I am struck by how far the lingerie industry has come in relation to plus-size representation, women of colour representation, and LGBTQIA+ representation. With representation comes increased accessibility: plus-size bras come in more than black, white, beige, and floral. POC have increasing access to nude bras and tights in their skin colours. Binders, packers, and androgynous lingerie is more readily available now than ever.
However, we have a ways to go when it comes to representation and accessibility for those in the low-income to no-income bracket. While you can quickly say “just go buy a bra at Walmart,” Walmart and big box stores like it do not actually cover the needs of all poor women. People in this bracket come in a variety of shapes and sizes too: core, full-bust, plus, and petite. They also come in a variety of ethnicities: White, Asian, Native, Black, Indian, and more.
When I started musing about this topic on Twitter, I received an interesting push back against the idea of low-income (poor) women needing bras. As you may start thinking the same things as I was getting told on Twitter – let us get these middle-class retorts out of the way first.
1) Women don’t need bras
This is a first-line defence strategy for why lingerie should not be made accessible and affordable for low-income people. Oddly enough, I rarely see a “black women don’t need bras so why does Nubian Skin exist” argument or “women who have had a mastectomy don’t need bras so why does Amoena” exist argument.
So let me put this quite frankly:
who the fuck are you to tell other women what they do and do not need?
Just because a bra does not prevent the ol’ girls from sagging – so it is not a medical device – does not mean that women do not need bras. We need different things for different reasons. For some women, bras may help relieve back pain from toting around heavy boobs. Therefore, bras can reduce pain, increase comfort, and increase confidence.
For other women it may be a case of gender affirmation when they have had a mastectomy or have changed gender or just do not feel at home in their own bodies so things like push up bras that give cleavage and reaffirm their femininity are a godsend. Women need bras for their psychological well-being.
Third, we live in a world where it is not acceptable to run around without a bra. People’s thoughts on the subject range from hippy to indecent, but not wearing a bra will reduce a women’s chance of getting hired for a job and may have other negative affects on her social interactions with others.
2) There are plenty of cheap bras
This is true to a point. Department stores tend to carry relatively cheap bras as do the lower-end brand names such as La Senza here in Canada. However, these bras are primarily available in core sizes with plus-size, full-bust, and petite sizes absent.
For example: LaSenza’s new and improved size range is 32A to 38DDD. Last time I hit up the sales at my local department stores (Hudson’s Bay, Sears, etc.), they maxed out at a size 36DD so I am personally sized out. Our one big plus-size representative Addition Elle has band sizes starting at 36″ combined with larger band sizes ($60 or so range). If you are full-bust but not plus-size, then you are looking at buying from a lingerie boutique.
Furthermore, if you are looking for a mastectomy bra or a nude bra for WOC – you will be hard pressed to find anything in your average department store (speaking from Canada). If you are looking for 28″ bands or 30″ bands, then you will also find it near impossible to find an affordable bra in your average department or big box store.
3) There are plenty of cheap bras online
I love online bra shopping. However, telling a poor person to just ‘go shop online’ for their lingerie assumes many things:
- It assumes they can afford internet. Basic Internet 15 costs $63/m from Telus plus taxes. Having internet assumes they also have a home, a working computer, a router/modem, and power.
- It assumes they have access to the internet (and transportation to said computer with net access) through some other means if they cannot afford home internet.
- It assumes they have a credit card.
- It assumes they have a home address or an address where items can be safely mailed.
- It assumes they have transportation to pick up and return items should they not fit.
- It assumes they have the budget for shipping fees.
These are all assumptions that are easy to make if you are a middle-class (or higher) individual with access to all these things.
4) Just alter the bra to fit
I really like this suggestion for how poor people should just buy those department store (or La Senza or Addition Elle) bras and alter them to fit if their size is not represented. I wonder how we would react if we were given the same advice: “sorry, the lingerie industry will not make bras above a 36D. Just alter it to fit.” Again, this advice assumes so much that many people do not have:
- It assumes knowledge: both of sewing and of how to specifically alter lingerie.
- It assumes access to knowledge: that the individual has the ability to learn how to sew or access to Google to find out (thus assumes internet access), or knows someone who can teach them how to sew.
- It assumes access to materials such as scissors, needle, thread, and a stitch-puller. It also assumes the individual has the money to afford these extra materials to fix their bra. It assumes the individual has a place to store these extra items.
- It assumes a safe and private environment in which they can modify their undergarments.
5) Businesses are required to be profitable not accessible.
I am fascinated by this argument because I rarely hear the same argument used when we are outraged about other types of representation and accessibility.
- We advocate for companies to use models of colour. We ask companies to drop the term nude on their light beige bras as these nude bras are not nude for everyone (ignoring that nude is one of the highest searched for bra terms on Google)
- We advocate heavily for plus-size representation in lingerie advertising. We beg lingerie companies to add larger cup sizes to serve the full-bust market and beg for more risqué designs.
- We advocate for disabled representation and representation for women who have had mastectomies including using women with mastectomies to model mastectomy bras
- We advocate for more LGBTQIA+ representation and the use of androgynous and trans models
- We request smaller band sizes: 28″, 30″ and even the occasional 26″ band be produced to serve petite women
However, we shy back at the idea of asking companies to make their products more class inclusive. When class – when money – is part of the equation, we are so quick to defend the freedoms of companies but the needs of low-income, poverty, homeless, social assistance, etc. individual are practically ignored.
