News

What can we do with second hand bras? Maybe stop pretending they are miraculous.

  • By Catherine Clavering
  • 7 comments
  • In Bras

What can we do with second hand bras? Maybe stop pretending they are miraculous.

Maz flashes an overwire bra with a Philmore suit, shot by Lydia.

Listen, I know this sounds ridiculous, but in the course of discussing unused bras, I have to cover both sexual violence and racism. I KNOW. Believe me. Anyway, you might want to skip this one or get a cup of tea or something, this is mostly written so my people of pallor here in the UK stop and think.

You buy a bra, and then something happens; you've changed size unexpectedly (because schools lie and your hormones never stop fluctuating), or you keep it for special occasions and then realise you've never worn it, or it seemed fine in the shop but after a whole day you realise, crikey, this is strictly a three-hour-wear bra. 

And thus, we all have That Bra (or, for industry peers, those 37 bras). It's unworn, or rarely worn. It engenders no joy. You'd like it to have a purpose, but all you can imagine is it ending up in landfill, which sucks for a garment that represents hours of labour and you really thought would be great.

And then someone, a really NICE person, very well-meaning, probably quite organised, very possibly in your local Women's Institute, bakes a lovely cake, always has milk that isn't off for tea, posts something like this.




A Miracle! You can declutter AND feel benevolent. It would be absolutely perfect, except for the slight drawback that it's absolute utter nonsense.
Sorry. Here's why. I promise that at the end I'll give you some other ideas for that bra but first, I have to dismantle your current ideas, I'm afraid. This happens because I am awful and have to get my cakes from M and S instead.

1) Fine, let's talk about if bras can prevent rape; nope.



Bras do not develop superpowers by being shipped far away.
Stop. Think. You do know this, I suspect. It's just so much nicer to think that the world has a simple solution to a complicated problem that affects an unpleasantly high number of your friends.

I was genuinely so boggled the first  . . . 14 times . . . I saw this assertion that it took me until last November to actually go and track down where the heck it had come from. Turns out, from the charity founder herself, who got told by a priest, though they have noticeably dialled back on it, now making vague assertions about status offering "security" instead.






The initial publicity clearly appealed to lots of folks, and thus, it has stuck, and gets repeated like any other urban myth online.  It is absolutely a myth, by the way - I ended up emailing someone who had written a report on their Bra Adventures in Tanzania and they said they rather regretted claiming there was research to show this since later on he had investigated it and . . . . nope.

This makes sense if you are familiar with some of the stats available the UK about sexual assault (data gathering and even definitions vary wildly from country to country).
Let's talk about the status thing. It is true that you have a higher chance of going through sexual assault if you have a low socio-economic status. But ALL women face this risk to a terrifyingly high degree, being rich and high status does not prevent it. Also, being low SES increases your chances of all crime, plus also a huge variety of other unpleasant things, like cancer, or chronic pain,  or mental health issues, I mean honestly the list is endless. It's almost like poverty and marginalisation are . . . just really bad for people? Astonishing insight there, I know. Sorry.
You can't fix this Pygmalion-style with a fancy hat and pretending to be posh. And you know this, because you haven't suggested to your poor friend that you lend her your expensive jewellery and teach her a new accent* to reduce her risk of rape, because that would be silly, and also extremely rude.

(*how you speak is pretty crucial to perceived class in the UK)

It gets even more ridiculous if you can bear to consider this in detail - seriously this is some dark, dark stuff, go get that tea. 

Bras are designed to be invisible so . . . the perpetrator starts an assault, probably using social manipulation, but then . . . stops when they find and assess the quality of your bra?
Clearly not. But I can understand why you didn't want to think this through. I sort of wish I hadn't.





In some of these narratives, it's also alleged that having a bra makes it look like you "have a man who cares about you". Statistically speaking, the man who looks like he cares about you is the one most likely to assault you. It's very rarely a stranger. So, probably not helpful. The person who commits these acts probably knows you well enough to know your status better than someone who is just judging your clothing.


Personally, I also refuse to engage in "rape prevention strategies" (if this can even meet that definition) that are about reducing the risk for an individual. What's the message there? Don't do it to me, do it to someone else who is more vulnerable? Eeeesh. Show me something that works on perpetrator and possible perpetrators to reduce their rate of doing this, reduce the risks for ALL of us, please.

So that was awful. I'm sorry, one sentence can prop up a whole plethora of really unhelpful and dreadful ideas, and unpacking it is painful. If you want to know more about that or find help, this is the UK charity. 

A lighter, briefer note:

2) You want to avoid landfill, but you didn't think 'wait! airmiles!"

Please consider the carbon cost of your garments wandering the globe. No, it's not better if they go by boat, those things are just as filthy. (See also; bras that claim to be green)

3) Bras are about health! No, they're about fashion.


17 years into being in the lingerie industry and I have yet to see any compelling, good quality, large scale research that shows a clear link between bras and ANY health issues, good or bad. Wear a bra, don't wear a bra, do what you want. Don't let anyone tell you for any reason that people MUST have them. Certainly not for "healthy development".




All that said, underwear is an excellent way to transmit bedbugs and similar, because you can't wash most of it hot enough to kill the little *!%&!!! (I live in London, they're A Thing). 



Now, sometimes some of these people have the good grace to clarify that they are talking about menstruation through the medium of underwear, and my issues with that are:
If you are this unclear how in the heck are you going to help anyone with their issues with periods, because we really do have to use our words.
Er . . . you do know that periods in an of themselves are not "dirty", right? Like that's literally the stigma we're trying to get rid of.
Who told you everyone needs knickers for menstrual products?! You are way behind on menstrual technology. 

4) What really happens to bras that go to "Africa" though? They are mostly sold and it's wildly inefficient.

