Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The fit myth UPDATED

Maureen O'Connor - NYMag writer and former bra-saleswoman - tells it like it is, in response to "that irritating statistic that appears at least once in every issue of every womens' magazine: '85 percent of women are wearing the wrong bra size'":

[T]here is only one universal truth when it comes to fit, and it equally applies to bras, shoes, pants, socks, and wedding bands: If you put it on and like how it looks and feels, then it fits just fine. Your bra is not wrong. Your bra cannot be wrong. Your bra is underwear, a value-neutral object to be worn, replaced, stuffed, discarded, celebrated, hidden, or exposed however you want. 
As the kids say, or said five minutes ago: this.

But I'd take it further. The bra-fitting gimmick is to tell you that you take a cup size larger and band size smaller than you'd thought. Given that we'd all look more conventionally attractive with larger breasts and smaller waists, we try on this miracle product and lo and behold, an hourglass physique. Or, more likely, we're just flattered by the notion that we're simultaneously thinner and bustier than we'd thought. It's a more 3D version of vanity sizing. Then we get home and realize that even if it's possible to squeeze into a $60-plus contraption in the right-but-wrong size, having circulation is even nicer. Or so I've heard.

And the idea underlying this is, if you think about it, incredibly sexist. The idea that women are just too dumb to figure out for themselves whether their clothing fits properly, or that they're too lacking in confidence not to just go along with it when someone in a position of authority tells them that an item that they know fits actually does not. Because it really is possible to go into a dressing room with a range of sizes and styles, and see for yourself what fits. It's not like with running shoes, where someone will examine your stride and, in theory, impart information you couldn't have easily gotten yourself. The bra-seller may tell you - or so they say - that you should discard the bra you wore to the store, not because it's worn out, but because it hasn't been approved by (sold to you by) this establishment. Don't do this.

On a related note, that Prudie letter from the college senior who, though not flat-chested, doesn't like wearing a bra. Yes, yes, the usual Prudie titillation, but I found it telling that this woman (assuming this is a real person's complaint) mentions having been fitted for a bra. That could well be where her problems began. I'm also having trouble picturing the line of office-work for which a bra-like camisole under other clothing (blazer, button-down) wouldn't suffice, which makes me think this letter really just was about how a braless coed was braless.


My entirely sensible female commenters are chiming in to say that on the contrary, bra-fit is a real thing. Which is making me think that my problem might have been having too much confidence in a particular saleswoman at the Town Shop who estimated and didn't measure, and who may well have just wanted to sell that particular bra. (I may have had a choice of two.) There's no obvious distinction between reputable bra fitters and bra-sellers posing as such to dupe the suggestible. At the time, I took the limited selection to mean this woman had so much experience making such assessments that she just looked at me and knew.

Or it might be that these things are subjective - even among women with the build for which this is even an issue. (Without getting too technical, I can assure that I don't have a gamine physique). My sense is that it's possible to own some spectacularly fitting bras that make clothing look amazing, as well as some now-I'm-decent-to-go-out ones that don't. What fits best might be the most comfortable, but... it depends. I like the idea that these two traits could be found in the same garment, but... who knows. Comfort is subjective.


Petey said...

"I'm also having trouble picturing the line of office-work for which a bra-like camisole under other clothing (blazer, button-down) wouldn't suffice"

But isn't Prudie's advice of following a long path culminating in Buddhist enlightenment just a simpler solution than a camisole?

Britta said...

In fairness though, it's not intuitive to know how a bra should fit. As I found out quite awhile after I started wearing bras, all support should come from the band, and the straps are mainly there as decoration. If the straps are holding up your bra, as they do if the band is too loose, then it actually puts strain on your back and shoulders. Your bra is too loose if the back rides up at all. Also, a bra band should cut in to your back slightly, no matter how skinny you are, since it is supposed to be snug around your torso. Since I have what appeared to me to be average sized breasts, when I started buying bras I assumed that I would wear what I took to be an average size. While the bras I bought 'fit' in terms of not being obviously wrong or uncomfortable, it was pretty apparent when I tried on the right size bra how little the wrong sized bra had been doing for me, despite me thinking it fit just fine.

