When Dana Marlowe, a mom of two from Washington, D.C. lost some weight back in 2015, the co-founder and principal partner of Accessibility Partners suddenly found herself in need of new bras. As she ventured out for a bra fitting and chose new undergarments, Marlowe asked the saleswoman whether she knew what she could do with her old bras.
Much to Marlowe’s surprise, she did know. The saleswoman informed her that many women experiencing homelessness were in desperate need of bras. Apparently, when people donate to shelters, they donate things like clothes, food, or general hygiene supplies, but they don’t think to donate the types of “invisible” things that women use on a regular basis, such as bras and menstrual products.
So Marlowe did some digging. She called a local homeless shelter that confirmed their constant need for bras and menstrual products.
“I had never, ever in my life thought about what it must be like to be homeless on your period,” Marlowe relates.
Turns out, she wasn’t the only one who had never considered the “invisible” things that homeless shelters might need. A casual conversation with a friend and a few closet searches later produced a stash of 46 perfectly good used bras ready to be donated. Marlowe then decided to go one step further and posted a call out on Facebook to see if any of her other friends might want to donate with her.
“That’s where things spiraled out of control,” Marlowe says.
What started off as simply cleaning out her closet quickly became a global movement as donations poured in faster than Marlowe could handle. So she founded I Support the Girls (get it?), a nonprofit organization that collects and donates bras and menstrual hygiene products to homeless people all over the world.
“Menstruation is still sadly taboo,” she explains. “That taboo still unfortunately exists today and that keeps these items more hidden and invisible, and if they’re not talked about, they’re also not donated.”
Without menstrual products and bras, Marlowe tells Babble that women on their periods while homeless use a variety of methods to manage. “None of them are good, none of them are sanitary, but sometimes when you’re menstruating you don’t have time to figure that out,” she notes. Maxi pads are the most coveted menstrual product because they can be deconstructed into a sort of DIY tampon by removing the outer layer, to make three usable “tampons.”
Without menstrual products, however, Marlowe explains that things like cardboard, duct tape, old shirts, socks, wadded up toilet paper, paper towels, or the insides of mattresses are used. As for bras? Some women resort to holding up their breasts with old, cracked leather belts.
Marlowe fully acknowledges that not all individuals want or need to use a bra, but her mission is designed to provide them for those who want them. And for the individuals that receive bras from I Support the Girls, something so simple can make a big difference.
For example, one woman in a shelter that Marlowe was helping shared that this was her first time having a bra in decades. She explained that even having the bra as an option from the shelter was a symbol that she was being seen as a person. “She said, ‘Maybe if you make someone feel as though they are worth something, maybe they can feel as though they are worth something themselves,” Marlowe remembers.
Another woman, who hadn’t had a bra in eight years, came in with a very specific request: she wanted a red, lacy bra and a sports bra. The reasons for the two very different bras were very different. While she wanted the red, lacy bra to help her feel good about herself (but only under layers of clothing and close to her heart as not to attract attraction), the sports bra was purely functional because it could double as a purse to store and protect her valuable possessions. Marlowe found her both bras.
Thanks to an almost entirely volunteer-run effort, I Support the Girls has around 50 affiliates across the United States and also ships internationally to Australia, Canada, Thailand, Pakistan, Mexico, and Taiwan. To date, they have donated 350,000 bras and 1.2 million menstrual products to individuals in need.
In addition to bras and menstrual items, I Support the Girls also collects and donates specialty items, such as menstrual cups, nursing bras and pads, lactation equipment and supplies, mastectomy bras, and breast prosthetics. All products are washed by their affiliate centers before being donated to vetted shelters and organizations. Marlowe even personally washes all of her local donations at home.
As she chatted with me, sharing that she was sitting around in still-wet hair and sweat pants, waiting to pick up her kids from soccer, Marlowe noted that the biggest surprise in her journey to being dubbed “The Bra Fairy” has been witnessing what an enormous difference ordinary people can make.
“If somebody as normal as me can do this, then anybody can do this,” she says. “I think the most surprising thing is how unbelievably incredible and magnanimous people have been — friends, family, volunteers, our team, in donating their brain power, their time, their energy, their money, [and] products to make this happen so that women experiencing homelessness can have a little bit more dignity in their lives, where so much has been stripped out of their lives.”
To get involved with I Support The Girls, visit their website to learn more.