Sex, Lies and the Politics of Padded Bras

Padded, push-up bras are surprisingly contentious considering they’re just small pieces of foam inside a bra. Of course, when they are on a woman’s breasts, their significance and sexual nature gets exponentially magnified.

The social implications of being a woman so often seem to rest in conjunction with the treatment of breasts, and by extension the lingerie encasing them. In many ways, this juxtaposition of breasts, beauty and femininity is what got me personally interested in lingerie.

I wanted to write about padded bras because I was intrigued by the article in Salon, “Dating in a Push Up Bra” by Tammy Delatorre. The piece was more nuanced than I expected from the title, as the author explores her own discomfort with her chest size and feeling unfeminine as a result.

I'm guessing this is the type of padded bra the author bought-- via Victoria's Secret

I’m guessing this is the type of padded bra the author bought– via Victoria’s Secret

She brought up the subject of bras and honesty by saying:

Was it a form of womanly deceit to hoist my small breasts up in cushioned cups, a bit of self-promotion to the coveted size C I’ve always longed for?

I’m not surprised at the equation of lingerie and femininity. As an intimate, gendered garment, it’s not uncommon to view lingerie as a way to embrace femininity. Your clothes make you the right type of woman. Can we ever untangle this mixture of bodies, clothes and gender?

Delatorre writes:

In a push-up bra, I am no longer just a tomboy with knees scarred from running after my father, and of course, falling. I catch a glimpse passing a mirror, surprised by my hourglass form. My shape is pleasing to the eye, even if it’s only my own. With one on under my business suit, male executives seem to smile more, want to discuss my ideas for their division over coffee or lunch. Dinner, if I’m available.

I appreciate the ode to the power of transformation inherent in her choice of lingerie, even if it is a choice that seems ultimately to rely on the feedback of others rather than herself. And it’s seductive to start receiving positive about being the ‘right’ kind of woman.

Maybe you aren’t the same person in a push-up bra. We have to be so many people throughout the day and throughout our lives that it makes sense that we might have different costumes. Who’s to say which is the ‘real’ you? Unless you’re illegally impersonating a police officer, your clothes aren’t lying, unless you feel they are.


Embracing non-padded support

I can relate to the author’s struggles accepting her own bust size, as I’ve shared definitely shared some of those thoughts. It wasn’t until I got into lingerie and discovered bras that didn’t require padding to be beautiful that I understood my own beauty. Personally, I started to feel good about my small bust when I tried sheer, soft cups and left behind the automatic ‘push up.’ The funny thing is, I’ve come back around to push ups again. When I choose them and they aren’t forced upon me, I can play with them and with my appearance.

Molded push-up bras have a particular physical presence that might also add to their feeling of otherness. With most other clothing, and in unlined bras, the object doesn’t truly have a shape until it is filled out and worn. The moment of putting on a beautiful piece of clothing can feel wonderful in it’s rightness, a sudden synthesis of fabric and body. A molded bra always keeps its own shape–it doesn’t need a body to fill it out and therefore can seem almost like a prothesis. I’ve found that when a molded bra gapes away from you, the negative space seems to loom that much more blatantly, almost a taunt to one who wishes they would fill it up further.

I was also interested in The Gloss’s response to that article, entitled, “If Push-Up Bras are Dishonest, Who Cares?” The author genuinely wants to be supportive to the woman who wears push up bras, but ends up basically agreeing that there is dishonesty intrinsic to a push up bra:

And really, what isn’t a little dishonest about the dating process? When I was dating I wore makeup, high heels, clothing that hid my problem areas and accentuated my assets. How is wearing a bra with a little oomph worse? Most partners could care less once they have you in bed anyway, or at least that is the common saying.

Doesn’t it seem somewhat ludicrous that certain clothes are ‘honest’ and certain clothes are ‘dishonest’? The ickyness of the phrase ‘problem areas’ aside, this quote seems to be saying that there would have been more honesty if she had worn clothes that emphasized ‘problem areas’ and ignored ‘assets.’ But that doesn’t seem to make any sense– that sounds like honesty is making yourself look the way you don’t want to look.

