If you asked me to name the hottest celebrity on social media, I would, without hesitation, say Sulli. She was once the ideal K-pop idol—pretty and sweet, like a freshly picked fruit. But then she started dating someone who was nothing like a fresh fruit, completely against the public’s expectations. Soon afterward, she left her girl group and started posting all kinds of racy photographs on social media. One by one her fans declared the end to their fandom. The criticism was endless. Some pleaded with her to stop posting photos.
Then one day, on her “hot” social media account, Sulli posted a seemingly braless picture of herself. And this photo confirmed our society’s amazing interest in other people’s nipples.
Unashamed sexual harassment flooded her Instagram. People cursed and verbally abused her, confident that they had a right to judge. Newspaper articles consumed her superficially, as if pointing out the sexuality of the images was an expression of sincere concern. The reason for all the violent and abusive comments: that her nipples were visible through her shirt. One foreigner, finding it all too much, posted, “Everyone, male and female, has nipples.”
It’s true. Everyone has nipples. But, in Korean society at least, a woman’s nipples need to be covered. For your breasts to be ‘appropriate’ here, they need to be concealed by a bra. Uncovered breasts must be kept private, hidden away behind closed doors. This is the unspoken moral obligation. It’s all pretty ambiguous, and there’s a reek of double standards. One minute, society is forcing ‘sexiness’ on women as some kind of virtue, positively encouraging them to display their cleavages. The next, it’s pointing fingers at women who reveal the full shape of their full breasts and nipples, labelling them immoral. Is this premodern view—that a woman’s breasts exist for one man and are only moral when shown to that one man—still valid in this day and age? Terrifying.
Of course, there are exceptions. Like when nipples are suckled by babies, instead of being sucked by men. When this happens, breasts acquire sanctity rather than lewdness. But for such breasts to maintain their sanctity, they need to come in the form of a symbolic image. The motherly image of a breastfed infant may be holy, but the sight of an actual breastfeeding woman is considered vulgar. When Jeong Ga-eun, a Korean celebrity, uploaded a picture of her breastfeeding her baby on social media, people criticized her for being an attention whore and claimed that the picture was erotic. The photograph was slammed as immoral and indecent even though her breasts were simply performing the function of feeding an infant, which is what they are meant for, and even though they were not fully exposed. Do we now view a woman’s breasts as secondary genitalia even when she’s feeding her child? How is that justified?
When we look back on our long, long history, we see that women’s breasts were only defined as immoral in relatively recent years. During the Joseon dynasty, Korean women wore short jeogori that fully exposed their breasts. In Joseon Korea, a place where no one was particularly interested in other people’s nipples, the only people to show interest in the breasts of others were Westerners. To them, the fully exposed breasts of the women of Joseon Korea were the definition of savagery and pornography. In 1924, a foreigner named Chireusen wrote an essay titled “It would be better to wear a one-piece dress” in a magazine called Sinyeoseong (New Women).
“It has been several years since I came to Joseon. And I could never even fathom the thoughts of the women of Joseon who thoughtlessly bared their breasts or wrapped them with strips of fabric.”
Today, we have internalized their thoughts, and breasts can only become ‘not immoral’ when part of a woman’s figure, bound by a bra, rather than part of a woman’s body. At this point, I can’t but ask the fundamental question: “Why are breasts such a big deal?” Why do women wear bras? For what reasons are we told to wear bras? Come to think of it, when I was in middle school my teacher once slapped me hard on the back for wearing a black bra under my white uniform shirt. It was a punishment for violating the school dress code—both for wearing a black bra, and for not wearing a white tank top to cover the black bra straps which were visible through my white blouse. But were those reasons enough to justify hitting someone?
The problem is that breasts are burdened with far too many signs and symbols. Womanhood, motherhood, sexuality, eroticism, beauty, virtue, shame, indecency, sanctity, and the list goes on. Breasts were originally given to women by nature to keep her children from starving. But at some point, breasts had to appease sexual hunger, spiritual hunger, and even existential hunger. In the end, they became sad masses of flesh, good only for insults. Taking off the black bra I’ve been wearing all day, I would like to cite a passage from Günter Grass’s The Flounder:
“By recreating the myth of three breasts, we may ultimately fulfill their fanciful thoughts about nipples. Because—and we should let people know—two breasts have never been enough for men.”
Going braless — Episodes from real life
Episode 1: Not padding—they’re natural shame.
A had developed faster than average girls. She didn’t start her period earlier than other girls, but her breasts were double the size of everyone else’s. In elementary school, the boys in her class used to tease her, and boys from other classes would come to see her and her big chest. Every day was a continuation of embarrassment.
Then one day, A’s father, who had been looking at A for some time, started yelling at A’s mother. “What kind of bra are you buying her? Why does her chest stand out so much?” A’s face blushed deep scarlet in shame. She couldn’t believe that her breasts had gotten her into this kind of trouble A told her father that her breasts were naturally large, but her father refused to believe her. He still believes that A wears bras with a lot of padding.
