Friday, June 19, 2009

How to find a bra that fits [Part 1, not for pregnancy or nursing]

I used to work as a bra fitter. Not just any bras - nursing bras. That's right - just in case being a doula, going through a breastfeeding educator course, and then doing dozens of breastfeeding consults during my AmeriCorps stint hadn't provided me with more than my lifetime quota of boob-viewing. Still, it was a good set-up for doula work because they were flexible if I, or the other doula working there, needed to call in "birth". (You would think we'd have also gotten clients from there but it wasn't as great a networking spot as you'd think.)

Anyway, I had never really understood how bra sizing worked before I got hired there. I had, when I was about 14, tried on bras in a JC Penney's dressing room until I found a size that seemed to work, and stuck with that size for well over the next decade. Sometimes I'd try slightly different sizes, because Oprah said that 80% of women were wearing the wrong bra size, but the ones I picked seemed too small or too big. I got measured at a Victoria's Secret one time and tried on their recommended size - that was a joke. I stuck to my old size.

A month into working at the store, I realized how I had been wearing a laughably wrong bra size for years. After a few more months, I realized how EVERYbody (or at least 80% - just like Oprah said!) else had been too.

One day during that time, I saw a picture of Dolly Parton and it got me wondering - what was her bra size? I had fit people resembling her, so I thought I had a pretty good guess. Googling around, however, I got mostly the same figure - one that I just could not believe. If a woman who looked like her walked into the store I used to work in and said she was a 40DD, every fitter in the room would turn around and raise their eyebrows.

But yet this "40DD" was repeated over and over on different websites with absolutely no questions asked. And it got me thinking about the fact that most of the world doesn't understand how bra size works - heck, I didn't until I started working as a fitter. I feel like bra sizing is this secret that's not hard to understand, but somehow concealed from women worldwide (possibly so we won't demand any sizes outside of 32-34-36 A-B-C). So I want to do a little explanation, because understanding this has changed my bras (and my life - really) for the better. I wrote a version of this a while ago for my my personal blog and had a lot of friends ask me questions and go for fittings. After this post, I'll do another one specifically on what I've learned about buying bras for pregnancy and nursing.

Your band size

The first part of your bra size - the number, aka the "band size" - has nothing to do with your breast size. Nothing. It has to do with your ribcage size. Wrap a measuring tape around your body just under your armpits, and pull tight (actually, have someone else do this for you). That's the number you're looking for. It's likely to be smaller than what you're wearing now.

"But I'm a 36! I've worn a 36 my whole life! It fits!" Take a look in the mirror. Do your bras ride up in the back? The back should be exactly level with the front of the bra. If they're riding up, they are TOO BIG. Period. "But I put on a 34 and it felt soooo tight!" Of course it will. You've been wearing 36s for your whole life. Wear the right size for 3 days and after 3 days it will no longer feel tight. Then put on your old bras and see how uncomfortable they really are - how they don't lie flat against your ribs, how they ride up underneath your breasts, how the straps are always falling down. (Right? You thought it was because you didn't tighten the straps enough. But since I started wearing the right band size, I can count on one hand the number of times my straps have fallen.) They don't give you any support underneath, so all the weight is hanging from your shoulders. They're Bad. You'll throw them out (just like I did) and be happier for it.

"But my band size is less than 32. So I'm a 32, right?" While a store like Wal-Mart will carry up to about a 44 band size, and a lot of plus-size stores will carry larger band sizes, finding very small band sizes is harder. That does not, however, mean that you should wear the wrong size. 30s and 28s are out there - mostly online, in specialty stores, and at Nordstroms. "But that will be expensive!" It is hard when you're used to buying $15 bras and discover that they weren't really doing you any favors and you have to shell out some more. But think about this: unless you have a smaller cup size and don't need it all the time, you probably wear your bra all day, every day. (Cost it out over total hours worn and you may see things differently.) It is what makes your clothes look good, makes you feel comfortable, and can help relieve back and neck pain. Treat your bras nicely and they will last longer, but regardless of lifespan they are worth the investment!

How important is the exact right band size?

If you're an A or B cup, do you really need to wear a nice tight band? Probably not, because you don't need as much support. If you're "supposed to be" a 32 but you like 34s better - not such a big deal. If you DO need the support, however, you want a tight, supportive band. It's a nice secure shelf under your breasts.

Can we talk about cup size now, please?

OK, we've got the band size taken care of. Now for the cup size. The cup size is the letter. It is the difference between your band size (around your ribcage) and your bust size (around the fullest part of your breasts). A few things about cup size: it is not absolute. Because it's about the DIFFERENCE between sizes, someone who is a 32C will have smaller breasts than a 40C. Cup size is all about proportion. This is why if you have a small band size, you are more likely to have a big cup size: the breasts that are a C on your sister who has a 38 ribcage will be a DD on your 34 ribcage.

"I'm a DD, that's so huge!" No, it's not. It's just a different proportion. When you start being realistic about your band size, you will inevitably go up in cup size (I have never met anyone who was wearing a band that was too small - most people are wearing a band that is too big).

