In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.
Brafitting: From a Participatory Community to a Marketing Strategy, and from Poland to America
Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz
In the beginning, there was (almost) nothing. Put simply, the communist economy neither encouraged, nor enabled the mass production of well-made and visually appealing lingerie. With no incentive from the market forces, and no technology to support the process, nobody seemed to be specifically interested in manufacturing bras in Poland after the WWII and before the collapse of the communist regime.
Then the cornucopia began: with the advent of free economy, bras of all colours and prints gradually flooded the market, or market places literally, as private entrepreneurs started to import lingerie from foreign wholesalers, including cheap Chinese no-name bras. Yet only a limited number of women were able to find a bra that would fit their needs. And by “needs” I do not mean the personal taste in colour or style, but first and foremost – the need of a particular, individual woman to feel comfortable wearing her bra, regardless of her body’s type/size and other characteristic.
In short, the phenomenon of bra-craze can be seen as an example of de Certeau’s (1988) “strategies” and “tactics”. For de Certeau, strategies are a part of the system that upholds the balance of power; representing organisational structures, the producers calculate the most efficient strategies available from the position of power (xix). Subjected to the strategies, the consumers are far from being passive, as they develop cunning tactics to regain some of the power by subterfuge. On one hand, there have been the marketing strategies of manufacturers/wholesalers/retailers, and the official channels of bra distribution; on the other hand, sharing know-how and pieces of advice on the Internet, the community of women has developed some inventive solutions in response (and as a form of self-defence). The process has nearly gone full circle, with manufactures introducing more and more diversified size options, and commercial bra fitting services being offered even by the companies which have very little to do with the original idea of breast-friendly bras, and still selling a limited range of bras. Braffiting has become a profitable business.
The brafitting movement in Poland, or stanikomania (which translates to bra-mania or bra-craze) could be perceived as a participatory culture phenomenon related to the construction of femininity and the body image issues. The advent of the braffiting lobby was closely connected with the grassroots Internet communication (discussion boards and blogs); initially, the whole idea was to share know-how and find some alternative buyer tactics to select a bra to fit a body, regardless of its shape or size, instead of adjusting the body to fit a bra. Some activists may have had adequate professional background (e.g. in IT, marketing or gender studies) and more professionally oriented aims, but for the majority of users it was a fan activity, with a low threshold of involvement thanks to the Internet technologies.
If we consider the characteristics of participatory culture as suggested by Jenkins et al. (2009), bra-craze seems to be a perfect example; apart from the above mentioned “low barriers to […] engagement,” there is also the “strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others” (for example, direct encouragements to share one’s experiences, or blog functionalities facilitating uploading photos and comments) as well as “informal mentorship” (sharing knowledge as the main aim of the movement); the participants strongly “believe that their contributions matter” (accounts of successful conversions or illuminations of bra-illiterate women initiated by the bra-maniacs abound on the forums and blogs) and last but not least, that everyone can (yet do not have to) participate (p. 7).
Before this revolution (and this is a term bra-maniacs actually use), women would often feel ashamed of their “irregular” bodies for which there were no comfortable or attractive bras. One’s breasts were deemed too big, or too small, or too narrow, or too perky, or too bulky, or too saggy to fit in the bra. The bra was the ultimate measure of one’s body, the Cinderella’s shoe style. (By no means is the problem exclusive to post-communist economies; consider Victoria’s Secret bras – beautiful designs in a dramatically limited size range, excluding most of the female demographic.)
The bra-mania has been (and still remains) primarily Internet-based; sharing information and connecting those who know how-to with those who seek knowledge, women of the bra-maniac may be perceived as a neotribe, to use Maffesoli’s (1996) term. Bra-mania seems to share the “efflorescence and effervescence of neotribalism which, in various forms, refuses to identify with any political project whatsoever, to subscribe to any sort of finality, and whose sole raison d’être is a preoccupation with the collective present” (p. 75). The common experience of looking for and successfully finding a comfortable (and beautiful) bra against the odds of free market economy and producers’ strategies is the unifying factor here, and the bra-maniacs feel that they belong together.