A’s mother also disapproved of her daughter’s big breasts. Every so often, she would look at A’s chest and sigh, saying, “Those are bigger than mine. I wonder who she took after”, and click her tongue. Her mother thought that girls with big breasts seemed dull and dense. So A would stoop her shoulders to make her boobs look smaller. She still has bad posture today.
Episode 2: Ah bra! Crazy hot, bra!
Even on crazily hot days when the temperature passed 40 degrees Celsius, B’s father did not turn on the air conditioner. As was usual for summer at their house, the air conditioning was just a decoration. But this summer, the heat was murderous. Each day saw the same cycle: B would take a shower, slap a pad on her panties, don a bra, and put on a t-shirt and shorts. And each time, she’d feel a stinging sensation from the heat rash on her buttocks and under her bra wires. Thanks to the ridiculous progressive tax system on electricity bills and the murderous heat, B felt like she was dying. “Dad, can we turn on the AC just this once?” B asked. “The news says people are dying because of the heat.” But her dad’s response was always the same. “You’re hot because you think you’re hot. The fan’s blowing cool air, so why are you complaining?”
After her ninth shower, B once again put on her bra, pad, t-shirt, and shorts and came out of the bathroom. When she noticed her father wearing nothing but his boxers, lying down on the floor and watching TV as the fan blew hot wind in his face, she felt a mixture of resentment and sadness stir. The anger she’d kept to herself exploded. “You’re not hot because you’re practically naked! I have to wear a bra! And a pad! Do you have any idea how hot they make you?” B wailed, and tears and sweat dropped down her cheeks. Watching her cry, B’s father turned on the air conditioner for the first time, without a word.
Episode 3: The doorbell
After C got an apartment of her own, the most liberating aspect was the freedom from having to wear a bra. Till the move, she’d lived with her parents, brother, and grandfather, and she’d had to wear a bra all the time at home. Her brother, who was much younger, usually came into her room without knocking, and she had to wear a bra even when she slept in on weekends.
So after moving into her own place, C was happy just lounging on her bed without a bra on weekends, watching TV. One famous YouTuber once said that a woman’s best orgasm happens the moment she gets home from work and unhooks her bra. It was great living alone. But there was a sound that would shatter those blissful weekends:
The doorbell. And with that sound, gone was the happiness, and C became busy. Instead of asking “Who is it?” C would shout “Wait a sec!” and hurriedly start looking for her bra. Why were the drawers so far away in such a tiny apartment, and why did it take so long to put on a bra? And in the meantime, the doorbell would ring again.
On weekends, she didn’t usually have visitors, so mostly it was water delivery. C was thankful that the delivery man brought her heavy bottles of water, but she felt completely drained every time he came and left. If only she could live without ordering things! After a few rounds of this, C started opening the door without a bra, and instead just crossed her arms or stooped a bit to keep her nipples from protruding through her shirt. But she felt embarrassed every time. After all, the same delivery person made all the deliveries.
Damn it. In the end, C decided to hang a heavy jacket near the door. Rather than putting the bra on and off, she thought it would be easier to cover her boobs behind a thick jacket. It might seem strange in the summer, but she’d rather be seen as strange than be bra-less and embarrassed.
Episode 4: No Bra Zombie
D joined a parcel delivery company, known for delivering faster than a rocket. Due to the characteristics of the work involved, the company was full of hot-blooded young men with stories about their heroic delivery exploits. The most surprising story D heard was about a woman who opened the door completely naked. And other deliverymen told stories about braless women they’d seen. D was excited, thinking that he’d also encounter those situations. A few days into his job, D began to witness women who were acting rather strangely. Some women stood with their shoulders stooped, reaching forward to receive their parcels, while others stood with their arms crossed, and asked to leave their parcels inside the door even though they weren’t heavy at all. When he told a coworker about it at lunch, he laughed:
“Oh, you mean, no-bra zombies?”
Ah! That’s when D understood those women with zombie-like posture or arms crossed across their chests. Contrary to his expectations, braless women were more ludicrous than sexy. Since then, D tried to look down at the floor when he encountered those poor (not sexy) no-bra zombies. That was the best he could do.
Episode 5: Not all bras are the same
In elementary school, E was a member of the swim team. By the time she started fifth grade, there weren’t a lot of girls left. In fact, there were only two: E and a fourth grader. When the second semester began after summer vacation, E came to realize why everyone had quit the team: her chest started to ache, and her breasts started to grow.
On the first day of swim club that semester, the girl in fourth grade wore a swimsuit with padding. E chose not to, as her chest was still nearly flat. Her breasts protruded slightly when she put on the tight swimsuit, to her embarrassment, but she stepped into the pool nonetheless. Then a few boys touched her breasts and ran away. It was worse than the pain in her chest and E almost died of shame. When she got home, she cried and screamed at her mother to buy her a bra. After watching her awkwardly, E’s mom brought her to a market in town and bought her bras picked out by the lady who owned the shop.
The next day, E put on her bra and went to school, feeling relieved. She quit the swim team and bragged about her new bra. A friend quickly looked under her shirt and burst out laughing. “That’s the kind moms wear!” Another friend looked over and said, “She’s wearing an old lady bra!” Soon enough all her friends laughing. While they were all in sports bras decorated with cute characters, E’s bra was lacy and beige. E felt even more embarrassed than when the boys had touched her.
