The Tyranny of the T-Shirt Bra: Do You Live in Fear of Your Own Nipples?

by Bonnie Downing

Foamy, modern, molded bras have taken over more than their share of the bra market. They seem to insist that if we decline silicone breasts, we should at least have the courtesy to hide our actual breasts under smooth, springy, vaguely breast-like shells.

It started about a decade ago. The phrase “t-shirt bra” crept into my brain by osmosis. “What are those?” I asked, shopping with a friend.

“Oh I love them!” she said. “You wear them under t-shirts.”

I touched the ones stacked on a table. They were… different than other bras. A space-agey substance. My friend stuck out her chest. “I’m wearing one now. You can’t see anything, right?”

“I can see a line, where the foam is,” I said.

“No, but I mean you can’t see anything.” Eventually I understood she was talking about her nipples.

I had never thought much about my nipples when choosing bras, preoccupied already with my bra size and why strapless bras were always so mean to me. I tried one on and sure enough, it formed a ridge. I’m a D cup; I don’t want even an extra millimeter or two of padding.

“Not padded!” every bra saleswoman insists when I ask for bras with no padding. “It’s just lightly lined!” Last year I went to Victoria’s Secret, a place I never shop, because I had a bra emergency and needed a racerback bra for a party dress that night. I repeated the lie to myself — lightly lined — but when I saw photos from that evening I was horrified to find that I had been quite visibly bustier than usual.

They continue to encroach, creeping in under new names all the time: Contour Bras for a “sculpted silhouette”; Foam-Lined Bras, defined on the Bare Necessities as the go-to choice for “protection against nipple show through”; Seamless Bras “virtually invisible!” (Like your nipples.) T-shirt Bras for an “ultra-smooth look” (you know by now what that means). Microfiber Bras! They’re all the same bras, really. OneHanesPlace adds Laminated Bras, which they admit are “a lot like Molded-Cup Bras,” which “mimic your body’s contours because the fabric is molded on a cone-shaped form. So, they fit like a second skin… and work with your shape, not against it.”

I’m irritated with the implication that some part of my own form is cone-shaped. And stop telling me that your bras mold to my shape like that’s a bonus — I don’t want to morph myself into the shape of the bra. I rely on bras to keep things generally lifted and… organized, not to give me someone else’s chest entirely. I don’t begrudge anyone else’s right to enhance any body part they wish (I myself may or may not have just applied controversial eyelash medication), but I find it hard to believe that women with multiple D cups and beyond are looking for “light lining.”

And these bras are not sexy, are they? You know how you’re (possibly, occasionally) willing to wear bathing suits in public, but not bras? It’s not really because bathing suits cover more. They’re just made of more opaque, less-revealing fabirc. I feel even less naked in these foamy t-shirt bras. They’re more swimsuity than swimsuits.

So I’m taking a survey:

-Do you really love these bras?

-Am I the only one left who prefers bras made of stretch lace, silk, cotton, thread, what-have-you?

-Do you live in fear of your own nipples?

-Are you beginning to suspect that these bras are forced upon us for nefarious reasons I’ve yet to define, as part of a global conspiracy?

-Also, oh my god: what if a few years from now, all underwear is padded for butt enhancement? I’ll become the Andy Rooney of lingerie, and no one wants that.

Previously: Outdated Beauty Advice: The Devil Is Making Me Fat!

Bonnie Downing’s first book was Peculiar Beauty: Three Centuries of Charmingly Absurd Advice, and now she’s writing a book about animals and needs a new agent. You can find her at and in Brooklyn.