We fail to notice the link. Models affect the bottom dollar. When a company chooses a black model or a white model it DOES affect people’s buying habits – which affects a company’s profit. When a company uses a plus-size model over a thin white model, it DOES affect the bottom line: money. When companies are asked to drop the term nude, their bras will show up less on Google when women search for “nude bra” and thus it will have an impact on profit. When we ask a company to make 28″ bands, which generally do not sell very well, we are telling the company to reduce profit to accommodate the needs of a select group. We are comfortable asking companies to change to be more race and size inclusive so why are we uncomfortable asking them to become more class inclusive?
When I broached this subject on Twitter, I entered into it from a position of how can we change. It is tempting to think of all the reasons why the lingerie industry is the way it is – but I find it is easier to break the rules if you do not know they exist.
If businesses are about profit – not accessibility or representation – then a non-profit organization seems to be the way to go. A not-for-profit lingerie brand OR boutique can set out to provide bras at cost or heavily subsidised to at-need populations. There are already a few charities out there you can support: Distributing Dignity collects feminine products and bras for the homeless. Smalls For All collects new underwear (pants, knickers, etc.) and new/used bras to donate. Their tagline is ‘say “pants” to poverty’.
2) Charity Products
I used to be a huge fan of Lush’s Charity Pot – a product where 100% of the proceeds (minus taxes) are donated to small, grass-roots organizations. Lingerie companies (brands or boutiques) could have a charity product (bra, knickers, nipple pasties, etc.) where a large percentage of the proceeds are used to supply in-need women with bras.
3) Create a Bra Fund
A bra fund can simply be a pool of money used to subsidise lingerie for women in need. To generate income for the fund, a portion of the proceeds from every purchase (1 – 5%, or select items like a charity product) could be automaticly donated to the fund. This sort of thing often happens for Breast Cancer Awareness Month when a portion of the profit from pink bras is often donated to breast cancer research. Alternatively, you could give customers the option of donating $1 or $2 on top their purchase.
The fund can then be used to subsidise bras for women in need. There are a myriad of ways to do this so here are just a few:
- Offer bras at-cost to low-income individuals (honour system, social-assistance check stub, etc.)
- Offer bras for free to low-income individuals (see above)
- Use the fund to purchase bras and then donate them to a local shelter or charity that is working with low-income and no-income populations
I am reminded of my local SPCA who understands the difficulties of properly caring for a pet when you are poor. Low-income families merely need to present a welfare check stub or other form of I’m poor identification and their pet will be spayed or neutered for a very low fee. The SPCA highly subsidizes the operation in these cases.
4) Create a lower-price/lower-quality range
Brands have the power to create lingerie at a price range that is accessible to low income women. For example, Agent Provocateur just created L’Agent as a way to capture a different income bracket. Supposedly, they use a bit lower quality materials and recycled designs from AP to keep prices lower. Brands that are already mid-range could also create a daughter-line with lower-priced materials and recycled designs to keep overhead low. The bras could be sold at cost or with very low profit margins.
Donations are one of the simplest ways for the average person to provide bras for low-income women. For example, Bluestocking’s Boutique ran a bra-drive for Rosie’s Place, which helps poor and homeless women through housing, education, and support systems.
6) Make knowledge accessible
If you are a boutique owner (or social media manager for a boutique or brand) who does not have a range of bras for low-income women, then keep a list of alternate resources and make them readily available. Part of accessibility is accessing knowledge: giving women the knowledge of where to find bras in their size and their price range even if you do not stock them yourself.
7) Create non-digital knowledge bases
Internet access is a privilege that many people do not have. Therefore, it is important to create non-digital knowledge bases including vital information on bra basics such as:
- How to measure yourself for a bra
- Sister-size charts
- Quick reference guides to bra fit problems & solutions
- How to alter bras
Print these out. Give these away. Donate them. Hand them out with any lingerie you sell. Spread knowledge.
8) Gifts with mileage: sewing kits
I am reminded of that old adage “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Give sewing kits (instead of postcards, stickers, fancy wrapping, etc) with bras and a pamphlet on how to do simple bra alterations. If your boutique and/or company does not tend to serve a low-income community, then donate sewing kits with instructions to local charities who do work with the poor.
We are willing to demand bras for plus-sizes. We are willing to demand bras for full-bust women. We are willing to demand small-band bras for petite women. We are willing to demand nude bras for WOC and mastectomy bras for women with breast cancer. Stand up to the plate and demand bras for low-income women who may be plus-size, who may be full-busted, who may be petite, who may be WOC, and who may have breast cancer.
Further note: I believe all manufacturing should be ethical manufacturing – thus the cheap bras or low-price bras I advocate for in this post are not bras where the brunt of our compassion for poor in our own country is on the backs of poor in another country: underpaid workers, slave labour, child labour, etc. I advocate for subsidisation: where people who have money give a little bit more and where companies who have profit take a little less. Where it is not possible to give more as a person or take less as a company, I advocate for shared knowledge. We all have the ability to share our knowledge with others.
Do you have any suggestions on ways we can promote CHANGE and make sure women living in poverty get the bras they need? Comment below – I would love to hear them!