The Breast of the Story

While most U.S. women suffer with wrong-sized bras, help can be just around the corner

Like many other women, I have a relationship with my breasts that's filled with some jealousy and an occasional moment or two of gratitude. I've always felt they are too small in comparison to my boobylicious mom and sister, yet I am thankful they aren't so Dolly-esque that I could refer to them as a "rack."

Spending the summer in Tucson had begun to take its toll on my ancient, simple, beige, seamless bra. I found myself tugging and pulling more than before, and I had to perform a surgery-like feat to get the chest-poking, protruding underwires back into the correct place on a daily basis. Despite the obvious issues this brassiere possessed, in my thrifty nature, I figured it was good for another decade or so.

I knew there were people who were professional bra fitters, but in my mind, they were the female-clothing salesperson equivalent of Sasquatch: much talked about, but never actually encountered by anyone credible. So, with the noble goal of informing the estimated 80 percent of American women who were wearing the wrong bra size (which, at the time I was sure did not include me), I decided to track down these elusive creatures of corsetry and find out what they know.

Alice-Rae, an intimate-apparel shop, has been serving the needs of women in Tucson for the past 50 years. Owner Julia Hann started out working as a representative for the store, and bought it from the original owner 10 years ago. Hann said she thinks many American women are wearing uncomfortable bras because they won't take the time for themselves to get fitted correctly.

"One difference between European women and American women is that European women take care of themselves first, because they feel it's important. We'd be a lot happier if we'd take care of ourselves better," Hann said.

Hann stresses that breasts are more than bags of skin filled with adipose tissue. She brought out a diagram of the human breast--with a revolving wheel that showed various problems that can arise within it, like infection and cysts, along with all the "stuff" that's inside.

"It's not just fat--there are lymph nodes, mammary ducts and vessels," Hann said. Since these are important things, Hann said it's vital to get a bra that is supportive, without being so ultra-tight that it restricts the natural flow of fluids in the tissue.

After Hann showed me what's inside the breast, she gave me the grand tour of what is put on the outside--the bras. At Alice-Rae, they are everywhere you look and available in every variety possible. Black, white, rum pink, taupe and ivory bedeck the walls in a rainbow of neutral variations, and Hann knows each bra intimately. Hann explained to me that's it's integral for her and her employees to know the fit of each garment, because details vary from bra to bra, even within the same design by the same company. There are differences in construction, cup form and size. For instance, one 36C bra could be for a full-figured woman, while another 36C could be for someone who has more of an average figure.

One thing about Alice-Rae that differs from department stores that offer lingerie is that about half of the customers at Alice-Rae are there for mastectomy bras. Hann explained that when a woman has had to get a breast removed, it can be extremely painful and embarrassing. She said that although she didn't know how they did it, some older women even managed to hide the surgery from their husbands. When they come into her shop, they are often overwhelmed with relief, because they can get bras that help them look like they used to.

"They come in and cry, because they are so happy," Hann said.

Susan Tiseo, the Region Nine certified bra fitter for Dillard's, is something of a bra-fitting professor. She leads classes teaching other Dillard's associates how to become expert bra fitters. In her classes, she stresses the importance of measuring customers accurately. Because the support in a bra comes from the band, and not the straps, it's imperative that the fitter measures the customer on the tight side. If a bra band is loose, it isn't giving the wearer enough support, and the woman wearing the bra will be pulling and adjusting it all day.

"If you are fitting your customer too loose, you aren't doing her any favors. A snug fit is a good fit," she tells her students.

Another reason that support is the key factor in a bra is that if breasts aren't held up securely, they will bounce and sag. As written in the Professional Fitters Guide, which the fitters-in-training use as their class manual, "The damage from bouncing is irreparable!"

"We don't realize how heavy a breast is, because it's attached. Double Ds can be up to 20 pounds on your chest," Tiseo said.

Tiseo explained that it's a good idea to keep a woman's lifestyle in mind when fitting her for a bra. Someone who participates in vigorous activities is going to need a different bra than someone who is more sedentary. Another thing she reminded her students was that if they are fitting a Mormon woman, they need to make sure to measure her over her garments, rather than under them. Since they wear their bras over their special garments, a fitter needs to measure that way so the brassiere will fit the woman correctly.

Tiseo said that a woman should have about three or four bras to rotate: one to wear, one to wash and one to let rest. A bra should last about 100 wearings, or a year if you are rotating three of them.

Apparently, wearing the same bra for three years wasn't the best idea I ever had.

After talking to both the people at Alice-Rae, as well as at Dillard's, I decided to throw caution to the wind and let both places fit me. I was curious to know whether they would find me to be the same size, which they did. I was amazed to learn that I am a 42C and not a 38B.

Now that I am wearing the correct size, the difference is amazing--no more incessant yanking, and definitely no more poking underwires stabbing me in my chest.

Although I was happy with the great customer service I received at both fittings, I still felt sort of uncomfortable having these women I didn't really know seeing "the twins" in their natural state. Would I be judged or compared to other people? Tiseo finally calmed my worries and told me she doesn't really notice particulars like body type.

For instance, one day she was fitting a lady with a lot of strapless bras, which she thought was sort of odd. The lady mentioned that she was performing that evening, and it hit Tiseo: She realized who she was fitting.

"It was Dionne Warwick," Tiseo said.

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