They also feel significantly empowered, although their activities are centred around buying/consuming a product, a commodity designed to re-shape their bodies into socially accepted (and expected) gendered forms. Is this postfeminism in action?
Certainly, the bra-maniacs are not the ones to burn their bras (a bra-maniac can have an impressive collection of several bras, and some bra-maniacs sleep in their bras, finding it beneficial for the condition of their breasts). There has been the action and there have already been the results, as with the opportunities created by on-line shopping and the growing pressure of the lobbyists, more and more retailers and manufacturers started to change the approach to their products, offering a wider selection of different size options and designs. Brafitting has become mainstream, and Polish companies, such as Ewa Michalak or BiuBiu, have started to enter the US market.
The miserable life of the “unconverted”
Until the mid 2000s, most Polish manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers felt more comfortable offering only four or five different cup sizes (A, B, C, D, and sometimes E) combined with only four to five band sizes, which gave circa twenty-odd options to choose from (Kulpa 2011). (To illustrate the point, imagine that shoes are offered in two size options only, say 7 and 8.) Obviously, women would have felt comfortable in bras that do not flatten the breasts, or slip away, or pinch, or cut into the flesh, making the breast painfully bulge over the rim of the cups. Sadly, with twenty-something bra sizes on the market, most women had to satisfy themselves with lingerie that might look attractive (and/or be cheap), but was far from good when it came to the comfort of use.
Remember the shoe analogy?Imagine walking in shoes two sizes too small for your feet. It is going to hurt, right? Obviously, if you were looking for new shoes, nobody would persuade you to buy such a pair. However, if you were a woman looking for a new bra, most shopping assistants would persuade you to buy a bra that hurts you and distorts your body, humiliating and shaming you on the way (the bra is perfect – if it fails to fit, it is your fault).
The reason why is as simple as that: the retailer fails to have the proper size range in stock, as there should be at least as many as 60 to 80 different bra size options available if an average woman is to be served (Kulpa 2011). With a limited size range, you would have to select one of the twenty options, instead of selecting one out of eighty. Chance is, you bra is going to be uncomfortable. And that was the situation in Poland well into the 2000s.
Nevertheless, around the middle of the decade there were some socio-economic and technological changes. From 2006 Polish people could emigrate to Great Britain freely, and many took their chances. Internet shopping became more and more popular, and British currency had a convenient exchange rate. There had already been British lingerie brands, such as Panache (http://www.panache-lingerie.com/gb/ ), that offered bras in the sizes unheard of in Poland. The access to such bras inspired women to develop some very specific know-how. In July 2005 a user known as Butter77 started an Internet forum, called Lobby Biuściastych (The Buxom Ladies Lobby) http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/f,32203,Lobby_Biusciastych_.html, now hosted on gazeta.pl site (as of today, there are 268585 posts and counting). Soon some of the most active participants of the forum started their own sites, the most famous being Stanikomania (http://stanikomania.blox.pl/html ) run by Kasica (Katarzyna Kulpa), which started in January 2007, and Balkonetka (March 2008) (http://balkonetka.pl/# ), run by Mauzonka (Julia K. Szopa). Answering the question about the Lobby Biuściastych origins, Butters77 (2007) explains that
the story how it started is quite simple and related to practical issues mostly:) As far as I remember, I used to have problems buying a bra for fuller breasts, specifically: a bra with big cups and tight underbust band. It was verging on a miracle to find one in a Polish store. What was offered to me was the regular option (that is ‘small breasts == tight band’ or “huge breasts = huge band’).
I rebelled and thought, that if there big cups existed, it had to be possible to attach them to a band smaller than 80. I miraculously managed to find a couple of exceptions, which made me believe that it is right to advertise such exceptions.
[…] the forum was meant to be a place for the bigger-breast women where they could exchange information concerning lingerie manufacturers, recommend tested fashions, help to find the proper size etc.. And first of all – where they could discourage themselves from yielding to harmful market standards. Joining in over time, other “lobbyists” provided invaluable help in developing this idea. (translation mine; http://broszka.pl/alfabet-nie-konczy-sie-na-d,ap )
The idea of rebellion was hanging in the air: the consumers realised that they can be prosumers, directly influencing the market. The bra-mania movement has grown upon the principles of prosumerism, collective intelligence, and participation.