I do think though, once you know how a bra should fit, then numbers aren't really that important, because bra manufacturers are completely inconsistent. Also, how exactly to convert one's measurements into a bra size still seems to be a mystery. Everything I've read is insistent that their's is the right way, but they're all different: measure below, add 4, add 6, add 2, measure above, etc.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


There's a lot of self-delusion with all sizes - I don't mean in a vanity sense, just in a this-is-what-I-imagine-I'd-take one. And I agree that with anything so... multidimensional, there's more room for error. But it still is going to come down to trying a bunch on and seeing which one fits, which will, as you say, be a different size in every brand (not to mention every style).

And in terms of what's right, the whole it-must-dig-a-bit thing, eh. I'm not so sure. That which is optimally flattering can also be that which is dreadfully uncomfortable, and thus to be saved for dressy occasions. An imperfect analogy: we might all look best in really high heels. And there's a time and a place. But shoes are not ill-fitting if they're flats.

Britta said...

Though, a bra is a support garment, and if it is or isn't supporting one's breasts is something that can be objectively determined. If one is large chested enough, an insufficiently supportive bra can actually lead to chronic back and shoulder pain. It isn't just about style, if you're of a certain size, the wrong size bra can actually be causing physical damage. Also, digging band shouldn't be uncomfortable. Elastic waist pants aren't uncomfortable, but they stay up because they dig in slightly. The bra works on the same principle. If you had elastic waist pants but the elastic was so loose you had to wear suspenders to hold the pants up, you could certainly wear them as your personal choice, but no one would say they fit. I understand everyone is different, but I've found a bra with a tighter elastic band which holds up my breasts is far more comfortable than a too loose bra. It also isn't necessarily about look, either. There are bras that support me properly and are extremely comfortable but give me a terrible silhouette, and there are ill-fitting, unsupportive bras that look great.

Sigga said...

I have to pipe in with Britta.

I was wearing "wrong sized bras" for over a decade which kind of fit but I only thought so because I'd never tried on a bra that actually fit me properly.

I was doing the common mistake of too big a band and too small a cup. The main reason I had never walked into a shop and tried on a bra that actually fit is that most bra shops don't stock bras in my size. I had to go to a specialty shop catering for larger bust sizes to find ones that actually were my size.

I was cajoled and talked into accepting badly fitting bras by shop assistants in part because that was all that they stocked.

I was uncomfortable, clothes looked weird, my boobs weren't properly supported and jiggled like crazy when I walked down stairs etc, my shoulders were pulled on and I thought that that was just how it was.

I can't emphasise enough how much better things got once I got myself to that specalty shop, got myself fitted (and the fitting was just the shop assistant bringing on a ton of bras and judging by eye how it fit, it turned out to be slightly different numbers depending on brands).

This might be something that hits you more when you've got a bigger bust but it was such a big quality of life improvement once I started wearing properly fitting bras. I'm already way over in the huge cup sizes so vanity has nothing to do with it. Going from an E to a G cup doesn't stroke your ego in any big way.

I'm with Britta as well on the band needing to dig in a little bit, especially when the bra is new, it will loosen up with wear and to do it's job supporting the breasts it has to be well anchored around your torso otherwise it can start sagging or lifting up at the back and then it gets tempting to tighten the straps more and it all goes wrong and things are pulling on your shoulders again. I actually have grooves in my collarbones where my bra strap used to dig in.

Anyway the problem with just try a bunch on and pick the ones you like the fit of is that you need to know what a good and supportive fit actually feels like and your size needs to be in stock.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano said...

I've gotta chime in and say that having a bra fitting actually REALLY helped. The thing is, like most women/girls, the first time I went bra shopping was with my mother at age (okay, I was 9, which is really young but even at 13 you're still shopping with your parents), which meant the whole ordeal was utterly humiliating and I'd have rather eaten fire ants than let her into the dressing room with me. Point is, at that age I did indeed "need" a bra (I was jiggling all around, if that constitutes "needing") but I didn't know what it was supposed to do, and at the time I just needed some coverage, not lift-and-separate or whatever. So I just kept wearing that bra, and then as I grew I just put on whatever fit.

So when I did go in for a fitting with a friend--I was just accompanying her, because of course I thought I was wearing the right size--and gave it a whirl myself, I laughed when she told me I was a 34D, not a 38B. And when I tried on the 34D, I was shocked to Actual support, not just essentially a camisole with underwires. I had NO idea this was how a bra was supposed to fit; how would I have known? And I was in my mid-20s by this time. The point is, it wasn't that I was too dumb to know whether something fit me; it was that I didn't know what made a good fit. There's an argument there for the idea of what "fitting" means, as you point out, and I'm not a fan of this whole Bra Fitters From On High thing, but the fact is, my clothes looked better on me, and I finally didn't feel like a goon on the rare occasion I'd try to wear a sexy bra as lingerie, because instead of there being 4 extra inches of fabric around my ribcage, there was actual support and cleavage.

