If you checked out my introductory post, you saw that I talked a bit about how important it is for me to wear bras in my everyday life. Of course, I am not everyone. But there is a big fat chance that, if you feel uncomfortable in your bras, you are wearing a less than ideal size and/or a less than ideal cup shape; moreover, even if you feel comfortable in them, you could still very well be part of the appallingly high 80% of women estimated to be wearing a bra size that is not optimal, but you just don’t notice because you have a smaller cup size and don’t feel the need for much support.
Why is there such a high number of people wearing a less than ideal bra size? Shouldn’t we women be at least able to choose correctly the size of the most important garment in our wardrobe? Is it really possible that the number is actually that high? Let’s take a look at these questions through a round up of how bra sizing works (in theory, because practice is a bit more complicated) & why the industry misguides so many women into buying a size and/or shape that is not the best fit for them.
Bra Sizing 101
The education we receive on bra sizing as tweens is, at best, nebulous, and at worse, miles apart from reality. Most of us have received this advice where we should measure under our bust, in inches, add 4 or 5 to that number, round up to the next even number, and then measure over our bust, at the fullest point, and subtract the two numbers; the first one is the band size, and the difference between the first and the second, in inches, is translated by a letter, A standing for 1″, B standing for 2″, C standing for 3″, etc. That is, when you’ve not been advised to do this weird thing where you measure with the tape at the height of the band in the back, but over your bust to the front (which makes absolutely no sense at all as the band is passing under your breasts, not above them), like Victoria’s Secret’s website is currently advising. Most of these places also advise measuring yourself while wearing a bra, which makes no sense because of how bras immediately change how your breasts hang and how big they appear without anything on, especially if they aren’t of the best possible size to begin with. If you’ve tried getting fitted by shop girls in various stores, you’ve probably been given a lot of different sizes in different stores (as this kinda popular Buzzfeed article highlighted; though do not believe the conclusions of this article, I will expand on that later on), and not necessarily because the bras varied widely between brands.
In fact, although it is definitely true that some brands (and some models) run larger or smaller in the cup and larger or smaller in the band, and have different shapes, one’s size should always float around the same base size, with slight cup and band variations, because bra sizing isn’t something every brand pulls out of their ass when and how they feel like it. Actually, the basis for bra sizing is pretty simple: the number refers to the expected number of inches to which the band is supposed to stretch comfortably (and as such, the band size you should wear!) and the letter is, as specified above, refering to the number of inches of breast the cups should accommodate. That’s it. No +3, no +4, no awkward measurement under and above the band line, no special ritual after midnight on the third Thursday of November. Of course, reality is a bit more complex, but the basis is very simple.
For example, my under bust measurement is 28″ and my bust measurement is 36″. That means my band size is 28 and my cup size is for 8″, which means a FF cup (A, B, C, D, DD, E, F, FF; this is UK sizing). However, because nature doesn’t like things simple, my breast shape means there are quite a bunch of models that fit me better in G, so I really should say I’m a 28FF/G. Also, as explained before, since I have fibromyalgia, my ribcage is horrendously sensitive, so in most models I will be more comfortable doing what we call sister-sizing, in a bigger band size.
Sister sizes are sizes which have the same cup volume but different band sizes. Since the letter refers to the volume relative to the band size, it means that a 32DD is actually a cup size smaller than a 34DD in volume. My 28G is also a 30FF, a 32F, a 34E, a 36DD, a 38D, a 40C, a 42B, and a 44A in terms of cup volume. Well, in theory; in reality, unless the band runs at least a size smaller than it should, any band size above 30 wouldn’t be able to accommodate me. The bras that are the most likely to fit me will thus be 30F or 30FF, for the most part.
That sounds huge? Well, let me tell you, it’s not so huge (NSFW, pictures of real women in bras), more similar to what people think of when they think about a D/DD cup. With the sizing method highlighted above, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that most women wear a band too big and a cup too small; sometimes the opposite happens for plus-size people, but this is what happens the most for non-plus-size people. It is estimated that most women should actually wear a cup size above D.