Why is the bust something important enough to bring up dishonesty and deception? Because it’s seen as a bargaining chip in a sexual relationship, bigger boobs being more valuable. Fraud is only relevant if you are replacing something of higher value with something of lesser value. Deceit comes into play when the result is hurtful. The only reason push up bras can be dishonest is because boobs are viewed as commodities that increase a woman’s sexual value.

Not sure this is much of a symbol for a body

One thing I think about is how much women don’t know about other women’s bodies. Or rather, people don’t know about other people’s bodies. In the piece, the author describes the difference between her own boobs and others by using the metaphor of a flat line vs. a curved road ahead, but specifically describes herself as lying down, with her boyfriend’s head on her chest. The flaw in this example is that almost all women see their chests as nearly flat when they are lying down, due to the fact that the fatty tissue splays out and settles down into the body (see photos below for an example). Basically, the genesis of the article comes from the author imagining herself different from other women, when actually being overwhelmingly similar. The author strings together moments of inadequacy to create a story in which she feels her body is wrong and must be corrected.

“The Reality of Nude Photos” from

The expression is ‘naked truth,’ but it’s hard for me to see that nudity is any more honest that being clothed. Doesn’t clothing sometimes reveal more about us than if we were simply naked? That seems to destabilize the idea that nude= honest.

If you look at the photos from the ‘Bare to Bush‘ project of the same woman, at the same time, in radically different poses, it is an excellent example of the idea of nudity containing some essential honesty. In fact, if you asked people whether they thought this woman was beautiful and only showed one of the photos, you might get radically different answers. And yet it’s the same woman. I don’t, however, want to suggest that the second one is somehow more honest that the first– a photo in a position that is generally considered more ‘flattering’ is no less true than any other.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that appearance is always an illusion. When it comes to personal representation, disentangling perception and truth is unimaginable. Whether you choose the ‘truth’ of what you see in front of you, the ‘truth’ of the photograph or any other ‘truth’ is up to you. I’m not going to shame someone who tries to create an illusion that is pleasing to others because she enjoys the benefits of being the ‘right kind’ of woman, both professionally and personally.

  1. Push up bras as some sort of fraud actually makes me steaming mad. Any bra that I put on, padded or otherwise, places my breasts in a position that they do not naturally sit. I imagine that’s true for most women. Is wearing any bra a form of subterfuge? What counts as “real” and what doesn’t? If I use makeup to contour my face am I lying? What about any makeup? Plucked eyebrows? Skincare itself? I could name a million things.

    It seems like a “we just can’t win” situation for women. We’re constantly bombarded with pressure to meet (sometimes impossible) standards of beauty, and then we’re mocked for actually trying to meet those standards. It’s gross.

    • Yes, you bring up a very good point. It’s really a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

  2. I choose not to wear them because they’re essentially, by their very nature, ill fitting. I have no problem with wearing one occasionally for killer cleavage if I could find one that was comfy, some outfits “require” it, but I’d rather know I’m treating my body well most days of the week. That’s as far as my outraged feminist side will get into this debate, it’s a woman’s choice, but the ubiquity of them, especially in the US (VS we’re looking at YOU) is making it less and less of a choice.

  3. Very interesting read. As a transgender person, it’s all about illusion and, for that, there is little remorse here.

    Although being comfortable in our own skin is paramount, I’ve always felt that having the ability to transform appearance to fit the occasion is a life skill. And lingerie plays a huge role in that. It did in the glamorous years gone by and it does today, even if we prefer to deny it’s impact.

    Although to most, comfort alone guides presentation. Yet for some of us, the dig of an underwire or tug of a garter strap brings a nice alignment with what we feel inside.

    Are push-up bras fraudulent? Nevah!!!!

    • Yes, I think you brought up some excellent points! The idea of being able to shift to suit different situations is always important.

  4. Very fascinating! In a way, I see clothes- ones that you truly love- are more honest. They reflect the person you see in your head, how you envision yourself and relate to the world and that tells a lot about a person. Granted, there’s a lot of privilege in that statement. Only people with a certain amount of income (or sewing ability) can afford the clothes that truly reflect how they see themselves. They also need to have a body type that can easily fit into standard clothing sizes (or, again, sewing abilities). So it’s not something that can be achieved by everybody either.

