Bras must measure up to real women’s bodies, not societal expectations

Illustration by Parker Wilhelm

Let’s talk about boobs. (Not breasts — that word sounds too clinical and politically correct to me. Women have boobs, not just breasts used for feeding babies and getting cancer.) More specifically, let’s talk about bras.

According to a study by bra company Wacoal America, 80 percent of women wear the wrong bra size. Not wearing the right bra can cause significant physical problems. According to a Dec. 2, 2008, article from The Independent, the wrong size bra can affect posture and future back health; cause headaches, scarring, back pain and neck pain; and can make breasts sag prematurely. Wearing a poorly fitting bra can actually change the shape of your boobs.

Why are most women wearing the wrong size bra? It should be easy enough — go in, get measured, get your bra, get out. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. When you go to a store for a bra fitting, you are measured in a way that is not necessarily accurate and given a size calculated one of several ways. Then you’re handed a bra made by a company that gets to decide exactly how big they feel a given cup is. Even if you’re a size 34C, you can try on a size 34C bra and it might not fit.

About a year ago, I walked into Victoria’s Secret to try to find a bra that properly fit me for the fifth or sixth time. Victoria’s Secret and I have a special relationship: They don’t believe my body type exists. When they measured me, the woman knitted her brow. “This can’t be right,” she said. “This would mean that you’re a 30DDD…” She went to talk to her supervisor, who I overheard say, “Don’t be ridiculous! Those kinds of bodies don’t exist.” Quickly they shoehorned me into a 32DD. I bought it, not knowing any better.

How was I to know what fit me? I couldn’t be bigger than a DD. According to television, women with D bras had huge boobs that filled out their tops and gave them constant cleavage. Looking at my handfuls, I couldn’t believe that that was what I was supposed to be.

There are many misconceptions about bras that need to be cleared up. A bra size number stands for the size of your torso around the bottom of your boob — in my case, 28 inches. The letter stands for how many inches your torso is around the biggest part of your boobs. In my case, this was 32 inches. Subtract 32 from 28 and you get 5 inches. Each inch constitutes a bra size — A is one, B is two, and so on.

Theoretically, you have your bra size. However, since these measurements tend to be inaccurate, I got a measurement of 28D — a bra size that Victoria’s Secret and other large chain “specialty bra” stores don’t seem to think exists.

After all, a woman can’t be both thin and curvy. Women can’t have boobs bigger than DD — it’s not possible. Victoria’s Secret sure thinks so; the smallest band size the store carries, both in town and online, is a 32, and the largest cup size is DD. If you have bigger boobs than that, you have to go to a special “plus-size” store because you are not what is deemed “normal” by their standards. You, my dear, are fat and have gigantic bazongas, whether you think so or not.

That’s not even covering the fact that most manufacturers of A- and B-cup bras seem to think they’re only in the service of innocent 12-year-old girls. Excuse me, but some fully-grown and sensual women are flat-chested and loving it and would like lacy lingerie just as much as anyone else.

As stated earlier, the measuring system for bras is largely inaccurate, so even professional bra-fitters may not know what they’re doing. The other day I bought a size 32DD bra from a store where a very experienced woman had measured me at 30B. The most reliable way to get a bra that fits is to go through band sizes until you find the right band size and then move through cup sizes until you find the right cup.

A correct band should fit firmly on the loosest hook, but not be tight. If you’re using the tightest hook in order for it to fit, the band is too large. The band should form a straight line around your body from front to back — if it pulls up toward your shoulder blades, it’s too large. The straps around your shoulders shouldn’t be slipping off or cutting into your skin. Each strap should only hold about 10 percent of the weight of your boobs. The band around your body is what actually holds your boobs up, supporting the other 80 percent.

Moving on to the cup size: As each bra and woman are made differently, trying different styles is key. The small band between the cups should touch your sternum, but not be pressing into it. If it doesn’t touch or you reach up while wearing your bra and the bottom of your boobs spill out, you need to move up a cup. If the bra wrinkles or puckers in any way when you wear it, it’s too large and you need to move down a cup.

“Specialty bra stores” need to stop ignoring the truth about women’s bodies and the products they’re selling because of general ignorance and profit. Just because someone isn’t what you deem “normal” doesn’t mean you should sell them a bra that doesn’t fit and tell them that it does. No woman should have to force her boobs and body into fitting society’s standards.

I was completely unaware of just how much the wrong bra can affect your boobs until after a few days of wearing my new bra. I looked in the mirror and realized my boobs had literally changed shape. A year in an ill-fitting bra had made them seem limp, squished and oddly pointed — but just a few days in a regular-sized bra made them round, perky and happy. I can only hope every woman gets a chance to find a bra that actually fits them, regardless of whether society thinks it should or not.

Cara Hillstock is a sophomore in English. Please send comments to