For ideal bra sizing, it is generally recommended to take 5 different measurements: snug underbust, tightest underbust, standing bust circumference, leaning bust circumference, and lying bust circumference, all the while wearing nothing at all on your top half. If you enter your measurements in this calculator, it should give you an estimate of what your true bra size most likely is. However I recommend double-checking in a Nordstrom (or similar shop) and checking with the A Bra That Fits community to have a second opinion (I am absolutely not qualified to help you do that, but this community is amazing).
However, the size is only half the battle, and this will be discussed later on; the other half is the breast shape. There is a plethora of different parameters that serve to qualify breast shape, a few of them being vertical fullness (degree of fullness as well as upper, lower or even fullness), horizontal fullness (whether most of the tissue is outside or inside the breasts, which is visible by noting if your nipples point outwards or inwards), root height (short, average or tall), root width (wide, average or narrow), and degree of projection (shallow, average or projected), as well as a few other characteristics that affect cup fit. On top of this, every person with breasts has slight differences between their breasts and most also experience changes within their hormonal cycle.
Long story short, no two breasts are the same, even if they are attached to the same torso!
The Bra Industry Wants The Big Money
The reason for why bra stores such as Victoria’s Secret, Aerie, or in Canada La Senza or La Vie en Rose, or basically any mainstream, lower-end lingerie brand, have sizing guidelines so unrealistic and inaccurate, is mostly an economic reason.
In any kind of clothing, offering wide size ranges is costly, both on terms of R&D and of stock estimates.
In terms of R&D, constructing a lot of different bra sizes means having to draft different patterns for each size. Bras that come in sizes 32 A-C, 34-38 A-DD already mean 18 different patterns because, although sister sizes are a thing, constructing sister sizes isn’t as simple as putting a bigger or smaller cup on a bigger or smaller band; patterns also have to account for cup width and depth, underwire lengths and widths, strap placement and cup structure, if the cup is designed with more than one part. For moulded foam cups, it also implies making slightly different moulds for each cup; many companies such as VS reuse the same moulds for different bras to save on materials and R&D.
For stock estimates, there is also a difficulty when making wide size ranges to make sure there is enough demand for the specific sizes into each of the models; although we know that there is a huge profit margin for those companies (hence the very frequent sales), they want to avoid as much as possible having to make huge sales to get rid of the last season’s items, or worse, throwing away bras (which is something we wish they wouldn’t do, but that’s unfortunately a well-known fact that many mainstream clothing companies throw away clothing they can’t sell out). That is why mainstream bra stores keep size ranges relatively constant from model to model.
Because of these constraints, and the need to offer the cheapest product possible with the highest profit possible, lower-end bra companies don’t really mind pushing people and lying to them to size them in their bras, even if they are not necessarily the right size or fit for them. Also, these companies tend to make bras all for the same types of breasts, usually on the shallow side, while the average breast above a D cup (a true D cup, not a VS-sized D cup) tends to be averagely projected to quite projected.
These sizing and shape problems also mean that, to be able to effectively sell their bras, a lot of companies are pretty keen on taking stock photos and promotional photos where bras are very inaccurately fitting, which makes people like you and I unable to properly identify fit issues without proper guidance.
Most of these bra companies claim that 34C is their most common/average size. Over A Bra That Fits, the average size is estimated to be 30F. That may help you guess the possible discrepancy between the sizes you will be put in in VS and the sizes you should really wear for your optimal comfort.
What is important to keep in mind though is that shop people & fitters in stores like VS, Aerie, Line Bryant, La Vie en Rose and La Senza often don’t fit you in less than ideal sizes on purpose; most of the time, they receive little to no training in proper bra fitting, and when they do, they are taught the inaccurate fitting method of the company they work for. People in specialty lingerie stores may or may not receive proper bra fitting training; my personal experience is that the shops who carry the smallest range of sizes have the worst fitters, and those that carry almost every size available have the best fitters, but this is only my experience.
Whatever you do, please remember that cup sizes above D aren’t always gigantic, and may actually be more common than you think! Your body deserves proper fitting bras, so please don’t give up if you calculate your size and it is not exactly what you expected. You absolutely don’t have to wear the right size, but wearing it could be a game-changer.