Taking off your bra for national security

Is underwire really a lethal weapon? Airport security apparently thinks so.

Published October 18, 2007 5:40PM (EDT)

Too bad Susan Faludi's "The Terror Dream" hit the stores before Lori Plato attempted to enter an Idaho courtroom last month. The tireless chronicler of conscious and unconscious misogyny could have had yet another example of the way an obsession with homeland security can translate into new discomforts and dangers for women. Along with procedures guarding against explosive breast milk, we now have a new national threat: the underwire bra.

According to the Associated Press, Plato set off security alarms when she and her husband were entering a federal courthouse in Coeur d'Alene. Plato told the AP that the U.S. Marshals Service not only asked Plato to remove her bra but gave her no viable options for doing so with any measure of privacy: "I asked if I could go into the bathroom because they didn't have a privacy screen and no women security officers were available. They said, 'No.'" Plato told the AP that when she placed her bra on the security conveyor belt, "One of the officers said, 'It's a girl.'" A statement from the U.S. marshal in Boise accused Plato of exaggerating the brahaha, claiming that she could have removed her bra in her car or visited the ladies room of a local restaurant. Plato countered that she was parked on a busy street and was unfamiliar with the city's businesses.

Are undergarments now considered a danger to security? The U.S. marshal spokesman seemed less than certain, reportedly telling the AP: "I don't think they're considered a weapon, really, the last time I looked."

On a scale of gender injustices, bra removal doesn't rate high, but it's interesting to note that Plato's experience of being humiliated before a gang of smirking security guards is hardly anomalous in this age of increased security concerns. In 2003 a Northwest Airlines flight attendant sued the Massachusetts Port Authority after her underwire bra triggered an airport metal detector in Logan Airport, and security guards searched her and compelled her to partially undress. According to several blogs that reposted the story, as security machines are turned up to ever higher levels of sensitivity, belts and underwire bras are setting off alarms more frequently. In a 2004 story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, several women complained of being traumatized by intrusive security searches.

What's the solution to an unwarranted security attack on your person? Various women have offered advice based on experience: One woman stared down all the security guards who ogled her as she was repeatedly patted down; another whose belt was setting off the alarm took her pants off altogether. One Japanese bra manufacturer has launched the Frequent Flyer Bra, "a garment especially designed to not set off airport metal detectors." It is enthusiastically anticipated on prison chat sites by women visitors weary of their undergarments triggering extra body measures. But I can't help yearning for a more aggressive solution like the the Security Bra, a garment "capable of returning the male gaze and electronically defining one's personal space" by setting off its own alarms.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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