All that said, now that every ladymag in the universe has run this "fact" about how many women are wearing the wrong size, I doubt now that many women are truly clueless. I wonder what the statistic would be today?

Miss Self-Important said...

Phoebe, have you ever gone with your husband to buy a suit? Since pretty much every piece of men's suiting is made to be altered, you (as a man) experience all the same condescension from salespeople suggesting that you don't know how to dress yourself and what looks good on you, but times five, b/c you need jacket, pants, shirt, and all of it has to fit everywhere along your body, not just on your chest. There are entire books written on how to select the right suit for your body shape and how to determine fit, all of which assume that men are generally ignorant of this basic information (and they're right!). And since suits are the only things men wear at all business and formal events, they are judged much more severely for their suiting choices than women for their bra choices, which no one can really see once you have clothes on over it. If bra fitting is incredibly sexist, then what's suiting?

It seems to be the nature of any custom fitted garment that it must be fitted for you by a person who is not yourself, and whose job it is to fit these garments to different bodies. Thus, this person will usually have more expertise about the fit of these garments than you, even if that expertise is of a frivolous nature compared with expertise in curing cancer. Cue condescension. Women mostly buy clothes off the rack and don't have them altered, so we don't experience this very often. But if that changed and women's clothes were all either more customizable like suits or multi-dimensionally specific like bras, then we'd experience it all the time. But I'm not sure how it would be sexist rather than simply expertist - the bias of those selling that they know more about a product than those buying it. Expertism is often true, but occasionally not since some customers are unusually well-informed. In either case though, not particularly gender-specific.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


In my husband's line of work, suits are never necessary/rarely worn (only for weddings, etc., but not even job interviews), so no, I've never been with him to have one fitted. But point taken that this goes for both sexes. Certainly with running sneakers, there's a presumption of ignorance.

But I'm not willing to entirely concede that sexism doesn't enter into this. Are we constantly hearing about the % of men wearing the wrong size suit? And are we meant to believe that men need properly-fitting garments every single day, even for casual occasions? My sense of the whole suit-fit world is that it's limited to lawyers and the like (not sure how broad a category "and the like" is), and at that, limited to their working hours. Whereas the properly-fitting bra must be 365 days a year, and for all women in all professions.

Flavia said...

Yep: I'm with all your other commenters. I too wore a band-size-too-big/cup-size-too-small for many years, and have been much more comfortable and happy since I got re-sized (also at Town Shop, maybe a decade ago--but even there, I took two different sizes depending on style; as Britta says, the size number doesn't matter, but the principle of how a bra fits really does).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Flavia, all:

This is encouraging. I'm not at all opposed to the perfect undergarment existing. It seems a pain to track down, though, given the amount of variation, and then there's the fact that our own bodies fluctuate... and the existence of shady bra-salespeople. But if it's out there, fantastic!

fourtinefork said...


After reading all this, I am so glad I am of the Itty-Bitty Boob Brigade! (I can do jumping jacks, no problem, in a camisole.)

Miss Self-Important said...

You are not constantly hearing about men's suits b/c you don't wear them and don't follow menswear as a topic of interest (which is fine; it's pretty boring). But men are hearing about it. And all men must wear a suit eventually, even if they work as truckers or astrophysicists. There are weddings, funerals, events of such a nature to attend. The suit is extremely visible in all its ill-fitted glory, whereas if you're wearing a bra of the wrong band:cup ratio, your folly is unlikely to be detected by the casual observer. I don't really see a major gender difference in this respect, or if there is one, the situation is worse for men.

Where there is a gender difference is perhaps in the variety of suits available for different body types vs. the uniform nature of off-the-rack women's sizing. Menswear seems to be designed with the thought that clothes must be made to fit men, whereas it is generally thought that women must fit themselves into off-the-rack clothes. So even fat and lumpy men can be thought to look good in certain suits, but fat and lumpy women can't look good in anything. You can see this even in the sizing of casual pants for men - they are fitted along two dimensions, waist and inseam. Some women's sizing follows this model, but most often, women's pants are just size 4 or 6 or whatever, and the one size (which is not even an actual measurement, but some arbitrary small number) is supposed to account for the proportions of your entire lower body. However, if women's clothes became more measurement-sensitive in the way bras are, then you will end up with more salesperson fit condescension. So, ironically, random sizing that is completely un-attuned to variation in women's bodies and is not particularly designed to flatter them gives them more individual discretion and independence in selecting clothes since salespeople aren't very useful in helping you decide between size 4 and 6. But the clothes often end up looking worse b/c women are less sensitive than men to the proposition that not all types of garments look good on all bodies.

