Like most children, my daughters like to play dress-up. Fine by me -- so long as they lay off the underwear. There is nothing more annoying, when you're rushing to get dressed in the morning, than finding your favorite bra has been adjusted to fit a prepubescent 10-year-old.
"But Ma-aa. We're supposed to be grown-ups," they protest when I try to ban them from my underwear drawer.
Forget offering them a grownup-looking business suit or strapless evening gown instead. As far as these little girls are concerned, wearing a bra is the key to dressing like a woman.
In a couple more years, they'll be wearing bras of their own and feeling thoroughly grown up, no doubt. More than makeup, more than menstruation, a bra is a visible, tangible sign that a girl is growing up.
Strapping on that tiny harness of stretch-cotton and lace is a major rite of passage on the journey from childhood to womanhood. It's one that hasn't changed much since today's mothers and grandmothers were girls. And it's one that really has no male equivalent.
Madonna may flaunt her bra in public, but for the young girls who watch her on MTV, their own underwear is an intensely private matter.
"I wanted a bra, but it was kind of embarrassing buying it," said a 12-year-old student who went shopping for her first bra with her mother recently.
This uncharacteristic shyness caught the girl's mother by surprise. "We've always talked pretty easily about personal things," she said, asking that their names not be used. "It certainly didn't bother her when I helped her try on bikini swimsuits. But with the bra, she didn't even want me in the fitting room."
"Well," said the girl, "it's different. It's underwear."
For most girls, their first bra "can represent adolescence, better things to come, an entry into the adult world," said Deborah Day, a clinical psychologist in Maitland, Fla.
However, for girls whose development is out of sync with that of their peers, it can be a traumatic time, Day added.
"For girls who develop early, who are the first in their class or school, there may be some difficulty. They may feel, 'I'm different. What's wrong with me?'"
Similarly, the late bloomer also may worry because her body has remained babyish while all her friends are developing telltale bumps and curves.
When a girl is at this sensitive stage, good communication is needed between mother and daughter, Day said.
"Girls need to know what's going on with their bodies, what to expect. Buying a first bra can represent a change in the mother-daughter relationship, a steppingstone in closeness."
Buying a bra is definitely a mother-daughter thing, said local retailers. Or, more specifically, a female-to-female thing. A girl may go shopping for her first bra with her grandmother, aunt or older sister, but men are a rarity in departments where first bras are sold.
Incidentally, "first bra," "girl's bra" or "junior bra" are the current names for these miniature versions of the full-blown brassiere; "training bra" definitely is passe.
Most styles are barely more than two tiny, flat triangles of fabric with straps attached. Some are cup-shaped and may have a lacy trim and even a little padding. Others, which imitate the adult sports bra, are more like a stretchy, cropped camisole with a T-strap at the back.
Sizes start at about 28 AAA, and prices at about $2.99.
Many first bras bear the same labels as those stitched to junior-size jeans, shorts and T-shirts Hang Ten, Capezio, Jockey for Her. This familiarity takes a little of the trauma out of buying. So does the fact that the bras are hanging in an out-of-the-way corner of the juniors department, alongside such pedestrian items as socks and pajamas, and not among the girdles and garter belts in the women's lingerie department.
First-bra sales peak during the summer and Christmas vacations, when girls and their mothers have more time to go shopping together, said retailers.
Today, girls usually get their first bra around age 11 or 12, when they're in the 5th or 6th grade. They may finish elementary school without one, but most start middle school with the tell-tale straps outlined beneath their back-to-school blouses.
Some argue that buying a first bra is not a big a deal for today's pre-teens the way it was for their mothers and grandmothers.