First Bras and Womanhood: Boob Positivity in Lizzie McGuire

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I was about nine years old when I was fitted for my first bra. Standing in a beige M&S changing room stall with my arms crossed, staring at the floor, I asked the woman with her tape at the ready to measure me over my t-shirt, and not under it.

None of my other friends had bras then. Barely any of them had any signs of developing boobs. My mum and I certainly didn’t talk about all that ‘puberty’ stuff either. When I began to grow leg and armpit hair, I started shaving it just because I saw Mum do it. When she used tissue as a replacement for sanitary towels or tampons when she didn’t have any or couldn’t afford them, I did the same. That’s how I learnt about my changing body.

For at least a good few months, I refused to wear my bra. It was only after a PE school trip that I caved and realised I needed it, even if I didn’t have to like it. Once I had learned how to put it on, and mastered the one-handed unclasping technique, it wasn’t as bad – just very uncomfortable. I could deal with it.

Then I started to notice what boobs meant to other people. By other people, I of course mean dudes.

Of all things, a conversation about the early noughties CBBC show Cavegirl turned out to be my first lesson in the objectification women: how guys view boobs. It was when I was in primary school, in a lesson with a couple of boys sitting next to me chatting about the eponymous hero. I had been watching the show and was happy to find something that others in my class shared an interest in. But I quickly noticed they weren’t talking about Cavegirl’s sassy attitude or the super catchy theme tune, everything was about her tits. They only watched the intro to see them. Cavegirl had mad survival skills and a unique pre-historic fashion sense, but all she had to offer a ten-year-old boy was her tits. That sucked to hear.

At the time, I was a massively quiet and self-conscious. I hated the idea of drawing attention to myself: to this day, it’s something that still freaks me out. Having double Ds before I’d reached double digits did just that. People noticed them and made comments that totally weren’t their place to, putting me in uncomfortable situations I tried so hard to avoid. The only option was to cover them, which became more and more difficult. My t-shirts started to become bagger, as did the rest of my clothes. By the time I was 12, I had doubled in boob size, and my efforts to hide my body were becoming futile.

I hadn’t really been exposed to much boob positivity at this point, in my personal life or pop culture. I was soaking up films, anime shows and music videos which constantly sexualised women, without giving them any agency over their bodies. Boobs weren’t something that women could feel totally awesome about, they were there for the sole attention and appreciation of men. It was all very confusing.

The first time that I came across pop culture addressing young women and their relationships with bras and breasts was in Between a Rock and a Bra Place, an episode of Lizzie McGuire.

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Lizzie and her best friend Miranda, sick of not being noticed, find the key to what they think will secure their popularity – buying their first bras. All the girls in their school who were once breast-less are now owners of bras, and are the most popular in their year. A connection? Boobs = popularity. Is that damaging thinking? For sure. But you can’t blame Lizzie and Miranda for reaching that conclusion.

Popularity shouldn’t be equated to what you look like or what you have/don’t have, but it is. Lizzie frequently questions this in the show, too. Between a Rock and a Bra Place recognises that teenage struggle between wanting to fit in and finding your own identity. Rightly or wrongly, bras represent the epitome of womanhood for both Lizzie and Miranda. Throughout their quest for the perfect bra, they proclaim that they’re adults, they’re independent, and they don’t need the help of others (especially not Lizzie’s mum.)

It was important for Lizzie McGuire to frame the story in the way that it did, delving into the teenage world of boob-envy. When society tells you that, in order for you to be a ‘real’ woman, you must have breasts (preferably big, symmetrical ones), then how can we judge Lizzie and Miranda for yearning for this ideal? They have grown up in a culture that puts so much weight on the physicality of young women, it’s the norm for them.

Lizzie McGuire shows how difficult this period can be like for girls who don’t develop in line with stereotypical visions of female beauty, including those teenage girls who don’t have boobs, something I hadn’t thought about at the time. Imagery of women with big tits and references to DD’s were (and still are) everywhere. Though mine didn’t look quite like the ones I saw on the high school teens on TV, I still had them, and they were large. Those girls were a symbol of womanhood, a sign you were no longer a child but now an adult; the kind of person that others desired. Women with small boobs, or no breasts at all, were, and still are, invisible in the landscape of pop culture.

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In Between a Rock in a Bra Place, after Lizzie has a go at her mum for trying to help her and Miranda pick out some bras, their archenemy Kate and her friend, Claire, turn up at the same shop, in the same section. Lizzie and Kate start cussing each other out until Claire’s mum arrives.

Shopping with your parents, for a time when you’re younger, can seem like a death sentence. Was there anything more embarrassing when you were 14 than going out with your mum? Worst of all, to buy clothes? Kate and Claire, two of the most popular girls at school, who bought bras and had perfect boobs, were out with one of their mums. Not just out with a mum, she was helping them shop. Cool girls, from what I was told about anyway, didn’t go out with their parents in public. Like, ever. Kate and Claire were defying that popular girl trope, showing Lizzie and Miranda that they were just the same – young girls, trying to figure it all out. Bra or no bra.

When Lizzie threw an insult at them about it, they were totally not bothered. They understood that they’d have no idea what to get if Claire’s mum wasn’t there. Just because you have boobs, doesn’t mean you have a clue where to start on the bra-buying front (or anywhere else in life). It doesn’t change you overnight, you don’t suddenly start to become more independent. It isn’t a path to womanhood. Being a woman doesn’t, and shouldn’t, rely on your physicality.

For a lot of young women, thought, buying your first bra is a big deal, and we shouldn’t deny them of owning that experience. Bra fitting can be awkward and make you want to crawl into a pit of embarrassment never wanting to return, like I felt. But it can also be an adventure, a recognisable change in your own body that is kind of weird, but exciting at the same time: like it was for Lizzie and Miranda. Through their angsty outbursts, Lizzie and Miranda start to figure out their journeys as young women, realising that there are so many different stages to growing up, whether grounded in physical, bodily changes, or not.

Lizzie McGuire saw all these conflicting elements of teen girl life, exploring them with an authentic female voice that never felt preachy. Whether she’s buying a bra or attempting rhythmic gymnastics, Lizzie always narrates her own life. And that’s a perspective we sorely need in our representation of teenage girls on screen.

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