Model photo via Shutterstock
If you’ve followed this blog for awhile, and especially if you read our post on bras and sagging breasts from earlier this year, some of the stuff I’m about to say in this piece will probably sound a bit familiar to you. Bras…breasts…body image, these are topics that come up on TLA time and time again in on form or another, but I felt a blog post dedicated to this particular aspect of the bra conversation was long overdue. As the title made all too clear, today we’re talking about the lingerie world’s obsession with pointing to photos of “tribal African women” as proof that bras “work” (that is, prevent breast sagging).
The reason I felt compelled to revisit this topic right now is because I’ve seen a massive uptick in various lingerie sites (bra bloggers, bra forums, and bra sellers) claiming that bras are some kind of preventative measure or even a cure for ptosis, the medical term for breast sagging. While the distribution of misinformation is an issue in of itself, what’s even worse is how quickly people turn into amateur ethnographers and field biologists when asked about the evidence for that belief. Pointing to their dusty copies of National Geographic, I’ve seen far too many people insist, “See! These tribal African women having sagging breasts and they don’t wear bras, therefore bras must keep your breasts from sagging.”
This post has been brewing for awhile (the way these kinds of articles usually do), and this topic is rich enough and complex enough that it’s hard to pull apart everything that goes into it. At the surface, this probably seems like an innocent enough statement to some. What’s the harm? However, there are three main reasons for why this “tribal African women” trope is a problem.
One, it uplifts and normalizes one standard of beauty, while simultaneously denigrating and putting down another. Two, it completely ignores the body of scientific research on the causes of sagging breasts, replacing hard evidence with pseudoscience. Three, it’s part of a very long, very racist tradition of objectifying and othering the bodies and cultures of non-white ethnic groups in order to reinforce cultural norms (and sell products). This is an exceptionally long article, and I’m going to talk about a lot of major issues here, so let’s get started.
*On Cultural Relativism and Beauty Standards*
When it comes to beauty, and especially what we consider to be beautiful, I think it’s hard for some people to remember that our particular standard of beauty is just that – our particular standard of beauty. There is nothing inherently superior or better about it. It is simply what’s in fashion now, for our particular culture, at this specific time.
While beauty standards do have some intrinsic qualities or commonalities across time and geography (specifically youth, symmetry, blemish-free skin, and proportionality) the details of beauty can vary wildly between cultures and ethnic groups. Body type, body shape, body weight…none of these things are cultural absolutes, and it is ethnocentric in the extreme to imply that another culture’s standard of beauty is inferior to your own for no other reason than that it is different.
When it comes to breasts, the Western ideal is a perky, uplifted breast shape. But would it be so unusual to imagine a culture where a softer, languorous shape is preferable? Especially since that shape, as I’ll discuss later, is often associated with other desirable outcomes, like childbearing and reaching a more mature age? Don’t get me wrong…much like our policy on body snark, I don’t really care about your personal preferences. Like what you like; it’s not really relevant to this conversation. However, one’s preferences are not applicable to the entire world.
Not the only standard of beauty.
If another culture’s standard of beauty doesn’t encompass the Western ideal, that’s fine. It shouldn’t be used as fuel for the insult of, “Either do things our way or you might look like them!” And that issue is magnified because Western standards of beauty are already incredibly Eurocentric, which means using a photograph of dark-skinned Black women as a “What Not to Wear” illustration is faulty all around.
*What Causes Sagging Breasts Anyway? A Review of the Literature*
Forget what you’ve heard. There is no published research which indicates that wearing a bra prevents breast sag. None. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data, and there is no objective evidence whatsoever to support the notion that wearing a bra delays, arrests, or otherwise affects the inevitable natural process of ptosis. As Catherine Clavering pointed out in her article for TLA about bra fit research and sampling methods, science is not about sticking to your arguments no matter what. It’s about testing your ideas, and accepting or rejecting those ideas based on the evidence. And part of testing those ideas means including attempts to disprove your hypothesis.
“But what about the Cooper’s Ligaments?” some might say, “Don’t they support the breast? And if they get stretched out, won’t the breast sag?” While some researchers do believe Cooper’s Ligaments help to hold the breast up (they are part of the internal structure of the breast), there’s no consensus on if they even support the breast tissue at all or if they just divide the tissue into compartments, and scientists are not sure how much breast support comes from Cooper’s Ligaments or from skin elasticity.
Furthermore, there’s no data which indicates that supporting the Cooper’s Ligaments yourself (as in, with a bra) will delay or forego the sagging process. However, there are a couple of small (very small) studies which seem to indicate going braless may actually result in more uplift over time, with the hypothesis being that wearing a bra may weaken your Cooper’s Ligaments ligaments and cause them to atrophy.
The general takeaway here? There’s just not enough research available to make sweeping statement like wearing a bra affects your Cooper’s Ligaments and helps to keep your breasts aloft.
One cause of sagging breasts
So what does cause sagging breasts? Well, the body of scientific evidence (references: here,here, here, and here) indicate that pregnancy, age, significant weight loss, a high BMI, and smoking are all associated with ptotic breasts. Hereditary factors like skin elasticity, breast size before pregnancy, and breast density (the ratio of fat to glandular tissue) also influence sagging. As a quick aside, the research also indicates that breastfeeding actually has no effect on sagging; it’s the breast changes that happen during pregnancy which are the key factor here.
