portrait of a lady who is uncomfortable in several different ways

For some reason, ever since quarantine started, I have found myself bombarded with ads for bras. Is it because Big Lingerie knows I’m not wearing a bra most of the time these days, and is determined to convince me that wearing a bra is an essential part of being “Safer at Home”?* As if my breasts just … quietly resting there, as they do, might somehow constitute a domestic hazard without being appropriate restrained? As if breasts, too, should be “sheltering in place,” which is to say, that they require a “shelter,” to keep them “in place”? Or (I’m warming to my theme now), perhaps the idea is that breasts should be quarantined from each other; the bra industry’s raison d’être, after all, is its tireless pursuit of the mission to “lift and separate.”**

One of the ads that presented itself, unbidden, into my line of sight, was accompanied by this image, which has haunted me ever since I first laid eyes on it.

pensive lady in bra

I first spotted the image (and I know the timing precisely because I took a screenshot of it), just an hour or so before my boyfriend broke up with me, a week ago. In retrospect, I wonder, did Big Lingerie know he was going to break up with me? Was this ad subliminally saying “Sarah, we know you’re a bespectacled lady who loves coffee and a messy updo, and we also know you’re going to be very sad very soon, so may we recommend you purchase this bra? It’s an ideal garment for those times when you want to stare vacantly into space, feeling wistful but also well-supported”?

There are so many aspects of this image that trouble me. I’ll itemize them here, in no particular order. She is looking in the direction of the window, but the window’s blinds are drawn, which means she is either staring at the shuttered window; or else, she has deliberately assumed a spot by the window in order to stare at a spot on the wall next to it. Either way, these are the behaviors of an addled mind.

The type of radiator she’s resting her forearm on, I know from experience, is quite uncomfortable to lean on. It must be digging into the bones in her arm in a quite unpleasant way. Perhaps her arm is very tired, or atrophied, or she needs a spot to rest her coffee cup. But her cup seems to be empty. (Is that some kind of metaphor? Her cup runneth under?) I think she should just put the cup down.

Alternatively, perhaps she is leaning on the radiator for warmth, but supposing that she is cold raises a whole host of other problems, as should be obvious. I can honestly say that this particular combination of clothing–bra with open cardigan–is not one I would have–or ever have–chosen. She’s probably going to get sweaty under the arms and will have to wash that cardigan now. And it looks like something you can’t machine wash (possibly you can machine wash it cold and then lay it flat to dry). And then, in the meantime, her sternum must be feeling quite chilly. I really want to reach over and wrap the cardigan around her, not out of prudishness, you understand, out of concern. 

While I’m on the sternum, I’ll just say that it’s really bothering me the way that pendant around her neck is swept to the side. If I were her, I would feel that, and it would bother me. I have an inverted sternum so this happens to me quite often with necklaces, but her sternum looks perfectly normal and she looks as though she’s just been sitting there still as a statue for hours, so it’s quite a mystery how it got so off-kilter.

Moving up, although her face is uncannily expressionless, like that of a mannequin, I can’t help but wince on her behalf at the discomforts she is stoically enduring: her lips have evidently been viciously stung by murder hornets, while her oversized glasses frames are slipping down the bridge of her nose and onto her protruding cheekbones. It’s a really annoying feeling when your glasses slip down your nose. She must be really resisting the urge to push them back up.

I’ll get to the bra itself in a minute, but I’ll just add that there are all these other background details that are just … off. The way that curtain is kind of caught on the back of her chair. That diagonal line that’s kind of sticking into her head; is she doing that thing where she’s put her hair up with a pencil or a chopstick? No, it looks too big, I think it’s part of something in the background, but I don’t know what. Then there’s that–pen? Very long nail? Smallish knitting needle?–on the window sill. Maybe it’s just a small sharp implement she’s keeping to hand in case it all becomes too much and she needs to stab herself in the heart–and maybe that’s why her cardigan is undone, so she can stab herself without staining it–it’s all beginning to make sense!***

I do understand that in all photo shoots, the model is always placed and composed by the art director or photographer; what’s jarring about this photo is that this intervention feels so conspicuous. You can just imagine the photographer standing back, squinting, and then leaning in to fold the left sleep of her cardigan half way down her arm.

Obviously, the bra is meant to be the focal point of the whole picture, and this may be the part of the image that actually bothers me most of all. Because it looks terrible–like, the seaming is really uneven, the fabric is bunching in some places and gaping in others. That is, the bra looks so ill-fitting that as I, this ad’s target audience, sit here, looking out of the window wistfully, I remain convinced that my lack of a bra is really no lack at all.

All right, that’s all, there was no real point to this post, I just needed to get that off my chest.




*Our mayor chose to use the phrase “safer at home” in place of “shelter in place” for reasons that I understand but which also feel misguided. To my ear, there is something strangely disquieting about the phrase “safer at home.” For a start, “shelter in place” is an imperative and a complete sentence while “safer at home” is a sentence fragment, which itself creates uncertainty. “Safer at home” is also, conspicuously, a modification of a more reassuring phrase, “safe at home.”  The comparative adjective exposes the tentativeness of what the city’s slogan is willing to declare: no one is asserting that that you will be safe at home, only that you will be safer.

** Random question: what is up with Midge being a bra designer in Vertigo? Do you remember this exchange?

		What's this do-hickey here?

	He turns the brassiere over with his stick

		It's a brassiere. You know about 
		those things. You're a big boy, now.

		I've never run across one like that.

		It's brand new. Revolutionary uplift.  
		No shoulder straps, no back straps, 
		but does everything a brassiere should 
		do. It works on the principle of the 
		cantilever bridge.


		An aircraft engineer down the 
		peninsula designed it. He worked it 
		out in his spare time.

		What a pleasant hobby.

Midge being a bra designer clearly adds to all of the other ways in which the movie is about the production, performance, and consumption of femininity as a spectacle; but I don’t know what else to say about it.

***My friend Natalie says this is just part of the window sill but I still have my doubts.