    I know my own clothes are pretty “honest” even if I do wear padded bras (and it’s definitely NOT for the size increase but rather because I’m a nursing mom and it prevents milk leakage showing on my shirts!) because you could probably tell that I’m a mom from the spit on my shoulder. 😛 They also reflect that I choose comfort over fashion most of the time (even if I still like to dress reasonably well).

    I like your thinking on the point about what body parts to stress and what is the most honest too. Something else to consider… it’s quite relative when it comes to favorable and unfavorable body parts. I have a large butt and pretty thick thighs. Some women might prefer to hide those body parts but those are often ones I like to emphasize by wearing tighter jeans or leggings because I feel more comfortable drawing attention there than to my large bust. The why of it is, well, I don’t have to see someone checking out my butt nearly as much as someone staring at my cleavage. It allows me to live in a bit of denial there.

  5. When I started wearing bras, around 12, I had a group of close friend and once we came into this discussion. The rule, I learnt, was “you cannot use bras with a lot of push up, unless you wear them always. Otherwise, boys will notice that you are fake” (oh, how stupid we were). I really love a little push up, always did, but I have been afraid of huge paddings for a long time.

    Last time I ordered something from VS online, it came… well, it was a VS bra. I got terrified and asked my partner what he though about it, about all this “fake” thing that haunted me since my early teen years. As we have a nice, open and fun relationship, he just answered me “it’s in your breasts. I like your breasts. I don’t care if they look bigger with the bra, I just love your breasts” (very honest hahah)

    Anyway, I just agree with everyone commenting here. We are not natural, nobody is, and there’s nothing wrong with that! I loved this post, congratulations. It’s great to see these discussions and to know that we can get together for better visions of the world!

  6. Hi, this is Frances, the author of the piece from The Gloss. I think you’re completely misinterpreting my point of view. What I was trying to get at is that a pushup bra is no more “dishonest” than makeup or heels. My point was that no one would say makeup or heels were inherently dishonest or that women who wear it are dishonest, therefore I don’t think people should think that way about pushup bras. It’s like your commenter UnderTheUnders said in her comment, “We are not natural, nobody is, and there’s nothing wrong with that! “

    • Hi! Thanks for commenting. I didn’t mean to completely disagree with you– I think you made some good points! Rather, I think that the idea that honesty/dishonesty when it comes to appearance is even more difficult to identify or quantify that it first appears. I wanted to build on the idea of ‘aren’t we all a bit dishonest’ to say that honesty is a flawed concept.

      • Thank you for the reply! I think you make some great points too. I might not have gotten my thoughts out correctly in my piece. I think that things like padded bras, makeup, high heels, etc. are less an issue of honesty per se and more about self expression and having fun with your wardrobe. Basically, the idea of it truly being “dishonest” is almost silly.

        And to address the “problem areas” part. I think everyone has issues with their body. I’ve written about it before on The Gloss and their sister site Mommyish. I was speaking of parts of my body that I find to be problems, not parts that I’m trying to hide to please a partner or the world. I don’t want anyone to think that I was saying women should dress to hide problem areas. That part was strictly a personal statement!


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  8. I’m really glad that I’ve read this article today! It’s the part about with the two photos of the same woman that really hits home. I can feel so ashamed of my tum – so squishy! But frig it, I’m a woman, a whole person, not a series of individual body parts to be scrutinised.

  9. Excellent article ! Your conclusion that appearance is always an illusion is very interesting.

    I believe that there is no such thing as a “natural” body, only a “social” or “cultural” body. Men and women have for all times worn clothes and underwear to adapt their shape to conception of ideal beauty of the time.

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  11. And don’t forget, there is also function to mildly padded bras for those of us with more than a C or D cup. I’ve found that I prefer bras with a bit of foam on the undercurve because it acts as a stabilizer (and jiggle/bounce, while totally honest, is not totally comfortable during mad dashes to buses etc). Well-designed padding can be as effective as your average wimpy sports bra while making the underwire less noticeable. I’ll accept the shaping in exchange for the comfort. Not as good as a well-designed sports bra, but certainly as good as your department store standards. Does it add a touch more volume/cleavage? Yeah, but the other stable option– sports bras– aren’t really suitable for your average women’s business clothing, and that opens a whole ‘nother set of questions.

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