Episode 6: In engorgement, there is death
Engorgement. F finally understood the meaning of the word after giving birth. Even the slightest touch of her breasts was extremely painful. They didn’t produce enough milk, but they were swollen and painful even so. In the end, her nipples began to crack and bleed. Becoming a mother was so frigging hard. But at least in the postnatal care center, nurses gave her massages to relieve the pain in her breasts.
The day F left the care center and returned home was a world of pain. She wore the nursing bra she received as a present and inserted nursing pads. The pads pressed against her nipples and her swollen breasts so much that the pain was unbearable. “When you start feeding the baby, it gets better,” her mother said. But it didn’t. Instead, it hurt so much more that F screamed and pulled her daughter away from her breast.
The next day, she decided to go for a massage. To do that, though, she had to wear a bra. Her journey was a tragic Möbius strip. She thought about not wearing a bra for the reasons that she was a brave mother and that the pain was extreme, but her breasts just protruded too much. And she didn’t want to risk the milk flowing out and staining her shirt. So F put her hellish bra on her painful breasts and got in a cab. And she wished that she could move to a different country.
Episode 7: I like glamorous boobs too!
G’s boyfriend had man boobs. She liked men with breasts. She liked their softness when she touched them. One day, when they were at a motel, G mischievously tried to put her bra on her boyfriend, only for him to get upset and start yelling at her. Feeling hurt that he was so upset about something so trivial, G yelled back and they fought. After yelling at each other about breaking up, they walked out separately from the motel room they’d entered together.
Several weeks later, G and her boyfriend got back together, but only he’d undergone an operation to reduce his man boobs. G had loved them but they’d been a huge complex to her boyfriend. G was very sad. Every time she touched his chest, it felt as though something was missing, and she became even sadder when her boyfriend would happily touch hers. Hey! This is so unfair!
Episode 8: Bikini boy
H started undergoing the third stage of sexual development. He began to develop breasts. It happened when he had to give up his athletic career due to an injury. One day, when he looked down at his chest, he noticed that his once firm and strong chest had turned into soft, fatty breasts. Since then, the thin t-shirts that were great for men with toned bodies became the most uncomfortable clothes in the world to him. The light, sweat wicking t-shirts that had once shown off H’s toned muscle now accentuated his soft, protruding breasts. On top of that, his nipples stood up, as though berating him for being out of shape!
He tried to give up on the t-shirts he loved, but there was nothing he wanted to wear on hot days. That’s when he started putting on bandages over his nipples. When he found out about the amazing silicone nipple covers, he was extremely excited. “That’s so cool! I didn’t know people made these!”
But when his friends asked if he wanted to go to the pool with them, H immediately became depressed. He didn’t have the courage to face the girls in bikinis that would be all over the swimming pool. How could I? With these man boobs! Damn it, maybe I need to wear a bikini too.
In the end, he signed up at a nearby gym. And he resolved to get his body back and say goodbye to the nipple covers. Wait for me, bikini girls!
Episode 9: What’s important? Why the safety of my own body
A woman lay in front of J’s apartment clad only in underwear. That was the biggest shock for J during her entire time in the US as a student. The woman had laid out a blanket under the sun, unhooked her bra, and fallen asleep. J had seen enough American TV shows to know that going to places braless wasn’t such a big deal there, but it was surprising that people could do that even in front of other people’s homes. But that wasn’t the only thing. When she went to school, she saw girls in bikinis, dotting the campus lawn. Every one of them had unhooked their bra and lay out with just their panties on, basking in the sun.
When she first encountered these scenes, J was disturbed. It felt as though something in her had broken. When she talked about how she felt to a friend who came earlier than she did, her friend simply replied: “I was really surprised at first too, but once you get used to it, you might find yourself out there doing exactly that.”
The months passed, and J realized that her friend had been right. Of course, she couldn’t lie in front of someone else’s apartment on campus, tanning in just her panties, but she soon began to wear bras that her American friends wore—strapless and cupless bras without underwires. She also began to wear nearly see-through t-shirts and tank tops, without a second thought. Nobody was interested in her breasts or bra. When the weather became colder, J simply went out without a bra.
After she returned to Korea, J kept wearing bralettes and sometimes went out without a bra. One summer day, wearing a bralette and a white t-shirt, she met up a Korean friend. The friend looked a bit shaken when she looked down at J’s chest. Asking “Hey, are you not wearing a bra?” and then noticing the straps of J’s bralette, the friend breathed a sigh of relief and advised J to change her bra since the shape of her nipples were visible.
But J had no intention of going back to the world of underwire bras. So instead of directly saying, “I like not wearing a bra”, she decided to answer her friend in a roundabout manner. Nonchalantly, so that her friend wouldn’t follow up. She said, “I can’t wear underwire bras. They’re uncomfortable.”
This article comes from the first edition of Way, a new print-only lifestyle magazine published by OZFactory.
All illustrations by LEE Na-young: une-etoffe.com.