A controversial garment at times, seen as both a tool of liberation and of oppression, the commonplace bra still presents challenges today.
A well-chosen brassiere will support your breasts, flatter your figure, and help you move through your day with ease, while an ill-fitting bra can cause serious discomfort. In this article we will outline some things that you may or may not know about the bra, including how to choose the right fit for you!
A brassiere, more commonly known as a bra, is an undergarment used to cover and support a person’s breasts. Women have been depicted wearing cloth wraps and covers on their upper bodies in paintings and texts throughout history. In the modern day, the bra is a wardrobe staple for billions of women—and a source of discomfort for many of them.
To bra or not to bra
With the rise of movements such as #freethenipple, women’s rights advocates have pointed out the underlying issues with the sexualization of women’s breasts. The unwelcome fact is that a woman’s breasts can be hyper-sexualized whether or not she is wearing a bra. Men can freely walk around with naked torsos showing their nipples, while women are shamed into covering and hiding their breasts, especially their nipples, at all times—even to the point where breastfeeding is prohibited in some public spaces. Bras have been likened to corsets as a form of oppression and control of the female body. However, in recent years, many fashion historians have come out in defence of the corset and the bra.
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Both undergarments were originally designed, made, and worn by women to whom they offered new freedom of movement, support, and comfort. Second wave feminists in the 1970s have been called ‘bra burners’, but this idea has been disproven—even if someone burned a bra somewhere, it was nowhere near the craze it is sometimes made out to be. For many women, the bra provides much-needed support for their breasts throughout the day. It is really up to every woman to decide for herself whether or not to wear a bra.
Women with large or sensitive breasts often find they are significantly hampered when engaging in energetic activities such as jumping or running. Even everyday activities such as walking up and down stairs can cause discomfort. Bras and sports bras have made many women much more comfortable. Just like a pair of shoes, the bra is a piece of functional clothing meant to enhance comfort and convenience—if you feel discomfort and cannot wait to take your bra off at the end of the day, you are almost definitely wearing the wrong size.
The myth that a bra helps prevent “sagging” has been disproven—a bra does not influence the shape of your breasts and they will not lose their form if you choose not to wear one.
Finding the one
Unsurprisingly, the most “popular” mass-produced and aggressively advertised bras are usually not the most suitable for living, breathing human bodies. A thorough search is often needed to find a good fit. Even once you manage to find a well-fitting bra, your search will not end. Bras wear out and manufacturers don’t all follow the same sizing guidelines. What’s more, your size is bound to change over time. Breasts can change size within a hormonal cycle, let alone over several years. Finding a bra that fits comfortably around your chest and shoulders, has the right cup size, and provides the support you want will inevitably involve some trial and error—especially if you are trying a new size, style, or brand. Some lingerie shop have bra-fitters to help you and there are also online size calculators that can give you an idea of what to look for going in.
Bras generally consist of three parts—the chest band, the shoulder straps, and the breast cups. It may seem as if the cups are the most important part of the bra, as the band and the straps can be adjusted, but this is not really the case. The garment should work as a structural whole with well-integrated parts.
Bra sizes consist of a number (in centimetres or inches) that indicates the length of the chest band and a letter that indicates cup size.
The chest band. To find the length of the chest band, wrap a measuring tape around your torso just below your breasts. Here are some things to take into consideration:
Measure bare breasts—if you’re wearing a bra or shirt, the measurements will be less precise
The band should be comfortably snug, but not tight—you should be able to fit one or two fingers between the band and your skin
The band should sit in a straight line underneath your breasts and all around your torso, without pulling upwards in the back. If it does, the band is too loose—try a bra with a smaller chest band and a larger cup size.
Choose a bra that fits when you fasten the band using the loosest, furthest hook. The band will stretch a little with use and you will want the closer hooks to tighten it.
Bra cups. Finding the right cup size can be tricky. Cup sizes differ from brand to brand and even between chest band sizes in the same brand.
To determine your cup size, measure twice and use the average. First measure in a standing position, then measure again when bending forward and letting your breasts hang loose. The difference between the two measurements will depend on the shape and firmness of your breasts.
The following steps can help you determine if the bra fits properly:
Fasten the chest band around your torso without using the shoulder straps
Make sure the band (and underwire) is sitting against your ribcage and not pinching your breast tissue
Bend forward 90 degrees and let gravity slide your breasts into the bra cups
Stand up and use your hands to adjust the placement of your breasts so that they sit comfortably in the cups
Adjust the shoulder straps to a comfortable length
Your breasts should not spill out of the cup in the front or on the sides, nor should the cups be loose or wrinkled. If your breasts are asymmetrical, go with the size of the largest breast to avoid tightness. If the difference is too large, you can use padding to support the smaller breast.
Sister sizing can help you tweak the fit. Cup sizes and volumes track with band lengths. If you’ve found a bra you like that doesn't quite sit right, try going down in one parameter and up in the other. For example, a 34C will be similar to both a 36B and a 32D but the three ‘sister sizes’ accommodate shape differently. Use your chest band measurement as a base and go from there. This can help you navigate the maze of bras. If you can’t find the right cup size for your chest band, all is not lost.
Bra extensions can help you put together the needed combination.
Bra size matters—it’s all about functionality and comfort. No part of the bra should be digging into your skin. It should feel snug but comfortable. It is not uncommon for a bra that seems to fit to start pinching somewhere once you start moving around and wear it for a while. This means the bra is too small. Take the time you need to make sure you are buying a bra that fits.
Bras come in many styles
Different occasions require different bras. Some of the most popular types are:
Bralette—more playful options that are often worn as statement pieces (or simply fun Summer tops).
Push-up—shaped and padded to push the breasts up and together for more volume and cleavage. Sometimes the pads are removable.
Strapless—for backless or sleeveless outfits. Silicone linings are sometimes used to fit the bra in place, but these bras are notorious for being even harder to fit right and keep in place.
Seamless—are moulded to fit the shape of your body without underwires and seams and are usually made from synthetic material. They are becoming increasingly popular, come in a wide array of styles.
Training—lightweight bras or tops meant for teens with developing breasts or small-breasted women.
Nursing—designed with cups that pull or snap open to allow a nursing baby access to the nipple without you having to remove the bra.
Sports—compression bras that keep the breasts from chafing and bouncing painfully during high-impact physical activity. Like other bras, sports bras should be washed regularly—ideally after each use.
Sleeping—made without hooks or wires, many large-breasted women appreciate light support when sleeping; these are meant for low-impact activities only.
An ill-fitting bra can cause more discomfort than wearing no bra at all and can even distort your appearance causing other clothing to fit poorly. A well-fitting bra in an appropriate style will support your breasts, complement your shape, and make the most of an outfit. A good bra can be quite expensive, but you don’t need many and the investment will pay off in comfort, confidence, and style. Just like buying a good pair of boots, a bra will last longer if it fits!
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