What was the doctrine of the newly minted bra-craze movement? You cannot tell what the “volume” of the cup is, unless you know the combination of the cup size (e.g. F) and the band size (e.g. 70). As follows, there is no such a thing as a uniform “A” cup or “D” cup. Labelling a woman as a “D cup wearer” means nothing, because 60D is a totally different size than, for example, 110D (as explained here http://stanikomania.blox.pl/2010/01/Ta-slynna-miseczka-D.html ).
A very important idea was also that all the lettering and numbering should be used only to sort out bra sizes, not to label or categorise women, as in the notorious “she is a flat-chested A” style. Moreover, it was emphasised that the bra band should uphold up to 80% of breasts weight and fairly tight. The cups should be large enough, with the underwire sitting on the ribcage. And now comes the ingenious part: women were recommended to ask for the bra which had a 5 to 10 cm smaller band than they would have been offered usually, and the cup size three or four times bigger. It was the clever trick, a consumer tactic: the better bras had been already there, yet dedicated for other women, and the trick was to claim their use (for example, if a size 85B bra would be unstable and flatten the breasts, the idea was to ask – against the shop assistant’s recommendation – for a 75D bra, with bigger cups and a tighter fit; the band, being elastic, would expand). It was strictly the question of know-how, not the question of a new product on the market, but along with this tactic went the demand for more size options.
The “conversion” or the “enlightenment”
The women posting on the Lobby Biuściastych forum would often compare finding a proper bra to a transforming experience (there is a thread called “How I profited from changing my bra size to the one I should wear” – some accounts are deeply personal and passionate http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/w,32203,75213023,,Co_mi_dala_zmiana_rozmiaru_stanika_na_wlasciwy_.html?v=2 ). In the lingo of the Lobby the terms such as “enlightenment”, “conversion” or “de-bra-fing” (my attempt at translating the Polish coinage ostanikowanie) are used. Women would write about the physical and psychological comfort they have gained.
To quote a young woman I’ve personally asked about her experience with professional brafitting service (made possible because of the years of bra-maniacs‘ lobbying), it is “like getting her breasts back”. Lots of “converts” compare their experience to an epiphany of a kind, dividing their lives into “before the conversion” and “after the conversion” phases. It is only partially tongue in cheek. Jumping and running have suddenly become possible without that embarrassing threat of letting one’s breasts loose. There is no longer the pain in the back. Small-breasted women suddenly discover that they “have breasts”. Nearly everyone feels “slimmer”. All feel more attractive.
The scope of this text does not allow for a profound analysis of these aspects. It should be noted, however, that they are open for discussion. The lobbyists would often stress the fact that, as a rule, their primary aim is not to dress up or adjust to fit in with male expectations (though the voices about getting a better bra to get the breasts in the better shape to be more sexually attractive are not uncommon). To quote the founder of Balkonetka.pl, Julia K. Szopa (2009):
the pro-bust communities are not only about helping one another to find a well-fitted and good-looking bras, although this is their main function. The mission they have is to change the way women think about themselves: from “I’m a freak, there is nothing I can wear, I’m a loser” to “I’m a fine woman, expecting that the world would allow me to feel good with my breasts!”. (translation mine; http://balkonetka.pl/2009/1/9/biusciaste-spolecznosc-wcale-nie-marginalna )
However, this claim might be worth reconsidering in the light of theories developed by Susan Bordo (2003), Carole Spitzak (1990) or Vickie Shields (2002), to name just a few scholars focused on the gendered body image. Are the lobbyists doing it for themselves or rather to themselves for the sake of the male gaze?
Another issue is the body image and the conversion and subversion of the cultural norms regulating its “proper” formula. Women with the so-called bigger breasts are still expected to have them reduced or concealed, but the lobbyists’ actions have contributed to a change in the approach. Big breasts on an “everyday normal woman”, previously considered an indecency and meant to be hidden (flattened with an uncomfortable bad-fitted bra or even with a special reducing bra), could be supported with a high-end wiring and netting and exposed as a pair of apple-shaped, full on top balls separated by a tempting valley (to use some bra-maniac lingo).