In other words, if you are a woman who is lucky enough to grow old/er, then breast sag will be an inevitable part of your life (assuming you don’t seek cosmetic surgery, of course). It’s simply one of the many, many changes that happen to a woman’s body as part of the aging process…and there’s nothing wrong it. Now let’s bring that entire body of research back to the original point of this post, namely why using “tribal African women” as proof that bras prevent breast sagging is so wrong.
Another cause of sagging breasts.
First of all, there’s some confirmation bias going on here. Confirmation bias is a selective interpretation of the evidence or data, and in this case, confirmation bias means disregarding all the women you know who’ve worn bras their entire lives and yet still have sagging breasts. It also means simultaneously ignoring any women who doesn’t wear a bra, and yet still has uplifted breasts (this could also be called a disconfirmation bias, wherein people require more evidence for hypotheses that go against their current expectations). Here, confirmation bias also results in the repetition of discredited beliefs, even though there is no scientific evidence to back them up. People are simply paying attention to the examples which support their case and disregarding those which do not.
“But it’s so obvious!” some might say. “Women here have uplifted breasts. Women there don’t.” Well that’s where another saying I heard all the time in school comes into play - “Correlation does not equal causation.” Yes, you are seeing photos of women with sagging breasts who are also not wearing bras, but that doesn’t mean those two factors are in any way related. It’s a bit like noticing that everyone who ate a carrot in 1864 was dead by the year 2000. Yes, those two things are very highly correlated (everyone who ate carrots in 1864 was dead by the year 2000), but it doesn’t mean those two variables have anything at all to do with each other.
In the case of sagging breasts, there are a number mediating factors at play here (mediating means to come between those two other variables) like pregnancy, or, in the case of my deliberately hyperbolic example, age. The women we see in these photos may have already had multiple pregnancies, which has a strong causative relationship on breast sag. In addition, genetic factors, like skin elasticity as mentioned above, may also play a role. Finally, if we’re looking at women from a particular tribal or ethnic group, these women likely to be more closely genetically related to each other than to, say, Western women.
If you’re trying to isolate a relationship between the variables of bras and sagging breasts, then you need to control for all those other factors that we know cause ptosis. You cannot simply decide, sans evidence, that bras are the significant variable when there are so many other factors affecting the final outcome. And you can’t do that kind of research from a few photos in National Geographic. Comparing and contrasting photos of “tribal African women” to Western woman as “proof” that bras prevent sagging breasts is roughly equivalent to using a photo of a black person and a white person as “proof” that your soap gets skin clean. Such an ad, aside from being outrageously offensive, would also be obviously inaccurate since we know it’s genetics, not cleanliness, that makes brown skin brown. The same logic applies to bras and breasts.
This is very often where bra experts jump in and say they’ve seen the breasts of dozens of women and therefore that’s all the proof they need that bras prevent sagging. But again, there’s some bias going on here…in this case, sampling bias. The people coming into your shop or visiting your bra fit forum or commenting on your lingerie blog are not a representative sample of anyone. They are a small, self-selected, highly atypical group of volunteers, and the observations made about this group cannot be used to make predictions about everyone else. Nor should these observations be treated like science.
In the same way that it would be ridiculous to make generalizations about the population of America based on who happens to drive down your street on any given day, so too it’s absurd to make generalizations about women’s breasts from all over the world based on the few women who come into your shop, visit your blog, or comment on your forum. People who visit your shop are only representative of the group named “people who visit your shop.” But that’s okay because bras are awesome all on their own, and shouldn’t require fiction to sell anyway.
*Why Objectifying the Breasts of “Tribal African Women” Is Part of a Racist Legacy*
Finally (and this is the really meat and potatoes of this post so if you need to get some water and come on back, please do,) invoking the image of African women “as a lesson” to Western women has a long, ugly history in racism, slavery, and colonialism. There is terrible, terrible tradition in Western cultures of making the bodies of indigenous peoples open to criticism, commentary, and co-optation, and of using their bodies as an example of what not to look like. The same mindset that makes it okay to use a photo of a “tribal African woman” to make a point about bras, is the same mindset that makes it okay to use a photo of a black woman’s natural hair as an example of how not to look and that allows the skin-lightening cream industry to thrive.
That contrast – of the naked with the clothed, the savage with the refined, the dark with the light, the superior with the inferior – is part of a horrid and horrifying legacy that reinforced a Eurocentric standard of beauty upon the skin, hair, lips, noses, breasts, and buttocks of black women. Pointing to the breasts of “tribal African woman’s” as evidence of your bra-wearing rightness (because let’s face it, there are other places to get photos of bare breasts than National Geographic) is the 21st century equivalent of gawping at Sarah Bartmann’s labia.
There is something very exploitative about not only co-opting and subverting the photos of these women, but also of essentializing them…of reducing them to one specific body part – their breasts. Their bosoms become a prop or a tool to aid in commerce: the selling of bras. That is the definition of objectification, and if you are a breast expert or bra expert or even someone who claims to want to help women, objectifying non-Western women should never be a part of that. “Tribal African women” do not exist to buttress the bra industry. Their bodies are not a cautionary tale for what happens if you go braless. And all this would be true even if the research said bras will keep your breasts from sagging..
Listen, if wearing a bra makes you feel better for whatever reason (more support, less pain, preferred shape, fashion and style, whatever), that’s great. People should wear bras if they want to wear them for whatever reason they want to wear them for. There’s nothing wrong or bad about wanting support or shaping or what have you. But there’s no need to resort to tired tropes, body myths, urban legends, and racist stereotypes to explain your preference. Just say you like them…and move on.