Sometime last spring, I stopped wearing bras. I lost a bit of weight, which caused my bra size to change froma 32G to a 30F, neither of which is terribly easy to find in stores…or cheap. Around the same time, my relationship with my ex was disintegrating. It’s clear to me now that some of this made me feel out of control of my life. Only after reading this book did I really examine how that led me to exert such a “rebellious” form of control over my body. I went to Bali with my cousin for my birthday in February, and by the time I got back, I had given up on the idea of wearing bras regularly. In fact, my tagline for that trip was #bralessinbali (I’m a mess, I know).
This decision to stop wearing bras wasn’t initially some high-principled move. I was just tired of these fucking expensive ass pieces of fabric and wire digging into my shoulders, my breasts, my chest, my underarm, and my bank account. But, I quickly realized that people thought it was crazy as hell to walk around with my breasts free. I started getting the are-you-a-bra-burning-feminazi stare/talk from family and friends alike. I found myself often defending my choice to let my nipples do what nipples were meant to do (exist on your chest unobstructed!). It was, apparently, a radical-ass decision that needed to be explained and tied to some sort of necessity, medical or otherwise.
This world doesn’t like women to take ownership of their own bodies. We know that, mostly, but we don’t REALLY know that until we try to take back control. Naw, the world doesn’t like that at all…even if just to take off a constricting piece of fabric and free the breasts that we literally all have. No matter. I still only wear a bra when absolutely necessary (meaning, I don’t want my titties to slap me in the face during physical activity or I am wearing something sheer). That can be interpreted as a statement on a lot of things in society, but mainly, it’s just because I don’t fucking want to wear bras.
I say all that to say that I immediately connected with The Vegetarian when I read that the beginning of the main character’s rebellion was her refusal to wear bras. Then, it was her refusal to eat meat, or really any product derivative of animals. She rebelled against the blood and violence of this world by taking ownership and control of her own body, and my oh my, do I know the feeling.
The book is comprised of three novellas, and notably, none are told from the “protagonist’s” point of view. The first is from her husband’s viewpoint; the second, her brother-in-law; and the third, her sister. To be honest, the book lost me a bit part-way through the third novella. And I can’t say that I fully identify with the mental deterioration of the central character, who stops eating completely by the end of the book in what seems like an effort to become a plant (that photosynthesizes) rather than a human. She wants her whole existence to rebel, to separate from humanity, which will likely to kill her…giving her exactly what she wants (ashes to ashes, etc.).
There are a lot of themes at play here, about familiar relationships, sexual desire, bodily identity, the freedom of choice, etc.— some of which I’ll be the first to admit that I did not understand. But that feeling that washed over me when I first opened the book and learned that a refusal to wear bras was the start, that feeling never left me. It was the feeling of being seen and understood, of my little choice that was made big being made normal again. What would have happened if the main character had been supported in her choice to leave off of meat, instead of force-fed like a petulant baby? I read other reviews of this book that pointed out the importance of the particular moment in Korean culture, before veganism and vegetarianism were widespread, where communal meals were the norm. What you ate was, in a way, everyone’s business, just as are so many choices that we like to think are purposeful and personal.
Well, we won’t know what would have happened in a more understanding environment. Maybe nothing different than what did happen. But, when people’s choices about their bodies and lives are respected and uplifted instead of ostracized or othered, interesting things can happen.
This book isn’t long and the language isn’t difficult (it’s actually rather terse and blunt), but don’t be fooled. This book is dense and will require mental unpacking. I have the feeling that a good number of readers either won’t understand it, or will hate it. I don’t fall in either camp (completely). But I see how people could land any which way.