I don't hold with measuring for cup size except as a general guide. Use it to get you in the right zone, but one measurement shouldn't be taken as gospel. Once you have a band size that you know works, just keep trying on larger cup sizes until you get one that fits you smoothly (no wrinkles) and doesn't create a double-boob on top by cutting into you. Ignore the letters - no really, ignore them! They will only distract you with preconceived notions of what that particular letter looks like on someone's body.

"But I CAN'T be a DD!" Why not? "Because that's so HUGE! I mean, Dolly Parton is a DD!" No, she's not. She obviously doesn't want to freak people out, but looking at her I would guess she's a 34H, minimum (and she's so tiny - she has to be a 32 or less). If she's making up for it by wearing 40DD, no wonder she has back problems.

"I've never heard of an H!" In German sizing (we carried a lot of bras from Germany in the store where I worked) they don't screw around with all these double letters. Americans seem to have a mental block about the letter "D" - we can't go beyond it. People will be DDDD's, but they won't just go ahead and be a G, whereas in Germany they just march inexorably down the alphabet. (In England they seem to split the difference by doubling every letter once - D, DD, E, EE and so on - but at least only once.) No one seems to want to hear these letters. Because so many women are wearing the wrong size, we have attached letters like "DD" to Dolly Parton and can't see ourselves realistically.

"But if I'm more than a DD then where do I find my bras?" See above re: small band sizes. They will be harder to find, and more expensive, and yet you will be glad. My recommended bra-shopping websites:,, and (the last is UK-only store although they will ship to the US. I have never ordered from them, but I hear great reviews and they have a good explanation of how to visually assess whether your bra is the right fit.)

One more thing - bra fitters
With all this explanation about how to fit yourself, I can't emphasize enough how helpful a good, experienced fitter can be. And that's why you can't go to Victoria's Secret. A bra store can only put you in sizes they have. Vicky's doesn't have much. Nordstrom's has a much wider range, and in this country is a lot of people's only nearby bricks-and-mortar resource. Local specialty stores are also a good bet if you have one - but check to see if they have the size range you think you're looking in. Always bring your own judgment - it's normal for a smaller band to feel tight, but it shouldn't require a crowbar to fasten, and if something is just not working then say so.

Once you have bras that fit, spread the gospel! I've talked to a lot of women who feel so frustrated and demoralized by bra shopping. It makes them feel bad about their bodies and insecure about what they "should" look like or what size "normal" people wear. I wish more women understood sizing and accepted their bodies and breasts as they are - normal and fabulous - and useful for feeding babies if you get the chance :-)


Sally said...

Amen, Rebecca! I know my life has improved since you told me about Orchard Corset!

publichealthdoula said...

Orchard Corset is a great place! They don't carry anything below a 30, though :-(

Nickey said...

Great advice, Rebecca! I'm certainly far happier wearing the right bra size. Folks really need to get over being afraid of wearing a "big" size. Yeah, it sounds weird to say you're a 34F, but at least my boobs are happy! I also think it's totally worth sinking some money into quality bras. I own two French bras that cost $150, but they are amazingly well designed and have held up well over time and use.

Rose said...

so you measure band size my measuring under your armpits? i always, always heard that you measure directly under your boobs, where the band is.

maybe thats why my bras never fit me good.

publichealthdoula said...

All the instructions that I've read about measuring under your breasts have some complicated formula (add 5, or add 4 then divide by 3 then multiply by get the idea). Measuring under the armpits (and pulling tight) doesn't require any complicated math, and is how I was taught and seems to work well.

Of course, a gold-standard fitter can just look at you and tell your size, no tapes required. I have yet to achieve that level of skill!

Nikki said...

LOL, I want to get a professional bra fitting, I was at pennigtons 14+, which is where I buy most of my clothes, and the sales lady offered to do a fitting, so we measured, and I tried on the reccomended size, ROFL it fit so badly!!! (band too big, cup waay to big for my boobs, underwire jabbing me in the 'pits) the funny thing is, though, you say if the band rides or bra straps go down, then the bands too big, but what if you physically cant get in a smaller band size?
I would like to be able to wear one without it cutting into me or leaving major red marks, or having the split boob... any suggestions?
(so you have a visual 40C is what Im currently wearing)

Rebecca said...

Hi Nikki,

If you are trying to fasten the band and you really can't get it to fasten because it's too tight, then it's too small. You should basically be wearing the tightest band that you can still fasten (and not feel like you're in a vise grip even after wearing it for a few days!) If it's still not fitting right, I would blame the cup size and/or style.

So if 40C seems to be the right band tightness, and you're getting a double-boob, I'd try larger cup sizes (40D, 40DD, etc.) until you find something that fits well. I'd also try different styles and brands - some work, some don't.

But a professional bra fitting can be so helpful!! I'd search around for a local place, or if you're going on any trips look to see if the places you're visiting have a Nordstroms or a good specialty store.