+Matthew Graybosch, someone I consider to be attempting to be as decent a person as he can, is looking for some feedback on a possible article; so I'm sharing his request in case any of the persons who watch me have thoughts.

Not going to limit genuine opinions, but - fair warning - I might delete comments I feel are impolite or irrelevant without a qualm; so, use reason and evidence not shoutiness and abuse.



To any women who might be interested, I'm thinking of doing the following blog post about the "bra tax" and the difficulties women face in bra shopping.

The following text is rough, and I still need to do some research. However, I'd also appreciate any comments or perspectives you'd care to offer.

I thought that since I'm a man I might be able to bring up this subject in public without enduring the sort of creepshow women would face if they talk about bras in public, but at the same time I'm not writing directly from lived experience.

Instead, I'm writing as a guy who sometimes waits upon his wife when she goes bra shopping and sometimes buys them as "just because" gifts when I notice that a favorite bra is getting worn or ratty.


You may have heard of the "tampon tax", a sort of social tax imposed on women because men usually don't get periods. While men in relationships often buy sanitary pads and tampons for the women in their lives out of their own wages or the family's combined income, it is usually women (especially queer or single women) who disproportionately bear the expense incurred by these monthly necessities because men rarely menstruate.

Public outcry against the "tampon tax" on the internet is more common now than it was a decade ago, but women pay another socially imposed tax that they don't talk about in public lest they attract unwanted attention from immature men and boys: the "bra tax".

Just as men tend not to menstruate, our culture expects women to wear bras even if they don't need them, but imposes no such expectation on men even if they have bigger breasts than some women. While men in relationships might buy bras for the women in their lives, they are under no social or cultural obligation to do so. It is for that reason that the expense of getting fitted for, shopping for, buying, and cleaning bras is a tax on women.

Furthermore, the bra tax is far more burdensome than the tampon tax. While tampons are more complicated than sanitary pads, sanitary pads are easy enough to mass produce that a man in India invented and began mass-producing a machine that women can use to make their own pads. Such a machine, once paid for, reduces the tampon tax to the cost of materials plus time spent making pads, time spent on machine maintenance, and occasional repairs.

Bras are lot harder to mass-produce in large quantities than sanitary pads or tampons, but major players like Victoria's Secret, Maidenform, Playtex, etc. manage it. Because they manage it, it's tempting to ask why some enterprising individual can't disrupt bras the way Dollar Shave Club disrupted shaving. Hell, I was wondering the same thing myself when I started writing this post.

Bras are harder. Bras aren't purely utilitarian in the sense that razors are. Aside from the machismo attached to using an old-fashioned safety razor or a straight razor, most people probably don't attach much meaning to their choice of shaving tools. All that matters is whether or not it makes the cut.

Bras are different in that while Dollar Shave Club can offer shaving cartridges in just three different "sizes" (2 blades, 4 blades, or 6 blades), bras need to fit human bodies. Most bras have two sizes: a band size and a cup size, represented by a number and a letter code respectively.

The band size corresponds with a woman's bustline, the circumference of her rib cage measured just below her breasts. The cup size is a rough estimate of how much space her breasts occupy. These sizes have a complicated relationship:

* You cannot necessarily infer cup size from band size. A small band size does not necessarily imply small breasts. Conversely a large band size does not necessarily imply large breasts.
* Cup size is relative. 34C is not the same cup size as 38C, even though they're both "C" cups.
* Two women with the same band size can have radically different cup sizes. For example, Alice wears a 34B. Barbara wears a 34DD.

Big lingerie companies try to hedge their bets by assuming that women's sizes follow a normal distribution or a "bell curve", so that the majority of women wear the "median" size, some women wear sizes within a standard deviation of the mean, and a small minority of women wear sizes two or more standard deviations from the mean.

The problem is that the big manufacturers appear to be stuck on the assumption that 34B is the median. This may have been true a century ago, but probably hasn't been the case in over twenty years.

However, even if the manufacturers were to measure statistically significant populations of women of all races, socioeconomic classes, and age groups to establish a more accurate median size, women whose sizes are more than a standard deviation from the mean will still be forced to spend more time and money bra shopping than women who can just walk into a store and reasonably expect to be able to just pick something they like off the rack.

If my wife wore a 34B, she'd have an easier time picking out a wide variety of bras to fit all sorts of settings and moods than she currently does wearing a 38DD. However, my wife still has an easier time than women who wear a 44G bra, even though it seems like most of the bras retailers carry in my wife's size are beige full-coverage underwire jobs.

It's bad enough that I've heard of women resorting to Ebay for bra shopping and trying to find deals on overstocks.

Now, you might wonder: what if we made bras differently? However, we already make different kinds of bras for certain purposes, like sports bras.

You might get away with mass-producing sports bras in sizes like XS, S, M, L, XL, etc, but bras are not utilitarian objects because clothing is not utilitarian. It is also ornamental, even if not publicly visible.

With the exception of professional athletes and the possible exception of women serving in the armed forces, it's hard for me to imagine a woman wearing a sports bra at work. It's almost impossible for me to imagine even the most butch of athletic or military women wearing a sports bra on a date.

Furthermore, I suspect most women wouldn't wear a black bra under a white blouse. I suspect most women wouldn't wear a strapless lacy demi-cup bra at work, and likewise probably wouldn't wear a plain full-coverage bra on a date when they intend to have sex. I suspect that just as women judge themselves by what bras they wear, they also judge each other.

Because bra sizing is extremely complicated, it is harder and more expensive to mass-produce bras for uncommon sizes. Because it is harder to mass-produce bras for uncommon sizes, it is harder to disrupt the bra business the way that Indian inventor disrupted sanitary pads and Dollar Shave Club disrupted multi-blade razors.

It might still be possible, but it would probably take massive advances in automation and on-demand custom manufacturing. A technological solution to the "bra tax" would require that women be able to go to a shop, get measured, pick a style, color, and quantity, and wait for their selections to be custom-manufactured by robots.

I don't see that happening any time soon. I also don't see women refusing to wear bras altogether, even though recent scientific research suggests that wearing them is bad for women, though trading in bras for camisoles or nothing at all seems to have become an acceptable option for more women in the last decade or so.

However, if women must wear bras to conform to social or cultural demands, it's time we took a good hard look at the clothing industry. Is the social/cultural demand that women wear bras something that arose organically, or was it manufactured by the clothing industry to provide an additional revenue stream whose expense is borne primarily by women?

If the "need" to wear a bra was manufactured by the clothing industry, then we must ask ourselves and ask as a society whether industry should be permitted to manufacture such "needs" for their own benefit, as well as whether and how much industry should be permitted to profit from such manufactured "necessities".
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