Dispelling lingerie lies

What a shopping trip taught me about what it really means to feel beautiful as a woman.

Silke Enkelmann | EyeEm | Getty Images

On a recent shopping trip, I decided that it was time for a new bra. I’d been wearing my current ones for years, and my body had changed a bit in the intervening time. Just to be safe, I decided to get measured (it had been a while). I went to a large lingerie chain which shall not be named. During my visit, I was measured twice, by two different sales people. Both times, I was measured as a different size. You can imagine my confusion.

My first measurement happened in the middle of the store. The saleswoman whipped a tape measure from around her neck and slid it around my upper torso. I’m not a terribly shy person, but I found myself looking around at fellow shoppers with a bit of embarrassment. For many years, I’d worn a 34B, choosing to go up to a 36B during a slightly heavier time. This measurement put me at a 32D. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Back in the dressing room, another saleswoman measured me to be sure, this time with just a bra on. She came up with a slightly different size: 34C, which she called a sister size of the 32D. I wrote all of this down and left without buying a thing, overwhelmed by the idea that every bra I’d ever worn was the wrong size.

Although I’d been wearing one since my mid teens, it was startling to discover that I knew almost nothing about bras.”

I went home and did some research. I started by looking up “sister sizes.” The main critique of this approach seems to be related to the fact that the band provides the majority of the support (90 percent). This surprised me, especially since my luck with strapless bras had been so dismal, an experience shared by most women I know. I clicked on countless tutorials for fitting a bra correctly and came away with some startling information: although I’d been wearing one since my mid teens, I knew almost nothing about bras.

I took out my current collection of lingerie from its drawer and began to try each piece on. It became clear that the 36 bands were too big, the cups would gape a bit in most positions, even if I had fastened the tightest hook. And, as much as I hated to admit it, my favorite turquoise 34B was too small. I had known that it was important for my breasts not to spill out of the front of my cups, but I hadn’t realized that I needed to make sure that I was supporting the breast tissue on the sides of my body, beneath my arms. But the underwire on my bra didn’t even extend that far.

Armed with tons of new information about my size, I decided to order a new bra online in a 34C. It was pretty, and I was excited to have something that would fit at last. When it came, I tried it on in front of the mirror and went through the tips I’d been reading (which are also at the end of this article). Right away, I knew that the band was too big, but the cups were the perfect size. I knew that if I went down a band size, I should go up one cup size. I put in an exchange for a 32D and waited. When it came, the band size was perfect, but I was surprised to find that the cups were too small. I boxed it back up and ordered a 32DD. Amazingly, that bra was a perfect fit. This was quite a leap for a woman who had considered herself a B cup for most of her life.

As I began to pay closer attention, I noticed that women in bra advertising were often wearing the wrong size to emphasize the model’s prominent cleavage.”

This experience piqued my interest. Just how standard are bra sizes anyway? The answer, unfortunately, is that they are about as standard as any other clothing sizes, which is to say: not very. Though the letters and numbers can sound official, there is no definitive measurement or universal sizing system. Sizing also can’t account for different breast shapes (of which, let’s face it ladies, there are many), and styles of bras, which all contribute to a good fit. As with a good pair of jeans, it’s not surprising that the right fit can be hard to find among standard options.

As I continued to read up on bras, it became very clear to me that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Many women are wearing the wrong size bra. But why? Was it simply lack of information or was something larger at play? As I investigated further, reading more articles about bra fitting, I stumbled on several about lingerie advertising today. It seems that there are several forces at work here, but certainly part of the problem stems from lingerie modeling, and the advertising images we’re all exposed to on a daily basis.

As I began to pay closer attention, I noticed that women in bra advertising were often wearing the wrong size. The center part of the bra, which is supposed to rest against the breast bone, often hovered high above, emphasizing the model’s prominent cleavage. If these images were in my mind (and the minds of many women), or even my dressing room, as I tried on lingerie, was it any wonder that I was gravitating to the wrong size? Was the idea of being “sexy” getting in the way of women finding the perfect fit?

To further test my theory, I went back to the mall, wearing my new 32DD bra, and spent several hours getting sized at two different lingerie chains there. They measured me, both coming up with the same size this time (34C). But the attitudes and styles of the stores were quite different. Store number one focused on coverage at the expense of fashion, in my opinion. They brought me bras that made me feel dowdy. Store number two, though, was overly focused on their brand of sexy, which seemed to mean brightly colored and ostentatious. The fit of their bras, however, didn’t work for me, either.

For so long I had believed in a lingerie lie that sexy bras are part of what it means to be a woman. It’s so freeing now that I know the truth.”