If you ever randomly have a chance, you should take a look at the book, The Suit. It's a very funny guide to menswear, entirely readable for women, and very enlightening. I wish there were a version for women. It might be of special interest to you in advancing the view that men should make a reasonable effort to look good since he is very much of this view.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I just don't think the stakes are as high for men-and-suits as women-and-bras. There's a whole body-image dimension, that one has a duty to look one's bodily best. I'll grant that for the men who wear them to work, suit-fit matters. But to the men who wear them every so often? I don't think they're too worried about it.

There is of course another option, with fit, which is to wear things that stretch or can be cinched. The problem really lies in this notion that we - men and women alike - need to buy clothes that have no give, are mass-produced, yet fit us perfectly. Tailoring helps some (I've heard - never tried), but doesn't account for size fluctuations.

Miss Self-Important said...

"There's a whole body-image dimension, that one has a duty to look one's bodily best."
I don't understand what you mean by body image here. Does bra fit require you to lose weight? Or that bras are undergarments while suits are not, and undergarment fit is more fundamental that outer-garment fit? Most professional-class employment requires men to wear suits - sales, management, law, consulting, banking, etc. Your car salesman wears a suit. Your bank teller wears a suit. The cast of The Office wore suits. The guy selling you suits at Nordstrom is wearing a suit. It's not a uniform limited to the extreme upper echelons. And the stakes in many of these customer-oriented positions are very tangible since you have to make sales and maintain clients. If you look schlubby and the customer or client is one to care, you will lose sales and clients. That seems high-stakes to me, higher even than the self-esteem issue of wearing an ill-fitting bra no one but you can see.

It's true that men don't wear suits as much outside of work hours, but the standards of all fit are relaxed at that point. After work, you wear exercise clothes, lounge clothes, jeans and t-shirts. Bra fit is not especially important in these contexts either, especially since half the time is spent in sports bras, or at home, where you can be altogether bra-less. Going out requires bras again, but it also requires men to dress up better, and in an ideal world, to put their suits back on so that restaurants on Friday night are not always full of women who look amazing paired with men who look like they their plans to go to a football game were hijacked.

"But to the men who wear them every so often? I don't think they're too worried about it."
But didn't your post suggest that most women are not too worried about their bra fit either, or else they'd all be running to bra fittings and there wouldn't be such an epidemic of ill-fitting bras? There are two perspectives here - there is what bra-fitting promoters want all women to do (be very concerned about bra size), and what actual women do (fail to be concerned). The same is true of suiting - the makers of suits want all men to be concerned with suit fit, while most men do not want to worry about this. The question for the third party observer (you) is, do the promoters of caring have a valid point, or should we ignore them? I'd say that the value of caring about suit fit is higher than bra fit, since people can see a suit but not a bra. So clothing fit fixation does not seem to be a particularly female problem. That said, better fitting things are always better than worse fitting ones, so if you want to expend the time/energy/money to ensure perfectly fitted bras, I have no particular objection.

Stretching and cinching help sometimes, but the fabric required for it can also be unflattering. Aren't you always on the hunt for the elusive non-stretchy jean? Imagine men in spandex suits.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Given that I've conceded the rest of my post, I may as well admit defeat on this angle as well. What I meant by body-image, though, was that the properly-fitting bra is about looking slimmer and younger (thus the hoisting of all breasts up to where they are on very young women's chests). It's about giving an illusion about your body. Whereas a properly-fitting suit is about looking put-together. It's not so much, does this suit make me look fat - for men or for women.

And my impression really is that lawyers are special in caring so much about the details of their office attire. I don't remember anything special about the suits of those I encountered on the path to the used Honda Civic, or indeed if anyone involved was wearing one. I kind of think some were not, but it was also 100 degrees or something that day...

Re: stretch, I'm a huge hypocrite, as I think I've admitted before, re: the cotton jeans thing. In principle I believe in stretch. In practice, I just don't like wearing jeggings. But men wouldn't need spandex - they could look to other cultures! Flowing robes! Not that this would ever happen. I'm not being prescriptive here, really, just pointing out that as long as we're expected to fit perfectly into mass-produced clothes, there will be problems.

