Old Bras Teaching a Survivor A New Lesson

June 9, 2020
Felicia Mitchell
Felicia Mitchell
Felicia Mitchell

Felicia Mitchell is a poet and writer who makes her home in southwestern Virginia, where she teaches at Emory & Henry College. She was diagnosed with Stage 2b HER2-positive breast cancer in 2010. Website: www.feliciamitchell.net

Even those who have undergone mastectomies can enjoy a vintage bralette. And maybe being more comfortable with who I am, a survivor who did not opt for reconstruction, can be a lesson to others.

Lately, Facebook ads want to introduce me to comfortable bras. Such ads include a bra perfect for Zoom meetings or stretchy bras intended to reduce the pop-up effect (you know, that thing that happens when one's breasts spill out in all directions). As a survivor who did not opt for reconstruction after a unilateral mastectomy, I had to decide if I should be annoyed or amused that some algorithm said: "sell her a bra."

What did I do? Rant? Despair? Try to opt-out of such ads? I freely admit that I became intrigued by some of the designs. How could I not study them? Rather than making me want to shop online, the ads made me nostalgic for the days of bralettes and wispy lace.

While I have a few sports bras and a prosthetic bra purchased after the mastectomy, as well as "bras" I constructed, my lingerie drawer includes very pretty things layered under the practical stuff. Catering to my nostalgia, I was happy to unearth a lovely beige bralette, a black lace number I bought to wear with a silk dress I wore to a high school reunion and a white one that was my go-to bralette 30 years ago. These pre-cancer retro bralettes appeared perfect for summer.

The white bralette, while still enchanting with lace overlaying nylon, has lost most of its cling. I still love its style. And you know what? The small cups work their magic, one providing modesty for the left side and the other collapsing nicely so as not to appear crumpled underneath a shirt.

Repurposing my vintage bralettes opened up my summer wardrobe. Usually, as the temperature gauge rises, I prefer to be braless under a black t-shirt easily covered with a long-sleeved shirt when I need to run around in public. The other day, though, I left for the grocery store without taking the long-sleeved shirt, though it felt odd at first as I paused at the door and questioned this fashion choice.

No, I thought, I was wearing a bralette. I could do anything! I could be Cinderella or make a Zoom call or go to the grocery store to get cat food and whatever else I might grab in my allotted few minutes (as I prefer curbside pickup these days). Off I went in black t-shirt over wispy white bra, straps thankfully loose on my shoulders, to the store.

Survivors, along with cancer patients and other high-risk groups, are at risk for complications of COVID-19. Some of us have more than one risk factor. That is why I buy groceries curbside and shop alongside others only now and then. Fully masked on this day, with disinfecting wipe in hand, I zoomed through the store, pausing briefly only once to glance at a line by the pharmacy, where a woman not wearing a mask glanced straight at my chest.

Had she never seen a one-breasted woman? I wonder because so few people ever seem to stare. But she did, her eyes locked chest-level long enough for me to see her seeing me as I was, a survivor buying cat food. She made me feel as valued as a public service announcement.

What if this woman saw me as a reason to rethink the decision to eschew masks? What if she began to realize that not wearing a mask, especially in a store that asks you to in a state that requires it, is insensitive? Or maybe she decided, right that moment, to schedule a mammogram. Such thoughts in the grocery store could have been magical thinking but I believe in magic and am glad potentially triggering ads made me excavate old bralettes, which made me feel braver to be myself in public.


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