Bra Boutiques Bloom as Big Bazongas Bewilder the Bamboobled!

Strapping in for the long haul. (Photo by Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images)

Strapping in for the long haul. (Photo by Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images)

As a young woman, one of the most memorable coming-of-age moments is being taken to get your first bra: equal parts mortifying and thrilling, it’s one of those prepubescent rites that most adults wouldn’t care to repeat.

And yet a colleague and I recently found ourselves re-enacting a scene from Judy Blume in the bathroom stalls of The Observer offices, trying to assess our respective digits under Jockey’s new numbers-only sizing system. The Volumetric Fit Bra sizing kit contains a measuring tape and 10 plastic cup molds labeled numerically. You try each one until you find a fit, like a soft-core Cinderella. “Do you think this plastic cup makes my boobs look bigger?” I joked.

The idea is that 10 cup sizes offer more nuance than the letter system and none of the stigma. So instead of being a 28A or a 34D, you might be a 2-30, or an 8-40.

Jockey claims the system is “revolutionary.” But one has to wonder: is a wholly new rubric what’s really needed in an age of unprecedented bra-size confusion?

Blame increasing body mass, the ubiquity of implants or the rise of Kate Upton: while the data on what’s an “average” breast size is murky, virtually every study has found that boobs are getting bigger. In 2004, the average American woman was supposedly a B cup and a size 12.

By 2011, Time magazine reported that manufacturers were saying the average in the U.S. had grown to 36C, which didn’t jibe with The New York Times’s 2009 assessment from Wacoal that 36D was the most popular size. Then last year, a London lingerie store concluded that the average woman’s cup size had inflated from 34B to 34DD in just 24 months.

The growth isn’t just physical: bra fit has become something of a first-world obsession ever since a 2005 episode of Oprah in which the host claimed that eight out of 10 women were wearing the wrong size bra.

Today, one can even find on Reddit, that bastion of Internet chauvinism where Creepshots was born, a recently formed subforum, A Bra That Fits, with over 13,000 “bra enthusiasts.” A new site, the Bra Band Project, invites readers to submit neck-down photos of themselves in their finest bra to demonstrate, for instance, what a 30F cup looks like on a range of bodies. (One imagines the audience is not merely bra shoppers.)

Last year, bras made up nearly half of the nearly $16 bilion lingerie industry, confirming the trend that the average woman was both buying more bras (nine instead of six) and paying more for them ($65+) than their mothers.

In addition to making money for La Perla, this trend has spawned an army of middlewomen whose job it is to make you look better while selling you expensive underthings you’d normally never buy. These “fitters” aren’t handsy department store yentas; they are young, web-savvy women who can tell you your size at a glance, like the boob equivalent of those carnival barkers who can guess your weight. These are the new generation of bra fitters, and baby, do they have your number.

Susan Nethero, the founder of Intimacy bra and lingerie boutique, was featured on Oprah’s game-changing episode. The next year, she had a book deal, six-to-eight-hour waits outside her stores for custom fittings and was able to expand her Atlanta business to 17 stores across the country.

Currently there are three Intimacy locations in New York, and they compete in an increasingly saturated market of bra-tiques like Linda’s Bra Store, Bra Smyth, La Petite Coquette and Bra*Tenders. They carry sizes much larger than those you’ll find at department stores, a wider selection of brands, and special types like maternity bras, breastfeeding bras and mastectomy bras. There are minimizers, corsets and brands that you’ve never heard of but sound like high-paid escorts: Fantasie, Hotmilk, SassyBax.

Most important, they are selling you an appointment-only experience. It’s an intimate, subdued affair, with plush couches and a noteworthy absence of metal racks and plastic hangers. You don’t even have to worry about picking out bras: your fitter will do that for you. “We are not another bra store,” said Kim Caldwell, marketing director for Linda’s, a lingerie boutique with three locations in New York. “What we do is bra fittings.”

It’s a very effective marketing technique. We’re talking about a totally captive audience, since you’re expected to keep your bra and shirt off while the fitter brings you item after item, painstakingly adjusting you into each. Whether by design or accident, the result is a hard sell to women at their most vulnerable. And it doesn’t take a cynic to realize that it’s in the fitter’s best interest to tell you just how bad your current bras are.

“TAKE OFF YOUR shirt,” ordered Ms. Caldwell. Sensing my hesitation, she added, “Don’t worry, I do this for a living.” Sitting in the dressing room at Linda’s, which stocks 275 bra sizes from 28AA to 50N, I obliged, revealing a three-year-old threadbare model that had started out pink but was now a washed-out gray. I couldn’t even say what brand it was, since I had ripped out the tags.

She pulled the band of the bra and snapped it back. “It’s way, way too loose; your breasts are getting no support, and the cup is too small. See how you’re getting all that muffin-top spillage above the bra line? I noticed it when you walked in.” Then, after all that encouragement, she told me to lose the bra.