Petey said...

"On a related note, that Prudie letter from the college senior who, though not flat-chested, doesn't like wearing a bra."

Worth at least mentioning, that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, anti-mandatory-bra-ism was a core plank of first wave feminism...

Miss Self-Important said...

"It's about giving an illusion about your body. Whereas a properly-fitting suit is about looking put-together."
Well, would you say that advice about wearing vertical vs. horizontal stripes or the color black for slimming purposes is intended to give an illusion about your body? B/c that's a lot of what suiting advice is like. It's true that suits don't physically hoist or rearrange your parts like bras, but a lot of the distinctions b/w lapel types and number of buttons and the height of the pant waist is to make men look slimmer and taller who are neither, or not enough of either. Isn't that what is generally meant by "flattering" for all clothes, including women's clothes? You might say there is a gender angle to the very existence of all kinds of hoisting and rearranging undergarments for women which do not exist for men. But the fit aspect of these things doesn't seem to be especially gender-specific.

I think there are actually suit types associated specifically with used car salesmen - loud, ugly plaids and flannels especially. Lawyers may appear to care more about their suits b/c 1) we know more of them than bank tellers and paper salesmen, so selection bias, and 2) they can afford more customization than people who make less money in their suit-requiring jobs. So it may be actually true that lawyers care more, or we may just be less aware of clothes-horses in other occupations b/c we are less aware of these occupations generally. I don't know.

Eventually, yes, fashions will change in radical ways. Men used to wear leggings and, before that, robes. Maybe they will again. But for now, I think that the pursuit of suit-fit is good for men, and more men should do it and not be content to look like slobs, even though, yes, there will be problems for some b/c suits are mostly mass-produced except for the alterations at the end. I also think women should become more attuned to the correspondence b/w their particular bodies and the clothes they wear rather than thinking (as most amateur fashion bloggers seem to do) that what determines whether something looks good is whether it is "on-trend." But I say this as a woman who wears jeggings even though they are clearly a garment NOT intended for my body type.

Flavia said...

Re: Petey's point (which I think intersects with your post's claims about the sexism of the "get professionally fitted!" drumbeat): I've always been mildly puzzled by the association of feminism with an anti-bra position. I get that bras can be read as a part of the same tyrannical body-image-enforcement regime as corsets, spandex, and other "shaping" garments. And of course I believe that a woman who doesn't want or need to wear a bra to be comfortable shouldn't have to wear one in public just to make others comfortable.

But seriously. With the exception of a few halter-top-type dresses, which I do wear braless out into the world (and which consequently & unfortunately look sexier than their sheer comfort should imply), it's not comfortable for me to do anything much more physically demanding than washing dishes without a bra on.

I guess it's another can't-win situation: even when a woman chooses to do what's comfortable for her personally (wearing a bra, not wearing a bra), it's interpreted as being about making herself sexy for a viewer.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Flavia and Petey,

The "comfort" issue is, I think, learned. High-impact exercise might be its own thing, but for walking around, maybe a woman who'd never trained herself (thus "training bras"!) to wear one wouldn't think she needed one? Maybe the notion that one must wear a bra, or a certain kind of bra (i.e. shaped, underwire) can be unlearned, but few want to unlearn this, given that to look decent, that's required, quite apart from the issue of support?

In a sense, it's perhaps not so different from how some (far fewer) women are only comfortable wearing heels. They're not lying, but the reason that came to be the case is that they trained themselves to walk a certain way, and have whichever muscles, etc. So maybe the feminist angle is, women shouldn't have had to train themselves to wear bras in the first place. Of course, wearing a bra isn't particularly debilitating, so the analogy isn't perfect. But it would be cheaper and simpler not to need one.

Sigga said...

I quite often go without a bra when just lounging around the house and I don't sleep in one etc.

However for being active, including walking around a lot and walking up and down stairs etc. a properly fitting bra makes a world of difference. If only to deal with underboob sweat where otherwise you'd have two skin surfaces on top of each other with low aeration and sweat which can easily lead to skin problems.

I hadn't done much if any "training" of myself of wearing bras really because the bras I wore for over a decade offered practically no support at all.

One thing though with the bra fitting thing, once you know what a properly fitting bra feels like and what to look out for you don't need to be professionally fitted and there is no need to use measuring tapes etc. the problem that makes the initial quote not entirely true all the time (the if you think it fits, it fits) is that there's an education piece there where a lot of women genuinely have never worn a bra that fits properly so they have no idea what to look for.

