, someone somewhere is doing it. And yet our heightened sense of prudishness will put the world to shame. The practice of the wife shopping for her husband’s undergarments still prevails in several regions of our great country, but I’m still waiting to catch a man buying a bra and panty for his wife.

This is at odds with our traditions. There have always been voluptuous figures in our epics and mythology, and we idolise them. These women are usually depicted frolicking with deer and birds in celestial gardens, or coyly stringing jasmine into their hair as their men drool over them. They wear sheer billowy saris, often without a blouse, leaving nothing to the imagination. Or, they wear a cloth band that travels around their bosom to sit in a delicate knot in the centre of shapely backs. This band barely hides the couple of promises it encloses.

When the woman stepped out of her mythical existence and landed on terra firma, she realised that her bare bosom would get her into trouble with the ungodly men on Earth. So, with much ingenuity, the bra was invented. In its early form, it was more like a blouse with conical cups. Naidu Hall in Tamil Nadu, Libertina elsewhere in the country, were among pioneers to make this pointed statement. Erstwhile Indian movie actresses took on the role of PR agents for the products. This move surely added a feather in their cup… err… cap. Who can forget the grand entry of Asha Parekh or Nanda on screen a couple of minutes after their bosoms arrived? Peak performance!

When the woman stepped out of her mythical existence and landed on terra firma, she realised that her bare bosom would get her into trouble with the ungodly men on Earth

But, still the cloaked existence of lingerie continued. Until courage Triumph’ed. It Enamoured customers with lacy offerings. Lovable products lured the Indian woman. These Pretty Secrets now ventured out from hiding, into stunning shop window displays. While Juliet catered to tight purse strings, Amante aimed higher. Suddenly, there was lingerie for every woman, for all and no occasions. Slowly the men crept in. These days, husbands wait patiently as their wives try on lacy graces in the changing rooms of sprawling lingerie stores. Friends and lovers strolling through malls, walk past lingerie displays leisurely. No squirming. No leering.  

We are evolving and that’s a good thing. Therefore, when the Municipal Corporation in Mumbai dashed down a protest to pull down lingerie displays on claims of indecency, we applauded in solidarity. When sexual orientation has come out of the closet, why should the bra be behind? If men can deal with the rational fact that their junk needs a jockstrap surely they can understand that tits need support. If men can wear their jeans way below their boxers in the mistaken belief that it makes them appear as objects of desire, then an unintentional show of the bra should not trigger anything.

I explained this idea of “freeing of the bra” to my mother recently as she gestured with her eyes one day at my peeking bra strap. She looked at me as if I’d grown horns and followed it up with the soft gasp she reserves for extreme distress. I’d become an unrecognisable creature from the good “bra-hiding” daughter she had raised.

I realised then perhaps the reason that the bra has come to be a trigger garment is not because men can’t deal with it, but because with all our hiding we haven’t really given them a chance to. The more they see bras casually integrated into the tapestry of regular life, the more it becomes part of the scenery rather than sticking out like a sore thumb.

So let’s bring the bra out. In all its lacy (or not) outrageous glory. Because let’s face it: It’s not lingerie that is the culprit. It’s the old cleavage between mind and matter