Arts & Culture

Behind the Cotton Curtain

The hazards of cross-cultural bra shopping

by
• 1,360 words

I have been doing this for so long, every year, and I’m used to it now because it always happens like this. I’m in a specialty shop, hardly a shop at all, really. You have to ring a bell to get in and nothing in the window suggests that the purpose of this place is to sell women’s underwear. It’s more like a clinic of some kind.

“I would like to buy a bra,” I say.

There are two healthy eastern European ladies on the other side of the counter of two different and completely unguessable ages. They both have the exact same hair colour. One of them looks me up and down a few times and stares hard at my chest. The other lady does much the same and then pretends to be filing nylon stockings in the cabinet beside me. She’s getting another perspective. I’m aware that there is some kind of betting going on here.

“A couple of bras, maybe,” I say.

“And do you know your size? ” says the behind-the-counter lady, already turning her back to me and opening a few delicate, glass-fronted drawers packed with folded slabs of colour.

“I’m a 32dd,” I say.

“No you’re not,” she says and, slamming the drawers closed, she starts to Windex and wipe the display case, a highly dismissive gesture.

“Yes I am,” I say calmly, very calmly, as though a hostage were involved in this transaction somewhere. “32dd.”

“Never,” she says, scratching at a stubborn spot on the glass with her long red fingernail. Suddenly there is gum in her mouth.

Oh yes, I am,” I say, this time loudly. Those slabs of colour have affected me strangely. They are intriguing, like the spines on a new lover’s bookshelf. “Indeed, I am,” I say again.

I want this. You see, I like girly underwear. I think it’s important to wear pretty knickers, especially if you, like me, spend most days dressed in men’s shirts and jeans. That way if you’re ever in an accident, the doctors will think that you’ve stolen some other, really sexy girl’s underwear.

My voice adopts the resolute tone of a lead actress in the last fifteen minutes of a made-for-TV movie about terminal illness, social injustice, or figure skating. I am surprisingly strong at this moment, though inches away from tears.

“I am a 32dd.”

She looks at me for a second and then sets aside the spray bottle. I am to her, I understand, a young pup who needs to be taught a lesson.

“Helga,” she calls to the lady alphabetizing tights. “Helga,” she says, “This one tells us she’s a 32dd.”

There is a sound like a sneeze from over by the change rooms. Helga had walked straight back there the first time I said it, 32dd. She doesn’t have time for every nut walking in off the street with delusional thoughts about her own bra size. But I hear the unmistakable clunk of a heavy tool box being opened and then Helga’s words, each one sounding like a snapped thread, come back.

“Well, Olga, I bring measuring tape.” They are wearing nurse shoes, lab coats, and lab skirts. I imagine lab underwear as well—severely cut, coarse, white bra-and-panties sets that are likely awarded to them, in unspeakable Masonic-type services, along with their glasses. At one point in my life I would have (okay, I did) run from the sight of women like this coming at my breasts with a measuring tape. But now I stand my ground.

I am a 32dd. The math of bra sizing is quite simple—the number 32 is the size of the rib cage, and the dd letters are the cup size. There is a physics aspect here, akin to the workings of Dr. Who’s phone booth, that escapes me, but, really, my breasts are not that big and dd is not that big; it’s just that I’m not very tall and what is unusual here is the ratio. The 32 ought to override the double D yet somehow doesn’t.

Helga does the first measure, the rib cage. Olga holds my arms out wide, lest I try to interfere.

“32,” says Helga.

She pulls the tape taut into my breasts, as though to tell me, “Do your worst, chicky, we don’t count nipples here.”

I do not flinch. She pulls the tape still tighter around my breasts, as if the purpose of this exercise were to permanently establish upon me a second waist.

Olga shakes her head. She takes Helga’s hand, leaving my arms waving free for a moment. She forces Helga to relax the tape until it hugs me neatly. This is not about winning, her eyes affirm. She is a scientist. This is about truth. I respect her.

“Double D,” says Helga.

“32dd,” says Olga.

“32dd,” says Helga again, rising from her measuring stance, dizzy, and then she says to Olga, “Get Sonia.”

Sonia? This part is new to me. The possibility that there is a woman uglier than these two—not presentable enough for the shop floor, but slaving away in a windowless stockroom tirelessly co-ordinating thongs and garters—takes me aback. If I didn’t need a chartreuse bra so desperately, I’d leave right now.

I hear the tired rustle of peach-coloured tissue paper from behind the curtain and out comes Sonia, who is as fabulously ugly as I pictured her and also has the exact same hair colour. For the sake of international relations, I want to say that I have, in fact, purchased a bra in an eastern European country, and the shop there was staffed entirely by North American women of a dire and desperate plainness. Clearly, there is some kind of Disney Epcot Center exchange thing going on.

Now, it’s as if the three of them have hit upon a fifth blood type. The mood turns all celebratory, drawers are thrown open, tissue paper flies. They stand around for a moment touching my breasts happily, as if each one contained an unborn baby. Sonia speaks joyfully in a language I don’t recognize but can easily translate: “32dd, I had heard my mother speak of this, but I did not think I would live to see it.” She tears up a bit as she opens the little wooden glass-fronted door, the one that is marked 32dd.

It sighs. They bring me to the change room, hang up my knapsack, pull off my sweater, tie ribbons in my hair. The gum has disappeared from Olga’s mouth, but she is now just as mysteriously, deliriously drunk. They pass bras into me and then, dismayed by my ignorance, all three crowd in and start plumping, adjusting, surveying—the long-outdated flag of their homeland is quickly tattooed on my left one.

It’s just a ratio thing, I must explain again. 32dd is by no no means the largest bra size out there. There are other drawers, still more ominous drawers, drawers without glass fronts. 32dd is just different, that’s all. It’s a kind of cut-off point. Those other drawers are full of carefully made, serviceable garments—garments with three-inch-wide shoulder straps, double-crossed and fastened under the armpits, secured with stainless-steel wing nuts. But that’s not lingerie, that’s rigging.

The bra they found, by the time the merrymaking had ended, was as if from a dream—pale pink, discreet bow in the middle. Sweet but practical, it could easily be worn with any of my plaid flannel shirts from Value Village, provided I never stumble across a strapless flannel shirt or one that is too scooped at the back.

There were smiles and tears and many kisses when we parted. A little girl gave me flowers at the station. I bought two pairs of matching panties and the band played and played and played as I waved goodbye to Helga, Olga, and my dear, dear Sonia. I will never forget them, ever. Though, as I said, I do this every year.

Tabatha Southey writes columns for the Globe and Mail and Elle Canada.