In the end, nothing I tried on at either store came close to the new bra I was wearing, which had a shape and style that I loved, and fit me just right. There was a big difference between the woman I’d been just a short time ago, who needed an opinion before she’d believe that a bra fit, and the woman I was that day, evaluating each bra individually, based on how it interacted with my body. I didn’t let any salespeople tell me that something worked when I knew it didn’t. I left both stores without any shopping bags.

For so long I had believed in a lingerie lie that sexy bras are part of what it means to be a woman. It’s a trap that many of us have stumbled into without realizing. But it’s so freeing (and physically comforting) now that I know the truth: a bra that really works for me doesn’t have to hurt at the end of the day. My straps, underwires and side fabric shouldn’t dig in, or leave marks.

Mind you, I still don’t love the idea of bra shopping, but I do think all of the hours I spent on it was worth it. Now instead of “knowing” my standard size, I have a baseline which I use as a place to start trying things on. I’m learning to be patient and find something I really love, something comfortable.

I’m choosing to believe that I am worth that extra time. Because if I’m going to buy a bra, it should be a style that flatters me and makes me feel good about how I look and feel. More than cleavage, rhinestones, or lace, I want a bra that allows me to forget that I’m wearing one at all. That is my true definition of sexy.

How to bra shop without losing your mind

To help you find your own better bras, I caught up with Kimmay Caldwell, a long time bra fitter who shares expertise on Hurray Kimmay, and owns the lingerie marketing company, Hurray Media. She shared her professional thoughts on shopping for your perfect fit, knowing full well that most of us find bra shopping extremely frustrating. A little basic knowledge, she says, is more than half the battle. De-mystifying the process will calm your nerves, and may even help you feel empowered. But if, after this article, you’re still feeling stressed, Kimmay strongly advises finding a pro to help you. You trust a professional with your health and your car, why would this specialty be any different?

It’s easy to think that because you don’t fit into a certain box, that you’re not normal. “I think there’s a lot of shame and confusion around bra sizing and bras and breasts in general,” Kimmay says. “You are not a weird size. I promise. Because bra sizes have changed and are different from brand to brand and style to style, there’s a chance you are a more ‘abnormal’ size than you thought. [Find more info on those sizing differences here.]

I have four different bra sizes in my own collection. I don’t really care about the number on the tag.”

“But I want to be clear. There’s a difference between mainstream and normal. Mainstream sizes are 34-40 B to D cup sizes. ‘Normal’ is relative. And quite frankly, the most common sizes that I have fit as a fitter are 32F/DDD and 34G. For real,” Kimmay adds. In fact, she has four different bra sizes in her own collection that all fit. “I don’t really care about the number on the tag,” says Kimmay. “I just want to make sure it fits me well.”

Although getting fitted can be an anxiety-laden procedure for many women, it’s one of the best things you can do to find the right fit. And while online shopping is convenient, it doesn’t give you the range of a well stocked shop. (You might consider ordering several returnable sizes and choosing between them for the perfect fit.)

“I have helped thousands of women in the bra fitting rooms of NYC, and they range from totally nervous to take off their top in front of me to taking off said top before they even get into the fitting room,” says Kimmay. “No matter where you are on that spectrum, walk into the fitting knowing that you are taking a beautiful step toward honoring your body and breasts, and let that give you confidence.”

Kimmay compares looking for the right bra to dating. “I don’t want a boyfriend that’s really pretty but not supportive, and I don’t want a boyfriend that’s only supportive but not really good looking.”

For many women, the discomfort stems from feeling in-store pressure to buy something you aren’t totally happy with, but don’t let that stop you from going in the first place. “Never feel like you have to buy something from a fitter—especially if you ever feel like she doesn’t have your best interests in mind, or if you feel like she is just trying to sell you something,” says Kimmay. “Bras are like jeans. I never just throw someone into a fitting room and wish them luck. I try on every bra with each woman, and help her decide if it fits her body, her wardrobe, and her style. There’s no, ‘I’ll just tell you the bra size you can wear in any bra ever.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”

But style is still important, too. Kimmay compares looking for the right bra to dating. “I don’t want a boyfriend that’s really pretty but not supportive, and I don’t want a boyfriend that’s only supportive but not really good looking. I want a nice combination of both. I don’t want to wear something that’s only supportive and utilitarian and ugly and doesn’t make me feel great. I want to feel awesome when I wear this bra and, for me, that means that it has to have a little bit of color, maybe a little detail, something pretty so that when I put it on I’m like ‘yes, I feel amazing, I feel great in this.'”

So, in the end, your perfect bra should be one you love to wear, and that makes you feel comfortable, as well as attractive. Like every other piece of clothing, different style bras relate to deeply personal preferences. You are the only person who can truly tell whether or not a bra works for you, regardless of the advice of any fitter.

Cara Strickland
Cara Strickland

Cara Strickland is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest. She writes about food, faith, singleness, and relationships for a variety of publications in print and online. You can find more of her work at carastrickland.com.

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