Much of what people donate is not of saleable quality, and gets sorted into bales, sold by weight, and often gets shredded down to components and fibres. We're not very good at recycling textiles yet so a lot of that then ends up made into insulation panels . . . which are then shipped back to Europe. It's the circle of life! Or at least the circle of fast fashion.
Do you ever get that sinking feeling that you're involved in a process that makes no sense at all? There's probably a special word for it in German.

5) It's the economy, stupid

If you've just thought, wait, if we deluge countries with so much unused or second hand fast fashion it's sold in huge BALES, what the hell does that do to their economies, then you have your thinking hat on and yes, it does indeed mess with them! Oxfam talks openly about this and researches what they do to try and make sure it's effective, and, if not being perfect, at least isn't aggravating things. Still, we're at a stage where a number of countries have banned the import of such garments, especially underwear, what with the bedbugs and all. But mostly they're looking to rebuild their own textiles and garment industries rather than taking in left-over fast fashion.

6) Oh no, we have to talk about race and be wildly uncomfortable 

Look, I'm no expert, but it seems to me that when we repost this stuff, whilst no-one is meaning to be, we're basically passing around a big bag of unhelpful ideas. Here are the bits that make my gnaw my own knuckles in cringe.

Sending stuff to 'Africa'. Look, I did history instead, but geography-wise, am I thinking right that Africa is a continent containing many, many countries, and even more cultures and groups, some parts of which we-the-British arbitrarily divided with a ruler causing no end of trouble as a result? Under which circumstances it's probably a bit of a giveaway any time anyone says anything applies to "Africa" as a whole that they're probably . . . kinda wrong? And that maybe we should just stop?
See also "African women", "African villages", etc. 

Putting "Africa" together with "hygiene".  So, that history thing, also we seem to have spent a few hundred years using various stereotypes to justify treating black people as property. In fact, we only just finished paying off the loan the UK had to get out to pay slave-owners compensation (no, really, you read that right, both the financial bit and who it was paid to) for when we finally decided that wasn't ok.  But you know maybe, we got rid of the legal structure but sort of accidentally kept some of the ideas hanging around? And thus perhaps we should stop implying that a whole continent is dirty and can't sort itself out without our second-hand stuff because it's a pretty obnoxious implication, even without that history.



Does this screenshot bother you at all? See, for me, context of history again, I'm reminded that we also justified slavery (and things that followed it) by saying we knew best what was good for people. And now here we are with charities that send white people over to have pictures taken surrounded by black kids, giving them things we decided were good for them. Which are also things that are not good enough for our own friends, apparently.
I mean it just seems super awkward to me. We could, you know, not.

Fun fact; also small charities in the UK are crazy inefficient  - seriously, you can go look up their finances and it's quite the eye-opener - and all the actual work is done by local charities in the countries themselves, for which the UK founders then get the plaudits. If you like the work someone is doing, you could fund them directly, using something that every charity wants and that can be used highly efficiently, which is cash. Doesn't accrue air miles, can be used to give people what they have identified themselves as needing, acceptable all over the globe. Currency! It's a remarkable invention.

Well, FINE, you've gone and ruined it all and we STILL have these flipping bras here! What are we supposed to do?

Feeling commercially minded? Use eBay, Facebook marketplace, lingerie selling communities and similar to shift your fancier bras. Donate the cash if you want that buzz. You can also sell them to people, albeit at a low price, who have NO embarrassment about selling undies on eBay, and won't reveal your identity.

Feeling like maybe telling people you wear bras is actually LESS embarrassing than the nonsense above? Just give people bras. Your friends. Your family. People in swap groups. The local bring and buy. Don't put it in the tombola or the raffle, I can tell you from experience that never ends well!

If it's a new-new bra with tags or, even better, packaging, charity shops will take them. Some also take lightly worn ones. If it's a sensible bra, the sort that helps you meet British standards for respectability in work or at the bank, then do please see if your nearest refuge or homeless shelter could use it (that make-up collection was also legit, it seems). The first is actually where our last lot of sensible-but-left-over bras went, because sometimes they are useful and they're not the thing you grab when you go.

If your bra is really too knackered, too embarrassing, or otherwise unsuitable - send it to the local councils recycling. I'm afraid the chances are it will still end up doing the shredding-insulation material thing, but the process will at least be considerably more efficient.

Now; I m also aware of some more creative options, so who would like to comment with how to turn bras into hanging baskets and the like? :)


-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Extra things I read in the course of this, just in case you think I faked the screenshots of social media posts and whatnot.  The stuff in point 1 and point 6, you might find this page and here to be a useful starting off point.

Articles and press about bra collecting wherein they allege it protects "women in Africa" from rape.
Grace,Ted, I have some bad news.
Knit and natter group
Registrar in Maidenhead
Oh dear one of my peers got sucked in.
And a bra blog.
And a lingerie shop
This lady hears that bras prevent rape everywhere she goes in Africa. Oh dear.

Articles with a diverse array of opinions on the second-hand bra trade (I ran into my limitations here because I can only read English, so there's likely to be a ton of stuff I missed in other languages)
Zambia
Uganda
I am old and cynical and suspect that companies who can write off a charity donation for tax purposes love this business model.
Nairobi
Kenya  
Zimbabwe
More on Zambia

Articles about SWEDOW - stuff we don't want, but do want to feel good about.
It's not just bras.
But there are A LOT of bra and knicker based SWEDOW charities or campaigns - here's one from this year.
By the way, bras as we know them now were only invented around 1940/1950 really, so it is baffling that not only are we sending bra SWEDOW, we're also insisting that it's impossible to live with breasts without them.

Share this
Older Post Newer Post