The boss of a friend of mine had a business associate visit their office recently. Partway through their meeting, the boss abruptly went over to where his employees were seated, took off his shirt, turned it inside out, and put it back on again. “It was the wrong way round,” he told his gawking workforce. “And we have a guest.”
“I see,” said my friend. “And here I thought you were just happy to see me.”
If you can ignore the developing subplot between my friend and his boss, what’s really interesting about this incident is the casualness of male toplessness, and its machismo overtones. Hindu priests show off much more than their sacred threads while upholding their patriarchal paradigms, boxers parade their pectorals even as they pound each other senseless in a flood of testosterone and aggression, and football players – they of that hypermasculine pastime – streak across fields with their shirts off upon scoring a goal. There is bravado in barechestedness: nothing says Alpha Male like a flash of man-mammaries, nipples loud as neon signboards.
And putting the “bra” in that bravado is a Japanese e-boutique, Wishroom, which has sold hundreds of pink, black and white brassieres for men. Your menstrual envy (you know, the one that compensates with war and violent video games) got you down? You can now actually pull yourself up the bra straps and be a man.
These aren’t foam-filled cups meant for dressing in drag, and neither are they built for men with bountiful breast tissue (for that, the Australian “Male Support Vest”, which minimizes and de-feminizes, might be more your thing). There is no real aesthetic or functional purpose: no frills, no sequins, and no fancy cleavage-cushioning technology. They are meant, it seems, to be primarily a sensual secret – “I like this tight feeling,” says the boutique’s flat-chested representative as he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a black, leather-finish piece, in an online video. “It feels good.”
There’s a saying in Bombay that on a quiet day on Marine Drive, you can hear a thousand bras snap. The man bra (or the much catchier “Bro”, as they called it on Seinfeld nearly a decade and a half ago) might make it two thousand. Rest assured, though, that there is at least one bra (and its wearer) that won’t succumb. As a longtime admirer of blokes of the bellied and B-cupped variety, I don’t find the male bra a very uplifting idea. If anything, the thought of all that silly coverage plunges me into annoyance. It separates me from getting my cheap thrills and pushes up various types of resentment. It also supports ridiculousness and badly fleshed out metaphors.
Still, like any reasonable person, I think that people should wear whatever they damn well please, so I won’t get fashion fascist on you curious gentlemen. I can only subtly discourage you. As someone who once went bra-shopping without wearing a bra (a story for another time), I guarantee that less lingerie equals many more lingering glances. You may not have the necessary equipment, but if it’s good enough for Jacqueline Bisset swimming in that white tee and nothing else in The Deep as she – oh, um, sorry, got distracted – it’s good enough for you.
The curve may be mightier than the sword, as the marvellous Mae West said. She may have been right in more ways than one – just imagine a sumo wrestler or Turkish oil wrestler in a sports bra, or Michael Phelps in a bikini, and tell me you aren’t feeling slightly… unhooked.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.