02/24/2012 06:46 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Bras: What's Really In Them (Besides The Obvious?)

My first bra was the grayish-white of recycled paper, and it's only conceivable purpose was to add warmth beneath my matching tunic and stirrup-leggings ensembles -- there definitely wasn't anything to support back then. My mom took me to buy it with a mix of motherly pride and the somber recognition that came from knowing her daughter was approaching the "dating years" (she needn't have worried; those proved to be a bit further off than expected).

Fifteen years later, my underwear drawer is stacked like the pull-out ones familiar to Victoria's Secret shoppers: turquoise bras nestle into black ones and one sheer bustier I haven't figured out how to wear under real clothes. (If anyone out there has any advice on how to pull that one off, call me). They're all different sizes, reflecting weight loss and gain and the fashion aspiration of the moment -- whether I wanted to be more "Mad Men Joan" or boyish Brooklynite. Then there are the three bras I actually wear, usually to be found somewhere on my floor.

This week, I learned that legions of women in the UK keep their bras on a similar rotation schedule (or lack thereof). A poll by U.K. retailer Sweatshop (I know -- not the name I'd choose for my store, either) of 2,000 British women found that the average number of bras a woman owns is nine, though more than half of those languish in drawers, unused. The pollsters found that most women don't wear bras they buy because they aren't comfortable, though a third said they still hold onto bras that are the wrong size (hey, you never know when you'll need back up during laundry day, right?)

So why do women buy bras that don't fit in the first place -- and why do so many of us hold onto them even if we'll never wear them again? Amanda Platell of The Daily Mail argues that bras have a function beyond support and can be a language unto themselves. There are "date bras, mid-term relationship bras and end-of-the-affair bras" and the all-powerful "revival bra," each of which broadcast to our partners where we are in our lives and in our relationships -- and where we aspire to be:

Bras are a barometer of a woman's personal life. Men take note. If she's wearing those saggy nude bra ... you're either in a long-term, comfortable relationship where neither of you cares and prefer watching TV, or she's about to ditch you.

While I'm not convinced that every woman donning a nude bra has such ulterior motives in mind (sometimes a person just wants to be comfortable -- or wear a white top), I think there is something to Platell's idea that bras are a way for women to try on different versions of themselves. I've bought a "today I'm feeling French" bra. I've bought an "is she or isn't she wearing one?" bra. I've even bought a bra that I wanted to say, in the words of MC Hammer, "can't touch this." I wonder if maybe we hold onto those unused numbers in the back of our drawers in part because we're holding onto where we were in our lives when we bought them. Or maybe we're just trying to be frugal. Bras are expensive, after all, and you never know when you'll need that slightly-too-small, mango-colored strapless that was such a steal.