Breaking a delicate taboo

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Breast Cancer Welfare Association Malaysia president Zaharah (left), and Tan. Photos by Mohd Izwan Mohd Nazam

MALAYSIAN women enjoy a “luxurious” life, declared Anne Tan. The director of lingerie brand, Neubodi, went on to divulge that  statistics indicate that an average Malaysian woman owns up to 18 bras at a time, but only a quarter of which are regularly worn.

We were at the company office in Kota Damansara, Petaling Jaya, where for the first time, I learnt of the concept of a “bra bank”.

The local brand is in the midst of its second-hand bra collection campaign, in which the company aims to collect at least 10,000 pieces to be delivered to Nepal. For that, they have partnered with the Uplift Project this year, which specialises in helping women in disadvantaged communities by collecting and donating bras to those in need across the world.

“At first, we never understood how a second-hand or ‘pre-loved’ bra could help other women. For us, buying a bra is not something we think extensively through,” said Neubodi marketing manager Anushya Safira, “It’s not something that would impact our income or budget significantly.”

Through Australia-based Uplift — the project is currently headed by 16-year old student Cecilia Roh here in Malaysia — Tan said she learnt that the cost of producing a single-piece of the delicate garment is too high for many third-world countries or remote regions, including Cambodia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Soloman Islands, to name a few.

“Producing a bra is more expensive than producing normal clothes, such as dresses,” highlighted Tan, who has started and run Neubodi since 2008. “They might be able to afford it if the cost is around US$1 (RM3.26)or maybe up to US$3,” she added, “but you can’t produce a new bra with that price.”

In most of these countries, the economy is so weak that a woman’s priority lies in providing for her family and household. Often, there is a stigma attached to spending money on what we would consider common and a necessity here in comparison.

Anushya confirmed this. “Whatever income they make at the time, they would not think of buying a piece of bra, they’d think, ‘I can feed my family with this money first’.”

Why it is a necessity

Tan candidly said that it is not a “life and death” issue when it comes to wearing a bra, but insists that the support the garment provides is important, especially when it comes to body issues.

“As a woman, we carry that extra weight,” she smiled unabashedly, “the nature of gravity is something that we cannot run away from.”

The bra manufacturer pointed out that the average weight of even fairly small-sized breasts is around 250gm each side, going up in weight from there. “Imagine the burden to our shoulders and backbones [as we go about our daily routine], that’s one of the reasons why women complain of backaches and stiff neck or shoulders,” she emphasised.

According to Uplift, there are also potential health risks such as climate rashes caused by humidity, fungal infections and abscesses that might occur between the breast and the chest wall, where usually the bra would help with air circulation. For nursing mothers, a bra can avoid a spread of rash to the baby through contact.

Besides the cost of owning a bra, the lack of access to bras in most of these countries is also a problem, “I can walk into any mall here and be able to buy a new bra, but there [in Nepal], there might be second-hand shops that sell clothing, but no shop selling just new bras,” said Anushya.

Launched on Sept 25, the “Old Bras for Cash” campaign by Neubodi has collected more than half their target thus far, based on the number of donations deposited in bins in each of its eight stores across the Klang Valley and one in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

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Tan showing some of the new-looking bras (some with tags) that her company has collected so far.

The campaign’s experience itself has proven to be enlightening for the team — “Customers come in and [when they look through the collection bin in-store] ask, ‘are you sure these are old bras? They still look so new!’” said Tan, adding that some still have tags attached.

It proves that women in Malaysia often buy undergarments that end up being kept unused in their drawers, said Tan while laughing. However, she praised the generosity of our women as most donated items have been in good condition.

In comparison, the women in Nepal that they are planning to deliver the bras to —

after sorting out and replacing any broken bras with their own stock — would most likely only choose one or two pieces for themselves.

“They would probably sell most of the given bras in a second-hand store as a small business,” said Tan. It is one of the methods that the local partner organisation, Asha Nepal, helps in providing economic empowerment to women and children affected by sex trafficking in Kathmandu.

Pink October

Apart from collecting second-hand bras for charity, Neubodi also partnered with the Breast Cancer Welfare Association Malaysia (BCWA), where within the campaign period, the company would donate RM1 to BCWA for every purchase made at Neubodi stores.

BCWA president Zaharah Aiyub said the campaign and partnership are also important to promote education. During the campaign’s launch, BCWA gave a presentation for guests on the importance of breast checks.

Rubbishing the myth that wearing a bra perpetuates or causes breast cancer, Zaharah pointed out that there was “no scientific correlation” for such claims.

“There’s no known exact cause of breast cancer, it could be a number of factors,” she explained, adding that wearing a wrong-sized bra is unhealthy in general.

A cancer survivor herself, the Universiti Malaya professor said that Malaysian women need to begin monthly self-checks, or “familiarisation” with their breasts from the age of 18. Diagnosed with a lump in her breast in her twenties and once again later, it was regular checks that brought them to her attention.

“I was happily doing my aerobics,” said Zaharah, of how she never expected to be diagnosed, “I ate a lot of salad during those days, I had quite a healthy lifestyle.”

A delayed mammogram on yet another tumour — she had the first two benign ones removed — when she was 51 years old — turned out to be malignant.

Tan said, “I think there’s nothing shameful about educating and talking about bras. It’s just another piece of garment that women need to wear. That’s it.”

That would be the message and underlying motivation the team hopes to bring to the women in Nepal, as they personally deliver the bras. Through these garments, the team can perhaps start a conversation that may begin to restore the common dignity that was stripped off most of the victims.

 

The Neubodi ‘Old Bras For Cash’ campaign will run till Nov 2. To donate, simply bring your undergarments to any of its stores. For more information about the campaign, visit www.neubodi.com and www.upliftbras.org. October is also the Breast Cancer Awareness month. To find out how you can support or get involved, go to www.breastcancer.org.my.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on October 23, 2014.