Guest Post: Burn, Booby, Burn

Ellen (an alias) tackles a burning environmental question.


source: xkcd

I have chosen to attend a women’s college on the East Coast. From that information, you can statistically infer that I am (a) a feminist and (b) a liberal. Venturing further into the statistical ether, you might also gather that I’m an environmentalist and like to make an effort toward being green and socially conscious in my choices as a consumer.

You’d be absolutely right.

I will not use this space to list my enviro-creds. You know, “Head of the Outdoors Club in high school,” “personally saved a freshwater swamp by throwing rotten eggs and shouting racial slurs at guys with bulldozers,” that kind of thing. It’s mostly because I don’t have any. I’m not an activist. I’m just a person who tries to think about things. So, having recently decided to join the feminist liberals at a women’s college, I began to think about the intersection between feminism and environmentalism. However, I didn’t emerge with a world-shaking plan for social entrepreneurship – well, at least, not a workable one. I first thought of a funny question.

source: media myth alert

source: media myth alert

Theoretically, would bra-burning be bad for the environment?

For those of you haven’t been informed, early modern feminists purportedly burnt their bras to protest gender inequality in the 1960s. The photograph most frequently associated with the practice is this one, picturing the famous “Freedom Trash Can” of 1968:

In reality, bra-burning is a myth. Women just threw their undergarments in that particular trash can and walked away – very peaceful, no fire required. The media called the photographed protest a “bra-burning” to lump it in with the flag-burning and draft card-burning protests happening at the same time. The term “bra-burner” was actually somewhat pejorative at the time as a result, falling under the same general category as “those demmed kids”.

So why aren’t women trying it now? Perhaps I’m living under a very special rock – remember, women’s college on the East Coast – but it’s my impression that today the term has been reclaimed for the feminist side. You’d think that radical feminists, as a group, would love to retroactively burn our undies, and in so doing, shove the longevity of our movement back in those dead journalists’ faces.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying bras are bad in any way, shape, or (Maiden?)form. Like many who read this blog, I personally would never want to part with my brassieres. Though I’m not as bodaciously busty as my dear friend the Jug Reporter, I have enough in the way of “chesticles” (my man-friend’s word) that I feel more physically comfortable when I’m strapped into a garment that provides me with some kind of support. However, if I saw some womynfolk burning those unsupportive and uncomfortable string bikini tops on the street, I’d probably give them a fist bump for their trouble.

That is, of course, unless they were contributing to the decay of the ozone layer, or exacerbating global climate change.

It occurred to past-me then, sitting there, thinking about feminism and the environment and feeling very much like a nap (a stereotypical college student), that I had no idea what fabric my brassiere was made of. I know there are some foamy bits, and some metal bits, and a whole lot-uh elastic. Could there be anything in my brassiere cups that would emit toxic gas when burned, like styrofoam? Could the man-made, stretchy, mesh fabric holding in my chesticles bubble into an hCFC at the slightest spark?

I shop for my bras at Cacique – I’d recommend it to anyone in the C- to DDD-cup range – so I used their site to look up the materials in my bras. It turns out, what I’m wearing on my boobs is just spandex and nylon. It seems like there’d be more than that, but okay, internet, I guess I’ll trust you this time.

So, internet, is burning spandex and nylon bad?
Short answer: HOLY CRAP YES.

Nylon, when burned, releases formaldehyde gas. The formaldehyde in the fabric makes it wrinkle-proof and easy to care for (when was the last time you had the fabric in your bra wrinkle, after all?) but will also cause burning in the lungs and throat when it’s in a gaseous form. Another fun fact: at room temperature, formaldehyde is gaseous, and it’s only able to remain a part of the nylon in a resin form. Regular thermal exposure, according to the Wikipedia article on formaldehyde, will cause that resin to return to its gaseous form. Thermal exposure means your body heat, folks. Kind of scary that we’re breathing in formaldehyde when wear nylon.

Spandex is a polyurethane-polyurea copolymer, according to its Wikipedia article. That means that it’s a mixture of chemicals that fall under the description of “polyurethane” or “polyurea” – these are not necessarily specific chemicals in themselves; they’re just families of different polymers that are made up of urethane/urea bits in different forms. When burnt, polyurethanes produce carbon monoxide and trace amounts of nitrogen oxide and hydrogen cyanide. Nitrogen oxide is terrible for the environment, and carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide can kill you in large doses.

So. The more you know. I won’t be burning my bras en masse in an enclosed space anytime soon.

I continue to ponder this issue, though. I am disappointed in myself that I didn’t take the time to learn what was in such an essential component of my daily wardrobe. In my research, I also came across a book that indicates how terrible producing these materials is for the earth. Take a look at this screenshot from Tom Woolley and Sam Kimmins’s Green Building Handbook, Volume 2:

How sad is that? Granted, industrial nylon production probably has far more of an effect on that statistic than the nylon which finds its way into our clothes, but I should have had some inkling of the environmental cost of my clothing choices.

I don’t know what I’ll do from here on out. I think I’d be hard-pressed to find an effective brassiere that didn’t use manufactured fabrics like nylon and spandex. I’ll probably continue to buy bras there, but at least I’ll now have the grace to feel a little guilty about it, and that’s all that can be expected of me as a white, cisgendered, well-off liberal, right?

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