About two weeks into last month’s government shutdown Dana Marlowe, aka “The Accidental Bra Fairy”, went on Facebook offering to help female federal employees who had no money for bras or feminine hygiene products.
Within hours nearly 100 messages poured in.
“My husband and I have to go to work and are not getting paid,” wrote a woman from Florida. “It’s getting stressful because my husband’s car broke down. We have three teenage girls, so we use a lot of feminine hygiene products. Can you help us?”
Marlowe, 42, was better equipped than most to offer her support: she has a basement filled with bras and sanitary products that she gives away free.
Since launching her “I Support the Girls” nonprofit in July 2015, the business executive and mother of two sons from Silver Spring, Maryland, said she has distributed more than 500000 bras and 2.5-million women’s hygiene products to anyone in need.
Underwire bras, push-up bras, sports bras, maternity bras and racerback bras arrive at her house by the box load in every hue and pattern imaginable, from pastel pink and neon green to red polka dots, winged hearts and spotted leopard. Most of them are gently used.
Although Marlowe’s home has been filled with large piles of bras after starting her charity, she said, it picked up even more when she got some media attention in October 2015.
“Overnight we became wildly successful,” she recalled. “People want to give back and do good, and this is an area that people don’t often think about. It’s almost like it’s taboo, even though more than half the population has had a period.”
What started as a local project to help give a few homeless women some intimate wear has turned into an organisation with an army of volunteers collecting and distributing bras, tampons and pads in 50 US cities and five foreign countries: Canada, Australia, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines.
Marlowe’s network includes more than 500 social services organisations nationwide, from domestic violence shelters and refugee agencies to women’s prisons.
Marlowe has also persuaded several bra manufacturers and personal hygiene companies, including Soma, Third Love and Lola, to partner with her. Soma is running a campaign this month, collecting used bras and sending them on to Marlowe’s charity.
“The funny thing is that I didn’t plan this or anticipate this,” said Marlowe. “I didn’t have this grandiose dream when I went to college that I would have a mountain of bras in my living room.”
It started when Marlowe, who runs an information technology company for people with disabilities, lost 10kg in 2015 and ended up with a problem that she didn’t mind having: none of her old clothes fit.
She bought some new shirts and pants, she said, but then one morning her husband mentioned it might be a good idea to get some new bras.
That afternoon she went to a Soma lingerie store near her home to buy several new bras. After the sales clerk rang up her purchases, Marlowe asked what she could do with 16 perfectly good bras that no longer fit.
“The clerk told me four simple words that completely changed my direction and my life,” Marlowe said. “She said; ‘Homeless women need bras'." It had never occurred to her.
Marlowe called a homeless shelter in Washington and was told that they would gladly accept all the clean, gently used brassieres she could find.
“What else could you use?” Marlowe inquired. “Maxi pads and tampons,” the worker said. “Women here would really appreciate those.”
Next day Marlowe dropped off 46 bras (30 were donated by one of her friends) along with several boxes of sanitary pads and tampons. From there she asked friends on Facebook to chip in, and within days she was driving her minivan all over the District of Columbia to pick up the items.
“So many people automatically get it,” she said. “I get asked all the time, ‘how can I help?’ “
Marlowe’s idea is making a big impact, often in unexpected ways.
Kisha Allure, a transgender woman who manages Casa Ruby, a care centre for homeless LGBTQ youth in Washington, receives regular deliveries of bras from Marlowe.
“We deal all the time with bigotry and hate. A lot of the young women who come in here have been sleeping on the streets,” said Allure, 41.
She is able to hand out free bras because of Marlowe’s deliveries.
“It makes a huge difference to their self-esteem,” Allure said. “They can’t afford to pay $25 (about R360) to $40 for a new bra. That was out of reach until Dana.”
Volunteers and employees at Thrive DC, a help agency for homeless people and low-income city residents, have all heard stories about women who had to wear the same threadbare and dirty bra for years.
“Most struggle just to provide the basic necessities for themselves, and new, proper-fitting bras just aren’t a priority when you’re focused on getting housed, finding employment or finding your next meal,” said Daniel Meloy, development director at Thrive DC in Columbia Heights.
“Each time Dana visits to bring more bras the excitement level among our female clients goes up,” Meloy added. “They know they’ll soon have something that makes them feel better on the outside and on the inside.”
Recently that help has been extended to federal workers who took a financial hit during the government shutdown. Marlowe has already helped about 100 women who work for federal agencies, she said, many of whom are single mothers who did not collect a paycheque for a month. But she has plenty of bras and sanitary products in stock in case the government shuts down again.
For most women, Marlowe said, having a new bra that fits helps them to approach life with more dignity.
“They tell me they aren’t embarrassed to go on a job interview, or to go to school, where they used to worry about getting their periods and not having money for products,” she said.
"They stand up straighter, knowing they no longer have to choose between buying groceries or a new bra and a box of tampons.”
In almost any situation, she said, a new brassiere can signify a fresh start.
“A bra is one of many small luxuries that most women take for granted,” said Marlowe, “and if you don’t have these things, you think about them all the time.”