However, careful not to exclude the small breast women as they are, the lobbyists tend to attribute positive value to bigger/fuller breasts, somehow reinforcing the big breast ideal. One way or another (small breasted or big breasted), many lobbyists discovered that they did not need plastic surgery to feel satisfied with their bodies, the question of how plastic surgery (breast augmentation or reduction) is perceived by the women belonging to the movement constitutes another intriguing issue for some further studies.
The lobbyists have not limited themselves to producing posts, blog entries and You Tube videos. They proliferated and proselytised, attracting the attention of media (a short review of the movement and its reception by a sociologist Marta Klimowicz, 2009, http://klimowicz.blox.pl/2009/01/Lobby-Biusciastych-wydarzenie-roku-2008.html ). Where there is an Internet article devoted to bras, or a bra advertisement, with an option to leave a comment or “like/dislike” it, bra-maniacs go for it. A brand offering its limited size range bras, however beautiful visually they could be, can expect a very strong feedback. Moreover, from the early years on, there have been regular “real-life” meetings, bra exchanges and bra-fitting events, as well as charity/community work. One of the latest examples of such affirmative actions is the workshop organised by a lobby member nicked Bra-dreamer in a mental care home for intellectually challenged women in Warsaw (http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/w,32203,146441486,147671905,Re_projekt_biustonoszowy_prosba_i_propozycja.html).
As Szopa (2008) has it, “in the 1990s one was virtually unable to buy a 65J size bra in Poland” (translation mine; http://balkonetka.pl/2008/3/16/ale-o-co-chodzi-z-tym-uswiadomieniem ). The situation has changed dramatically. In the stores and on-line stores founded by the lobbyists one can find a plethora of bras, but the demand influenced some other stores as well. New brands have been launched successfully and old ones offer a wider variety of sizes. A Polish brand worth mentioning in this context is Ewa Michalak (http://www.ewa-michalak.pl/ ), offering bras in sizes from 60A to 105HH; the models used in Michalak’s footage have different body types and their pictures are not digitally enhanced, the idea being that the customer has the right to see the product presented by a “real” person. Another branch of merchandise has surfaced: namely, breast-friendly clothing, represented by BiuBiu (http://www.biubiu.pl/ ) and Urkye (http://urkye.pl/ ).
Brafitting has been transformed into business, too. Some of the activists started their consultation businesses, and there has been the obvious corporate reaction. At present, almost every bra store offers some kind of brafitting services, though in some cases the quality of the fitting could still be dubious. Brafitting has become a catch-phrase, sometimes with no real reference to the original bra-maniac ideals.
As more and more Polish brands produce bras in size options unavailable in the USA, American customers decide to buy their bras here. Some of them have already turned to blogging and write the reviews of Michalak or OnlyHer bras; to name only: Voluptous and Beautiful http://voluptuouslythin.wordpress.com/, Miss Underpinnings http://www.missunderpinnings.com/ or Thin and Curvy http://www.thinandcurvy.com/ . Finally, collaborating with the founder of Bratabase, the founder of Balkonetka, Julia K. Szopa, has just launched the Wellfitting.com platform.
Bordo, Susan (2003). Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkely, California: University of California Press.
de Certeau, Michel (1988). Practice of Everyday Life. vol 1. Berkely, California: University of California Press.
Jenkins, Henry et al. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. http://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF Accessed 2013.10.31
Klimowicz, Marta (2009). http://klimowicz.blox.pl/2009/01/Lobby-Biusciastych-wydarzenie-roku-2008.html Accessed 2013.10.30
Kulpa, Katarzyna (2011). “Dyskretny urok biustonosza.” http://lawendowydom.com.pl/dyskretny-urok-biustonosza/ Accessed 2013.10.30
Maffesoli, Michel (1996). The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage.
Shields, Vickie R. (2002). Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Spitzak, Carole (1990). Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction. Albany: State University of New york Press.