I couldn’t help but take notice of the store windows on my first morning in Belleville, the friendly neighborhood in Paris where I was staying for a week in early July.
The signs on the bra shop screamed, “GRANDES TAILLES, MEILLEURES PRIX”! “BIG SIZES, BEST PRICES”!
For a woman with an ample chest a good bra–and a good bra store–is hard to find.
With the promise of BIG SIZES, BEST PRICES, I felt a need, even an obligation, to enter. I actually even need bras. In Buenos Aires, where I’m living in 2017, there don’t seem to be any bra stores with sizes above DDD. I sometimes feel excluded when I pass lingerie stores in Buenos Aires and even a low-grade panic, what if all my bras break at once? Sometimes underwires pop out, or bras get damaged in the wash.
But the store looked mysterious. Signs covered the windows. The shop didn’t look like your average bra boutique. For days I delayed.
On Saturday after four days in the neighborhood I finally ventured outside with a mission: check out the bra store.
I opened the door and stepped inside, finding myself in a small, disorganized, square-shaped shop, the walls covered by little white cardboard boxes, presumably with bras inside, and bins full of merchandise on sale: bras and underwear. The shop was a mess, a far cry from the feminine, carefully decorated boutiques I’m used to in the States. It was not what you would call aesthetic.
A short bald man with a paunch belly stepped out from the back room and greeted me, “Bonjour.” He was the only one working at the shop, and there were no other customers. I froze. Who was this guy? Why was he the only one in the bra shop?
How could I exit gracefully? I didn’t want to be trapped in a bra store with this little bald pervert. When I go bra shopping in the States, a woman often comes into the dressing room with me to measure me and assess whether the bras fit. Would he want to go in the dressing room with me?
It was a long thirty seconds before I uttered the words, “I’m looking for a bra” in French. Those words took all my courage in the world in that moment to say.
“36G,” he said, naming my size.
“Yes,” I said, astonished that he had hit the mark. He was such a bra expert he could judge my size just from my appearance. It took me a long time, until years ago, to admit that I wasn’t a D and get a bra that actually fit properly.
He went in the back and pulled out two black and nude bras and handed them to me.
“Is that all you have in my size?” I asked. These bras looked matronly. A few years ago I made a commitment to myself, I will wear bras I find attractive and sexy, that don’t make me feel like a grandmother.
“Don’t worry, I have many options.” he said.
“I’m looking for a pretty bra,” I said in French. “Jolie.”
He smiled, “Pretty? You don’t think my bras are pretty? I only sell pretty bras!”
I started to laugh too, and then pointed out the styles I found appealing, including a peach and gray leopard print a mannequin was wearing.
Another woman came in at this point, and he started to service her giving her options to try. She and I alternated using the sole small dressing room while he found bras for us. She seemed to love him. “This store is a gem of the neighborhood,” she said. “And he has great sales.”
She came out of the dressing room with her top on to get our opinion.
I gave her a thumbs up; so did he. I also tried on bras, then putting on my shirt to let them assess the bra fit.
In fact, I found an unusual abundance of options. I settled on two cute bras. The peach and grey one I adored and it was on sale for 32 euros, a fantastic price since the same brand would cost $80 in the U.S. The gray pinstriped one was 56 euros, an average price, still cheaper than what I paid in Oakland last year.
While he was ringing me up, I explained that I’m American but live in Buenos Aires where there are not many bra options for “full-sized” women. He laughed, “Oh, you’re American. You must stay in Buenos Aires far away from Trump!”
I left laughing and feeling uniquely uplifted (pun intended) by the encounter.
We question gendered assumptions about women’s roles. What about questioning roles for men? Can a man sell bras? Apparently.
I tried to ask if it was common for men to run bra shops in Paris but the question got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t get an answer. If I could go back in time, I would also ask, What made you open this shop? How did it happen that you’re a man running a bra shop?
Life is full of surprises when I breathe past my fear and find the courage to buy a bra from a man in Paris.
Want to find the magical bra shop? Go looking on Rue de Belleville just a block from the Metro Jourdain in Paris.