Two Women Walk Into a Bra: My Search for an Ethical Foundation
by Judith Greer Essex PhD
When is the beginning of womanhood? Unlike the biologically regulated event of menarche, the first bra fitting could be said to be one rite of passage for a girl. In my day it was called a training bra, although who was being trained for what is still in question. I was taken by my Mother into a lingerie shop, a hushed, lavender scented temple of silken dainties, where a woman with a tape measure around her neck, like a doctor’s stethoscope, measured my budding breasts, and pronounced my development like a stockyard hand weighing a cow. From there forward, I was to be in harness. Although tales of bra burning are largely apocryphal, by the time I entered university in 1963, the bra, even at a conservative religious college, became a symbol of sexual politics, a symbol of oppression, and the fetishizing of the female breast. I came to value my foundation garments as allies in the battle against gravity. Having recently entered my 70’s, a good fitting bra is now one of my treasures.
How is this related to expressive arts therapy ? Intimately.
Second-year students at the Expressive Arts Institute, are required to take a training course called Social and Political Responsibility. Many of our Expressive Arts Therapy and Education students will become helpers in underprivileged communities, and even conflict zones. All will practice in a world where inequity and hardship is increasingly the rule for the vast majority. One of our research projects is called the “Map of My Stuff.” Students and staff look at everything we are wearing, everything we carry with us, from combs to phones, and from flip-flops to laptops. Each student marks the place for each item on a large world map, seeing where the goods and clothing they are investing in come from. Usually they are surprised at how global their lifestyle has become, often struggling to find the countries on the map. We investigate the environmental impact of the raw materials and the human cost and working conditions of those distant persons who make our things.
This year, I discovered that my beloved Wacoal bras, are actually sewn in the Dominican Republic or Thailand. Both countries have poor human rights records, and a prominence of low wages and unsafe working conditions. Most garment factory workers are women, and not well treated. Somehow the very common intimacy of this garment, so close to my heart and my femininity, leads me to consider the lives of the women who make them.
So I began the search for a bra that is ethically made.
I found wonderful looking bras “Made in France.” Upon digging, I discovered that while they were designed and cut in France, they were largely sewn and assembled in Tunisia, Madagascar, Portugal, China, Morocco, and Thailand. According to the company, this qualifies under E.U. law for the Made in France label. I suppose in these days of this global economy, I shouldn’t be surprised that nothing is made in one place. We are all connected. Even so, the place matters
Because I am connected to the woman who makes my bra, and I can’t forget her life circumstances. I think of her weary hands, her long days, her impovershed life, her kids. And I keep looking, for a better, more responsible company to do business with. I can’t participate in a system that enslaves her through low wages, even as it demeans her labor. This is part of the expressive arts philosophy – that our social and political environments effect us, and our simple actions can have far-reaching effects. If I am to take aesthetic responsibility, not only for my work, but for my life, then I must respond to the conditions of others I am connect to. As part of my aesthetic response I wrote a haiku to the woman who sews my brassiere in the Dominican Republic
You labor long hours/ Your skilled hands working for me/My secret sister.
I am still on a search for a”perfect bra;” one that serves the women who make it as well as those who wear it. Although they call bras “intimates” I’ve come to recognize that my true intimates are the women whose handiwork crosses my heart each day.
Wanna Map Your Stuff?: You’ll need a world map and sticky notes, or pins etc. Check labels on everything you wear, carry, use, and eat. Put the name of the thing on a flag and put it on the country that claims its manufacture. The use resources like this or like this to learn more about the place your stuff is made, and what it’s made of. Write a small poem to the person whose handiwork has become part of your life. Have a “Stuff Map’ gathering of friends. You’ll all learn something.