Throughout history, a woman’s bosom has been a point of fascination. A new bra for women with only one breast turns the spotlight on their right to adequate clothing.
Like the turning of a wheel, a woman’s relationship with her breasts is ever evolving. As a young girl, she will stuff her shirt with tissue, playing dress-up in anticipation of her teenage shape. A few years later, her mother will take her shopping for her first training bra. Then, with puberty in full swing, a dramatic shift will occur as full breasts appear almost overnight and nothing seems to fit. Without proper guidance she will join the plethora of women – 80% – who go about life wearing the wrong bra size. Over the years, should the woman decide to nurse her children, breasts will lift and swell then deflate and fall, until settling somewhere in the middle. And for others – an approximate 2.3 million (2020) globally – their breasts will become sick with cancer. Breast cancer is the world’s most prevalent cancer, with 7.8 million people worldwide diagnosed in the last five years. Millions of women will have the cancer cut out, their upper bodies once again partially or fully flat like a child’s.
Under the gaze of men, the woman’s body – her breasts in particular – has been a point of fascination for centuries across all cultures and societies. The representation of breasts through art has long reflected the perceived role of women in society. In Ancient Egyptian engravings and paintings, only gods and deities were depicted with breasts. Sometimes they were featured feeding pharaohs; the bosom the thread of life and divinity. In the Middle Ages, when much of the western world was under a cloak of conservatism, breasts were hidden. This would eventually make way for the Renaissance and baroque periods when artists would feature women with protruding bosoms dressed or in the nude showcasing their generous forms. Meanwhile orientalist art – the imitated depiction of life in the eastern world – featured women not in the role of the mother, but in that of the prostitute, lounging in luxurious harems.
In the Victorian era, breasts were bound by corsets. In 1968 in the US, bras were thrown in the trash as acts of rebellion against the Miss America pageant. In Canada in 1995, university student Gwen Jacob was arrested and charged with indecency after removing her shirt on a hot day. She stated that men were doing the same and she wanted to draw attention to the double standard. She argued that breasts were merely “fatty tissue.” A judge deemed them “part of the female body sexually stimulating to men both by sight and touch.” In parallel, another fight was on the rise. Breast cancer was now the leading cause of death among women. The first documented case of breast cancer was in Egypt, around 3 600 ago. An ancient text found in 1860 in an Egyptian tomb described eight cases of breast tumors. Current-day headlines shouting its rapid proliferation reached an all-time high when, in 2013, one of the most famous women in the world, Angelina Jolie, penned an op-ed in the New York Times recounting her double mastectomy. Following the cancer-preventing removal of her breasts, which saw her chances of developing the disease drop from 87% to 5% (due to her being a carrier of the BRCA1 gene), Jolie opted for reconstructive surgery.
For their own reasons, not all women decide to do so. In a world where universal, state-paid health care doesn’t always cover the procedure, they simply cannot afford it. How does a woman with one breast dress herself ? Does she reach for her old bra and fill one cup with tissue? Does she do the same with a swimsuit? Prosthetic clothing, which conceals the absence of one breast, is often described as an uncomfortable option. What choice, then, for women who decide to move forward with the outward representation of their authentic self? Enter Spanish high-street brand Mango, which has created a collection of bras and swimwear for women with one breast. Challenged by Spanish non-profit association teta&teta, which created prototype bras, Mango produced a capsule collection of three bras, two swimsuits, and a bikini for women with one breast and those who wear a prosthesis.
While the sizes range from small to XXL, equally, it is the accessible price point that brings liberty and choice to breast cancer survivors. “Our community, our customers are our priority,” states Mango design director Justi Ruano. “Listening to them, offering solutions, and adapting to their needs.” And the need was evident. “I don’t even enter lingerie stores because there is nothing in there for me,” states one breast cancer survivor, adding that prosthetic bras are hot and heavy. “Why should I pretend that I have two breasts? This is how I am,” comments another. “We are pushed into a corner where we are expected to either reconstruct or wear a prosthetic. There is simply nothing else on the market.” Other high-street brands like Carrefour, Oysho, and C&A have also rolled out similar collections since Mango’s spring debut. Time will tell if one day, inside the Louvre, the Met, or the Prado museums, art will feature voluptuous Venus alongside the silhouette of a woman with one breast or none. Onlookers will observe the art featuring an exposed bosom as the manifestation of fertility and sexuality and those without, as the representation of indomitable strength in the face of a cancer that didn’t kill them. Now, 217 years after Japanese surgeon Seishu Hanaoka performed the first mastectomy under general anesthesia in 1804, both have the option to dress their bodies as equals. The right to adequate clothing is nothing less than a human right.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia