Toppling the myth of the motherly aesthetic by going topless in L.A.

Trend/My Go-to: Jamilah Lemieux's bra. prop styling by Cody Rogers.
(Jennelle Fong/For The Times; prop styling by Cody Rogers)
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This story is part of Parents Are Cool!, the third issue of Image, which explores the myriad ways in which L.A. parents practice the craft of care. See the full package here.

To say I’ve never been a modest dresser may be an understatement. I’ve always been a fan of showing some skin — despite the criticisms lobbed from my parents, teachers and other authority figures; the harassment from men and boys; those stank faces that women and girls really must stop making at one another. I dipped my toe in the body-baring waters in middle school and have since come to know, love and rock catsuits, booty shorts, thigh-high boots and other items that are regarded as sexy, even if the super sexy Leo woman wearing them didn’t have sex on her mind when she picked them out.

However, it wasn’t until I was a mother in my mid-30s that I unlocked what I believe was the last remaining chamber of sartorial immodesty: going shirtless. Out and about in public with just a bra. I’m both surprised that it took as long as it did and clear on why that was.

Bras have always been one of my things, my little obsessions. From the moment I started wearing one, I’ve almost always “had” to wear one; my sweet chariots have always been large and have always swung low. I decided to embrace brassieres wholeheartedly, searching for the prettiest ones, matching them to my panties (when applicable) and/or the rest of my outfit. The most readily available bras in my size are often in grotesque colors like beige or white, while the sexier ones are often like a good number of the L.A. men I’ve encountered: unsupportive and here for a good time, not necessarily a long one — and they don’t feel very good pressed up against your body. Despite the challenges, I’ve spent years editing an impressive collection of bras for almost any occasion.

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Some folks don’t stress about what their bra looks like if no one is going to see it. That has never been my story. My addiction to pretty bras began in high school when I first started letting everyone see my undergarments for fun. At every weight, there’s always been a difference between the size shirt my breasts needed and the one that would fit the rest of me comfortably. Teenage me realized I could either get a larger blouse or wear a pretty bra and go an open button (or two) beyond what most people would consider appropriate. Back then, when I was a heavier girl with a big stomach with eating disorders dating to age 11, I thought that my breasts were one of the few good things about my body. As such, they were often a very significant part of my outfit.

In college, a friend once exclaimed, “Jamilah, your cleavage is offensive.” This may have been a bit of projection on her also-immodest dressing part and maybe some fat-shaming too, but for real, I used to wear my boobs out. I cut every single one of my T-shirts to show some titty — even when doing so wasn’t practical. I once took some scissors to a Malcolm X shirt and I had to cut on a diagonal to make sure I didn’t cut Brother Malcolm’s face — that really should have been a wakeup call.

Over the years, I never lost my passion for bras. In my fat days, approximately ages 16 to 24, I got them almost exclusively from Lane Bryant and worked tirelessly to fit them into my outfits. After losing weight, I began purchasing fewer demi-cup, push-up numbers and started looking to minimizers, bralettes and even those sticky tape joints from Instagram, all to take advantage of my expanded shopping options and the increased (and problematic) social permission to go tighter, shorter, sexier.

Today, I’m a thirtysomething. Tomorrow, I may identify as a specific age but I’ll be the proud mother to an 8-year-old daughter either way. My wardrobe is not different in spirit from the one I had 10, 15 years ago; merely the execution has changed. Miniskirts have given way to pum pum shorts; impractically short tent dresses were replaced by clingy, midi numbers. And bras, once relegated to a guest-starring role in most outfits, limited to “oh, hey girl” visibility, have taken their place at the top of the call sheet … as tops. Like, shirts. I wear them as shirts.

The bra that may have forever destroyed my remaining chance at being “in good taste” actually went unworn for almost three years after I spotted it at Nordstrom Rack. It was black with straps reminiscent of a harness; I live for the opportunity to wear BDSM-looking stuff in public (because: cute) so I copped it despite it being athleisure. I thought it would fit perfectly under a low-cut or sheer top.

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I tried many times to rock it that way, and it always looked awful. Last spring, thanks to some laundry day desperation, I threw it on under a loose-fitting jumpsuit with spaghetti straps. The bra was completely visible, and it didn’t just look cute; it kind of looked ... sufficient? Like, does this really have to go under something? I tried it again with a pair of overall shorts and it looked fine. The bra was, essentially, a shirt, so I wondered: Could I maybe wear it without anything over it?

In L.A., it turns out, yes, I could.

See, I might not have had the chutzpah to go out in a bra in my former home of Brooklyn (the New York Times piece railing against the city’s “new” nudity, which opens with a picture of a Black woman’s body dressed in something I would absolutely wear, may provide some context). But in L.A.? People be naked, and I love it. It isn’t merely the skinny Hollywood types or white women or just folks in certain neighborhoods. People be naked everywhere. It’s not everyone’s ministry, but there’s enough bare skin of all colors, shapes, sizes, genders and ages for one to feel OK being dressed that way in most situations. Add to the fact that at a size 8, I’m also the smallest I’ve been in my adult life. Shirtlessness is not risky to me in the way it once was; it’s a relatively low-stakes gamble. At worst, someone may look at me like “Do anybody else got they shirt off” or “She’s someone’s mom.”

Maybe I’m just imagining some of those glares because moms “aren’t supposed” to dress like me. Or so I’ve been told. The image of the mother was drilled into my head by the desexualized images I witnessed growing up, particularly in pop culture. Let’s consider a few memorable sitcom moms from my childhood: “Sister Sister’s” Lisa Landry (Jackée Harry); “Moesha’s” Dee Mitchell (Sheryl Lee Ralph); and “Married ... With Children’s” Peggy Bundy (Katey Sagal). While Peggy always looked sexy, her sexiness was intended to be absurd; you got the sense that her interest in sex was the butt of jokes and her schlubby husband wanted no parts. Lisa and Dee, on the other hand, looked like they were going to a church function. I know the fashions of the day were more modest but these voluptuous women were literally drowning in fabric, shirts buttoned up to the heavens, hemlines dragging to hell. Peggy, Lisa and Dee — these were three of the hottest chicks on the small screen. But somehow, cloaked in motherhood, they were supposed to be anything but sexy.

Trend/My Go-to: Jamilah Lemieux's bra. prop styling by Cody Rogers.
(Jennelle Fong/For The Times; prop styling by Cody Rogers)

My mom too always wore a shirt; according to her, even in what I would call the “hot girl” phase of her youth, she favored a more clothed look. I recall a couple of guys catcalling her outside a grocery store once when I was around my daughter’s age, and there were times when I saw men — usually older ones — being creepy or leering in her direction. Otherwise, I didn’t see people engaging with her body in public very often. My daughter has had the opposite experience nearly her whole life: She’s witnessed me being harassed on the street a lot; she’s also stolen an occasional glimpse of my own “hot girl” photos I post on Instagram. I often feel her unflinching gaze at how I dress when she is with me. I’m not sure what she sees but she seems to like it.

In the past, I might have said my mother dressed “like a mom,” whereas I do not. But “mom” is not a look or an aesthetic; the things coded as such are simply unflattering, decidedly unfashionable and associated with a past when perhaps more mothers felt they needed to look dowdy in order to be appropriate. Society just observed a few moms in bad jeans and decided that’s what motherhood is.

Yet the so-called mom look seems divorced from actual motherhood. Moms and other birthing people are the only people who have a physical receipt that proves that we had sex at least once. Like a porn star, our identity is directly connected to sex, so why is the mom aesthetic so disconnected from sexy? (Speaking of porn, how isn’t the tremendous popularity of MILF-porn recognized widely as a refutation of that?)

To some extent, it’s because we associate motherhood with adulthood and sex appeal with youth. I’ll admit, the idea of being told I look “like a mom” sends chills down my spine not just because it sounds like someone trying to covertly say I look corny or matronly but also because it sounds old. Ain’t nothing wrong with being old, but I’ll be damned if you gonna make me feel that way in my thirtysomethings.

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Wearing a bra in public is my small refutation of the myth of the motherly aesthetic. Donning my favorite strappy, athletic, BDSM bra freely in public among the unclothed of L.A. is a reclamation of sorts. I’m no outlier. Bras are mom clothes, high-waisted jeans are mom clothes, mom clothes are whatever we put on, and we deserve every right to be as sexy, or as decidedly unsexy or as anything else that we see fit without the expectation that we represent the entirety of motherhood, or that we can somehow be positioned opposite from it.

Author Jamilah Lemieux
Author Jamilah Lemieux
(Marcus Mack)

My strappy athletic BDSM bra is a mom shirt, right along with the Peggy Bundy-looking leopard prints and spandex numbers that now hang alongside it. I’m aware that if I wear it to a PTA meeting, I’d probably be the only one dressed as such, and I probably would not choose to do such a thing. But the bra is a mom shirt nonetheless.

How will my style choices impact my daughter? What happens when she wants to dress like me? I want to empower my child to adorn her body as she sees fit when the time comes, yet I know that no matter how liberated a woman or girl feels, there’s still a price that comes with making the choices I’ve made. While no style of clothing can keep a woman or girl safe, I’d argue that those of us who dare display our “goods” get it worse at times because perpetrators use our fashion choices to justify their violence, verbal and otherwise. I often ponder what it means to encourage her to follow her desires knowing that, if they are like mine, they may lead to additional harassment.

I’m now tasked with both participating in and bearing witness to how the world influences a young girl’s sense of her body, what is appropriate, what is sexy and what is desirable to her — and what it means to be a mother. At the same time, I’m still grappling with those things myself.

I’m still a standard-bearer to her in so many ways — still cool, still aspirational. I’m showing her what it’s like to be the mom with no shirt on and hopefully, she recognizes that as an example but not a template nor a textbook. She sees that it’s not always comfortable but that it’s my choice. That I’m built (perhaps literally and figuratively) to withstand what may come of it, and that not everyone would make the same choices. I talk to her about these things. She listens. I hope she hears.

There is a limit to how much I know about how my little girl processes this. There is no limit to how much I agonize about it. I don’t know what either of us will be wearing in 10 years, but I hope that for her, it’s something that makes her feel just as good as the halter bra that started it all makes me feel.

Jamilah Lemieux is a cultural critic and Slate contributor, where she cohosts the “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” podcast. The good pics are on Instagram @Jamilahlemieux and she tweets occasionally, and regrettably, from the same handle.