It's not rocket science and once you do know it's easy to do by yourself. It's just a few things. The band should be at the same level around your torso, i.e. no riding up in the back. The underwire should be flat against your body, especially in between your boobs, it should be touching your sternum. If it's been lifted away from your body there the band is too big and/or cups too small. If the cups are empty and floppy at the top they're too big and if you have overspillage of boob the cups are too small.

Then it's a matter of trying on a whole bunch and picking the ones that you think are comfortable and look good while fulfilling the above fit requirements. At least if you're at a size where you genuinely need the support.

I find it a little bit offensive to suggest that I only feel a big positive difference from bras that fit me properly because I've molded my body into thinking it needs it through "training" and that it's something I could unlearn.

Also just walking around can turn into high impact exercise at the drop of a hat if you need to run after a bus or hurry down stairs and I much prefer not having to actually hold my boobs when I do that to avoid physical pain.

I know I'm being a bit over opinionated about this but it's mostly just from wishing I had figured this out sooner because it made such a big quality of life improvement for me. I was starting to consider breast reduction surgery and stuff but with properly fitting bras it's basically a non issue.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm sorry you were offended. Let me try to explain this another way, as perhaps what I was trying to get at didn't come across quite right. Basically, I have - from this thread, from my 29 years on this planet - anecdotal evidence both for your stance (the needing of a comfortable bra) and another (the having of substantial breasts and being more comfortable not wearing one, or not wearing more than a flimsy one). It's equally wrong - equally potentially offensive! - to claim that all women in either category are fooling themselves. Both of these things exist.

Now, the social default falls rather clearly with the first set of women. Which does make me wonder if perhaps some bra-wearing - not *yours in particular* - happens more out of social convention than comfort, and if some of why women generally associate bras with comfort is because we are used to wearing bras. Again, I'm not talking about any specific woman's experience - there are no doubt women in societies where bras-as-we-know-them don't exist, who'd find it a lifesaver if someone arrived with a bra in their size. And again, I'm saying that social convention enters into it, not that nothing physiological is going on.

Hope that helps!

Flavia said...

I don't disagree that comfort is a learned experience, but just because it's learned doesn't mean there aren't also real benefits. As an imperfect analogy: most people have learned to feel more happy and comfortable when freshly-bathed, and dislike going too long without that feeling, even though centuries of human beings apparently didn't feel the same way.

So, yes: some of the comfort we derive from bra-wearing is learned, and the comfort felt may sometimes exceed the actual benefit. But as Sigga suggests, this also really depends on body type and breast size. Speaking for myself, I don't need to be doing "high-impact exercise" to be negatively affected by not wearing a bra. I can walk down a street without a bra, sure. But I can't actually walk very briskly, or speed up to cross the street before the light changes, or hop up a flight of stairs, without discomfort. Wearing a bra lets me forget about my breasts, rather than feeling their presence with every step. And I call that freedom from biology, not conformity to some feminine ideal.

Unknown said...

Chiming in late here but I just want to add in that for me figuring out bra fitting was absolutely a life-changing experience! Seriously, I kid you not. :)

At the moment I'm a 32K thanks to breastfeeding but for years I was shoving myself into bras with massive band sizes and small cup sizes because I couldn't find anything else where I lived. Not only was my body image bad, but clothes never fit properly (my breasts sat too low), and it made exercising extremely painful.

Since figuring out bra fitting I've finally been able to wear tailored clothes (AND I've found awesome companies that sell clothes both in bust and waist sizes!), I've found sports bras that actually support me and swimsuits that do the same (I've gotten really into swimming/water aerobics since then- activities that I hated before because I could never find supportive swimwear).

I've posted before/after pics on my blog when it comes to supportive bras and I think they speak for themselves:

Leslie R. said...

Just chiming in here to echo what the others have said.

I wore the wrong size bra for 20+ years. It wasn't until about 8 months ago that I found information on how bras should *actually* fit. Turns out I was squishing myself into a 34DDD, when I should have been wearing 34HH! That is a difference of 6 cup sizes.

The education piece, as Sigga mentioned above, is definitely missing. When I was wearing my previous size, I had *no idea* that something was wrong with them. I was falling out, bulging in my armpits and on my back, the cups themselves didn't anchor on my ribcage because they were so small, and yet I still didn't think anything was wrong with the bra. I thought something was wrong with ME, and spent a lot of years hating my breasts because I simply did not know how a bra should fit.

