You need to get something off your chest right away. It’s your bra. It’s been a long day and you are probably smiling at the thought of unclasping the brassiere hook. Relief aside, going braless may have some real benefits, says medical anthropologist Dr Sydney Ross Singer, author of the book Dressed to Kill.
Women have shared a love-hate relationship with these breast wringers ever since they were invented. Once reviled as a symbol of social oppression, bras are now a fashion statement and even a mark of female emancipation. But are these seemingly harmless, frilly piece of female underwear have a more sinister role to play in women’s health?
In his research, Dr Singer has studied close to five thousand US women to draw a link between bra-wearing and higher incidence of breast cancer. Today, he speaks to Pink of Health about some crucial facts that women need to know about wearing bras.
What led to the observation that bras and breast cancers may be connected?
I should begin by explaining that my wife, Soma Grismaijer, and I are medical anthropologists, pioneers in the study of culturogenic, or culture-caused, disease. We try to look at the ways our culture is making us sick by giving us unhealthy lifestyles, attitudes, and behaviours.
We use the fields of medicine, biochemistry, and anthropology to understand how the body works, and how the culture gets in the way of it working properly. The bra-cancer link is a perfect example of a culturogenic disease, caused by the habit of wearing tight bras for long periods of time daily.
Actually, the bra-cancer link is not new. Doctors knew bras were causing breast cancer as far back as the 1930s.
For example, Dr John Mayo, one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic, wrote in the article “Susceptibility to Cancer” in the 1931 Annals of Surgery, that “Cancer of the breast occurs largely among civilized women. In those countries where breasts are allowed to be exposed, that is, are not compressed or irritated by clothing, it is rare.”
A bra patent in 1950 stated, “Even in the proper breast size, most brassieres envelop or bind the breast in such a fashion that normal circulation and freedom of movement is constricted. Many cases of breast cancer have been attributed to such breast constriction as caused by improperly fitted brassieres.” (Taken from the 2018 edition of Dressed to Kill.)
However, like most people, Soma and I had never heard about the bra-cancer link. We assumed that bras are safe, and Soma had worn a bra since puberty.
But one day, while doing fieldwork in Fiji on a remote island, a girl who had never seen a bra came over to inspect Soma’s bra, which was hanging on a clothesline to dry.
“Isn’t it tight?”, she asked. Soma responded, “I suppose it is, but you get used to it.” It was the first time Soma has consciously considered that bras are tight.
A week later, as fate would have it, Soma discovered a lump in her breast, which frightened us and sent us back to the US looking for answers. She was pregnant at the time, and the thought of getting mammograms (x-rays) or any invasive treatments was out of the question.
We wondered how a healthy woman like Soma, with a vegetarian diet, good exercise, and a clean environment, could get a breast lump. Is it something she was doing to herself that caused this?
After our long flight home from Fiji, Soma went to take a shower and removed her clothes. We both looked at her breasts looking for clues to the cause of the lump. It then struck us. Her breasts had marks and indentations in her skin created by the bra.
These were pressure marks. We had seen them before, every day in fact, but ignored them as a normal part of wearing a bra. But now, they were an important clue. Could the pressure and constriction from bras cause cancer?
In fact, bra-free women have about the same low risk for developing breast cancer as men.
Amazingly, we could not find anything in the medical literature about bras causing cancer. (This was in the early 1990s, before easy Internet searching). So we decided to do a study, called the 1991-93 US Bra and Breast Cancer Study.
We interviewed over 4700 women, about half of whom had had breast cancer, about their past bra usage habits and behaviors. We theorized that if bras were causing cancer, then women who have developed breast cancer would likely be using bras differently than other women.
Our results were amazing and confirmed our theory. We have discovered that the tighter and longer a bra is worn daily, the higher the risk of breast cancer, with 24/7 bra users having over 100 times higher risk than a bra-free woman.
We contacted relevant organizations and government health authorities about our findings and were ignored. We found that merely mentioning bras and their possible link to cancer was socially uncomfortable for many people to hear.
It meant women would need to consider how they used their bras, and whether they would be healthier bra-free, something many women were uncomfortable even considering.
