In the States, I don’t wear bras. I stopped wearing them just after graduating college. Sometimes I can’t believe I wore them for 21 years without question. Maybe I’d have continued wearing them for the rest of my life if I hadn’t started spending more time with a “different” crowd of folks, not to mention reading bell hooks. (Okay, not really, bell hooks to my knowledge has never advocated against the wearing of bras– she probably wears them, herself.) I’m referring to feminist-forward thinking, anyhow.
In Cambodia, however, I “have to” wear them. There’s a lot of things I “have to” do here that I stopped doing back home. I guess I still feel obligated to “respect” or at least adhere to certain cultural standards, since I am a “guest” of this culture.
In this regard, I somewhat agreed with Peace Corps’ approach to “cultural integration”. Wait, let me back up: Peace Corps’ conception of culture is basically absurd, in my view. That’s the nice way to put it. There’s too much to go into in this post about that particular subject, so I’ll save it for later. What I did agree with, however, was Peace Corps’ idea about “difference”; one of their reasons for “cultural integration” (ah, I cringe to think of it) was that if we are not “alike” enough, then how we are different in a “positive” ways (the relativists are freaking out right now) will be dismissed, overlooked, or possibly idolized but still viewed as unattainable. PC told us that we need to be “like” them enough so that they could see a possibility for change; otherwise our differences would be passed off as unreachable by Cambodians. To some degree, I feel this is true because of my experience with people (especially women) saying, “Yes, that is true/possible for you, because you are American.” In other words, I am fundamentally other— freedom to pursue my own interests as a woman is possible for me because I am American; ability to go to college is possible because I am American; choosing for myself instead of allowing my parents to choose for me is possible because I am American. This is the “I so regret” side of the difference-distance argument.
The other is the optimist, or “It is my culture” side of the argument– also known as “TIC” (This Is Cambodia), which I’m fairly certain was coined by my boyfriend: every time I raise a point, suggestion, idea, theory, example, conception, whatever, that doesn’t particularly match his worldview, he states, “This Is Cambodia.” (Well, I just imagine that all the words are capitalized when he says that.) And this is sufficient to show me why I don’t understand, am misguided, or just wrong. Most of the times I have heard people say “It is my culture” has been in situations where they are apologizing, but do not regret, some aspect of their worldview or behavior, or where they are explaining for the silly barangs who don’t understand “Khmer culture”, or where they are justifying their behavior. This latter reason is one that most concerns me, because it is often used to justify the subjugation of women. Although, for instance, my boyfriend can acknowledge that it is not fair his younger sister’s life is choiceless and predetermined, he justifies the situation by saying “TIC” or “it is their habit for a long time already”. He really believes it’s too late for the situation to change. If that were me, it would effectively mean my life is over: I have two children and my husband does not allow me to leave the house; I have to ask permission before making decisions for myself; even though I am very intelligent and possibly the most creative thinker and diligent worker of all my siblings, I wasn’t allowed to finish high school ’cause I had to get married, and though I still want to study, I am not allowed to. Yes, if that were me… Well, it isn’t me. And his younger sister sighs and groans and looks sad and occasionally confides her anxieties to me, but ultimately she puts her head down. And she never EVER complains to her husband or her family. She appears downright stoic about it.
The other concern I have about the TIC perspective is that I have read quotes in the papers from rapists literally saying, “It is my culture”. I saved one particularly unbelievable article quoting a child rapist excusing himself because of his “culture”, which I’ll post at a later date.
So I give some credit to PC for recognizing that extreme “difference” encourages Cambodians to see their volunteers as Other– in this case, it is an unattainable Otherness, either expressed as regret or reality.
This is why I wear bras here.
And let me just say… I HATE IT.
I hate bras. What a useless, uncomfortable, ridiculous accessory. I have never heard one good reason for using a bra. I will make one exception for sports bras, which some particularly large-breasted women have told me helps them enjoy sports more and eases strain on their backs. But for someone like me, there is absolutely not one sound reason why I would ever need a bra.
If you think this is an overreaction, you are probably not sitting in 95 degree heat with a constantly feeling of itchiness. Even sports bras are uncomfortable in this weather. But the real kicker is that there is just no good reason why culture should require me to wear one.
I have heard lots of reasons which explain the necessity of bras. They make your breasts look bigger. I’ll let you guess what I think of that reason. They provide “support” for older, sagging breasts. Then why are old women so less likely to wear bras than their younger counterparts? They are sexy, as are other kinds of lingerie, and enhance your “appeal”. I suppose, if that’s what you’re into. They disguise a woman’s nipples. Well, we can scratch that off as a disgustingly sexist hypersexualization and fetishization of the female body. I’m sure I’m missing some, but those are ones I most often hear.
Any reason that has to do with fetishizing the female body is completely invalid in my view, but these are reasons oft-cited. The normalcy of viewing and treating females like dress-up dolls, inanimate works of art, and fuck objects is still pervasive the world over. For this reason alone I advocate the end to bra-wearing. No, you don’t have to burn them, but have you ever burned something you despise? It’s pretty satisfying.
I feel better having ranted about bras, but…I’m still wearing one. Should I just apologize to Cambodia and take it off? Should I wait ’til I get home? Who I am really respecting by wearing this damnable invention, anyway?