There are definite health problems that come with wearing the wrong bra size. I have had chronic back problems for pretty much my entire life, thanks to wearing an unsupportive bra and putting too much of the strain on my shoulders and upper chest. I had chronic migraines, developed arthritis in my neck by the age of 13, and the weight of my breasts actually affected the curve of my spine permanently. Additionally, I had chronic yeast infections under my breasts from the underboob sweat, rubbing, and chafing. In 20+ years, none of the doctors I saw ever suggested that this might be due to an incorrectly sized bra. None of them. That to me just indicates how poorly informed the general public is with regards to how a bra should actually fit and what the signs of poor fit are.

I realize that I've gone on a bit of a rant, but I wanted to help show exactly how much wearing a correct bra has helped me. My back and neck are no longer in chronic pain, I rarely get migraines, and I haven't had a skin infection in months. I also feel much more secure in my body, and my breasts are supported such that I honestly don't think about them anymore, whereas before I was constantly having to readjust my boobs and my bra.

Additionally, I'm able to be so much more active when I'm in the right bra. I can do housework, chase my dog around the yard, run down stairs, without constantly falling out of my bra and dealing with pain from unsupported breasts.

While I agree that there might be some social conditioning for women who feel more comfortable in a bra, at a certain point it stops being about convention and starts being about anatomy. It is physically painful for me to move too quickly or too actively without a bra. If I lie on my side or my back, gravity makes my boobs shift towards my head, where they can constrict my breathing a bit. None of this is a matter of "social learning" or "social convention" - this is just my own personal anatomy and the reality of having what society thinks of as conventionally-large breasts.

I don't wear a bra to make me look sexier. I wear a bra FOR ME. Not for anyone else. The suggestions here that this is sexist and patriarchal is horribly offensive to me. Furthermore, in a correctly fitted bra my boobs actually look SMALLER than when I was in my poorly fitting bra, because they are supported and held close to my chest as opposed to popping out everywhere.

Okay, I promise I'll stop ranting now. But for anyone out there who wants more information on how a bra should actually fit, check out - it's a forum of very supportive women who can help you figure out your size and shape, as well as find a bra that actually fits!

Leslie R. said...

Oh - I also wanted to address the issue about so-called vanity sizing. I don't think that's the case for many women at all. When I finally figured out what my real size should be, I cried for an hour because I felt like such a freak. I didn't know where I would be able to find a bra that big, and just felt so overwhelmed by the whole thing. Believe me, I would much rather just be able to walk into a store and buy a freaking 34DD. I think there are a lot of women in larger sizes who feel the same way - sure, our bras fit better and we feel in them, but actually finding and buying them is such a pain in the ass! :)

Anonymous said...

"Because it really is possible to go into a dressing room with a range of sizes and styles, and see for yourself what fits."

Except it's not. Most stores don't carry anything other than 30-48, A-DD cups. And the companies that make such bras, coupled with the media, has people thinking DD on any inch band is absolutely huge, and if you don't fit into a DD, you are either fat or a complete freak who must get a beast reduction to be 'normal'. If anything is sexist, it's that. And these companies also say the "most women wearing the wrong size bra" statistic, when they're the ones putting women in the wrong size bras. (right off the top of my head, La Senza is one of them)

But the fact is, DDs are small in proportion on any band. That is a 5 inch difference, or each of your breasts are only 2.5in bigger than your ribcage. But go to Victoria's Secret, or Walmart, Target, Kohls, Frederick's, Aerie, and so on, and go try on bras that are meant for a 28 inch ribcage and a 33 inch bust, in other words, a 28DD.

You're not gonna find them, and chances are you'll be ridiculed by staff for asking for such size.

Most bra-wearers are in the wrong size. Ask women in the online bra fitting community who work with bras or see a lot of women at work. There was one woman who sees a couple thousand of women every time she works, and she once ran up to a customer and complimented her on her wellfitting bra. This women sees so many women in poorly sized and shaped bras each day, that she actually ran up to a stranger to compliment her bra.