Breast cancer experts who had been ignoring the bra as a factor of disease were embarrassed that they had been overlooking this most obvious issue affecting breast health, like ignoring smoking when studying lung cancer.
Actually, the cancer industry did ignore smoking for decades in the mid-20th century, since smoking was considered normal and good for health. Currently, many female doctors wear bras, as do the wives of male doctors, so there is a cultural resistance to this information about bras.
The bra-cancer link also challenges all the breast cancer research that has ignored bras, resulting in faulty conclusions.
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Imagine all the lung cancer research that was faulty by ignoring smoking. Fortunately, some studies are now asking about bra usage, but most are still ignoring this important factor in breast disease. See my article, Should Bra Usage Become a Standard Question in Breast Cancer Research? New Study from Iran Says Yes.
There are now dozens of studies internationally which confirm the bra-cancer link. See my website BrasAndBreastCancer.org.
How do modern-day bras lead to breast cancer?
The skin indentations caused by bras are signs of constriction. Whenever we wear tight clothing, such as a bra, it can interfere with circulation, especially lymphatic circulation.
The lymphatic system is the circulatory pathway of the immune system, carrying fluid, waste products, toxins, and cancer cells away from the breasts to (mostly) the armpit lymph nodes for an immune response if needed.
Tiny, microscopic lymphatic vessels passively carry lymph fluid using breast movement and breathing as the major forces propelling the fluid forward, which is unlike the blood circulation which propels blood actively with the pressure of the heart beating.
Since the lymphatic system is a passively moving system, it is easily compressed and constricted by tight clothing.
This means that lymphatic circulation is easily compromised by pressure applied to the body by tight bras.
It results in a condition called lymph stasis, which causes the breasts to become congested with lymph fluid. It also prevents the effective elimination of toxins and waste products from the breasts, causing them to become progressively toxic.
Lymphatic impairment hampers the ability of the immune system to fight developing cancer cells, increasing the risk of cancer, something which has been known since the 1930s and has been confirmed in current research.
Keep in mind that some of the cancer-causing chemicals in our petrochemical-polluted world enter our bodies through our food, air, and water, and even from the material in the bra itself.
If the lymphatic system is prevented from effectively flushing away these toxins due to bra-caused constriction, it lengthens the amount of time the breasts are exposed to these cancer-causing chemicals.
So the bra essentially concentrates these toxins in the breasts, and prevents their normal elimination via the lymphatics, as well as preventing the immune system from effectively fighting any cancer cells that develop as a result of this exposure.
Other harms to the breasts, such as traumatic injuries and radiation damage (mammograms), cannot be effectively repaired, either, due to lymphatic constriction from bras.
This also means that bras are the leading cause of breast pain and cysts. The lymph fluid which cannot effectively leave the breast tissue due to constriction from bras eventually collects in tissue spaces, forming painful, fluid-filled areas, or cysts.
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Many women have needle aspirations of these cysts annually, but the fluid returns if bras are still worn.
Over time, the cysts become fibrous. Hence, bras cause fibrocystic breast disease, also called benign breast disease. Actually, it is not benign, and is known to be associated with increased breast cancer risk. For more, see my article, How Bras Cause Lymph Stasis and Breast Cancer.
When it comes to bras, are all types equally harmful?
The harm caused by bras is due to their tightness, how long they are worn daily, and the materials used in making the bra.
Clearly, the more the bra tries to change breast shape, the more constrictive it needs to be. Underwire bras and push-up varieties are the worst, although sports bras are also too tight.
You want to allow the breasts to move when you walk, which is an important lymph-pumping mechanism. So immobilizing the breasts in a bra is bad. If any bra leaves marks in the skin, then it is too tight, regardless of the type of bra.
And bras can contain toxic chemicals used in their manufacture and storage, including cancer-causing chemicals. Loose, cotton or silk bralettes are probably the safest.
Keep in mind that most women wear the wrong size bra. Bra sizing is not the same throughout the industry, so sizing is always a problem.
And trying to find a bra size that fits properly is difficult anyway since most women have breasts of unequal size. The left breast is typically larger than the right breast.
However, bra cup sizes are the same for each breast, resulting in one breast being tighter than the other. This could be a reason why women often get breast cancer in one breast.
