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Underwear is a customary Christmas gift, or was in my family. We believed in practical presents to accompany the more glamorous, big-ticket items. When I was 11, I unwrapped my parcel of socks and panties, and with horror found something else — “A training bra!” broadcast a great aunt in front of my entire family. I was mortified, and, in true tween fashion, threw the box across the room and ran away.
Revisiting my rejection of the “training bra,” I’m struck with a couple of thoughts. The garment was in many ways a symbol of the transition into adolescence, and more specifically, puberty. It signaled the changes my body was undergoing, changes I was grappling to understand and accept. The ceremonious unwrapping was a public event — even if the “public” consisted of my extended family. The training bra, a limp, cotton covering with a plastic hook closure, functioned to broadcast my entering puberty, much like my great aunt’s proclamation to the room. I was suddenly made aware that my changing body was indeed a public spectacle that others might be interested in.
From Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress to Madonna’s coned bras, the culture around me sent conflicting messages about the sexual significance imprinted into women’s clothing. Female sexuality was at once a stain and also a slogan of self-expression — a dichotomy that was confusing to a young girl. It so seemed this “training bra” was my passport into this spectacle of objectification — what exactly was this bra supposed to be training me in — I nor the culture around me seemed to have a concrete answer. All I knew was I didn’t want any part of it.
“I was suddenly made aware that my changing body was indeed a public spectacle that others might be interested in.”
The training bra is “emotionally freighted as a symbol of initiation into a group,” said Sandra Goldmark, associate professor of professional practice in theater at Barnard College. She noted that clothing functions to communicate group identity. “So much of our clothing is communicating so much — gender, status and group membership,” she explained. As for the bra “you’ve got [those aforementioned] three big-ticket identifiers.” Traditionally, she said, older girls have higher status and “any marker of status can be a big moment.”
She explained, “Girls can be ambivalent [about initiation into a group] or maybe not comfortable with gender markers, which can be resisted by children.” (Anyone remember this scene from “Dazed and Confused”?)
Today, the term “training bra” feels archaic. “Training bras don’t really ‘train’ anything,” said Whitney Casares, the founder and CEO of the Modern Mamas Club. “As girls first enter puberty, the breast tissue is generally the first area to enlarge into what pediatricians call ‘breast buds.’ Sometimes training bras are used to help cover young girls’ nipple areas when their breasts are too small to fit a traditional bra, if the young girl or her parents feel embarrassed by the appearance of the breast buds through a shirt. An undershirt is just as effective for this purpose. There’s no medical reason a girl entering puberty needs to wear a ‘training bra.’”
Goldmark noted that the “choice to cover the nipple” is really a question of “social control.” Bras might provide a level of modesty over something the wearer might feel “psychological discomfort over.” Some people, she said, might view the bra as a “tool of oppression,” while others see it as “comfortable and necessary.” Either way, she noted, as a garment it’s 100% symbolic.
Casares agreed the term “training bra” is outdated and Goldmark pointed out that gender has “become more fluid in clothing.” How you present, even privately — as undergarments are hidden, after all — is a marker of agency, according to Goldmark.
Ironically, these days, I find myself gravitating to bra styles that, sartorially speaking, are throwbacks to the training bras of my youth. Brands like Calvin Klein and Skims offer cotton coverings without underwire piping or much in the way of physical support. Am I reclaiming this garment, I wonder? Or rejecting the pushup bras and high-tech shapewear intended to sculpt me into a postmodern pinup avatar? Am I too psychologically modest to go bare? Is this choice an attempt to appear younger, forever chasing the status associated with a woman’s age?
I think about the son of my good friend, who is transgender. With the support of his mom, he decided the onset of “breast buds” will signal a new chapter, one where pubertal blockers will inhibit the growth of breasts. This is a stance characterized more by authenticity to self as opposed to a rejection laden with embarrassment or anger. There’s so much agency in this choice, in rejecting the training bra and all that comes with it, that we can truly say: We’ve come a long way, baby.
For a look at today’s training bra options, see below. HuffPost may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently selected by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.
A two-pack of basic organic cotton bras
Simply designed with adjustable spaghetti straps and a bottom elasticized band, this soft stretch knit bra from Gap is made with 95% organically grown cotton, free from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Score: 4.8 stars and 31 reviews
Promising review: “My daughter really likes these and finds them very comfortable. The double layer adds additional support.” – anonymous
A supportive, lightly padded bra
This lightly supportive hook-and-eye-closure bra wears more like a traditional one, without any restrictive underwire. It’s covered in soft breathable fabric and has thin padded cups that add shape without being excessive.
Score: 4.1 stars and 1,359 ratings
Promising review: “Comfortable bras. They are a little padded and stiff so they retain their shape, even after washing. The cups are a little large for my daughter yet, but she likes that they are thick and protect a little bit from getting bumped in a sensitive place while playing or doing taekwondo. She says they are comfortable and are her preferred bra now.” – Brandi
A buttery soft sports bra
Perfect for gym glass or active tweens, this racer back sports bra provides the perfect amount of compression, stretch and support and won’t restrict range of motion. It’s probably most loved for its buttery soft “Powervita” fabric, exclusive to Athleta.