And most of the time it's through no fault of their own that these women don't wear the right size; just ignorance of what bras should be like. And even that can't always be 'blamed' on them, because all they've ever known or been told is to wear. And most of them time, all they every have access to is the wrong size bra. (See: "stores only carry A-DD, 32-48" above)

So this shaming women for wanting other women to feel good about themselves and their bodies, which wearing the right size bra can and does often do, is pretty ridiculous. And the fact that women from NYMag was referencing Victoria's Secret as the champion of brafitters is a huge disservice and an attack on all the women who don't fit into their limited size range. (which is almost everyone)

Chances are your "As" are really Ds, your "Bs" are really Fs, your "Cs" are really Gs, and your "Ds" and "DDs" are really Hs and Js.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Leslie, Anonymous, other Reddit arrivals,

You make some excellent points, especially re: the unavailability of many sizes in stores, and re: the weirdness of vanity sizing in this area. (Some women will hear, 'D, how wonderful!' and others, 'D, yikes, I never asked for this!')

I will reiterate certain points above:

1) Just as there are women whose lives are vastly improved by well-fitting bras, there are others who truly are uncomfortable wearing one/wearing a supportive one. Some of these women do have large breasts. And yes, such women wear bras for social convention, and might resent having to do so. Different bodies are different and all that. Complicating matters: some women just haven't found the right bra yet. See also: this post.

2) Bra-fit is a real issue for some women. But it doesn't follow from this that we should be less suspicious of the bra-selling industry. If anything, more so, if the stakes are higher than just being ripped off.

And finally, re: " shaming women for wanting other women to feel good about themselves and their bodies," that wasn't my intention at all, and is not, I would say, a fair use of "shaming." What I oppose - strongly! - is the social norm that says women must look their best at all times. To repeat, this is a different issue than if a particular bra is needed so one does not injure one's self. But indeed, for women who look magnificent in ostensibly properly-fitting Bra 1, but are comfortable in Bra 2, I don't think we need to tell such women that they are objectively wrong. I can't repeat this enough times, but the takeaway here needs to be: different bodies are different.

Sandra said...

I think there is great discussion going on in these comments - I am glad everyone is being very civil and glad to see you are making a lot of thoughtful concessions about your original position.

I am another one of those people who found out what my real cup size was and sobbed all evening feeling like a freak. I will say, I went to a fancy boutique and she did NOT fit me correctly, and I had the confidence to walk out without buying anything but some women feel too pressured to do that. However, when I finally put on things that fit, it was like Aladdin's "A Whole New World" was playing in my head.

I will say that if women are comfortable in bra B even though it does not fit them "correctly", that is their choice, but there are situations where this is still wrong, and the reason is because an improperly-fitted bra can actually cause physical (and psychological) problems that could be avoided.

Wouldn't we say it was wrong for someone with size 11 feet to wear size 9 shoes that crushed their toes, bruised and battered their feet, and made it impossible for them to walk? That is what ill-fitting bras actually do to some women - they can leave bruises and welts, cause skin irritation or even infections as mentioned above, back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain - the list goes on.

THAT is why I care about women being in properly-fitted bras. The fact that it generally looks 'better' from a male-gaze standpoint is a side-effect, not an underlying reason to want change.

I strongly encourage you to change this article. The introductory information is misleading and harmful. Well-fitting bras are not necessarily any more expensive than decent-quality (read: not from Walmart or Target) bras - I get a lot of mine for around $20 and I am not in the A-DD range. They do not - and should not - cut off your circulation.

"The idea that women are just too dumb to figure out for themselves whether their clothing fits properly, or that they're too lacking in confidence not to just go along with it when someone in a position of authority tells them that an item that they know fits actually does not. Because it really is possible to go into a dressing room with a range of sizes and styles, and see for yourself what fits."

As has been pointed out, unless you are fortunate enough to be near a store that stocks extended sizes, you CANNOT just go into a store and try on whatever you want.

I also want to reiterate the fact that most women have no idea what makes a good fit in a bra, and there is nothing shameful about not having that knowledge. Would someone be ashamed that they did not know particle physics if nobody had taught it to them? Okay, maybe how a bra should fit isn't rocket science, but the point is, things have to be taught and learned, and nobody is teaching women how bras should fit in order to be supportive, and more importantly, safe and not harmful.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, 100%, re: civility.

"THAT is why I care about women being in properly-fitted bras."

I almost agree with this. But I would say properly-fitting, not properly-fitted. Meaning, ultimately, it's got to be up to each bra-wearing woman - not someone trying to sell her a bra - what fits properly. There are women who have eureka moments when properly fitted, but, as you yourself say, there are *also* women who end up being sold the equivalent of the size 9 shoe for the size 11 foot. And there's no certification or anything, as far as I know. Perhaps that's what the bra-fit-advocacy community should be aiming for.