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Another factor could be how women sleep. If they sleep on their side or belly, they are compressing their breasts all night, impairing circulation. Wearing a bra at night and leaning on your breast while sleeping are to be avoided.
Also, realize that breasts change size throughout the month, due to changes in hormone levels associated with menstruation. If you wear the same size bra all month, there will be days it is tighter than others, due to changes in breast size.
Breasts are larger before the period, which is when many women feel breast tenderness and pain. When they stop wearing bras, these women report their pain and tenderness disappeared.
We discovered many problems caused by bras through our ongoing International Bra-Free Study, which currently has women from over 36 countries participating.
Our preliminary results are astounding. See my article, Bras Cause More Than Breast Cancer: Preliminary Results of the International Bra-Free Study.
By the way, when Soma stopped wearing bras, her lump disappeared, too. She has never had any breast issues since.
How can women ensure breasts health even if they have to wear a bra for social reasons?
The first thing for women to do is discover what it feels like to have healthy breasts. Women who have been wearing a bra since puberty have congested, fluid-filled, unhealthy breasts.
To see if your bra is harming you, you need to first stop wearing bras and give your breasts a chance to recover.
Fortunately, most women who stop wearing bras experience improved breast health within days, if not weeks. Pain and cysts go away. They also say they can breathe easier without a tight band around the chest.
In fact, research shows bras reduce breathing, increase body temperature, slow digestion, and even cause menstrual problems.
Once you know how it feels to be without a bra, when you put one back on you will feel how uncomfortable and tight your bra really is.
If you feel a need to wear a bra for social reasons, ask yourself why. Social occasions should not lead you to harm your breasts.
If a particular dress requires a bra, then get another dress that does not. If you can’t stand up for your health and your right not to have to wear bras, then wear one as loose as possible and for as short a period of time as possible, and massage your breasts once you remove it.
Be aware that laws are recognizing that it is sexual harassment and a human rights violation to require women wear bras at work, at least in some countries. See my article, Bra-Free at Work: Ending Sexist and Illegal Dress Codes.
What is it about brassieres that women need to unlearn?
Bras are as unnecessary as corsets, which were also killing women from constriction. They do nothing good for the breasts. In fact, bras make breasts droop more than they would naturally.
That’s because the natural suspensory ligaments in the breasts weaken and atrophy due to the artificial support from the bra. When women stop wearing bras, they report that their breasts lift and tone.
Realize that bras are a fetish item. They are designed to alter breast shape for cultural reasons, and this requires constant pressure applied to the breasts, which causes disease.
Almost all bras are designed by men, for the viewing pleasure of men. It objectifies women, turning their breasts into fashion accessories for the pleasure of the viewer.
Women are conditioned into believing that they are unacceptable as nature made them, which reduces self-esteem and causes body image disorders.
Interestingly, many women in our International Bra-Free Study report that they feel improved self-esteem since becoming bra-free.
They also like their breasts more than when they wore bras. Getting rid of the bra lifted a weight from their lives, and allowed greater self-awareness and self-acceptance.
Will not wearing bras affect breast aesthetics?
Who decides whether a woman’s breasts are aesthetically pleasing? Who should decide? Should it be some strangers?
If you allow the media and movies to dictate fashion, then you will be sold a bill of goods that will make you insecure with your appearance and running for cosmetics, lingerie, and even cosmetic surgery to try to conform.
If you allow marketers of bras and other fashion “experts” to tell you how to look, then you will be eternally displeased with yourself, and you will suffer from their advice.
Or should it be yourself who decide on what constitutes beautiful breasts? It’s your body, after all.
As mentioned above, bras essentially trap fluid in the breasts, making them pendulous, heavy, and sore. It weakens breast support ligaments, making the breasts droop even more.
To me, and to Soma and other bra-free women, natural, healthy breasts are the most aesthetically pleasing.
Of course, if you never wore a bra in your life, chances are that you have healthy, perky breasts with no pain, cysts, or lumps. Health is the foundation of beauty.
On the other hand, if you conform to bra industry propaganda, and feel your breasts will be more beautiful in a bra, keep in mind the link between breast cancer and bras, and realize that natural breasts, regardless of their shape or size, are better than scars and burns from breast cancer surgery and radiation treatment.