Score: 5 stars and 66 ratings
Promising review: “I was searching for a sports bra that would be a good fit and soft for my 10 year old. She tried a lot of other brands and they were itchy or just didn’t fit right. I knew the softness and quality of Athleta would be our best bet. And I was 100% right! She loves this bra!” – anonymous
A double-lined full coverage bralette
For kids that want a more full-coverage bra, this cotton lycra option might be a favorite. It has adjustable straps, a lower cut back and is double layered for added modesty.
Score: 5 stars and 2 reviews
Promising review: “Incredibly luxurious cotton with soft lace, a perfect choice for budding girls. Size up for a comfortable fit.” – Erika S.
An ultra-soft and double-lined bra
This longer lined bra is seam-free, double-lined for smooth coverage and made with a comfort stretch elastic band for extra support. It’s also reversible, giving your tween more color-wearing options.
Score: 4.6 stars and 264 ratings
Promising review: “My daughter prefers this bra over all the other brands in her drawer. It’s soft and more comfortable than the other brands. It’s not shaped like a traditional bra and I think that is something she likes. Perfect for a 10 year old who is holding on to her younger self. I’m buying a few more today.” –– Kimberley A.
A pair of lightly padded foam-cup bras
Hanes, a trusted name in underwear basics, makes these stretchy adjustable bras that feature removable foam cups for modesty and shaping.
Score: 4.6 stars and 4,677 ratings
Promising review: “Ordered these for my 11 1/2 year old. She’s in that stage where she doesn’t absolutely NEED a bra yet, but she definitely needs extra coverage when wearing certain shirts, or tank tops. The bras have little removable/adjustable pads in them, but they’re super thin, and are there just to provide coverage for little breast buds. Measured her chest before picking a size, and it was sized perfectly for her body, and will even have room to grow with her. Great value for the price.” – Fallon O’Hagan
A 12-pack of cotton cropped cami bras
These cotton cami-style bras are soft, breathable and add a little extra support without compromising comfort. They also have over 9,300 five-star-ratings on Amazon with reviewers saying they were a great affordable option for first time bra-wearers.
Score: 4.7 and 11,502 ratings
Promising review: “Got these for my 10 year old. I had bought a 3 pack of a different brand before and she said they were itchy and when she raised her arm, the training bra would ride up. These seemed more stretchy and able to stay in place, so we tried them and she loves them. They fit more like a bathing suit top instead of anything with wires or adjustable straps, and they don’t ride up because they’re a bit more form-fitted. She loves the colors too. Great value for price. I’ll only buy these for her from now on until she needs something with more support.” – Kelly
A set of four jersey-knit cami bras
Made from uber-comfortable jersey knit, these pull-over-style cami bras feel just like your favorite T-shirt and land just above the rib cage. They also have adjustable cotton straps for a customized fit.
Score: 5 stars and 33 ratings
Promising review: “These cami bras are great for my 11-year-old. The perfect amount of coverage and the designs are so cute! She loves them!” – anonymous
A day-to-day seamless bra
This everyday cross-back bra has non-adjustment straps that won’t dig into shoulders and is made from a seamless non-chafing fabric that won’t create outlines under clothes.
4.9 stars and 14 ratings
Promising review: “My daughter’s first bra – what a rite of passage. She was worried about it being uncomfortable, showing through her clothes, and basically thought all eyes would be on her. She’s been wearing the Day To Day Seamless Bra and has no complaints. It does not show through, no “outline” with any of the shirts she wears. There’s no messing with straps falling or digging into her shoulders. It’s also comfortable enough that she forgets about it. We are very pleased.” — Jennifer J.
Two classic organic cotton bralettes
These very simple and distraction-free bralettes layer nicely under clothes and are made with organic stretch cotton certified by OTCO.
4.9 stars and 35 ratings
Promising review: “My 10 year old granddaughter really likes this particular bra. Great coverage, extremely comfortable. Would highly recommend for a first bra.” – Paul B.
A convertible T-shirt bra
Full of stretch and subtle under clothing, this T-shirt bra can be worn even with V-necks thanks to the deeper neckline. The adjustable straps can convert between standard straps to racer back, and the thinly padded cups are removable.
Score: 4.4. stars and 23 reviews
Promising review: “This is a great bra for my tween! It has held up well with washings. No pilling. Comfortable fit. Much better than her jockey brand that are similar and cost more! There are removable pads and adjustable straps.” – Taryn H.
A bestselling pack of cotton bras
A true no-fuss fitting sports bra, these cotton stretch bestsellers have a wide strap that won’t dig into shoulders and a double-lined layer in front for better coverage. They’re available in sets of three and six in multiple colors.
Score: 4.4 stars and 7,152 ratings
Promising review: “My ten year old has reached the age that every mom dreads: she’s gone from my baby to my young lady and that means she needs her first training bras. She loved the sports bra style and I think for a younger girl they are easier to start with. So I found these in a 3 pack and she LOVES them. They are super comfortable and from a brand I trust. They are very stretchy and they have an extra layer in the front so super modest too. I love that they don’t have padding, as she’s not there yet.” – Terry J