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.
This was all for education, I told myself, even as my hands kept trying to cover my chest while I was being asked whether I knew which one of my breasts was bigger than the other. Ms. Caldwell was cheerful and encouraging, but it was hard not to feel embarrassed … and then embarrassed for feeling embarrassed.
“You have unusual proportions,” she said after assessing the fit and tightening the band by two inches, which had the side effect of increasing my cup size by two letters. (Cup size is based on the ratio of the fullest part of the bust to the below-the-bust ribcage measurement.)
When she clasped me into the first bra—a black lace bra by Felina—I swear I heard a rib crack somewhere. Apparently, bands need to be kept almost tourniquet-tight in order to provide that “perky” look.
My pain was forgotten the moment Ms. Caldwell turned me around to the mirror. Va-voom! Where had these twins been all my life? For the first time since puberty, my immediate instinct wasn’t to slouch over like the Hunchback of Notre D-cup. A weight had been lifted from off my shoulders. Literally.
My back didn’t hurt, I looked great, and so I wanted that bra. But I also wanted the pink and purple Cleo full cup with the neon straps and a deep plunge. And the skimpy Simone Perele that levitated my cleavage by a good two inches. And before I left, Ms. Caldwell wanted me to try a new product: a white and black Elle Macpherson underwire that made me feel like I should be modeling it on top of a Corvette. So yes, I wanted that one too.
Walking out of Linda’s with all four bras, plus special cleaning solution, cost me $185. Okay, that’s more than I had planned on spending, but who can put a price on a brand-new posture?
A lot of places, as it turns out. The next day, I visited Intimacy on Third Avenue to make sure that my chest size hadn’t magically vacillated in the last 24 hours. The fitter led me to a room, told me to strip, frowned and snapped the band of my brand-new Elle Macpherson. “Too loose,” she declared.
As I defended myself against her “bad bra” judgment—it was brand new! and the right size!—she insisted that I try on some models that would fit more snugly in the front. Before I could say no, I was wearing a bra I dubbed “Blue Swan,” for the ornate design work that cascaded down like a costume piece from Natalie Portman’s ballet film. The brand also made a “Balconette” bra, which I assume was French for “put your boobs in the balcony section.” I cried mercy after looking at the $216 price tag, protesting that those were orchestra prices. I nevertheless ended up purchasing the Balconette, along with a blue and white push-up by Chantelle that gave the kind of insane Victoria Beckham cleavage where the laws of gravity end somewhere around the midriff.
On the way out of Intimacy, I was reminded that even if I hand-washed my new purchases, I shouldn’t expect them to last longer than six months.
No wonder women don’t want to get sized. In two days, I had managed to spend $500 on six pieces of underwear that no one outside of my boyfriend will ever appreciate.
Or so I thought.
When I ran into a male friend the night of Intimacy fitting, he stopped in his tracks, did a double take and asked when I had dropped “like, 15 pounds.” He must not have noticed that it was still there. It had just migrated north.
Such is life in the elite 20 percent who are wearing the right size bra. That is, unless I gain weight, lose weight or switch to Jockey’s new system.
I guess we’ll find again out in six months.